Monday, May 30, 2011

Great Journeys: Elizabeth David wants an omelette and a glass of wine

I'm not sure you can do justice to the eclecticism of Elizabeth David's food/travel writing, or its mild disdain of all manner of poor taste, without simply collecting some of her prose ingredients. The following are all taken from her collection of newspaper and magazine articles gathered under the title An Omelette and a Glass of Wine.

August rain swishes down on the leaves of the wild jungly tree which grows, rootless apparently, in the twelve inch strip of gravel outside my London kitchen. I am assured by a gardener that the plant originated in Kamchatka, but now it looks more like something transplanted from the Orinoco. Staring out at it, hunched into her bumble-bee-in-a-black-mood attitude, my cat suddenly jumps up, presses her face to the window, doesn't like what she sees, comes back, wheels around, washes her face, re-settles herself on her blanket, stares out again. I feel restless too. ("Summer Holidays", 1962)


Cherished in our dreams, held close to our hearts in deathless legend is the humble French restaurant, the unpretentious petit coin pas cher where one may drop in at any time and be sure always of a friendly welcome, a well-cooked omelette, a good salad, a glass of honest wine. ("Secrets", 1963)


What on earth comes over wine waiters when they take the orders of a woman entertaining another woman in a restaurant? ("Ladies' Haves", 1962)


Once upon a time there was a celebrated restaurant called the Hôtel de la Tête d'Or on the Mont-St-Michel just off the coast of Normandy. The reputation of this house was built upon one single menu which was served day in day out for year after year. It consisted of an omelette, ham, a fried sole, pré-salé lamb cutlets with potatoes, a roast chicken and salad, and a dessert. Cider and butter were put upon the table and were thrown in with the price of the meal, which was two francs fifty in pre-1914 currency. 


As to the omelette itself, it seems to me to be a confection which demands the most straightforward approach. What one wants is the taste of fresh eggs and the fresh butter and, visually, a soft bright golden roll plump and spilling out a little at the edges. It should not be a busy, important urban dish but something gentle and pastoral, with the clean scent of the dairy, the kitchen garden, the basket of early morning mushrooms or the sharp tang of freshly picked herbs, sorrel, chives, tarragon. ("An Omelette and a Glass of Wine", 1959)

Lists, of course, are a central feature of food writing, but to work as good writing they must seem as fresh as the best ingredients. Elizabeth David's lists are, because they are intelligent and crisp, but also long enough to make you realize that this is a person who constructs the world out of its elements, out of small dishes. You sense, too, that this outlook extends to people and places.

Rose Barattero is the euphonious name of the proprietress of the Hôtel du Midi at Lamastre in the Ardèche. Slim, elegant, her pretty grey hair in tight curls all over her head, the miniscule red ribbon of the Legion of Honour on her grey dress, Madame Barattero is an impressive little figure as she stands on the terrace of her hotel welcoming her guests as they drive into the main square of the small provincial town whose name she has made famous throughout France. ("Chez Barattero", 1958)


When lunchtime approaches, the question is are we near a river or a lake? If so, shall we be able to reach its banks? For the ideal picnic there has to be water, and from that point of view, France is wonderful picnic country, so rich in magnificent rivers, waterfalls, reservoirs, that it is rare not to be able to find some delicious spot where you can sit by the water, watch dragonflies and listen to the birds or to the beguiling sounds of a fast-flowing stream. As you drink wine from a tumbler, sprinkle your bread with olive oil and salt, and eat it with ripe tomatoes or rough country sausage you feel better off than in even the most perfect restaurant. ("Eating out in Provincial France 1965-1977", 1980)

Notice how the features of the French landscape are played off the ingredients of the perfect Provincial picnic. I don't suppose my sentence structure will ever be as assured as David's, or that white wine and ripe tomatoes will help all that much. But of course I am willing to try.

The collection: Elizabeth David, An Omelette and a Glass of Wine (edited by Jill Norman, Penguin, 1986).