An Omelette and a Glass of Wine by Elizabeth David

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An Omelette and a Glass of Wine by Elizabeth David

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Category: Cookery
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A collection of pieces written for various journals over a period of more than twenty years. If you can get hold of a copy it's well-worth reading despite the fact that you'll have to work at it! There are not many recipes.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: March 1990
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN: 0140468463

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Some books are almost too precious to review. It's as though the taking apart, the analysing will destroy some of the magic or spoil a treat that you keep in store for yourself. "An Omelette and a Glass of Wine" has been the treat that I've kept for myself for over twenty years and for a large part of that time it lived by the side of the bed. So what is it and why is it so special?

Elizabeth David developed her taste for food and wine whilst she was studying at the Sorbonne and she decided to teach herself to cook. It wasn't just the making of the food which interested her but the literature which surrounded it. In her young adult life she lived in various parts of the Mediterranean, Egypt and India, where she tasted and cooked the local dishes. Her first book, "Mediterranean Food" was published in 1950 and a number of other books followed over the next twenty years. At the same time she wrote for a number of magazines and this book, published in 1984 is a collection of those pieces of journalism.

My experience of cooking began with Delia Smith and to her I owe the debt of realising that I could put perfectly acceptable food on the table. I could follow recipes. What I couldn't do was cook. I couldn't adapt to use seasonal produce or take advantage of a glut. I couldn't improvise. I needed to extend my reading beyond someone who gives fool-proof recipes (which Delia Smith does very well indeed) to a writer who would help me to learn about food.

I bought one of the early Elizabeth David books (I can't even remember which one it was) and struggled. I would imagine that many people meeting Mrs David would have found her, er, difficult to get to know. She can be acerbic. Her writing style is challenging and she makes you work for the pleasure of reading her book. I gave up and discovered Jane Grigson whom I found more user-friendly and eventually Nigel Slater whom I found positively endearing.

An Omelette and a Glass of Wine was a gift. After my experience with one of her early cookery books I doubt that I would have bought it for myself. It was a revelation. I found myself warming to Mrs David. Instead of finding her acerbic I saw her incisive wit, her keen judgement and her intelligence. I realised why she's so often described as the doyenne of cookery writers.

She hates poor-quality food and in those years after the end of the Second World War when food was still rationed she found plenty to complain about. What she would have to say now about supermarkets with their plethora of ready meals I dread to think. This is one of the slight down-sides to the book. Much of what she describes is not current - particularly quality wine at 22/- (£1.10) a bottle. The book needs to be read as part historical memoir rather than current advice, but there's still plenty to learn and enjoy.

She did see the beginning of the instant food revolution. She had been sent a packet of instant bread sauce to try. I'll let her tell you about it in her own words:

"'Dear Madam', a Leicestershire manufacturer of poultry stuffings and packet crumbs and herbs wrote to me after an adverse comment of mine on factory bread sauce had been made quoted in a Sunday newspaper, 'you evidently have never made bread sauce, for if you had you would know that to make it properly there is a considerable amount of work involved.' There's a juggins for you. If bread sauce is really the product of a kitchen genius with an infinite capacity for taking pains, am I going to be so easily persuaded that it can be produced just as well in a couple of minutes from a bag of shrivelled breadcrumbs and a cup of milk?"

That was in 1962. I doubt that she would think that matters have improved.

Quite a few of the pieces are about restaurants visited. Some, obviously, are the very best. These aren't always the Michelin Three-Star establishments, but the less well-known, off-the beaten-track restaurants run by a family and serving the local community. One or two are of bad restaurants, but what I found fascinating was a piece written about a middle-of-the-road restaurant. All the little details were there - the wine which should have been served chilled but was warmed, the tepid coffee, the tinned vegetables and the chef who sidled off early to go to the pub. These are offset though by a fine green salad and the fact that it's open when others are closed. The evidence is carefully detailed, the judgements finely balanced and the skill of the writer demonstrated by the mediocre, the ordinary being made so interesting.

Mrs David doesn't patronise you - in fact quite the reverse. You're expected to work at reading the book. She frequently quotes from other languages but what is said you'll have to work out for yourself as Mrs David doesn't do translations as a matter of course. Sometimes it's relatively easy if it's a term regularly found on menus or you can work it out from the context. Other times it isn't easy at all.

In addition her sentences have a tendency to become elongated. Let me give you an example:

"The descriptions of the mushroom as 'wild', and of the croûton as 'le brioche de notre pâtissier' do nothing to mitigate the ludicrous effect of the presentation, particularly when you know perfectly well that the 'wild' mushrooms have been brought by lorry from Rungis, to where they had been conveyed in the first place from a Dutch mushroom farm, and that 'notre pâtissier' is a Camden Town bakery."

It needs a little working at, doesn't it? It is worth the effort though, as she has the knack of getting to the heart of a problem very quickly, if in rather a lot of exquisitely-chosen words.

There are a few recipes but not that many. Elizabeth David was the first person to break the established mould of food journalism. Before her time it had always been accepted that a food writer wrote about a subject for a set number of words and then gave a couple of related recipes. These pieces are as far removed from that format as it's possible to get - any recipes given are there to support the text rather than to pad it out.

If you can get hold of a copy of this book your effort will be rewarded. It's the sort of book you can pick up and just read the odd piece here and there - in theory. Every time I've tried I've ended up reading the book from cover to cover. After the first reading I went back to her other books and with more background to Mrs David I found them more accessible. I've given it four stars with one being removed to reflect the fact that some of the content is a little dated and the style doesn't always make the meaning easily accesible.

If you want something similar to this but with an easier style than I'd recommend Jane Grigson's English Food. There's a similar depth of knowledge and easy camaraderie with food in all its forms. There's wit and there's intelligence.

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