England Goes South
Having read my share—no, more than my share—of British mysteries, watched all of Hyacinth Bouquet’s (Bucket’s) episodes at least twice (Keeping Up Appearances), as well as As Time Goes By (literally), rooted for my favorites on Great British Baking, and longed for a cottage on the green in Midsomer (if only the murders would stop!), I can Brit-speak with the best of them. And, you guessed it, I have a couple of long bookshelves filled with wonderful British cookery books by the likes of Jane (and daughter Sophie) Grigson, Jamie Oliver, Delia Smith, Nigella Lawson, Simon Hopkinson, and—the queen of them all—Elizabeth David. While researching those U.K. cooks, I came across the following on the Epicurious site: “There’s something about British cookbooks that pulls a reader in—first into the pages then into the kitchen.” That was a quote from Amy Thielen, an American cookbook author, but I couldn’t have said it better m’self.
Elizabeth David, Food Writer Extraordinaire
I have a special place in my heart for the almost-reclusive Mrs. David, because I met her at the home of a mutual friend in San Francisco. She was “rawther” advanced in age when we met and as irascible as a damp hen. Before and after the Big War she spent time in the south of France and in Italy soaking up the flavors of the Mediterranean. She also lived in Egypt. These were special places for her, as England was so often damp and dreary and the cities pockmarked with bomb-damaged buildings. Back in the mid-to-late ’40s, the flavors of the Med, like garlic, fresh tomatoes, eggplant, cured meats and the like, were not often available or cooked in U.K. restaurants. As you will see from her book titles, she opened a window to the flavorsome south. No mere meat-and-two-veg cooking, she literally let the sunshine in with her evocative prose and aromatic dishes. Get the books (most came in paperback) and see what I mean. You can find a list and publication dates at Amazon or perhaps your neighborhood bookstore. They’re worth the search.
Meanwhile, Back in Alan’s Kitchen
So, I entered the kitchen of the elegant Pacific Heights home of my friend Alan, to find Elizabeth David ensconced in a chair sipping a glass of wine (a not infrequent position for her). We were introduced and with a blank look she asked who I was. Alan, my friend and David’s host, touted my experiences in traveling and promoting a company’s products, etc. She noticeably perked up when he mentioned Pyrex, as David owned a much-admired cookery shop, not far from London’s Sloane Square. The store window I admired on many visits had a large scrubbed pine country work table lavishly topped with all manner of bowls, plates, platters, serving pieces, casseroles, and baking pieces—all in pristine white, and beautifully lit. I wanted one of everything! And the shop stocked (on the lower level) classic Pyrex measures, pie plates, and cake dishes.
Seizing the moment, my host managed to find a copy of one of the cooking folders we distributed at department store events. The queen read it and sniffed when she got to the bruschetta recipe. I had put a bit of tomato on my version. She looked up and said “you know it’s pronounced bru-sketta not bru-shetta don’t you?” (I did.) Then, practically spitting out the words, “it’s nothing more than good olive oil and a rubbed-in garlic clove on grilled or toasted bread, nothing more.” I blanched. Were we so wrong? (I found out later that the chopped tomato is a popular way to present the bread slice.) However, after another round of good wine, she seemed to bloom like a flower and extended her hand for me to shake. I was, understandably, thrilled.
A Bit of Culinary History
Publication of David’s books in the U.K. began just as the effects of WWII rationing were abating (wartime rationing didn’t end until 1949) and, in a sense, the sun was again shining on this island. Rebuilding put many to work and so there was some meat for the table and, again, two vegetables. Elizabeth David’s books were filled with recipes that used wine, vegetables unknown to most at the time, like zucchini (sometimes called marrow or Italian squash or courgetti) and arugula, fresh herbs, lots of garlic, olive oil, and olives. Her first book, Mediterranean Food, came out in 1950. Other notables are French Provincial Cooking, Italian Food, and Summer Cooking. Rather than the usual list of ingredients, then directions, David integrated the names and amounts of the components into the narrative, just as Gourmet magazine did for years and years. This made it tough on cooks and for those who shopped for the recipe makings. One had to really read the recipe and use a pad and pencil for the grocery list. (Still a good idea with any recipe.) David’s love of spreading the gospel for Mediterranean cooking reminds me of a quotation attributed to the French chef and food writer, Marcel Boulestin: “It is not really an exaggeration to say that peace and happiness begin, geographically, where garlic is used in cooking.” Now there’s a table topic for your next dinner party. Myself, I think the jury is still out on that one.
Anyway, here’s a favorite David recipe that I’ve made over and over. I haven’t changed a word as I want you to get the flavor, not only of the dish, but how she presented it. I found this in a small spiral-bound book she wrote for the Le Creuset cookware people in 1969. I’m sure this splurge into commercialism helped pay the rent for her apartment in the Chelsea part of London.
Moules a la Marseillaise
I love mussels and they are usually at their best in the winter. Why not take advantage of this? It would make a terrific repast for a tree-trimming party. David doesn’t cover the pan to steam the little gems, and I find that unusual. Do what you like. In this case she does indicate the recipe quantities at the beginning of her recipe. (Note: I use a discarded but thoroughly washed British toothbrush to scrub the bivalves but, really, farm-raised mussels are pretty clean these days.) Fasten your apron, here it is:
“2 qt. mussels; 4 shallots or very small onions; 6 tablespoons of olive oil; 1⁄2-pint water; parsley.
In the winter months, when mussels are in season, this makes an original and inexpensive first course dish.
As soon as you get the mussels home, put them in a big bowl of cold water, and leave them in a cool place. To prepare them for cooking, discard all which are broken or gaping open or any which appear abnormally heavy (these may be full of sand or grit which, in the cooking, would disperse and spoil the whole dish). Scrub the mussels, scrape o the protruding sea weed-like bits called “beards”, and any barnacles and grit adhering to the shells. Put them in a colander and run plenty of cold water through them, then put them in a bowl of fresh cold water. When the time comes to cook the mussels, rinse them once more.
In a large wide pan put the chopped shallots or onions, the olive oil and the water. Bring the liquid very quickly to a fierce boil, so that the oil and water amalgamate. row in the mussels and let them cook rapidly, uncovered. In 5 to 7 minutes they will be opened and ready to serve. Transfer them and their liquid to a heated tureen or big bowl. Strew fresh, chopped parsley over them. Have ready very well heated soup plates and, on the table, a dish or bowl for the empty shells. Serve the mussels very quickly, while they are freshly cooked.
Enough for two or three people.”
Mighty Powerful Verbs
I love “strew” so much more than “sprinkle,” and “throw” outdoes “place” in my book. I wouldn’t exactly call mussels “inexpensive” no matter the season, but, as the Brits say, they “go down a treat.” I have doubled the recipe as I have a quite large Le Creuset shallow pan. And you’ll want to have some freshly toasted slices of crusty French bread that you’ve rubbed with a fat fresh-sliced garlic clove for dipping. There’s bruschetta again. This makes, for me, a most satisfactory meal with a variety of olives and cheese (try roughly sliced Parmigiana Reggiano) to start. Add a few nuts, and I don’t mean your relatives or friends. Lightly toasted walnuts would be my choice even a dotty cousin would enjoy.
Sit, quaff and enjoy your company and the holiday. You may be in your dining room that tonight masquerades as Provence. Santé, and cheers.