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Jo'Burg Days: Some Thoughts On Meditterranean Food

In this tasty article Barbara Durlacher introduces some delicious words concerning food.

Some time ago I was fortunate to obtain up a copy of the second revised edition of Elizabeth David’s recipe book, Mediterranean Food, published by Penguin Books with charming line drawings by John Minton. First published by John Lehmann in 1950, this little book has been republished 17 times since then; the last publication date was 1976. Widely credited as being the woman who took the ladies of Britain out of their drawing rooms and gardens and into the kitchen, in the days when many wives did not cook, Elizabeth David became a legend in her time. Aiming her books at a generation of women brought up in homes where it was considered ‘infra dig’ for a woman to soil her hands with housework or cooking, many post-war wives had very little idea of how to put a tasty and nourishing meal on the table. Elizabeth David was one of the first women of her time to change those established attitudes, and give women the urge to create something in the kitchen which would not only taste good, but which she could pride herself on producing.

She wrote a series of easy to read yet practical books filled with delectable recipes, and introduced British housewives to the idea that garlic, olive oil and the other foods of the Mediterranean was not the unpleasant ‘foreign muck’ they had been brought up to believe. It was at a time when girls from ‘good’ families were much influenced by remarks such as “I hate abroad”, “the Continent begins at Dover” and “all foreigners are Wops” which King George V was reputed to have said, which might have affected their attitude towards cooking and foreign foods. To sugar the pill of learning to cook, in this book Elizabeth David introduces her readers to some delicious extracts from early writers about food, a few of which I have appended here.

A VENETIAN BREAKFAST

“Begin with a Vermouth Amaro in lieu of a cocktail. For hors d’œuvre have some small crabs cold, mashed up with a sauce tartare and a slice or two of prosciutto crudo (raw ham), cut as thin as cigarette paper. After this a steaming risotto with scampi (somewhat resembling gigantic prawns), some cutlets done in the Bologna style, a thin slice of ham on top and hot parmesan and grated white truffles and fegato alla veneziana complete the repast except for a slice of strachino cheese. A bottle of Val Policella is exactly suited to this kind of repast and a glass of fine Champagne and of ruby-coloured Alkermes for the lady, if your wife accompanies you, make a good ending.
‘The Maître d’Hôtel will be interested in you directly he finds that you know how a man should breakfast.’
The Gourmet’s Guide to Europe
By Lt-Col Newnham-Davis and Algernon Bastard, 1903

HENRY JAMES’S LUNCHEON AT BOURG

“The well-fed Bressois are surely a good-natured people. I call them well-fed both on general and on particular grounds. Their province has the most savoury aroma, and I found an opportunity to test its reputation. I walked back into the town from the church (there was really nothing to be seen by the way), and as the hour of the midday breakfast had struck, directed my steps to the inn. The table d’hôte was going on, and a gracious, bustling, talkative landlady welcomed me. I had an excellent repast – the best repast possible – which consisted simply of boiled eggs and bread and butter. It was the quality of these simple ingredients that made the occasion memorable. The eggs were so good that I am ashamed to say how many of them I consumed. “La plus belle fille du monde”, as the French proverb says, “ne peut donner que ce quélle a”; and it might seem that an egg which has succeeded in being fresh has done all that can reasonably be expected of it. But there was a bloom of punctuality, so to speak, about these eggs of Bourg, as if it had been the intention of the very hens themselves that they should be promptly served. “Nous sommes en Bresse, et le beurre n’est pas mauvais,” the landlady said with a sort of dry coquetry, as she placed this article before me. It was the poetry of butter, and I ate a pound or two of it; after which I came away with a strange mixture of impressions of late gothic sculpture and thick tartines’.
A Little Tour in France
By Henry James


ETIQUETTE

Regarding the world of subtlety which can be infused into the serving of a dish of eggs, I cannot resist quoting here the lucid opinion of a French cook, as related by Gertrude Stein. “The dinner was cooked by Hélène.

I must tell a little about Hélène.

‘Hélène had already been three years with Gertrude Stein and her brother. She was one of those admirable bonnes, in other words excellent maids of all work, good cooks thoroughly occupied with the welfare of their employers and of themselves, firmly convinced that everything purchasable was far too dear. “Oh, but it is dear!” was her answer to any question. She wasted nothing and carried on the household at the regular rate of 8 francs a day. She even wanted to include guests at that price, it was her pride, but of course that was difficult since she for the honour of her house as well as to satisfy her employers always had to give everyone enough to eat. She was the most excellent cook and she made a very good soufflé. In those days most of the guests were living more or less precariously; no one starved, someone always helped, but still most of them did not live in abundance. It was Braque who said about four years later when they were all beginning to be known, with a sigh and a smile, “How life has changed! We all now have cooks who can make a soufflé.”

‘Hélène had her opinions; she did not, for instance, like Matisse. She said a Frenchman should not stay unexpectedly to a meal, particularly if he asked the servant beforehand what there was for dinner. She said foreigners had a perfect right to do these things but not a Frenchman, and Matisse had once done it. So when Miss Stein said to her, “Monsieur Matisse is staying for dinner this evening,” she would say, “In this case I will not make an omelette but fry the eggs. It takes the same number of eggs and the same amount of butter but it shows less respect, and he will understand.”

A GREAT RESTAURANT

‘Vaour is a village I don’t know how many miles off Fenayrols. I only know that we went there, and it lies eleven kilometres from a railway station. The Hôtel du Nord at Vaour is illustrious throughout the region for its cookery. People travel vast distances uphill in order to enjoy it. We did. We arrived at eleven o’clock and lunch was just ending. The landlord and landlady in the kitchen said that we were unfortunately too late for a proper meal, but they would see what they could do for us. Here is what they did for us:
Soupe Perdreau rôti (roast turkey)
Jambon du pays (Country Ham) Fromage Roquefort
Confit dóie Fromage Cantal
Omelette nature (Plain Omelette) Confiture de cerises (Cherry preserve)
Civet de lièvre (Hare’s liver) Poire (Fresh Pears)
Riz de veau blanquette Figues (Fresh Figs)
(Veal and rice in a white sauce)
‘We ate everything; every dish was really distinguished. I rank this meal with a meal that I once ate at the Étoile restaurant at Brussels, once, if not still, the finest restaurant in the world – and about the size of, say, Gow’s in the Strand. ‘In addition, there were three wines, a vin blanc ordinaire, a vin rouge ordinaire and a fine wine to finish with. The fine wine was fine.

‘The total bill, for two persons, was seven francs.’
Things That Have Interested Me
By Arnold Bennett

A PORTUGUESE SUPPER PARTY

‘The play ended, we hastened back to the palace and traversing a number of dark vestibules and guard-chambers (all of a snore with jaded equerries) were almost blinded with the blaze of light from the room in which supper was served up. There we found in addition to all the Marialvas, the old marquis only excepted, the Camaereira-mor, and five or six other hags of supreme quality, feeding like cormorants upon a variety of high-coloured and high-seasoned dishes. I suppose the keen air from the Tagus, which blows right into the palace-windows, operates as a powerful whet, for I never beheld eaters or eateresses, no, not even our old acquaintance Madam la Presidente at Paris, lay about them with greater intrepidity. To be sure, it was a splendid repast, quite a banquet. We had manjar branco and manjar real, and among other good things a certain preparation of rice and chicken which suited me exactly, and no wonder, for this excellent mess had been just tossed up by Donna Isabel de Castro with her own illustrious hands, in a nice little kitchen adjoining the queen’s apartment, in which all the utensils are of solid silver.’
The travel-Diaries of William Beckford of Fonthill
edited by Guy Chapman

LUNCHEON AT MONTEGUFONI

‘While we wandered through the high, cool rooms of the great house or, if it were not too hot, along the three sun-baked decks of the garden, Henry would be unpacking an ample luncheon of cold chicken, and Angelo Masti, the peasant in charge, would hurry in with a large, flat, cylindrical cheese, the pecorino of the neighbourhood, with a basket of figs and late peaches, tinged with green, and grapes, all still warm from the sun – some of these being of the kind called fragole, the small, plump, blue grapes, so different from others in their internal texture, and in their taste, which recalls that of the wood strawberry, that they might be fruit from the planet Mars or Venus – or a huge flask, covered in dry, dusty rushes, of the excellent red wine of the Castle itself. Presently, too, a very strong pungent scent approaching us indicated that Angelo had just bought a large clothful of white truffles from a boy outside, who had been collecting them in the woods. (The white variety is only found, I believe, in Italy, and most commonly in Piedmont and Tuscany, and around Parma: it is coarser than the black, and, in its capacity to impregnate a dish, more resembles garlic, a fine grating of it on the top of any substance being sufficient.) His wife would cook for us, and send a dish of rice or macaroni sprinkled with them. And these things to eat and drink would be placed on a table covered with the coarse white linen used by the contadini, under a ceiling painted with clouds and flying cupids, holding up in roseate air a coat of arms, a crown and a Cardinal’s hat.’

Great Morning
by Sir Osbert Sitwell

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