In praise of older books: Italian Food by Elizabeth David (1954)
David helped bring the wonders of Italian cuisines to the English-speaking world
British cookery writer Elizabeth David (1913-1992) in 1965. Photograph: Tony Evans/Getty Images
“Waste is odious, but meanness is just as bad, and through long years of pretending that one egg is as good as three we have almost come to believe it.”
Thus Elizabeth David pondered the effect of second World War rationing on English life. Italian Food was published as Europe began to recover from that nightmare. You could say that it was an antipasto to the explosion of post-war eating experiences. It is still, after so many years and so many cookery books, a delight.
Scrutinise the cover – the luminous lemons. Dip in. Saliva fills your mouth. Swallow hard, as you read of squid and mussels, veal and suckling lamb, chicken and pigeon, and vegetables – zucchini and aubergines, artichokes and asparagus. And that’s before you’ve gone near the pasta and rice dishes.
This is the food that Italians eat. Paradoxically it’s not “Italian” at all. “There is Florentine cooking, Venetian cooking, there are the dishes of Genoa, Piedmont, Romagna; of Rome, Naples, and the Abbruzzi; of Sardinia and Sicily; of Lombardy, Umbria and the Adriatic coast.” Real food, grown, cooked and eaten by real people. Even the ubiquitous “Bolognese” sauce is revealed as a ragù: lean beef minced, bacon, chopped chicken livers, carrot, onion, celery, tomato puree, white wine, butter, salt, pepper, nutmeg. Simmered at length. Recipe courtesy of Zia Nerina, “a splendid woman, titanic of proportion, but angelic of face and manner”.
David, a posh girl, the Nancy Mitford of cookery, wrote at a time when the English-speaking world knew little of Italian food beyond spaghetti and pizza. She was one of the first to combine authenticity with accessibility. And reliability. You never worry that the recipe won’t work. And even if you don’t feel like cooking, you can pour a glass of wine, perhaps her favourite, Lambrusco di Sorbarà, “a dry sparkling red wine, which sounds so dubious, and is in fact perfectly delicious”. Sit back, put your feet up and dream of antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni and dolci. Buon appetito.