How to live
A dark-haired, fine-boned girl sits at the table in her drab English twinset and neat skirt, silent with shyness, not quite sure how to behave or what to expect. She can follow most of what Madame and Monsieur and their daughter Denise are saying to each other, because her French is already quite serviceable; but she is making the disturbing discovery that knowing how to speak French is one thing, actually speaking it to French people in France is quite another.
She is sixteen, and this is her first trip abroad. Her widowed mother has taken her difficult, intense second daughter away early from the Tunbridge Wells school where she was becoming “too hockey-stickish”, and has instead packed her off to live with a French family and attend the Sorbonne for eighteen months. Having her at home was impossible, and it seemed as good a way as any to fill the awkward gap between leaving school and making a suitable marriage.
It’s been a long day in the train, and she’s hungry. She glances down at the soup the maid has just ladled into her wide, shallow plate. It looks nothing like the soup she is used to at home – smelling vaguely of fat, always too thick or too thin, and no matter what it’s called, almost always brown.
This is pale apricot, with tiny green specks, and tastes – what does it taste of? Cream, yes – and butter. Potatoes. Tomatoes. Onions? In fact, as she will later find out, it’s leeks. And the green bits? She doesn’t know, she has never eaten chervil before. But for the time it takes to finish her plateful, she becomes completely absorbed in an almost entirely new sensation: the pleasure of eating superbly simple, perfectly cooked food.
It will take her years to learn how to make that soup, with its honest name: potage crème de tomates et de pommes de terre. At eighteen, in her first job, she is still so ignorant of anything to do with the kitchen that she has to be shown how to make a pot of tea.
But three decades later, when she is 47 and has invented a whole new way of writing about food, Elizabeth David will recreate that first experience of French cooking in the “exceptionally greedy and exceptionally well fed” family she calls the Robertots, and salute it as the turning point of her life:
What had stuck was the taste for a kind of food quite ideally unlike anything I had known before…beautifully prepared vegetables…egg dishes, and soups delicately coloured like summer dresses, coral, ivory, or pale green…chocolate and apricot soufflés…
By this time she knows exactly what eating that food meant, and she is determined her readers will understand it well enough to be able to experience its essence for themselves. Rather than “elaborate sauces or sensational puddings”, this is:
the kind of food…which constitutes the core of genuine French cookery, but which to us [she means, of course, the benighted British - and here comes the subtle sting in the tail that salts her writing] seems so remarkable because it implies that excellent ingredients and high standards are taken for granted day by day…
She is writing not just about how to cook and eat; she is writing about how to live.