There may be some in a generation that was eating bottled baby food thirty-odd years ago who may need to be told that Elizabeth David is the finest living writer about food, in English at least, and that her five books are still available in a handsome paperback set, snugly boxed. They render other cook books impertinent and supererogatory.
The reason is plain enough: she is a respectful lover of good food and wine and writing, a scholar, a teacher, an artist; her lyrical imagination and her practical sense are both of a high order; she is straightforward, uncompromising, attentive to detail, and inspires in her readers imagination and confidence in equal measure. She magically evokes colors and smells and tastes, whether of a piece of crusty bread dipped in an anchovy sauce, a soigne dish of roast duck and new green peas from which all hint of fattiness has been abolished, or a richly mellow cassoulet eaten with strong red wine, a salad, and country cheese.
She is modest and tactful too, and tells the reader not a word more or less than is needed - doing without finicky measurements, instead promoting an almost instinctive feel for what the dish is all about.
She discovered tha beauty of honest, reverent cooking when she went to France aged 16 and has spent her life since learning to understand it: simplicity, sincerity, patience, and a loving sympathy for the past are some of its elements. It is best found in regional and peasant food, in which local ingredients are used in season, and cooked not to impress but to satisfy the cook's own sense of propriety and perfection. She lived with the cuisines. Mediterranean Food and French Country Cooking were written during wartime food shortages in London out of a glowing memory of beautiful markets and lovely meals before 1949, and her evocations of the look and smell of an aromatic roast chicken, a fish grilled over fennel, a watermelon stuffed with blackberries, a plate of white cheese and gleaming black olives, set the imagination racing.
Italian Food explores the enormous variety of dishes obscured by curtains of pasta and mountains of tomatoes and veal scallops, how a salt cod is done in Vicenza, a mushroom sauce in Verona, a wood pigeon in Perugia. Summer Cooking is a relaxed description of light, delicate, appetizing dishes that make one long for hot weather and holidays.
The most ambitious of the five is French Provincial Cooking, her chef d'oeuvre. To her other virtues it adds a depth of technical detail about how and why things are done as they are that constitutes a complete education and a lifetime's source of ideas. However much has changed, even since these books were written, it is both consoling and rousing corrective to know the way things were done before the triumph of agribusiness and the supermarket. We'd better cultivate our gardens.