Last week, Elizabeth David (1913-1992) became the first professional food writer to be honoured with an official English Heritage Blue Plaque in London at 24 Halsey Street, Chelsea, London, SW3 2PT (Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea). The plaque inscription reads:
‘Elizabeth David 1913-1992 Cookery Writer lived and worked here 1947-1992’
Born Elizabeth Gwynne to a wealthy family in Sussex, she studied in Paris during the 1930s. In 1939, she set-off for Greece with her then-lover Charles Gibson Cowan. The pair settled on the Greek Island of Syros. When Germany invaded Greece in 1941 Elizabeth and Charles fled to Egypt.
Elizabeth socialised with travel writer, poet and dramatist, Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) whose brother, Gerald, wrote My Family and Other Animals (1956). The Durrell family lived in Corfu between 1935 and 1939, Gerald’s 3 autobiographical books (including My Family and Other Animals) are based on his childhood experiences on the Island at the time. Recently, ITV have aired an extremely successful 6 part drama series, The Durrells, loosely based on Gerald’s trilogy of books.
Now that the robola [a black wine made in Corfu] is safely on the way, the Count can turn his attention to the kitchens with their gleaming copper ware and dungeon-like ovens. Here he busies himself with Caroline and Mrs Zarian in the manufacture of mustalevria – that delicious of Ionian sweet or jelly which is made by boiling fresh must to half its bulk with semolina and a little spice. The paste is left to cool on plates and stuck with almonds; and the whole either eaten fresh or cut up in slices and put away in the great store cupboard.
Sykopita, Zarian’s favourite fig cake, will come later when the autumn figs are literally bursting open with their own ripeness. But for the time being there are conserves of all kinds to be made – orange flower preserve and Morella syrup. While the Count produces for the table a very highly spiced quince cheese, black and sticky, but very good.
(Prospero’s Cell by Lawrence Durrell, quoted in A Book of Mediterranean Food by Elizabeth David, 1950, ed. 1956, p.179)
Elizabeth eventually returned to England. During the freezing Winter of 1946 whilst Britain’s home cooks were battling the challenges of food rationing, she began to write-up her recipes, notes and memories gathered from her time living in Europe. The ingredients that she wrote about were but a distant dream for most British housewives at that time.
Elizabeth has also been credited with introducing a whole new generation of cooks with olive oil as a culinary ingredient, rather than something purchased in the local chemist to shift stubborn ear wax. The first volume of her cookbook series was A Book of Mediterranean Food (1950), then followed:
- French Country Cooking (1951);
- Italian Food (1954);
- Summer Cooking (1955) and finally;
- French Provincial Cooking (1960).
Elizabeth acknowledges the difficulties of obtaining ingredients during food rationing. In her Preface to the 1956 edition of A Book of Mediterranean Food, she writes:
This book first appeared in 1950, when almost every essential ingredient of good cooking was either rationed or unobtainable….But even if people could not very often make the dishes here described, it was stimulating to think about them; to escape from the deadly boredom of queuing and the frustration of buying the weekly rations; to read about real food cooked with wine and olive oil, eggs and butter and cream, and dishes richly flavoured with onions, garlic, herbs, and brightly coloured Southern vegetables…. So startlingly different is the food situation now as compared with only two years ago that I think there is scarcely a single ingredient, however exotic, mentioned in this book which cannot be obtained somewhere in this country, even it is only in one or two shops.
(A Book of Mediterranean Food by Elizabeth David, ed.1956, Preface)
Elizabeth David’s Kitchen at 24 Halsey Street
Number 24 Halsey Street is a grade II-listed terraced house with three storeys, dating from the 1840s. Elizabeth initially let out the third and attic storeys to her friends Neville Phillips and Denis Freeman, and then from 1950 to her sister, Felicité Gwynne. Much of Elizabeth’s part of the house was eventually taken over by her books and she increasingly confined herself to her bedroom on the first floor and to her kitchen.
From 1948 until the 1980s, the kitchen was in the back extension. It was there that she wrote, cooked and entertained, in each case often with a glass of good wine and a Gauloise. Many friends remember the room, with its big pine table, a French armoire and several dressers, a chaise longue, a butler’s sink, a gas stove, and masses of pots and pans, plates and bowls on display.Embed from Getty Images
Siphniac Honey Pie (Greece)
(A Book of Mediterranean Food by Elizabeth David, ed. 1956)
In honour of Elizabeth’s David’s shiny new Blue Plaque, I decided to revisit A Book of Mediterranean Food. I chose Siphniac honey pie, a Greek dish that resembles the love child of quiche and baklava. I currently have a glut of organic honey, including a pot made by a neighbour’s father from his own bees in rural Hungary.
I made a few modifications to Elizabeth’s recipe and, as always, my notes appear in square brackets and because there are quite a lot of notes in the margin for this recipe, my comments appear in red. I wasn’t able to get hold of myzithra cheese (a Greek cheese made from sheep’s milk) but did find a decent block of Spanish Manchego in Sainsbury’s. Manchego is a hard cheese made from sheep’s milk. I also had some grated Emmental lingering in the back of my fridge so I added that to the mixture. I added dried figs and halved the quantity of pastry.
Ingredients: 1lb [453g] unsalted myzithra (this is the fresh Greek cheese made from sheep’s milk; in England ordinary fresh milk cheese can be used); 4 ozs honey [warmed over a gentle heat]; 3 ozs sugar; 8 ozs flour [plain]; 8 ozs butter [unsalted as sheep’s cheese can be rather salty.] ; 4 eggs; cinnamon. These quantities fill 2 medium-sized pie dishes.
[I decorated the mixture with dried figs before baking. The original recipe does not include figs but they made a nice addition. If you don’t like a dish that is both savoury and quite sweet, don’t add the figs. Once you have made the pastry, cover it in cling film and pop into the fridge for 30 minutes before rolling it out and lining your tin, it will be easier to work with.]
- Make a paste [pastry] of the flour and butter with some water;
- Roll it thin and line the tins. [I blind-baked my pastry case for 10 minutes. Unlike normal blind baking, don’t prick the base or line with anything just keep an eye on the pastry so that it doesn’t ‘bubble-up’ too much. Sheep’s cheese is very greasy and you need to cook the base first otherwise the mixture will make your pastry very soggy. If you have pricked holes in your pastry, then the mixture will leak underneath the base and make it soggy.];
- Work the cheese and warmed honey together;
- Add the sugar, the beaten eggs and a little cinnamon. [Careful, as this mixture begins to cook quickly in the saucepan and cheese melts very fast];
- Spread this mixture on the paste and back in a medium oven for 35 minutes. [I baked my pie on 175C for 25 minutes in a fan-assisted oven.];
- Sprinkle the top with a little cinnamon. [I dusted my pie with cinnamon before I put it into the oven, hence the final appear of my pie being very dark.]