19 November 2007

Elizabeth David. A Book of Mediterranean Food. 1950

Elizabeth David. A BOOK OF MEDITERRANEAN FOOD. John Lehmann Ltd. London, 1950.

Current Selling Prices
$550-$1400 /£280-£700

Elizabeth David's first book came out at a time when cookery was at an all time low in Britain. Even olive oil was rare and she advised readers that it could be found at chemists (where it was sold in small bottles for the treatment of aching muscles.) There is a scene in the recent TV biopic of her life where, in the late 1940s she is sitting in a provincial hotel having dinner with a lover, and is brought an inedible plate of soup that resembled the paste used to hang wallpaper. Such scenes are now less common in England- something due largely to her efforts. The film also emphasised something new to me--she had a sort of mentor- the great expat Capri based writer Norman Douglas. She hung out with him during the winter of 1939-40 in Antibes. It was Douglas who taught her 'how to search out the best, insist on it and reject all that was bogus and second-rate'. And his injunction, 'Always do as you please and send everybody to hell and take the consequences. Damned good rule of life...' was one she took passionately to heart. Norman Douglas was also a great influence on the fabulous Nancy Cunard - she wrote a book on him ('Grand Man.')

A breakthrough book. A great and influential book acknowledged now by many celebrated cooks. Unashamedly literary 'A Book of Mediterranean Food' stills stands up today as an inspiring collection of recipes from France, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Greece and Egypt. Best of all they can be cooked from, something not always true of recipes. Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse, said "When I go back and read her book now...I feel I plagiarized them. All of it seeped in so much, it's embarrassing to read them now." Even Jamie Oliver pays homage to her and the food at the River Cafe where he started was partly inspired by her cooking.

VALUE? A difficult book to find as a true 1950 first in its colourful John Minton 10/6 jacket. I have seen copies as much as a thousand pounds but certainly a decent clean copy with no chips to the jacket would be catalogued at £500. Used copies in slightly worn jackets can be had at around £300. Even sans jacket it can make just over £100. In 1987 Dorling Kindersley put out a signed limited edition of her 'French Country Cooking' limited to 450 signed copies, this can command £200+ and seems unaccountably scarce- presumably it was bought at the time by well heeled foodies and they are jealously holding on to it -such is the reverence that Elizabeth David inspires.

Sometime in the 1980s I was called to a posh house in the Belgravia /Chelsea area to offer on a a load of books. They belonged to a pleasant person called Felicité Gwynne who was then manager of the cult Chelsea bookshop Sandoes. I remember walking along the hall past rows of fabulous cookbooks including what seemed hundreds of 18th century cookbooks. I mentally punched the air as there are few things that sell faster or more easily than antiquarian cook books. I was whisked up to the attic and asked 'What about those cook books?' - Felicité politely informed me 'Oh those are my sisters and are not for sale--she's Elizabeth David you know...' You win some, you lose some. As I recall Felicité had some bloody good books including a lot of Mervyn Peake...


Anonymous said...

Wow, I'd LOVE to get my hands on this!!!! I have a large collection of various Mediterranean cook books and I'm always looking for rare one as well as new books... Just got Rocco DiSpirito's new book Real Life Recipes, a lot of good, quick and easy dishes in there.. I love his approach and style!! He's also been doing these great video blogs for Bertolli's Mediterranean style frozen dinners. Which are great as well, a total time saver when I still want a good meal and dont want to take too long in the kitchen.. 10 mins and dinner is served!!! Check out Rocco's videos for Bertolli here: http://www.whatsyourmedstyle.com/medstyle/demo.aspx?cat=b
I work with them, so I have the inside scoop, but these videos and meals are great and a lot of fun for us foodies!

Anonymous said...

Not entirely without interest although as I recall Elizabeth David never used spam in her cooking...Rocco di Spirito see you next Tuesday!