Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The winter of '47

In case you didn't believe me about the terrible winter of 1947 (see School's Out, below), this is a little piece I wrote a while ago about how it gave birth to a culinary revolution:

It was Britain’s worst winter of the last century. Stranded by a blizzard in a Trust Houses hotel in Ross-on-Wye in the middle of February 1947, a 33-year-old Elizabeth David felt an “agonised craving for the sun”, remembering the wartime years she had spent in India, Egypt and Greece. The hotel served dismal meals, “produced with a kind of bleak triumph which amounted almost to a hatred of humanity and humanity’s needs”. In a state of fury about this terrible, cheerless food (she regarded postwar rationing and shortages as no excuse), David began to write down sensuous descriptions of Mediterranean cuisine – although she later said that in England in 1947 “olives” and “almonds” felt like dirty words. In 1950, some of these words ended up in her first published work, A Book of Mediterranean Food.

David’s books were to revolutionise British middle-class cuisine, but their impact was gradual. Before the 1960s, it was difficult to purchase her more “exotic” ingredients (anchovies, aubergines, mozzarella) outside Soho delicatessens and the food shops off Tottenham Court Road. Olive oil was only available from chemists, for dislodging ear wax.

Slowly, the metropolitan middle classes cottoned on. David’s sensuous descriptions of continental foodstuffs evoked fond memories of the foreign holidays they had begun to take in places such as Provence and Tuscany. Her recipes appealed to young, professional couples on a limited budget because they were sophisticated but cheap, finding uses for everything from pigs’ trotters to sheep’s lungs. The novelist Olivia Manning, reviewing David’s 1954 book, Italian Food, described its prospective readers as “the New Poor” – those who would have employed housekeepers and cooks before the war, but who now had to look after themselves.

In contrast to classic English dinner-party cookery, with its elaborate preparation and presentation, many of David’s meals could be described in a few lines and prepared in a matter of minutes. Her simple, beautiful dishes would be eagerly consumed by the group she idealised as the “ordinary middle class”. But in February 1947, this must have seemed like a distant dream. It would be many years before David’s fellow Britons ceased to suffer the same dreadful hotel food.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Revolutionaries do not make revolutions. The revolutionaries are those who know when power is lying in the street and then they can pick it up.’ - Hannah Arendt

1 comment:

  1. Being a regular visitor to the Med, and at the same time experiencing this bleak winter in the UK, I can well understand why that book was lovingly written!