By Elizabeth David
Penguin paperback 1963 (Macdonald hardback 1954)
Cover painting by Renato Guttuso
Elizabeth David’s Italian Food was the pioneering work of the great postwar rediscovery of Mediterranean cuisine. When French sauces still reigned supreme and spaghetti, salami, sugo di carne and the rest were thought of as crude fare, David travelled the Italian regions from Piedmont to Sicily and came back with originally researched recipes based on the most authentic local ingredients.
It was a stroke of genius to pair her work with the drawings, and cover painting, of the distinguished Italian neo-realist painter Renato Guttuso. Born in Sicily, he was a lifelong communist and friend of Picasso; in his work he fused Picasso’s modernism with an earthy realism.
Guttuso’s beautiful cover for Italian Food is a timeless Mediterranean still-life: a straw-covered fiasco of wine (Chianti, presumably), next to a bunch of leaf artichokes on the stalk, with a deep-blue sea in the background. Guttuso, like David, celebrates the virtues of unpretentious country produce and country people. Here was a return, after the cataclysm of war, to core European values found in the deep culture of the Mediterranean. For a hungry English readership, lean after 14 years of rationing, there was also an element of wish-fulfilment: the imagining of a country where delicious fresh local produce had never ceased to be grown, valued and available.
How much David herself appreciated Guttuso’s contribution when she herself began to question the worth of her marathon project is made clear in the introduction: “To have for my book these magnificent drawings and the dazzling jacket picture by one of Italy’s most remarkable living artists, I would have gone through the whole agony of writing it all over again.” For David, the value of Guttuso’s work lay in its rejection of sentimental, conventional romantic imagery in favour of raw, vital realism. “For this artist, even the straw round the neck of a wine flask is unravelling itself in a manner positively threatening in its purpose and intensity.”