To me, Elizabeth David wrote clear, limpid prose. Without resorting to hyperbole or gush, she was able to evoke food – its appearance, scent and flavour – in a context that may vary from a table at a seaside tavern in Greece to an oleander-drenched terrace in Provence or a damp evening at what used to be called a commercial hotel in the Midlands. I tried to explain her genius – I think that is a fair appraisal – to a seminar of budding food writers a few weeks ago. I failed. They “sort of” got the point when I read aloud a page of French Provincial Cooking but thought she used words that “you couldn’t use nowadays” and considered her intense discrimination merely snobbery.
I was rather shocked. Elizabeth David has been a sort of gold standard to me all my cooking, and writing, life. The food that she describes can often be rich or intense but is always tempered by a sense of restraint and balance. The more I thought about the reaction of these (mostly) young bloggers and budding journalists, the more anxious I became. If they were right about her writing, in a sense I didn’t care. Her language may be dated to their ears but one dreads to hear what they might think of the language of Jane Austen or even Edith Wharton. The language could take care of itself. I realised that it was the world that Elizabeth David evoked that was so foreign to them.
By the 1970s, I think Mrs David was herself already mourning a sad decline in French gastronomic standards. Those of us who travel in France today are only too aware that the idea of a simple country restaurant serving traditional French food is a historical mirage. The rot set in early on the Côte d’Azur: when David started writing (with A Book of Mediterranean Food, in 1950), the French Riviera was still a relatively unspoilt playground for the likes of Dick Diver and his chums. Within 20 years it had been fairly comprehensively ruined.
Antibes used to be a fishing village, a small and sleepy resort with a couple of nice parks and beaches, several little harbours and a certain cachet since Picasso visited and worked there in the Thirties and Forties. It is now part of a conurbation that stretches more than 60km from below Cannes to Villefranche, some way beyond Nice. The restaurants in Antibes will happily charge you €60 for a bouillabaisse in which the saffron has been replaced by turmeric and you will feel a little inferior if the Porsche that you park in the hotel car park is more than a year old.
There is no explanation of Poulet Antiboise in A Book of Mediterranean Food. The recipe just sits there in its typically elegant simplicity. The onions are a reference to the pissaladière of Nice but there is nothing else to suggest any close connection with the coast. However, were I teleported back to a terrace in Antibes some time in the 1930s and this was put in front of me, I would not be unhappy.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
Rowley’s drinking choice
The robust flavours and tannins of Mourvèdre, the dominant grape of Bandol, have the same honest virtues as this chicken dish as well as being the closest geographically.
Elizabeth David suggests preparing an old boiling fowl in this way but I cannot agree. A really good chicken is required for such a simple dish. I think it best served lukewarm with a salad and some good bread. Serves four.
150ml olive oil
20 black olives
Few sprigs thyme
● Peel and slice the onions and put them into a deep casserole with the olive oil, a little salt and a pinch of cayenne pepper. On top of the onions place a cleaned chicken seasoned with salt and pepper. Cover the casserole and cook very gently in the oven (170C) for about an hour and a half. The onions must not brown, but melt gradually almost to a purée, as in pissaladière. Add more oil during cooking if necessary.
● When the chicken is tender, lift it out of the onion mix and carve it into pieces. Pour the onions into a colander and drain off some of the olive oil – the quantity prescribed is perfect to cook the onions but a bit too authentic for modern taste – and decant them on to a large serving dish. Place the chicken pieces on top; scatter over the olives – stoned or unstoned – and the thyme and serve.