Monthly Archives: November 2022

Favourite Cook Books No.5: ‘English Bread & Yeast Cookery’ by Elizabeth David

The cover of the 1st edition of English Bread & Yeast Cookery

The great food writer Elizabeth David wrote several extremely popular and influential cookery books about food and food culture in France , Italy and the Mediterranean, introducing to the people of Britain a vibrant food culture of which they could only dream: her first being published when the country was still in the grip of post-war rationing.[1] However, less well known to many are her more scholarly books that she wrote in the latter half of her career. Most celebrated of these is English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977).

I was introduced to Elizabeth David via Jane Grigson as I was cooking my way through Grigson’s book English Food for my blog Neil Cooks Grigson. Grigson was very much influenced by David, and several of her recipes appear in English Food, including three from English Bread and Yeast Cookery.[2] I bought myself a copy (the 2010 Grub Street edition). I distinctly remember the day I received it I the post: I was immediately struck by both the sheer amount of research and her wonderful evocative writing style. I then spent the next few hours, flicking the through the book, poring over her words and the wonderful illustrations.

Elizabeth David in her kitchen (Elizabeth David Archive)

But she was on a mission: she was depressed at the state of Britain’s bread and other baked goods, and she wanted to communicate just how good bread can be. She looked to France to show us that good, affordable bread was being baked today, but she also travelled back into our past to demonstrate just how good, varied and culturally important our own breads were.

Elizabeth split her book into two halves: the first being the history, not just of bread, but every single element of it: milling, yeast, salt, ovens, tins, weights and measures, the list goes on. The second half focusses upon the recipes themselves. Usually she provides several historical recipes taken from a variety of sources, showing us how the food has changed over the years, and then, at the end, she provides us with her own recipe updated for modern kitchens, measures and ingredients. No stone is left unturned. There is an astounding variety of different enriched buns and teacakes, many of which are regional and working class. I particularly love her introduction to the section on lardy cakes, saying they ‘are just about as undesirable, from a dietician’s point of view, as anything one can possibly think of. Like every packet of cigarettes, every lardy cake should carry a health warning.’ She tells up about the shapes of traditional loaves, and the cuts that were made upon them; and the weights of various loaves from our past – how many of us have been puzzled over an old recipe asking for ‘the crumbs of a penny loaf’ or some such, having no idea to how much to add? Well Elizabeth David has got your back. One of my favourite of her rabbit holes is the account of Virginia Woolf’s excellent bread making skills, something about which I have already written.

One very important section is Elizabeth’s chapter regarding payndemayn, the refined white loaf that furnished the dinner tables of the upper classes. They were eaten in the High and Late Middle Ages, morphing into manchet rolls by the early modern period. There are few examples or complete descriptions of these breads, other than that they were made of white flour (or the whitest that was possible at the time). In writing this chapter, David managed to piece together a method for them. Her work in this area is still the ‘go-to’ piece for food historians today.


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There are a couple of downsides to her approach however; sometimes I find her a little too acerbic, I go away after reading some passages feeling both personally attacked and responsible for the state of the country’s bread, essentially blaming the English’s preference for cheapness, whiteness and shape of their bread, over nutrition and taste. In part, I suppose, she has a point: it might not be our fault, but we do hold the power to change it on a personal basis at least. Just buy or make better bread: it doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming, and as I often say, two slices of home-made bread and butter are so much more filling than two slices of factory-made bread. The latter is really a false economy. But this brings me to my second point, and it might be a little controversial: I don’t think her bread recipes are very good. Her cooking tips are great (e.g. baking bread in a cold oven, or by covering it with a cloche) but her descriptions of the bread-making process are not clear. In reading this book I have learnt everything about bread except how to make a loaf of it.

One curious thing I noticed when trying to make her breads is they are often too salty (as a lover of saltiness, this is a view I rarely hold) but in researching this post, I found I was not the only one with this opinion, with one critic saying of her book ‘the facts are impressive and so is the amount of salt.’[3] David gives her reason for this; she uses unsalted butter and therefore makes her bread saltier to make up for it. However there is another reason why she was liberal with her salt: in 1963, Elizabeth suffered a cerebral haemorrhage after which she lost the sensation in many of her tastebuds. This experience made her change tack in her own work, withdrawing to her personal library to focus upon research. As writer Melissa Pasanen put it: ‘[this] may explain the emphasis on history over flavour.’[4]

But none of this matters: the book is wonderful, and her beautiful writing more than makes up for its short-fallings, and if you don’t own a copy, please get hold of one, you will not be disappointed.

Next post I will go for a deep dive into her payndemayn recipes.


Notes:

[1] Her first being A Book of Mediterranean Food in 1950.

[2] These are ‘Rice Bread’, ‘Wigs’ and ‘Elizabeth David’s Crumpets’

[3] Pasanen, M. (2003) ‘Enough Saffron to Cover a Sixpence: The Pleasures and Challenge of Elizabeth David’, The Art of Eating.

[4] Ibid.

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