Elizabeth David’s influence on English cuisine was not unlike the influence of Julia Child in the U.S. In the aftermath of WWII, she brought the vibrant, variegated, agile flavors of the Mediterranean to the shores of the British Isles where frumpy, monotonous cookery had made British stoicism such a virtue.
David wrote in an age when cookbooks were not just a set of utilitarian instructions but were an occasion for wit and personality, which leavened her often imperious proclamations about the horrors of the British diet.
One of my favorite David recipes is this over-the-top chronicle of butter-infused spinach which she discovered in a turn-of-the-century magazine. Written by Jeanne Savarin, the recipe is alleged to be a favorite of her great-great uncle the 18th century gastronome Brillat-Savarin, created by his friend the Abbé Chevrièr..
This recipe, from French Country Cooking, puts a fine point on the French reputation for excessive use of butter. The admonitions against the temptation to shorten the procedure suggest that even French cooks might wonder at the extravagance.
Les Epinards du Chanoine Chevrièr
On Wednesday (for Sunday) choose your spinach, young leaves, neither too old nor in flower, of a good green and with their middle ribs. In the afternoon clean the spinach, removing the stalks, and wash it carefully. When it is tender, drain it in an enamel or china colander; drain out as much water as possible by pressing the leaves firmly down in the sieve; then chop them finely.
Now put them into a pan (enamel or glazed earthenware) with some fine fresh butter and put on to a very low fire. For a pound of spinach allow 1/4 lb. of butter. Let them cook gently for 30 minutes, then take them off the fire and let them cool in the same pan. They are not to be served today.
Thursday: Add another 1 1/2 ozs. of butter to the spinach, and cook again for 10-15 minutes over a very low fire; again leave them to get cold; they are not to be served yet.
Friday: Exactly the same operation as the previous day, the same quantity of butter, the same length of cooking. Do not be tempted.
Saturday: Again the same operation as Thursday and Friday. Beware of temptation; the spinach will be giving out a wonderful aroma.
Sunday: At last the day of for your expected guests has arrived. A quarter of an hour before you intend serving the dinner put the spinach again over a low flame, with two good ounces of butter, for 10-12 minutes. This time, take them out of their pan and put them in a warmed vegetable dish and serve them very hot.
10 1/2 ounces of butter for a pound of spinach! Even David thinks this a bit much—she advises 2-3 lbs of spinach.
So is this dish good? It has a gossamer, oily texture and concentrated spinach flavor. But perhaps not worth the lengthy operation.
But I wish more cookbooks today were like a conversation instead of a car repair manual.