Discovering Author Elizabeth David French Country Cooking at Ménerbes
Of all the British women writers of the mid-20th century, perhaps it is cookery author Elizabeth David who brought most colour and sensuousness to the page – and to the table. When she wrote about aubergines, courgettes, garlic and aromatic herbs, these were exotic rarities in the grey of Britain’s post-war rationing, and her descriptions evoked the tastes, aromas and brightness of the Mediterranean. She was far more than a collector of recipes: her writing captured a sense of time and place that was uplifting and inspirational.
Elizabeth David: A Mediterranean Passion by Lisa Chaney is an entertaining biography that charts an adventurous life. Born into privilege, David abandoned England for a yacht and a rackety lover, with whom she escaped from the South of France in World War II via a Greek island and Egypt, where she worked at the Ministry of Information and socialised with an artistic and literary set that included Lawrence Durrell, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Olivia Manning.
In 1950, shortly after delivering the manuscript of French Country Cooking, Elizabeth and a couple of friends rented a huge draughty house in the Vaucluse at Ménerbes, in her own words, “a crumbling hill village opposite the Luberon mountain.” She was there for some months from late winter to early summer.
“How you would laugh your head off if you could see me in this tumbledown old Castle of Otranto,” she wrote to her sister, “with Romney (Summers) stacking logs on a great open fireplace as large as the town hall, and carrying his little khaki bag down to the village every day for the shopping. The weather has been a disgrace, the place as cold and wet as Charity. A fog comes up from the valley (or down from the hills) every night and in the morning you can’t see out of the windows.”
It wasn’t a particularly happy time. Even in May, the weather was terrible. Rain lashed at the old fortified manor, a constant stream of visitors arrived expecting to eat and stay over, and everyone drank far too much cheap wine, exacerbating bad tempers. On top of that, the “relentless screaming” of the mistral drove her and her many guests “perilously close to losing our reason”.
Although there was one guest who remained popular. “Hamish doesn’t get up till lunchtime and most of his working hours are occupied fetching wood for the fire and doing the flowers.” For those who like literary asides as much as I do, Hamish was Hamish Erskine, bright young thing of the 1920s and son of the Earl of Rosslyn, known by everyone to be homosexual with no interest in marriage for form’s sake – everyone, it seems, except Nancy Mitford who, in their youth, stubbornly persisted for several years in her belief that they were engaged.
When the sun eventually reappeared in June, Elizabeth was exhausted, shattered by the sheer hard work (there had been some local help but not nearly enough) of having so many people around, catering for them and trying to work. In addition to research – including taking buses to Avignon’s markets – and writing, there had been the proofs of French Country Cooking to deal with.
The question was, which was the house in Ménerbes where all this drama took place? There is a picture in Lisa Chaney’s book, captioned ‘The Provençal “Castle of Otranto” where Elizabeth stayed in 1950’. It does indeed look bleak, higher than the valley floor of fields. Obviously the first thing to do was to do an internet search, but google drew a blank with “Ménerbes + Otranto”.
Of course, I should have paid attention to the inverted commas. Otranto, it transpired, was Elizabeth David’s allusion to the title of a novel by Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto, A Gothic Story. Published in 1764, it is generally accepted to be the first gothic novel. Perhaps it was her way of saying it had been a house of horrors.
During various visits to Ménerbes and the surrounding countryside, I had the picture of “Otranto” in my mind but never saw a building like it. There wasn’t much point in asking anyone in the village about Elizabeth David – she had been there for such a short time and wasn’t well known in France. At one point I did think about taking the picture to a local estate agent and asking, but that seemed…well, a little obsessive. And so the mystery remained.
Until, quite by chance, I found it – or rather, I found a drawing in a book. I had bought Patrick Ollivier-Elliott’s Luberon Pays d’Apt: Carnet d’un voyager attentive and there it was. The right house – and it had a name: Le Castellet.
From then on it was easy to discover that Le Castellet stands on the western spur of Ménerbes, a village that sits like a ship on a long rocky outcrop. The ‘little castle’ has a long history of its own, including a honourable part in the religious wars of the 16th century when the villagers withstood a force of 12,000 Catholic troops for 14 months, much of the action focusing on Le Castellet.
It’s reached by walking up through the medieval part of the village on the narrow streets towards the church and the cemetery. There are lovely views all around, of the Luberon hills and the orchards and vineyards below, and finally there is a view down to Le Castellet from the walls surrounding the church: still completely recognisable from the picture in the biography.
A few years after Elizabeth David’s stay, the property was sold to abstract artist Nicolas de Staël (1914-55), an associate of Braque and Picasso. In the early 1950s, Pablo Picasso too lived for a while in Ménerbes, as did his muse, the photographer Dora Maar. Le Castellet remains in the ownership of the de Staël family. Sadly, it is not open to the public.
The painting below is Ménerbes (1954) by Nicolas de Staël.
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