Words of descriptive elegance

by Don Curto

It is true there are occasions when a picture is worth a thousand words. However, there are writers who are so good that no one picture could possibly capture the world portrayed by their words.
Such a writer was Elizabeth David, the first great modern food and travel writer who brought French and Mediterranean cooking to staid, starved and rigidly rationed England after WWII.  She was born in 1913, died in 1992. You can read her biography elsewhere.
Quite a few years ago I found her book titled An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. This is a book of travel—in Spain, France and Italy, mainly. It also is a book about food in those places, and it is a book about small restaurants, and private meals with friends, new and old.
When Ms. David wrote about an area, one comes away from the reading with a rich appreciation of the area, with a feeling for the culture, a picture of the colors and a wonderful mental tasting of the foods there. This essay published in November 1964 is about Para Navidad—“for Christmas”—and is a good example of her observation ability. If you are unable to “taste” the olives and the figs and the white cheese and the rich red tomatoes, you have a problem.

Para Navidad
It is the last day of October. Here in the south-eastern corner of Spain, the afternoon is hazy and the sun is warm, although not quite what it was a week ago. Then we were eating out-of-doors at midday, and were baked, even in our cotton sweaters. The colours of the land are still those of late summer—roan, silver, lilac and ochre. In the soft light, the formation of the rock and the ancient terracing of the hills become clearly visible. In the summer, the sun on the limestone—white soil dazzles the eyes, and the greens of June obscure the shapes of the ravines and craggy outcroppings. Now there are signs of autumn on the leaves of some of the almond trees. They have turned a frail, transparent auburn, and this morning when I awoke, I devoured two of the very first tangerines of the season. In the dawn, their scent was piercing and their taste was sharp. During the night it had rained—not much, nothing like enough to affect the parched soil—but all the same, there was a sheen on the rose bricks and grey stones of the courtyard. The immense old terracotta oil jar in the centre was freshly washed, and over the mountains a half-rainbow gave a pretty performance as we drank our breakfast coffee.
At midday, we picked small figs, dusty purple and pale jade green. On the skins is a bloom not to be seen on midsummer figs. The taste, too, is quite different. The flesh is a clear garnet red, less rich and more subtle than that of the main-crop fruit, which is of the vernal variety, brilliant green. Some of the figs have split open and are half dried by the sun. In the north, we can never taste fruit like this, fruit midway between fresh and dried. It has the same poignancy as the black Valencia grapes still hanging in heavy bunches on the vines. These, too, are in the process of transforming themselves—from fresh grapes to raisins on the stalk as we know them. Here the bunches have been tied up in cotton bags.
The two ancients who tend the almond trees (this is Valencia almond country, and it has been a bad season. If the rain fails, next year’s crop may prove to be another disaster) and who have known the estate of La Alfarella all their lives, were hoping that the grapes could be cut late and hung in the storeroom until Christmas. Their plans have been foiled by the wasps. This year, there has been a fearsome plague of the persistent and destructive brutes. They have bitten their way through the protecting cotton, sucked out the juice of the fruit and left nothing but husks. Here and there, where a bunch has escaped the marauders, we have cut one and brought it back to the house in a basket with the green lemons and some of the wild thyme that has an almost overpowering scent, one that seems to be peculiar to Spanish thyme. It is perhaps fanciful, but it seems to have undertones of aniseed, chamomile, hyssop, lavender.
My English host, who has recreated this property of La Alfarella out of a ruin and is bringing its land back to life after twenty years of neglect, is at the cooking pots. He seizes on the green lemons and grates the skins of two of them into the meat mixture he is stirring up. He throws in a little of the sun-dried thyme and makes us a beguiling dish of albondigas, little rissoles fried in olive oil. He fries them skillfully, and they emerge with a caramel-brown-and-gold coating reflecting the glaze of the shallow earthenware sarten, the frying dish in which they have been cooked and brought to the table. All the cooking here is done in the local earthenware pots. Even the water is boiled in them. They are very thick and sturdy, unglazed on the outside, and are used directly over the Butagaz flame, or sometimes on the wood fire in the open hearth. As yet, there is no oven. That is one of next year’s projects.
Surprisingly, in an isolated farmhouse in a country believed by so many people to produce the worst and most repetitive food in Europe, our diet has a good deal of variety, and some of the produce is of a very high quality. I have never eaten such delicate and fine-grained pork meat, and the cured fillet, lomo de cerdo, is by any standard a luxury worth paying for. The chicken and the rabbit that go into the ritual paella cooked in a vast burnished iron pan (only for paella on a big scale and for the frying of tortillas are metal pans used) over a crackling fire are tender, possessed of their true flavours. We have had little red mullet and fresh sardines a la plancha, grilled on primitive round tin grill plates made sizzling hot on the fire. This is the utensil, common to France, Italy, Spain and Greece, that also produces the best toast in the world—brittle and black-barred with the marks of the grill.
To start our midday meal, we have, invariably, a tomato and onion salad, a few slices of fresh white cheese, and a dish of olives. The tomatoes are the Mediterranean ridged variety of which I never tire. They are huge, sweet, fleshy, richly red. Here they cut out and discard the central wedge, almost as we core apples, then slice the tomatoes into rough sections. They need no dressing, nothing but salt. With the roughly cut raw onions, sweet as all the vegetables grown in this limestone and clay soil, they make a wonderfully refreshing salad. It has no catchy name. It is just ensalada, and it cannot be reproduced without these sweet Spanish onions and Mediterranean tomatoes.
In the summer, seventeen-year-old Juanita asked for empty wine bottles to take to her married sister in the village, who would, she explained, preserve the tomatoes for the winter by slicing them, packing them in bottles, and sealing them with olive oil. They would keep for a year or more, Juanita said. Had her sister a bottle we could try? No. There were only two of last year’s vintage left. They were to be kept para Navidad, for Christmas.
Yesterday in the market there were fresh dates from Elche, the first of the season. They are rather small, treacle-sticky and come in tortoiseshell-cat colours: black, acorn brown, peeled-chestnut beige; like the lengths of Barcelona corduroy I have bought in the village shop. Inevitably, we were told that the best dates would not be ready until Navidad. That applies to the oranges and the muscatel raisins; and presumably also to the little rosy copper medlars now on sale in the market. They are not yet ripe enough to eat, so I suppose they are to be kept, like Juanita’s sister’s tomatoes, and the yellow and green Elche melons stored in an esparto basket in the house, for Navidad. We nibble at the candied melon peel in sugar-frosted and lemon-ice-coloured wedges we have bought in the market, and we have already torn open the Christmas-wrapped mazapan (it bears the trade name of El Alee, “the elk”; a sad-faced moose with tired hooves and snow on its antlers decorates the paper), which is of a kind I have not before encountered. It is not at all like marzipan. It is very white, in bricks, with a consistency reminiscent of frozen sherbet. It is made of almonds and egg whites, and studded with crystallized fruit. There is the new season’s quince cheese, the carne de membrillo, which we ought to be keeping to take to England for Navidad presents, and with it there is also a peach cheese. How is it that one never hears mention of this beautiful and delicious clear amber sweetmeat?
There are many more Mediterranean treats, cheap treats of autumn, like the newly brined green olives that the people of all olive-growing countries rightly regard as a delicacy. In Rome, one late October, I remember buying new green olives from a woman who was selling them straight from the barrel she had set up at a street corner. That was twelve years ago. I have never forgotten the fresh flavour of the Roman green olives. The manzanilla variety we have bought here come from Andalucia. They are neither green nor black, but purple, rose, lavender and brown, picked at varying stages of maturity, and intended for quick home consumption rather than for export. It is the tasting of familiar products at their point of origin (before they are graded, classified, prinked up and imprisoned in bottles, tins, jars, and packets) that makes them memorable; forever changes their aspect.
By chance, saffron is another commodity that has acquired a new dimension. It was somewhere on the way up to Cordoba that we saw the first purple patches of autumn-flowering saffron crocuses in bloom. On our return, we called on Mercedes, the second village girl who works at La Alfarella, to tell her that we were back. Her father was preparing saffron—picking the orange stigmas one by one from the iridescent mauve flowers heaped up in a shoe box by his side and spreading them carefully on a piece of brown paper to dry. The heap of discarded crocus petals made a splash of intense and pure colour, shining like a pool of quicksilver in the cavernous shadows of the village living room. Every night, during the six-odd weeks that the season lasts, he prepares a boxful of flowers, so his wife told us. The bundle of saffron that she took out of a battered tin, wrapped in a square of paper, and gave to us must represent a fortnight’s work. It is last year’s vintage because there is not yet enough of the new season’s batch to make a respectable offering. It appears to have lost nothing of its penetrating, quite violently acrid-sweet and pungent scent. It is certainly a handsome present that Mercedes’ mother has given us, a rare present, straight from the source, and appropriate for us to take home to England for Navidad.
An even better one is the rain. At last, now it is real rain that is falling. The ancient have stopped work for the day, and most of the population of the village is gathered in the cafe. The day the rain comes, the village votes its own fiesta day.
The Spectator, 27 November 1964
Permission to reprint “Para Navidad” has been requested of The Globe Pequot Press, P.O. Box 480, Guilford, Conn. 06437.

Elizabeth David has little recipes that seem almost to pop up from nowhere and turn out to be gems—this is one I recommend highly.

Potted Chicken Livers

This recipe from Elizabeth David produces a rich, smooth and gamey-flavored mixture, rather like a very expensive French pate, at a fraction of the price and with very little fuss. In the autumn and winter, I make this often, and properly covered, (plastic will do) it will keep in the refrigerator for several days or a week.
Take four ounces of frozen, cleaned chicken livers. Heat one ounce of good butter in a small heavy frying pan and cook the livers for about five minutes, turning them constantly. The outside should be browned; the insides should be pink, but not raw.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer them to a food processor. To the buttery juices in the pan add a tablespoon of good brandy and some salt and pepper and let it sizzle for a few seconds. Pour over the chicken livers.
Put in the remaining two ounces of butter, softened, but not melted. Process the whole mixture to a very smooth paste. Taste for seasoning. Put into small custard cups, smooth the tops. Cover and chill in the refrigerator. Serve with crostini.
—Don Curto

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