Born Elizabeth Gwynne in Sussex in 1913 David grew up in affluence in Wooton Manor near Folkestone. Her father was a Conservative MP and died in 1924 when Elizabeth was 11. She had little affection for her mother, who sent her to boarding school shortly after her father’s death.
Developing an interest in painting, in 1930 she was enrolled by her mother at the Sorbonne in Paris for a course in ‘French Civilisation’, where she could develop her art. She lodged with a French family whose mealtimes David gleefully describes in French Provincial Cooking and whose love for excellent cuisine had a deeper impact on the young David than any Sorbonne lecturer. When she returned to England in 1932 she found herself bored by the rituals of the teenage debutante. Giving up art she decided to become (to her mother’s chagrin) an actress, moving into rooms near Regents Park and joining a theatre troupe. For a 21st birthday gift, possible as a reproach, her mother gave her The Gentle Art of Cookery by Hilda Leye. The book was a revelation to the young David and she began to learn to cook, a pursuit that would become the great pleasure of her life.
David became quite dissatisfied with acting and again felt the urge to return to the delights of Europe. Buying a small boat, with her lover Charles Gibson-Cowan, the pair decided they would sail to Greece. Despite the worsening political situation in Europe they sailed to France in 1938, travelling through the canals until they reached Marseilles, with David collecting recipes along the way. After spending near two years in France they set sail for Sicily in 1940 just as the Germans were marching across the border. Arriving in Sicily they found that Italy was now at war with the Britain and they were interned, accused of spying. After months in various prisons they were allowed to escape to Yugoslavia. They had lost everything. They made it to Greece in July 1940, however their respite was short lived as in April 1941 the Germans invaded and they were forced to flee to Egypt.
After arriving in Alexandria, David and Gibson-Cowan ended their relationship. Speaking fluent German, French (now with some Italian and Greek) David was given a job in the British naval cipher department. Living in Alexandria in a flat with a Greek cook she was able to pursue her recipe collecting – learning how to make octopus stew and rich wine sauces.
In 1942 she moved to Cairo where she ran the Ministry of Information’s reference library. The library was in much demand by journalists and writers and she made a circle of friends that included Alan Moorehead, Olivia Manning and Lawrence Durrell. She decided to marry Lieutenant-Colonel Tony David, one of her many lovers. He was posted immediately to British India and she dutifully followed. She found life as a Memsahib boring and the Indian heat unbearable and returned to England, leaving her husband behind, in 1945.
Returning to England for the first time in eight years she found the country much changed. After years of fresh ingredients fed by sunshine she was disgusted by such delicacies as corned beef toad in the hole, and bread and gristle rissoles.
Short on money David began writing articles on Mediterranean cooking, her first article being published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1949. She began to collect her recipes together for a book, linking them with text and extracts from other writers about European cooking. Eventually the work was deemed ready and the first Elizabeth David book was titled A Book of Mediterranean Food and was published in 1950. An instant bestseller the book, with mouth-watering illustrations, captivated the British public, long tired of the restrictions of rationing. With the fame and success of the book, David was able to take more commissions for articles and was immediately contracted for another book, what would become French Country Cooking.
Apart from the period in which she was interned there during the war, David had not spent a great deal of time exploring Italy. As her success grew she took the opportunity to travel to the country and spent almost a year collecting recipes and stories. The book would become Italian Food, published in 1954, and was instrumental in popularising Italian cooking. The opening chapter ‘The Italian store cupboard’ introduced British cooks to an unknown array of new ingredients – like, tuna, garlic and olive oil. The book also relied less on extracts from other writers, allowing David to truly come into her own as a writer.
By the publication of Italian Food David’s marriage was essentially at an end. Tony David had not accompanied her on any of her trips to the continent and had himself moved to Spain in 1953. They divorced in 1960 and David did not marry again.
One of the most critically praised and successful Elizabeth David books was titled French Provincial Cooking and dedicated ‘to P. H. with love’, referring to Peter Higgins, her lover throughout the 1950s and 60s. The book, which collected together articles and recipes collected from her travels and from well known chefs, led the British press to name David 'the most revered goddess of cooking'. At the high-point of her professional career, David’s personal life was in disarray. Peter Higgins left her, after an almost decade long affair for a younger woman and David began to drink heavily as well as becoming reliant on sleeping pills. In 1963 she suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and spent several months in hospital. Perhaps most tragically, her sense of taste was severely affected.
Whilst she continued to write articles for various publications, her position as the figurehead of British cookery had waned – international cookery was now universally popular with a new generation of food writers picking up her mantel.
After a car crash in 1977, from which she took a long time to recover, David wrote less and less, though she continued to travel. She died on 22 May 1992 following a stroke. In death, the lifelong rebel who had run away to Europe returned to her roots; being buried in Folkington, her family’s church near Wooton Manor.