Sunday 10 June 2012

Elizabeth David at Ménerbes

I do love a literary puzzle. If it involves a writer I admire and a geographical location, I’m in seventh heaven. Sometimes the mystery can take years to solve and requires a lucky break to provide the answer, and so it was with this conundrum: which was the house where Elizabeth David lived for a few months at Ménerbes?

Of all the British women writers of the 20th century, perhaps it is cookery writer Elizabeth David who brought sensuousness to the widest reading public. When she wrote about aubergines, courgettes, garlic and aromatic herbs, they were not widely available and her descriptions evoked the tastes, aromas and brightness of the Mediterranean in the grey of Britain’s post-war rationing. She was far, far more than a collector of recipes: her writing captured a sense of time and place that was uplifting and inspirational. Many people claim that Elizabeth David began the transformation of the nation’s palate to the kind of food we eat today.

It must have been at least five years ago that I read Elizabeth David: A Mediterranean Passion, Lisa Chaney’s enjoyable biography of this woman whose adventurous life – born into privilege, she abandoned England for a yacht and a rackety lover – included escaping 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.

I was hooked. I wanted to see the house 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, and the opening salvo in a genre that would become wildly popular in the later 18th and early 19th centuries. Perhaps it was her way of saying it had been a house of horrors.

In the present, it seemed to me that it was the kind of place that might well be a chic boutique hotel now but more searches brought no match. From the photograph, I imagined the house was set on a small hill on the plain a little apart from the village. I scoured a large-scale map, wondering if I could find the pattern of roads and so pin down the precise location that way, but that didn’t work.

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 (Trans: An observant traveller’s notebook) and there it was. In fact, I had to bring it back to England to check it against the picture in Lisa Chaney’s book before I could be sure, but 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. It is not open to the public. The painting below is Ménerbes (1954) by Nicolas de Staël.



renilde said...

dear Deborah, it was a pleasure to follow you in your quest, interesting and i love aubergines :) x

Bunched Undies said...

Excellent detective work Deborah! Thank you for the fascinating read.

Pet said...

What an interesting place. I'll put it in my list of places to visit. Thanks.

josina said...

great detective work,love elizabteh david thank you for this

Muriel said...

That was quite a detective work...Lots of artists have enjoyed living in Provence. I grew up not very far from the castle sainte-Claire of Edith Wharton, and I love the castle of the saint Exupery family near la Mole...There is so much to discover in Provence!

Lynne with an e said...

What a fascinating story. I had never heard of Elizabeth David and am now most curious to read Lisa Chaney’s biography of her. Fascinating bit of detective work you engaged in, Deborah. I like it where you say you held back from taking the picture to a local estate agent for fear of seeming a bit obsessive.

Elizabeth Young said...

I love the way your mind works Deborah, and the patience you had to wait for correct timing. I can see this is one of the backbones of a good writer! Well done.

Libby said...

Oh this was really fascinating, especially combined with your next post on de Stael. I've always liked his work.
And now, I will order "A Mediterranean Passion" which is JUST my kind of biography. Thank you for the wonderful information here!

aguja said...

An extraordinarily wonderful post, Deborah! I was intrigued from beginning to end and delighted that you tracked down the 'castle'. I also love the abstract painting of it.
I think that you did brilliantly as a 'super sleuth' - and in involving 'us bloggers' in the trail to discovery.

Michel said...

I didn't realize that Elizabeth David spent time in Menerbes. I have a picture of that house and never realized she had lived there.

Vanessa said...

My ancient copy of French Provincial Cooking is well-thumbed and I sometimes read it just for the pleasure of her cultured, and often acerbic, asides. Well done you for solving the mystery.

Joshua said...


I came across your blog about Elizabeth David's house in Provence and had to send you an email.

Through Keith Floyd and Elizabeth David I have come to fall in love with Provencal food though have never been. This September however, I will be visiting foe the first time and can't wait. I'll be sure to check out the house and probably bore those with me as to the Elizabeth anecdote!

My initial plan is to fly to Marseilles and spend a long weekend driving between towns in Vaucluse and ending up in Avignon. Given your experience of the area and also shared love for Elizabeth david, I was wondering if you might have recommendations for places to drop in on.

All the best,

Deborah Lawrenson said...

Hello Joshua,

I tried to connect to your blog but couldn't seem to, so I'll answer here.

If you do go to Menerbes to find Le Castellet, you could try the Café Veranda there, which is excellent. In nearby Bonnieux, you might enjoy having lunch outside by the fountain at Le Fournil. (Be sure to go into artist Rahim Najfar's atelier opposite.)

September would be a good time to visit Gordes. Fontaine de Vaucluse is one of my favourite places - sit down by the river in one of the cafes there (though they are pretty basic so don't expect gastronomy). I could go on, but I suspect that's enough for your purposes. Enjoy your trip!

Anonymous said...

Ah, Elizabeth David's soupe ménerboise, the essence of summer. Haven't come across the recipe or anything similar anywhere else, suspect she made it up out of ingredients to hand (tomato, courgette, broad beans, basil)

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