The missing ingredients in a life of passion

A new drama on the life of Elizabeth David suggests her private life was as sensuous as her recipes. But, says Lisa Cheney, who wrote the first biography of the cookery writer, the facts are much more interesting than the fiction.

If you didn't know anything about the subject of tonight's BBC2 docu-drama Elizabeth David: A Life in Recipes, You'd be forgiven for thinking it's a period bedroom romp, set in enviable Mediterranean locations, with an unrelentingly slinky voice-over by the heroine making incongruous pronouncements about food.

Elizabeth David wrote of herself "all there is to know about me is in my books". As she intended, her autobiographical comments remained largely indecipherable. Claiming to give us the key, the film's scrambled storyline means that you'd only understand much of what's going on if you had an insider's knowledge. Aiming to inform, it fails by assuming we know who this woman is.

BBC publicity claims she was "an uncompromising libertine who held deeply controversial views on female independence and sexual freedom". Titivating still further, in a Guardian puff, the director wrote that: "Elizabeth David was astute in making the connection between cookery writing and pornography". We know that editors and directors know that sex sells. But the ploy grows wearisome. We now come to the fault line in the docu-drama genre. Often looking at someone we've heard of but know little about, with nothing else to go on, understandably, most of us believe that this is real history. It's not.

Trying to head off criticism, the director admits that Elizabeth David would have hated any film about her life. True, but times have changed and that's now part of the price one must often pay for a following. Our curiosity about her bedroom habits only arises, though, because she made her name by doing something else. As it is, we're left little the wiser about what that was. I should here declare a professional interest: I wrote Elizabeth David's first biography.

Born into a Sussex gentry family in 1913, she was parked in a nursery wing with her three sisters. Though entirely typical of the period, the awfulness of their food acted as a gauge against which she set her heart and her pen.

Beautiful, funny, selfish, with largely dysfunctional relationships, Elizabeth was also sparklingly lucid, and armed with a caustic wit. A rebellious schoolgirl, at 26, failure at acting encouraged her to abandon England on a yacht with her disreputable, pacifist lover. This voyage proved the defining event of her life. Intent on avoiding the imminent hostilities, the war stranded the runaways in the South of France. Elizabeth's mother passionately disapproved of Charles's lifestyle and

pacifism, and described him as "that awful worm, one can't call him a man".

Their escape from France led to imprisonment, confiscation of the yacht, and life on a Greek island, until evacuation just in advance of the invading German army. In Egypt, while Librarian for the Ministry of Information, Elizabeth's work and socialising were hectic.

Returning to England in 1946, via Delhi and a marriage destined to fail, the writing she had thought about for so long

finally crystallised as a reaction

to her ration-blighted homeland

in an outpouring of longing

for the sunnier lands she had

lost.

Typically, her first book was conceived on an adulterous weekend in Ross-on-Wye with a rackety former lover, a double agent during the war. In 1950, A Book of Mediterranean Food appeared, exuding what would become that trademark mix of sensuality and sense: a seductive attitude to food, and a pragmatic way of achieving it.

In a series of books and articles, first extolling the virtues of France and Italy, Elizabeth then rediscovered an almost lost English tradition, and saw it was good. What she publicised were periods and places when, still connected to the land, people used seasonal local produce to make unpretentious food.

Post-war, when cooking in Britain was seen as an irksome chore, in book after book, she not only insisted it could be enjoyable, but showed how the pleasures of the table were real. It took time but during the last half of the 20th century, she instituted a revolution in middle-class Britain's attitudes to cooking and eating.

By the 1970s, when her books had sold in the hundreds of thousands, she was described as the doyenne of cookery writers, a title she hated. When the Queen asked her what she did; Elizabeth said, "Write cookery books Ma'am". The Queen replied, "That must be very useful". Elizabeth was more than culinary royalty.

The Elizabeth David influence didn't stop there. Believe it or not, it's due to her encouragement, that most of us insist on the greater conviviality of kitchen-dining rooms, rooms previously kept rigidly separate. Because of her, we hope to have a decent cook-shop not too far away. Terence Conran told me that he wouldn't have opened his shop, or sold pots and pans without her. Made into something of a cult, Elizabeth's jealously guarded privacy meant that her private life was surrounded by speculation. But was she "an uncompromising libertine"? The facts are that she was a highly sophisticated woman for whom (as with a good number of her contemporaries), sexual abstinence before marriage was pretty much out of the question, and monogamy post-wedlock was often unlikely, too.

Apart from anything else, Elizabeth's generation were young during the war years, when a sense of urgency and instability were ever-present. She went on to marry the wrong man, had a number of affairs, possibly with more than one woman, and was often disappointed in love. Not believing in it too much herself, neither did Elizabeth have too many qualms about a lover's married status. She was, though, no more thought of as a libertine than many others from her upper class background from the 1930s or '40s.

She was passionate and feline, with a force of intellect and personality discontented with feminine compliance for long. Approving of it or not, in today's climate are we really so shocked by much of this? Elizabeth was never a saint, but her writing was inspirational.

If this is so, then why haven't more of us heard of her? The point is she has influenced many of us without us ever knowing it. Elizabeth made one (disastrous) television appearance, and was incapable of heeding an American commentator, who said: "In the highly competitive world of TV cooking, you've got to have a gimmick." Her books sold to thousands of home cooks, but for today's celebrity chefs, that's nothing. Yet, it's to a succession of their kind we must look for the answer. Some of the best of them have sung her praises for years. Nigel Slater ("her words changed everything"), Gordon Ramsey, Rick Stein; all claim a passion for Elizabeth's writing and their methods pay tribute to the principles she fought for. The likes of Rick Stein, Nigel Slater, and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall constantly promote the circular benefits – from farmer to customer – of buying seasonal local produce and cooking it simply. Elizabeth's books continue selling, but her culinary legacy has now extended to millions in its popularisation by the next generation.

Some say her influence is over-rated, her style imperious, and the recipes hard to follow. This is patronising to cooks, something she never was to her readers. Unlike Delia Smith, who has jumped on the David bandwagon, right down to the design of her book-covers, without a whisper of credit.

This isn't all about nice dinner parties either. It took the likes of Jamie Oliver to make a government and a nation sit up and think about what our schoolchildren eat. Elizabeth would have cheered education like this. Moreover, Jamie's Italy, his most recent bestseller, is decent enough to acknowledge her.

A Life in Recipes begins and ends with the posthumous auctioning of Elizabeth's kitchen. Current chef Simon Hopkinson's concerned face is picked out as the whisks and wooden spoons and the table on which Elizabeth wrote, go under the hammer. He told me he's been a disciple for as long as he can remember. A reluctant celebrity, he gave up his restaurant with Terence Conran. Last year Hopkinson's Roast Chicken and Other Stories was voted "the most useful cookery book of all time" by a magazine poll. It took him five years to write; it's unaffected and inspiring.

Clarissa Dickson-Wright said of Elizabeth: "She taught me that food is more than cooking; it is poetry and passion as well. She also taught me never to settle for culinary second-best."

Lisa Cheney is author of Elizabeth David and JM Barrie – Hide and Seek with Angels, published last year.

Elizabeth David – A Life in Recipes, BBC2, tonight, 9pm.