Jane Grigson Is France's Underground Gourmet and England's Answer to Julia Child

updated 11/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Even by eccentric English standards it's an odd spot for a test kitchen—inside a cave of tufa stone in Trôo, 50 feet above the lush valley of the River Loir. But it is to this ancient village in central France that Jane Grigson, the highbrow but jolly earth mother of British cuisine, retreats for four months a year. There, in her vaulted kitchen with its countertop oven and two propane-gas burners, she experiments with some of the recipes that so far have filled nine books. "I love cooking in a tiny cave," enthuses Jane. "Everything is close, and I don't have to walk so much. My kitchen in England is inconvenient acres."

Although she serves most of her gourmet dishes in her 17th-century British farmhouse, it was her life in the grotto that launched Grigson's career. After buying the cave 20 years ago, she became fascinated with the local food scene and wrote her first book, Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery. "Nothing has ever been done like it," trumpets Julia Child. "In England Jane has become the great authority on food after grande dame Elizabeth David."

Grigson's new Book of European Cookery (Atheneum, $24.95) grew out of an assignment two years ago from the London Observer to take a cook's tour of 11 countries. With her 78-year-old husband, Geoffrey, a distinguished poet and literary critic, Jane, 55, checked out the cuisines of her homeland and Europe, while a friend in Moscow covered the Russian front. "The book is a culmination of 30 years of modest traveling," Grigson says. She munched on reindeer steaks in Sweden, suckling pig in Portugal, and discovered that some of the best beef in Europe is found in, of all places, Florence. Occasionally her hubby had to keep a stiff upper lip. "Jane had the nerve to go into the best restaurant in Madrid and order tripe," he tattles. "Can you imagine!"

His wife learned that trick (ordering what you don't expect to find on the menu to test a restaurant's ingenuity) from her mother, Doris, who was "a good but dull cook." The elder of two girls, Jane grew up in an affluent home in the poor shipbuilding town of Sunderland, where her father, George McIntire, was town clerk.

"We lived a very 19th-century life," recalls Jane. "Our nanny would take us for walks through the slums dressed in nice coats and hats. I became a socialist at that age." After surviving boarding school ("life after that just seems wonderful"), she matriculated to Cambridge, where she studied English literature. Graduating in 1949, she did a three-month stint in Florence learning Italian before settling down to a job as a picture researcher with a book publisher in London. Her boss was editor Grigson. "He had been my idol since I was 16," Jane rhapsodizes. Geoffrey remembers the first encounter well: "Jane stood in the corner of my office wearing a hat that looked like a chamber pot."

After Grigson—who had three children from two previous marriages—separated from his second wife, Jane moved into his 13-room farmhouse in Wiltshire, where they led a genteelly impoverished existence. "Geoffrey lived by his pen," she says, "and I had no money. I remember hiding from the milkman because I couldn't pay the bill." Jane at first worked as her husband's secretary, earning extra money translating Italian books. But the scholarly life had more ethereal rewards. Geoffrey was among the first to publish W.H. Auden, and the poet later immortalized "darling Jane Grigson" in The Entertainment of the Senses, a satirical libretto about sensual indulgence.

To Jane, Grigson was both husband and mentor. "Geoffrey taught me everything," she says. "I spent 26 years two steps behind him." After their daughter, Sophie, was born in 1959, they wanted a vacation house in a sunny climate. Jane's father had given her $1,300, and they used it to buy the three-and-a-half-room primitive grotto, which dates to the 1850s. They tiled the floors, whitewashed the walls and installed electricity and plumbing. "It's been sort of a 20-year hobby," says Jane. "We've always regarded it as posh camping."

For four years after they moved in, she was more involved in researching her book on charcuterie, which was published in 1967. She was then tapped by the Observer for a monthly food column. "I was terrified," she recalls. "I only knew about pork, but I kept a month ahead of my readers." She has since devoted entire books to such simple fare as vegetables and fruit. "I grew up in an industrial town where both are rather precious," Grigson says. "The idea of fruit was magically exotic to me."

Being a grotto gourmet also has challenged her adventurous streak. "I think one ought to be able to cook anywhere," proclaims Jane. "Besides, having a certain amount of inconvenience is a perfect alibi for not cooking too much!"

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