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Delia’s many effects

The trail-blazing contribution of Delia Smith, who, with reassuring precision, taught a nation how to boil an egg

Josie Delap | May/June 2014

Before Nigella, before Jamie, before Emeril, before them all came Delia. Since 1971 she has dished up more than 20 books, many of them served with a BBC television series. In them, placidly, exhaustively, she taught Britons how to cook. In her three-part “Cookery Course” (1978) she showed them how to boil an egg. Trussed like a lamb chop in a pussy-bow blouse, her brunette bob neat and glossy as a conker, she reassured them that cooking for “One is Fun!” (1985) and introduced them to the delights of the individual vegetarian moussaka. Gently but firmly, she reminded a country accustomed to seasoning food with grey dust that black pepper should always be freshly milled. She wrote for those who wanted to entertain, rather than simply have chums round for supper; for people who chilled bowls for their fennel gazpacho starter and encased summer fruits in rosé-flavoured jelly; for people who planned autumn dinners for six and summer buffets for 18. Once, we would boast that a recipe was “a Delia”. Nowadays few of us would display her books on our coffee table. And yet she blazed the trail down which a parade of TV chefs has marched.

INFLUENCES  Delia is catholic in her taste (and in her religion, a subject she discusses openly). Within the meat section of a single volume, she skips from “African” boboutie to kofte kebabs via hung shao pork. Her “Summer Collection” (1993) gaily promises “Italian, Spanish, Greek and Oriental flavours and ideas”. Today, when authenticity is prized above all else, such a round-the-world approach seems unsophisticated; but we have graduated to supping on tom kha gai only because Delia gave us the taste for Thai salmon filo parcels.

TABLE MANNER  A generous seasoning of exclamation marks, which can lend an air of grim enthusiasm. Leave a batch of brown kidney soup to simmer while you unwind with a relaxing bath and sip sherry with your feet up! The chicken tikka kebabs melt in the mouth! The deep-fried gnocchi are so evocative of sunny Italian days! But Delia is never less than reassuring, clear and precise. When she explains how to make a cheese soufflé omelette, she assumes little expertise. Every step is exact. The bowl for the whites should be roomy, the one for the yolks need not. When you pour the mixture into the pan, shake it to distribute it evenly “but don’t do anything else like stirring”. Cook it until it is “faintly tinged with brown”. And, above all, eat it immediately.

INGREDIENTS  Her appreciation of cranberries in “Winter Collection” (1995) was a turning point. Middle Britain descended on its supermarkets, sweeping the shelves clean of every berry in town, causing a nationwide shortage. It might have been the recipes (cranberries reduced into a Cumberland sauce with venison, jellified with oranges and spices, confited with duck), or it might have been the vision of her merrily testing their freshness—“to do this, you bounce them, and the higher they bounce, the fresher they are”. Whichever, the “Delia effect” was born.

TYPICAL DISH  Is her Moroccan-baked chicken with chickpeas and rice authentically north African? Possibly not. Does it matter? Not much. She eschews a tagine to cook it in (no need to clutter the kitchen with one-dish equipment) and saffron is the most exotic ingredient—but the instructions leave no room for misunderstanding.

WHAT WORKS  Crispy roast duck with bitter orange sauce. Blasting the skin to start with guarantees that it crackles and snaps. Three hours’ low heat ensures that the fat renders down. The sauce demonstrates why classics are classics. And no messing around with carving; just chop the bird into four with a pair of scissors, she counsels, and get on with it.

WHAT DOESN’T  Her occasional lapses into the ready-made. No shepherd would be convinced that tinned mince (75% meat)—tarted up in “How to Cheat at Cooking” (2008) with pre-chopped swede and carrot, and topped with frozen pucks of mashed potato—cuts it as a pie.

COOK HER BECAUSE  Good food is not, nor does it need to be, a matter of fashion.

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