On the road with Delia and her fans in Manchester...
AFTER a quarter of a century spent beating egg whites into snowy peaks and piping cream onto perfect trifles, Delia Smith has strong wrists and powerful forearms, physical attributes which have come in very useful over the past few days. On the night we met, when she was the star attraction at a Sainsbury's Cookery Roadshow in Manchester, she had autographed 'thousands and thousands' of copies of her new Winter Collection, which has followed all her other recipe books straight onto the best seller lists.
Like Madonna, her fame has now reached the kind of critical mass which negates the need for surnames. At 54 years of age, she is the great cooking icon of our times, the new Mrs Beeton, the gas-hob guru for experienced cooks and for those who don't know the difference between a spatula and a frittata. Right now, she is also in rather a bad mood.
'I am not a multi-millionaire,' she snaps. 'I am sick of the press saying that I am.' Oh dear.
On her immensely popular television cook shows, shot in the kitchen of her own cottage in Suffolk, Delia ' with her priggish blouses and that hedge of a fringe marching across her forehead ' looks like a grim-faced nanny for the nation; spooning out greens because they are good for you and forever urging caution with the sherry bottle. In the flesh, however, she appears much more the city-slicker big sister to her country-mouse TV persona, dressed in a well-cut black cocktail suit, garnished with discreet jewels and a pair of sexy high heels. You know, I do believe she even has a frisky touch of gel on her hair.
'Hello, Delia. How are you?' I say, when we are introduced.
'I think you should go away,' she replies. 'I wish you goodnight.' Delia, what has happened between us? I am your biggest fan, I don't even listen when people claim that some of your recipes are boring and dull, or have been recycled from your old cookbooks. Who cares when grouchers say that your white-bread appeal is oh-so-achingly middle class, then wonder about the cosy relationship you seem to enjoy with Sainsbury's supermarkets? You work for them as a consultant and you are also food editor and a major shareholder in Sainsbury's Magazine, which is edited by your husband, Michael Wynn Jones. Your marketing power, therefore, is awesome. One word from you and hitherto low turn- over products ' such as pancetta and cranberries ' suddenly start leaping off the shelves like jumping jacks. Are you paid to advertise these products? Sometimes even I wonder.
But forget all that for a moment, because your recipe for Perfect Crunchy Roast potatoes has won me more heartfelt male devotion than any amount of intelligent lingerie or saucy conversation ever could. I have lived on your Piedmontese Peppers for a whole summer. Your venison and pickled walnut casserole is absolutely fabulous, and I don't even like pickled walnuts or venison. Why can't we be friends? And it all started out so well.
Last Tuesday, when Delia Smith and her great friend, chef John Tovey, took the Cookery Roadshow to Manchester, it was only the second night of a two- week tour across England and Northern Ireland. By the time the run has finished, 6,000 people will have paid £12.50 each (all profits to the Macmillan Cancer Fund) to see Tovey whip up goodies like twice-cooked vegetables and veal escalopes with carmelised apple wedges and mushroom sauce. He is an engaging character who holidays with Delia and her husband ('They are like the brother and sister I never had,') and who told tales out of school about spooning caviar on their last cruise together and their plans to visit Barbados for Christmas. He coped manfully when the leg fell off his roast turkey, but seemed to get confused with some saucepans at a later stage. 'Don't worry about me! I had neuro-surgery earlier this year,' he explained cheerily. At one point during his performance, I found myself applauding a pavlova, which was quite a new experience.
Tovey is the prawn cocktail to Delia's Black Forest gateau, for she does not undertake any demonstrations at these events, merely chairs a 40-minute question and answer session at the end of the evening. Nevertheless, every show has been a complete sellout and no one seems to mind the heavy product placement ('Don't forget to use Sainsbury's luxury mincemeat,') taking place on stage. We are even reminded that the canapes ('12 in a pack') served during the interval are available in-store now.
During the break, held in a function room downstairs, the 750 Delia-fans ' nearly all female ' gathered in a state of high anticipation.
Margaret Harrison had a cream cheese nibble, a glass of South African Colombard wine and, like everyone else, an opinion about their heroine. 'Oh, I think she is brilliant,' she said. 'I've got all of her books. You can't miss with her, because everything you do turns out right. Especially her meringues. Isn't that right, Brian?' Her husband nodded, too busy snarfing down a blob of smoked salmon to reply. 'You did a fish dish at the weekend, Brian. Was it a Delia?' asked his wife. 'You did a herring in pepper sauce, I think.' 'Monkfish, Margaret,' he corrected. 'Monkfish.' 'Whatever. Anyway, Delia makes it a bit more interesting. You use different ingredients, like limes.' 'I love the luxury fish pie. That's my favourite,' volunteered Brian, swallowing. 'Brian,' screeched Margaret. 'That's not a Delia.' A party of ex-members of the Warrington Ladies Circle ' all beautifully coiffed and groomed, prowling for canapes in their sensible flats ' knew their favourite recipes by heart. 'Her chocolate bread pudding is to die for!' exclaimed Catherine Kenney.
'Her pork in sesame seeds never fails,' said Ruby Gould, who added: 'I like her on all the ordinary things we have done for years and years, like the fruit crumbles. You get good tips.' 'Excellent crumbles,' said her friend in a red jacket, whose name I didn't catch. 'You take half the flour out and put the oats in.' 'Or ground almonds,' piped up Ruby. All agreed that ground almonds were a Very Good Thing.
'She's innovative, but not too way out,' said Red Jacket.
'I think men absolutely adore her because they think of her as their mother,' concluded Catherine.
Perhaps not all of them. A very nice elderly gentleman called John Eccles, who was there with a friend of his wife's ('Oh dear. That sounds terrible.') did not see Delia in such quite such glowingly maternal terms. 'I think she is a very, very astute business woman,' he told me. 'You know, with all this cranberry stuff, I sometimes wonder if we are all being conned a bit.' So do I Albert, so do I.
When Delia selects ingredients for her recipes, which will then be promoted in-store, on television, and in her books, what motivates her choice? Is it market forces, or is she genuinely only interested in making her dishes as tasty as possible? Perhaps we can ask her.
At 9.20 precisely, Delia Smith walked onto the stage, past the backdrop of painted fluffy clouds and star-spangled sky, skirted the cooker and sat down in a wicker chair next to John Tovey to take questions from the floor. She looked terrific in her cocktail chic, and was greeted with warm applause.
Although much more animated than she appears on her television programmes ' she laughed a lot, for a start ' her voice still has that curious, stilted, strained quality. As microphones were passed amongst the audience, she dealt with each query promptly and efficiently, as if she were chopping neat slices from a Swiss roll.
No, she does not wash up the dishes as she goes along. Yes, you must use a metal spoon for beating egg whites because a plastic one does not have a sharp edge. Where does she get her inspiration from? 'Sometimes I think I am a frustrated artist. I get ideas from restaurants, going abroad, just watching other people cook.' How does she stay so slim? 'I have to work very hard not to be 20 stones. The only thing that stops me is being on TV. Once that goes, watch out!' Avoid using round bowls when making your Christmas puddings and never, ever cook them in the microwave if you can avoid it. She answered 20 questions in all, including one from me.
Delia, do you get paid for promoting Sainsbury's products? 'Oh God!' said John Tovey. 'Do you really think Delia is going to answer that?' (I thought this was a bit mean of him, considering that I had generously shown my appreciation of his pavlovas). 'Delia is a heroine to Sainsbury's!' he shouted. Yes, but I really would like Delia to reply.
'Um. I work as a behind-the-scenes consultant to Sainsbury's, so I get paid for my behind-the-scenes consultancy. I have been working in this game for 25 years and I am very pleased to say that I have never done any advertising for anyone in my career.' I do not think that this answers my question.
'It does,' she said, 'Because, the thing is, all this talk about my multi-millions! Sometimes I sit on the train and think, well, what would I spend that money on if I really did have all that money, and I can promise you that if I did advertising, then I certainly wouldn't be a multi- millionaire.' This was very confusing. Was that a No, then? 'An absolute no,' said Delia, who was quite cross by now. When I went to speak to her at the end of the evening, I asked her if she thought there was some confusion in the public's mind about her role with Sainsbury's.
'You saw the public here tonight, did you think they were confused?' she said. 'There is no problem because the problem does not exist.' Then she bid me goodnight and left, spinning away on her nice suede shoes.
Never mind. She was gracious enough to autograph my copy of her wonderful new book. And her chocolate bread pudding really is to die for.
- This article was first published in 1995.