"If you hang about, Delia will show you how to make something slightly exotic – but not before you are thoroughly schooled in the rudiments of domestic science, starting from a knowledge base of zero."
Tim Dowling - The Guardian
Delia has not been with me as long as David has, and she is by no means as important to my life as he, but she has certainly been one of my favourite and most influential cooks throughout - no not quite throughout - my married life - and therefore my cooking life. And in the way there is more to say about her - well at least in the context a foodie blog. So pardon the length of this one.
Prior to marriage I didn't cook very much. When I was at home my mother cooked, although I did pitch in sometimes as my interest in cooking kicked in. At university I ate what was provided in the university refectories and when in France I just watched in awe at what my hosts cooked. And I did do a bit of 'domestic science' at school. So prior to marriage I was just absorbing and learning by watching (and reading women's magazines), not by much doing. Not that I knock this at all - it's certainly what provided me with the love of cooking and the basic techniques.
However, when I got married it was suddenly all down to me. I knew how to do the basics - or I thought I did, but this is when I turned to cookbooks - initially Elizabeth David, Robert Carrier, Jane Grigson and various others who wrote in the Sunday magazines. I did not get to Delia until fairly late in my life really. Not until I was working as a cataloguer at the State Film Centre of Victoria sometime in the late 80s early 90s I think, and I had to catalogue her Summer Collection videos.
I was blown away by her somewhat flat (I suppose) but clear presentation, but most of all by the dishes she was creating. There she was, always looking immaculate and calm and producing ravishing looking things which appeared to be really simple. And they were. I rushed out and bought the book immediately - and a little later the Winter Collection too. In following years these were boosted by her 3 volume How to Cook - a must for every novice cook - Frugal cooking and How to Cheat at Cooking. She has written several others, but I have not yet found them in the shops. She is not very fashionable here in Australia.
I thought I came to Delia late in my life, but her recent 80th birthday (two days before my own non 80th birthday) coincided with my discovering that my next First recipe book was Family Fare 2 - Summer cooking by Delia Smith published in 1974. It's a tiny booklet - no pictures other than this picture of a ridiculously young looking Delia on the cover. However, I have no memory of acquiring this book or any memory of having used it. Maybe I found it in an op shop late in life - although I do not often frequent them. It's a mystery.
But whilst we are on the topic of history here are a few things about Delia's history. She left school with no O levels at the age of 16, so not a scholar - indeed fairly uneducated.. I think she worked in a variety of intermittent jobs including a bit of modelling.
Along the way, whilst working as a food economist with a food photographer she was asked to produce a really gaudy cake for the cover of the Rolling Stones album Let it Bleed. We are talking 1969 here - and here is the cover, complete with cake. Somehow or other - I think via cooking columns in magazines she came to fame with the BBC Family Fare programs, and the rest is history. Now she is so famous that Delia - there is no need to add Smith to her name - Delia is enough - is a word in dictionaries:
"1. Noun: the recipes or style of cooking of British cookery writer Delia Smith (born 1941) and 2. Modifier: attributed to or in the style of Delia Smith - a Delia dish" Collins dictionary
And there is also the Delia Effect - her ability to increase the sales of particular equipment or ingredient overnight, of which Tim Dowling in his article Happy 80th Birthday Delia Smith says:
"If nothing else, she made our supply chains more robust through regular stress-testing."
So what has she got that other cooks and chefs haven't? Tim Dowling in his article lists 10 of the 'nicest' things Delia has done for us - so we could start there:
1. she teaches the basics - "It may sound patronising, but even experienced cooks quickly learn they have been doing every one of these things wrongly." Tim Dowling
When Delia published her How to Cook series, her stated mission was as follows:
"I am hoping to achieve two things in How to Cook: one is to reintroduce people to the pleasure of basic, staple ingredients, and the second is to provide a first-time cookbook, something that will be a good grounding in the simple basics and provide a springboard for a lifetime of learning - not just in how to cook but in how to experience the sheer joy and pleasure of eating good food every single day."
And she begins with how to boil an egg - a lengthy and thorough explanation of how to do it as well as a mini treatise on eggs in general. But then you launch into the recipes and immediately you are into the more adventurous - Egg and lentil curry with coconut and pickled lime. It's the combination of that emphasis on the techniques, the why's and wherefores and interesting recipes that is so winning.
2. even how to make toast - "Delia assumed correctly that she would never go broke underestimating the culinary skills of the British public ... At the time, her assumption that we were all basically morons sparked a minor backlash." Tim Dowling
There's two ways of looking at that aren't there? She could be being condescending and patronising, but she could also be trying to help - that's what education is all about is it not? And Jamie et al. have followed her lead albeit without the slightly schoolmarmy approach.
3. she is not above an introduction to spaghetti - ditto
4. she baked the cake for the cover of Let it Bleed - see above
5. she offers reassurance - And this is most important.
"The common feature of her recipes is that they work: if you follow the instructions, everything will turn out the way it is supposed to ... You can make all these things successfully without knowing how to cook – provided you do exactly as Delia says."
She is not alone in this ability - making it work - but I do think that this is what makes me gravitate to particular cooks - the reliability of their recipes. Robert Carrier is a star here, as is Claudia Roden. Elizabeth David, Jamie, Nigella, Jane Grigson, slightly less so. Nigel Slater - wonderful writer that he is - not always reliable. Donna Hay - looks stunning - often doesn't turn out like you'd hope. But Delia - always.
6. she created the Delia effect - enough said already
7. she acknowledges the importance of cheating - and that's also what the Coles Magazines of this world do so well too. COVID lockdowns of course only increased the need for cheating and improvisation.
8. she spoke English - by which he means that she didn't give her dishes fancy foreign names. But I think it goes beyond that. Although the presentation of her programs could be described as almost boring - she does indeed speak very clearly, and explains why she is doing what she is.
9. she moves with the times (sort of) - some of her recipes get slightly modified along the way with the introduction of new ingredients and new gadgets. But she also follows trends - she published a book on Vegetarian food for example in 2002.
10. she is still here to help - I think Delia spends more time on her beloved Norwich football club and religion these days, but "her insanely comprehensive website" Delia online ensures that she is not forgotten. There you can find an entire cookery course, complete with videos and virtually all of her recipes.
There are several Delia recipes that we eat at home on a regular basis, and I thought I would finish with a sort of list - pictures and links. Do try them all. They are foolproof and out of this world: Chicken with sherry vinegar and tarragon sauce - a contender for top of the list - not for everyday but for special occasions, sherry vinegar and sherry are a bit expensive. But like Tim Dowling says, do exactly as she says and you will produce something magical. Pork stroganoff with three mustards - so quick and so utterly delicious and just for two. Gooseberry yoghurt fool - I used to make this every year when gooseberries appeared for the week or so they were in season. Now gooseberries have disappeared completely. But you can do the same thing with other fruits - rhubarb is good. Oven roasted ratatouille - of course we probably all make a version of this these days and the Roasted roots with herbs but the fact that they are a modern kitchen basic is possibly thanks to Delia. Californian grilled fish and Coriander and lime tartare sauce - just another quick and slightly different way to deal with fish.
Yet more: Chicken Basque and Moroccan baked chicken with chick peas and rice - similar but different flavours. One pot dishes that will feed a crowd. Rice pesto salad - a favourite 'bulk' salad for a crowd. Piedmont roasted peppers - like the roast vegetables this is now also more or less a commonplace, but I still remember the delight when I first tasted it. Roasted and sun-dried tomato risotto - Absolutely superb. If you are vegetarian or have vegetarian friends make this. I confess I am sometimes lazy and do not roast the tomatoes, but it's still good. Strawberry granita - summer and Italy in a beautiful glass dish.
The last four favourites: Tuscan white bean soup - it doesn't sound all that wonderful, but believe me it is. Fallen chocolate soufflé with Armagnac prunes - very rich, very delicious. Prune, apple and Armagnac cake with almond streusel topping - ditto. Summer pudding - last but not least - the first recipe in that old 1974 handbook. On her website it's virtually the same as it was back then except that now she uses golden caster sugar rather than the ordinary stuff. A nod to the changing times.
Apologies for going on so long. She's a bit of a saint to me even if some of the things she says are not really what I think:
"Cooking has become very poncey, very chefy," Delia Smith
"There are people who claim to be instinctive cooks, who never follow recipes or weigh anything at all. All I can say is they're not very fussy about what they eat. For me, cooking is an exact art and not some casual game." Delia Smith
This one is indeed going against the grain of modern everyday cooking really - and also what I do - the what's in the fridge style of cooking that I tend to use most of the time - like tonight - ham, cabbage, potatoes ...? In some ways she is a bit prissy like Elizabeth David, but Elizabeth David was a bit prissy about it, Delia somehow is not. Follow what she says in her recipes and all will be well.
"I sometimes think the chef end of cooking is not the real end of cooking. Cooking is all about homes and gardens, it doesn't happen in restaurants." Delia Smith
Interesting that her reign as the patron saint of Waitrose was taken over by Heston Blumenthal.
A late happy birthday Delia.