Focus: When Delia says do this...

... aspiring cooks everywhere obey. But some argue her links with Sainsbury's have compromised her role as taste tutor to the nation
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Delia Smith has said that "In the whole of God's creation, part of his plan is to help people with their cooking" and that she is a small part of that plan. Has fame finally gone to her head? Far be it for anyone to guess what His plan is exactly, but it is doubtful that it includes details such as supermarket shelves being emptied of cranberries because his messenger proclaims that the fruit will enhance a casserole.

Smith is the most successful of today's cookery writers and television presenters. Her influence, particularly since the publication of Delia Smith's Summer Collection in 1993 is vast. Her ability to increase the sales of items by a simple mention has been well documented. And yet she has never found herself embraced by the food establishment of writers and journalists, or the serious foodies themselves. Bland, schoolmistressy, didactic, boring and mediocre are some of the adjectives in association with Delia Smith.

She, too, is hard on herself. She admitted to Libby Purves on Radio 4's Midweek that she rarely has her own ideas for recipes. She has often made reference to her grumpiness and explosive behaviour while working. It can't be much fun being Delia, but something is driving her on. She is reissuing her 1976 book, Frugal Food, and she and the BBC are mulling over a big TV series and book for next year.

Is it the money? Being God's cookery teacher has been very rewarding for Delia, whose company New Crane Publishing made pounds 1.4m last year. She has sold just under 10 million books, many of them in hardback, and all this topped up by an undisclosed fee from an extremely grateful Sainsbury's supermarket for her work as a behind-the-scenes adviser.

Delia is married to Michael Wynn Jones, editor of Sainsbury's The Magazine. They met in the Sixties when Delia took her first cookery writing job on Mirror Magazine, a supplement of the Daily Mirror. They have recently bought a flat in London and own a cottage in Suffolk that contains a plethora of religious objects and shrines and a 4ft crucifix above their bed. They are not extravagant, Delia collects contemporary art, follows football and likes some pop groups. They take holidays, but on the whole are quiet with the substantial sums they have both earned. Delia dislikes the term "multi-millionaire" when it is applied to her.

She describes her critics as "snobs". Snobbery has little to do with it. For those who know their onions one of the problems with her teaching is that she takes an authentic recipe, for example risotto, and tampers heavily with the method. Since its invention, the Italian risotto has always been made by dribbling stock on to heated rice, allowing it to be absorbed before adding a little more, and so on until the rice is cooked. Delia shows us how to bake rice with stock in the oven and still calls it risotto. The anti-Delia lobby say this is a perversion; there are rice dishes from all over the world: paellas, pilaffs, egg fried rice - all of their names linked to their cooking methods. For instance a paella is meant to be cooked out of doors. To do otherwise in Spain is considered bad luck, cooked indoors it becomes un arroz ("a rice").

Like language and ritual, many feel authentic recipes should be protected. For someone as influential as Delia Smith to advocate oven-baked risottosends the purists hurrying to their well-thumbed copies of Elizabeth David and Elizabeth Luard for reassurance.

Delia Smith's recipes are uncompromising in their method. She prides herself in testing them over and over again, helped by a team of assistants. A complete novice can attempt and succeed with a recipe providing they follow her instructions exactly. This saves any embarrassment when serving dinner to friends but it does not make a confident cook. Good cooking comes from practice, combined with a background knowledge of all aspects of food: the origin of a recipe; how to choose and find the ingredients; its natural accompaniments. It's no good being sent into a panic because you can't get the limes for the rosti crab cakes, and are clueless about what substitute you could use.

On the subject of shopping Delia Smith enters controversial ground. In a repeat episode of the BBC Series, Delia Smith's Winter Collection last week, we were talked through her fail-safe method of roasting a rib of beef. Despite mentioning that it is better to cook this piece of meat on the bone, Delia failed to mention the word "butcher". Next, she was roasting pork. Again - not a word on seeking out a slow-grown piece of loin from a good butchers' shop.

Delia is consultant cookery editor on the Sainsbury's magazine her husband edits, and contributes up to a third of the editorial. The ingredients are available at Sainsbury's. Her agent points out that the magazine is not owned by Sainsbury's but by New Crane Publishing Ltd in which Smith and Wynn Jones are the major shareholders. Sainsbury's pays a proportion of the pounds 1 cover fee to New Crane which covers the production costs and keeps the advertising revenue.

Ask anyone which supermarket they most identify with Delia Smith, and they will say Sainsbury's. She regularly tells her viewers (more than 4 million for one episode) that an ingredient is "available at the supermarket" and we all know which one she means. One recipe in her Summer Collection calls for a 14oz tin of pitted black olives. A branded 14oz tin of the same is available at Sainsbury's.

BUSY people need superstores with late night opening, and if the goods are more varied than ever before, so much the better. But small specialist food shops such as butchers, delis, organic veg suppliers and cheese shops need supermarkets like Delia needs cooking lessons. In one south London high street - with a butcher, a delicatessen, an excellent greengrocer (the fishmonger had closed down) - only one shop reported any change in sales of any goods that were used in the winter or summer collection TV programmes.

Delia Smith is a director/ trustee of the recently formed British Food Heritage Trust, a company with charitable status and the brain child of Prue Leith which aims to "preserve the knowledge and skills of British cooking". It sounds good: Prue, Delia and the Trust's other trustees have plans to teach the country to cook. Many of the Trust's other directors have a background in Britain's food giants: Whitbread, Whitworth, Cadbury Schweppes and Paramount Foods are a few of the names on the list.

But one of the other aims of this non-profit-making organisation is to assist in the "promotion of small food craft enterprise through the conservation and development of living traditions". Will this mean a helping hand for the small shops? How can Delia with her strong connection to Sainsbury's contribute to the welfare of small food shops and businesses that are struggling to compete against the type of companies that Delia and some of the other directors are or have been involved with? The British Food Heritage Trust does not have a plan for those businesses as such, and Scott Anthony, its chief executive, says "we will not be promoting individual companies".

It is a shame that someone as influential as Delia with her self-professed spiritual approachseems so devoted to patronising the multiples. A word from her about seeking out a superb butcher when choosing the Sunday roast would give a much needed lift to the struggling small shops. It is a challenge that will be hard for her to meet while still so closely linked to Sainsbury's.

Debbie Owen, who is Smith's agent and has known her since her early days as a cookery writer, says, "Delia thinks there is a dilemma for her customers when it comes to the choice of shopping in the high street at the specialist shops and using the supermarket. People have become used to finding all their needs stocked under one roof."

Could I talk to Ms Smith? No. Delia had been doing so much charity work that she was now "really up against her deadlines" and could not be interviewed. Of course Debbie Owen is a huge fan. "I use her books all the time - they are my bibles."

Delia is proud of her image as the cookery writer who is always on a level with her followers. Who then are the millions that claim Delia is their heroine? A classic fan is perhaps someone who lacks confidence in cooking; wants to impress but does not read Leaves From Our Tuscan Kitchen in bed. They don't want to make a study of food - nor do they want to look outdated or foolish. Delia does most of the work for them, they only have to follow her instructions.

Not only then is Delia the most successful of our cookery writers in terms of followers and financial gain, she and her husband are also the most powerful. Their magazine regularly features work by the excellent Nigel Slater and Simon Hopkinson among its many food writers, and uses the best food photographers in the country. One good way to quieten the sniping from the food establishment is to hire its services. Sainsbury's The Magazine has a circulation of over 400,000, and claims a readership of 3.12 million, making it the most widely read monthly.

Will we look back on the career of St Delia and say she has been a good influence on the way we think, shop and eat? In terms of getting people away from their take-aways and into the kitchen - the answer can only be yes. If the time comes that the last great butcher shop in England chucks in the towel, tired of the heavy competition; and the greengrocer, fishmonger and baker too, no doubt, we'll be lamenting their loss and wishing something could have been done to prevent it.

If we hear Delia say "You can buy this from a good butcher" in her next TV series, it will be a step in the right direction.