The Weasel

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An air of directionless gloom lies heavy over Weasel Villas. Lacking the annual blockbuster from the Blessed Delia Smith, we are lost souls. In previous years, we joined the hordes of Delia disciples who emptied chemists' shelves of liquid glucose (for Truffle Torte) or sought the elusive cranberry (for Spiced Cranberry Chutney etc), but 1997 sees us bereft of a new culinary craze, Still, all is not lost. Mrs Weasel is one of the 400,000 regular purchasers of Sainsbury's The Magazine, where as "consultant cookery editor", Delia contributes a major recipe feature to each issue. (Her well-nourished spouse, Michael Wynn Jones, happens to be the journal's editor.) In the current edition, she tackles with typical thoroughness ("Even the simplest of cooking tasks demands a degree of care and attention") the tricky business of boiling an egg: "Make a pinprick in the rounded end of the shell..."

Some cruel apostates make the charge that Britain's best-known TV cook is in cahoots with the supermarket chain. They note she is oddly reluctant to recommend small specialist shops, and that the ingredients she specifies usually happen to be stocked at Sainsbury's. Last year, she appeared in a "Christmas Roadshow" organised by Sainsbury's The Magazine in order to plug the supermarket's products.

I felt an uncanny sense of familiarity when I happened to flick through the slightly foxed pages of The Book of Household Management, the bestseller published in 1862 by Isabella Beeton - the D Smith of her era. In her recipes, Mrs Beeton displays the same sturdy good sense of her successor - "to make dry toast properly, a great deal of attention is required, much more, indeed, than people generally suppose" - though it is unlikely that Delia would describe hot bread rolls as "very unwholesome and indigestible" or include useful tips on how to bleed in a case of sudden apoplexy ("the vein must always be cut lengthways and not across").

One striking parallel between the two authorities occurs in the section of Household Management on kitchen utensils which displays an inexplicable devotion to a single supplier. From Suet Chopper to Turbot Kettle, the illustrations bear the name "R&J Slack, Strand". The text informs us that "Messrs R&J Slack have, by the invention of this new Potato-Steamer (6s 6d), enabled cooks to send to table the potatoes dry, hot and mealy."

Similarly, "an inexperienced cook would scarcely fail to serve up a passable dinner if she had a `Leamington' Kitchen Range (pounds 23. 10s), supplied by Messrs R&J Slack, 336 Strand, London." Nor are the gentlemen forgotten: "Messrs Slack are the London agents for Captain Warren's Patent Corrugated Bachelor's Broiler." But I don't suppose there is any much likelihood of Messrs Sainsbury & Co receiving such a wholehearted puff in the pages of Delia's next blockbuster. As far as I am aware, the chain does not yet sell potato-steamers or bachelor's broilers.

In days long-gone, people were satisfied merely by reading fanzines about TV stars and the characters they portray. Nowadays, we want to eat the same food, drink the same refreshments as the impossibly stylish, witty figures we see on the box. We might not be able to be them - but we can share their ingestion. In Cooking with Friends, the recipes include Joey's Best-Grilled Burgers and Onion Tartlets a la Monica - though I am doubtful how many aficionados of the series will tackle Steamed Lobster with Butter which involves boiling two live lobsters ("Be Prepared To Get Messy..."). In much the same mode, Cafe Nervosa, the Frasier Cookbook, ranges from Martin's Mile-High Ham-and-Cheese Hoagie (a species of bread roll) to Pita Nicoise pour Miles. Oddly, there is no recipe for the "tossed salad and scrambled eggs" which figures in the signature tune.

In order to scoff like the thesps who animate these fictions, we must turn to The Ivy: The Restaurant and its Recipes written by the absurd AA Gill: "Noel Coward doesn't eat here, Laurence Olivier, Margot Fonteyn, Marlene Dietrich and Dame Nellie Melba don't eat here, but they did." Much of his text is given over to stressing how hard it is for ordinary mortals to get a table at this establishment. Still, it is easier to dine at the Ivy than the venue which inspired one of the oddest cookbooks ever published. Including an illustration of a hard-tack biscuit saved from a lifeboat, Last Dinner on the Titantic features recipes from the 12-course dinners (Canapes a l'Admiral, Cream of Barley Soup, Poached Salmon, Filet Mignon, Roast Lamb, Punch Romaine, Roast Squab, Asparagus Salad, Foie Gras, Peaches in Chartreuse Jelly, Cheese, Coffee), which sustained the ill-fated passengers. No wonder it went down.

I have caught glimpses of if for the past three months, hovering over the South Bank like a Brobdingnagian beach ball. But every time I attempted to gain a ride on Big Bob, the "world's largest tethered balloon ride", I was told it was too windy - though at ground level, the zephyrs could not stir an empty crisp packet. On a glorious autumn day, I made a final call to the genial squad of Aussies who operate the craft and was slightly surprised to receive an affirmative, "She's apples, mate."

An hour later, I was 400 feet up with the Post Office Tower, a relay- runner's baton, on one side, and Battersea Power Station, an old-fashioned electric plug, on the other. Behind us was the verdant monocle of the Oval. It was an ironic treat to spy down on the pounds 150-million home of MI6. This post-modern edifice is, in fact, two rather dull buildings - one of dun-coloured tiles, the other of green glass, compressed together to make something more interesting.

"A guy proposed to his girlfriend on the third week we were operating," recalled Rob Mailer, one of the balloon's operators. "Yeah, the full works, on his knees. The other passengers thought he was praying. Of course, she said, `Yes'. At 400 feet, she had little choice."

The basket is shaped like a square doughnut and passengers politely squeeze past each other to survey the metropolis. Through the central hole, a wire tether descends to a winch on the ground. "One lady thought the wire was holding us up and the balloon was just there for show," mused Rob. "She looked quite shocked when we told her the balloon was holding us up."

Twelve pounds (pounds 7.50 for under-12s) buys you a quarter of an hour in the sky. "We try and get in 25 flights a day," I was told. "In perfect conditions, we can get 25-30 people in the basket." You can work it out for yourself - but ballooning was never cheap. Apparently, the first ascent in a tethered gas-filled balloon took place from the same spot, then Vauxhall Gardens, in 1836. "A flight then cost the equivalent of pounds 120 per person, so it's a bit of a bargain these days".

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