Brian Viner: Country Life

'In Herefordshire, where practically every town has a top-notch butcher, Delia has slain the sacred cow'
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Around the time that George W Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, a mischievous gag did the rounds about the world suddenly seeming topsy-turvy, on account of the leading rapper being white, the leading golfer being black, landlocked Switzerland winning the Americas Cup, the French accusing the Americans of arrogance, and the Germans not wanting to go to war. An update now would include Delia Smith recommending tinned mince.

Delia's bizarre new series, in which she slays the sacred cow by making shepherd's pie from frozen mashed potato and ready-prepared meat, has caused no end of consternation out here in Herefordshire, where practically every village has a top-notch butcher or farm shop.

We buy much of our meat from Quarry Farm on the back road between Leominster and Ludlow, and the butcher there, a rather dashing young fellow called Richard, at whom I have seen more than one female customer making cow's eyes (no more cattle gags, I promise), is predictably aghast at the thought of the nation's home-economics mistress championing mince out of a tin.

The principal source for mince, Richard told me, used to be ox heads, bulked out with ox hearts to give it colour. But butchery has changed almost infinitely for the better. Richard's mince comes from the shoulders and shins of Hereford cattle on his brother's farm, and is 95 per cent "meat", as opposed to a mere 75 per cent in the tinned stuff that Delia used.

"I like to leave a little bit of fat in there," he said, "because otherwise it can be a bit dry. The fat helps the cooking process." I asked him what he thinks of tinned mince and, so far as I could tell down the phone, he winced. "The supermarkets now are buying up all the old breeding cows," he told me. "They used to be burnt, but now they're getting back into the food chain and being used for mince."

Getting quite hot under the collar about all this, I then spoke to another favourite retailer of ours, "French" Eric, as my son Jacob calls him. Eric grew up in the Vendée, married a woman from Sutton Coldfield, ran a restaurant there for eight years, then worked as head chef at an old coaching inn near Tenbury Wells, and now runs a fantastic deli on Broad Street in Leominster. Unwittingly he caused a political stir in our house recently, because on Mother's Day I undertook to cook the family's Sunday lunch, for which Jane normally assumes responsibility, and asked Eric for his Yorkshire pudding tips.

He advised me to prepare the batter the day before, and to add a drop of water before cooking it. This duly yielded fluffier, lighter puddings than Jane's, and although she is as rightly proud of her Yorkshires, as a girl from Barnsley should be, she acknowledged through slightly gritted teeth that my Eric-assisted versions were superior.

Anyway, Eric was predictably horrified by what he had heard of Delia's new series.

"Aaaagggh," he cried, when I mentioned the frozen mash.

"And mince out of a tin," I said.

"Ooophh," he added, as though someone had just punched him in the abdomen. I asked him what his compatriots would make of the series if it were broadcast on French television? "It might win an award as a good comedy," he said. "Mince from a tin?" His voice rose an octave. "You can't do that."

But Delia can, alas, and has. And despite the panning that the series has received from some of us, the dispiriting truth is that plenty of people still consider her a safe pair of hands. Sales of tinned mince and frozen mash have trebled already, I'll wager.

Still, as an antidote to the Delia effect there is always Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, whose campaign against intensively reared chickens has gone down particularly well in this neck of the woods. My friend Stewart, who runs Springfield, one of Britain's top free-range, organic poultry farms, tells me that sales are up 25 per cent, and they've just ordered 300 more birds a week from the hatchery.

"January and February are usually quiet months," he told me, "but this year we've been turning away business. A lot of supermarket poultry comes from South America and Eastern Europe, so it's good that people are turning to local produce. I'd be more than happy to buy Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall a pint."