Brian Viner: 'My Delia dish was ruined and there was only one explanation – sabotage'

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The excellent Angela Hartnett featured in these pages yesterday, answering Christmas cooking questions, but I noticed that in advising readers how to cook a goose, she did not recommend turning the oven on as the best way of inaugurating the roasting process.

Possibly, she assumed that this manoeuvre could be taken for granted, but as Ira Gershwin once wrote, it ain't necessarily so. A few Christmases ago, after deciding to ring the changes and roast a goose instead of our usual turkey, Jane put the bird in the oven and turned up the temperature having failed to notice that the adjacent knob was set on the grilling function.

Thus it was, a few hours later, that we hauled out a goose that was grilled on top and raw underneath, which would have been a big enough disaster had we only had the usual gang of relatives to feed, but that year we were also providing Christmas lunch for a couple staying in one of our holiday cottages. So their goose was cooked but ours, alas, wasn't.

Also, we had to improvise with the trimmings, some of which, depending on their location in the oven, were as uncooked as the underside of the goose. The charming couple in our cottage duly got hastily-fried stuffing. "That were lovely," they said, when I collected the dishes later that day. "Especially the stuffing. Beautiful!"

I hasten to add here that Jane is a splendid cook – indeed she is the new cookery columnist for Herefordshire Life magazine, no less – and this was the rarest of lapses. I know my Aga from my elbow, too, but when culinary disasters do happen, they are invariably mine. Years ago, when we lived in a ground-floor flat in London, I prepared Delia Smith's beef-in-beer the day before six people were coming for dinner. I cooked it, tasted it, pronounced it utterly delicious, then left it in the oven overnight, intending to re-heat it the following day.

This I did, and had another taste just before I dished it out. I recoiled. It was inedible. I could not comprehend how something so delicious had mutated into something so foul, with a kind of scum on top. Looking around wildly for some credible reason why, I reached the only possible explanation, which was that somebody unaccountably bearing me ill will had climbed through the unlocked kitchen window in the dead of night, opened the oven, and slipped a dog turd into the casserole dish. This remained the only explanation until a chef friend of mine later suggested that, because I had allowed the dish to cool down too slowly, the yeast in the beer had fermented. I listened politely, but I still adhere to the dead-of-night dog-turd theory.

As for my own biggest food-related Christmas mishap, that concerns a side of smoked salmon I ordered from a London-based mail-order company five years ago, which was to provide a Christmas Day starter for 11 people. The company had promised to deliver by 22 December, but the salmon didn't arrive until the 27th. I was furious, rang to complain, and was fobbed off with a limp apology blaming a despatching error. Accordingly, I did what newspaper columnists do: I wrote about it, naming, and I hoped, shaming the company concerned. But the shame, it turned out, was all mine. Above my column a sub-editor stuck the decidedly overwrought headline 'How a missing salmon ruined my Christmas' and for months afterwards I received hate mail from people comparing my plight with that of the world's hungry and dispossessed. It turned out that my column had been posted on the website of the homeless persons' charity, Shelter.

Still, if I might deflect the charge of crass Christmas insensitivity from myself to an elderly man in Bromyard post office yesterday, Jane was waiting to post some parcels when she heard the old boy complaining about the stamps he had been given. "These have got a Chinaman on them," he spluttered. "I don't want a Chinaman on my stamps. Haven't you got any with the Queen on?" The woman behind the counter smiled sweetly. "I think it's meant to be an Ali Baba-type figure," she told him, refusing to take offence and eventually managing to send him away reasonably mollified. So three cheers to her and the long-suffering counter staff at what's left of the nation's rural post offices, and a merry Christmas to you all.

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