Delia runs wild in the bookshop

A recipe book to beat all records; but where's the fun in foolproof cooking? asks Rose Shepherd

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Even without the price cuts - pounds 6 off at Book Warehouse, pounds 5 off at Sainsbury's and WH Smith - you can bet that Delia Smith's Winter Collection would be walking off the shelves, it would be selling like ... well, hotcakes. As it is, boosted by prominent displays and generous discounts, the book is breaking publishing records: it has sold more than 500,000 copies in its first week.

In half a million British households, as the nights draw in, people will presumably be sitting down to Tuscan White Bean Soup with Frizzled Shallots and Pancetta, they'll be tucking into Red Onion Tarte Tatin, calling for more of the Spiced Lambrusco Jellies with Brandy Cream and Frosted Black Grapes.

Delia Smith is a publishing phenomenon whose books, according to the latest fly-leaf blurb, have sold more than five million copies. As of now, make that 5.5 million. She is Britain's best-known cook, as influential as was Mrs Beaton in her time.

She queers the pitch for private caterers who must constantly extend their repertoire: where is the kudos, frankly, in serving Roast Duck with Sour Cherry Sauce, when the making of it is, to Delia devotees, a mere bagatelle, and when dried sour cherries may be had from the supermarket? She is a tremendous force for good, magnanimous in her praise for lesser - or less famous - cooks. The public is on chummy first-name terms with her ("Shall we do Delia's stuffed red peppers for a starter?" I recently heard one friend ask her partner). Her recipes are sound: good results are almost guaranteed. She is accessible to beginners, and a favourite with more experienced kitchen hands.

She sells as well in the specialist London shop Books for Cooks, according to the manager, Rosie Kindersley, as she does in the high street chains (and you can't say that for all television cookbooks - you can't say it, for instance, of that crafty devil Michael Barry). Delia is, indeed, an all-round good egg, a consummate professional. Yet one suspects her popularity lies, at least partly, elsewhere.

Despite her joyless presentation - well, how often do you see her smile? - she offers treats to turn the head, offers cakes "to die for", encourages us to be "a bit indulgent on the chocolate front", promises warming soups and comforting stews; she appeals to something childish and greedy and needy in us.

She has her own peculiarly formal vocabulary and an achingly prosaic approach. "Ever since I was a small child," she writes, "I have felt a sense of magic in the changing seasons." And: "Winter has every bit as much charm as the other seasons for me: the dazzling splendour of autumnal colours and Keats' [sic] as yet unmatched description of mists and mellow fruitfulness, the stark emptiness of bare branches against the Winter skies, and always the very special pale Winter light."

Unoriginal thinking. Yet it works. It strikes a chord. She makes us hunger after not just "the roast beef of old England" but old England itself - at the same time persuading us that, in her thatched Suffolk home at least, that mythic England survives.

Above all, she is so awesomely efficient and so didactic. She tells us not just how to make a Chocolate Mascarpone Cheesecake, but, between the lines, how to live our lives. "If you are watching your waistline you can skip this chapter or alternatively do what I do: just cook one of them a week, on Sundays!"

Or: "Although batch-baking might be ruled out ... you can still take just one free Saturday afternoon, closet yourself in the kitchen and immerse yourself in some very rewarding home baking. ... Put on some music, listen to the radio, or just be silent with your thoughts."

It's no surprise to learn that she is a devout Catholic. A friend, browsing in a seocond-hand shop recently, picked up her book Feasts for Advent and was surprised to find that he'd bought not a cookery book but recipes for better living, comfort food for the mind. She told the Daily Mail: "I think that in the whole of God's creation, part of his plan is to help people with their cooking and I'm just one little bit of that whole. But I'm not a goody-goody or a holy Joe. I still have the same weaknesses as everybody else."

Her God-given gift, then, is to help us with the cooking. Want to put up Sunday lunch for eight? Roast beef and all the trimmings? Delia will guide you. She will talk you through the timing, from 9.30am, when you pop the sirloin in the oven, till 12.20pm when the Yorkshire pud goes in, so that you and your companions can sit down at the dot of one o'clock.

A dinner party chez Delia would be a seamless presentation. No "we'll take pot luck", no catch-as-catch-can. You'd be assured of a proper pudding. The washing up, meanwhile, would take care of itself.

There is something about her that makes you want to abdicate responsibility: to have her tell you firmly to go wash your hands, that reading in poor light will spoil your eyes, and that it's time for bed. Big sister, one comes to feel, knows best.

There is, with this woman, none of the danger that you have with, for instance, Keith Floyd. No one is going to get drunk and abusive, no one will set fire to the steaks or to themselves. Nor is she remotely like the celebrity television chefs, such as Gary Rhodes or Rick Stein: she is pre-eminently domestic.

Many of her recipes are exotic, but they are passed through the filter of her Englishness, becoming in the process just like mother makes. She is doing more than anyone to demystify foreign cuisines - which is fine if you don't relish the mystique. In Delia's capable hands, Libyan Soup with Couscous comes to seem as homey as one presumes it is in Libya itself. There is no escapism here, no appeal to the senses, other than to a kind of atavistic love of hearth and home and England and St George. Even in her summer collection, she does not trade on images of luscious figs on marble tabletops on sun-drenched Tuscan terraces, or of the vine-clad hills of Provence.

She is married to Michael Wynn Jones, a "writer and editor", as it says in her potted biography. That is to say, he is the editor of Sainsbury's The Magazine. Delia Smith is its food editor, but for me she is more than that: she is Sainsbury's - she is that supermarket made flesh. Which is to say, upmarket but not that upmarket, adventurous but not impetuous or wild. She is the reason we have Fontina in our fridges, shrimp paste and dried porcini in our store cupboards. Sainsbury's just happens to be where many of us shop.

The result can be curiously dispiriting. Sun-dried tomatoes become ubiquitous, galangal and kaffir lime leaves commonplace. "Shopping your way round Sainsbury's," as Mr Delia Smith wrote in preface to last month's issue of The Magazine, "is like shopping your way around the world, but under one roof." Well, precisely. And there's no big adventure in that.

And where is the fun in foolproof cooking? The excitement is all in the danger - and failure a price worth paying. I can't help feeling I'd warm to Delia more if she got sloshed on the cooking sherry, or if her Linguini with Mussels and Walnut Parsley Pesto were just once in a while to go soggy.

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