profile: Delia Smith: First, find a market

Geraldine Bedell on the cook whose books we can't devour fast enough

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LAST week, Britain's favourite cook showed her millions of viewers how to cook a risotto in the oven. She'd always loved risotto, Delia explained, but it seemed unfair that anyone cooking it had to stand over the pan "and couldn't enjoy a pre-supper drink ... Then one day, when I was making rice pudding, I thought 'why shouldn't you make risotto in the oven?' So I tried it and here it is."

It was a classic Delia moment: the homely explanation, the cool determination to demystify and de-snob the process of preparing decent food, the ready acknowledgement that cooks have other things to do than measure wine into rice all evening.

It was also misleading. Three years ago Delia confessed her ambition to make oven risotto. "We're not there yet, but we're working on it," she said then, the "we" being her team of three assistants in London and one in Suffolk, who test all Delia's recipes until they are absolutely sure that anyone, but anyone, could cook them.

This sort of exhaustive preparation, combined with Delia's quiet refusal ever to put herself between viewer and food (compare other television chefs), are the chief ingredients of a phenomenal success. The book of Delia Smith's Winter Collection sold half a million copies in its first seven days, sending it straight to the top of last week's bestseller list, ahead of Michael Crichton, Robert Harris and Nigel Mansell. By this weekend, according to the publicist at BBC Books, it will have sold 1 million copies. Her Summer Collection has been in the bestseller lists for 112 weeks.

Delia Smith OBE has had enormous influence on the cooking habits of the British middle classes (increased, in recent years, by her other role as a consultant to Sainsbury) - an influence, according to some foodies, which has been entirely deleterious. "She writes as she cooks: with one hand in the flour jar," the food writer Paul Levy claimed in 1984, meaning that her cooking - her whole demeanour - was stodgy; the food fashions of the time, for lighter, more delicate dishes, had passed her by.

Delia lacks ambition and flair, say her critics. Her Complete Cookery Course contains a recipe for "eggs: boiled" and on Wednesday's Winter Collection she demonstrated how to eat spaghetti. Her influence (and they would say this is indicative of "mediocrity") is purely domestic: unlike Elizabeth David, say, she has had no impact on restaurants. One critic (who wishes to remain anonymous) claims: "She has the great gift of the populariser, of being exactly one step behind. That's how you make a fortune."

Can it be true that Delia Smith has stopped the British from becoming truly adventurous with food? Her supporters insist that, on the contrary, what she has done is to guide British cooks hand-in-hand through their (and her own) growing awareness of kaffir lime leaves and couscous. Sometimes she has responded to the trend for more choice, at other times she has nudged things forward. Her husband points out that porcini are stocked in Sainsbury's because of Delia; and it is certainly true that any supermarket not currently stocking pancetta is missing a trick, because the Winter Collection is full of it.

Perhaps the criticisms boil down to not much more than an objection that Delia isn't an entertainer, or even exactly inspirational. She isn't there to amuse, get tipsy, or fling vague amounts of ingredients into a pan with panache. She's there to pass on the information that you can put all the ingredients for a white sauce into a pan together and cook them from cold, so avoiding lumps; or, last week, to remind us to put a note on the fridge as a reminder to soak the black beans. Delia is a day-in-day-out domestic cook, who happens to be better informed, more practised and more committed than most domestic cooks. And she is bland enough, with her pretty face and light, sibilant voice, to fade into the background of a shot of steaming black bean soup.

Though she is universally known as Delia, her viewers are not intimate with her. "She guards her privacy jealously because she works so hard. She has a very small circle of friends," says her close friend, the chef John Tovey. She has achieved a remarkable feat, and made the recipes the star.

DELIA SMITH was born 54 years ago in Bexleyheath (she lives now in the Suffolk cottage where her series are shot, and comes across as comfortingly classless) and left school at 16 without qualifications. She tried jobs at a hairdresser's, a shop and a travel agency before washing dishes at a restaurant and learning to cook. By the time she met the literary agent Debbie Owen in 1969, she was working as a live-in cook for a family in Harley Street and cooking for photographic shoots (she was introduced to Owen by a photographer).

At that time she had read that in the 18th century the British ate better than anyone else in Europe, and wanted to write a book of 18th-century English recipes. The book never got written, though in the Winter Collection, Delia quotes Daniel Defoe in 1726 making exactly this point.

Owen, who recalls that "Delia got me on track when I was newly married - taught me how to poach an egg and make good soups", steered her away from the esoteric and historical towards the ruthlessly practical. First came a column on the Daily Mirror, where she met her husband, journalist Michael Wynn Jones; and then, in 1972, another on the Evening Standard, where she stayed for 12 years.

She made her television debut in 1973, appearing in short lunchtime slots. When she was moved (demoted, really) to the Continuing Education department, she decided the BBC should tackle a basic cookery course. The first volume of Delia Smith's (originally three-part) cookery course was published in 1978.

The criticism of Delia that was so voluble in her Complete Cookery phase ("the dull soul of Middle England," groans one critic), has muted in recent years, particularly since she started appropriating the seasons. It is hard to find anyone to say a bad word about the recipes in her Summer and Winter Collections, which introduce ingredients not previously the staples of British larders - lemon grass and galangal, porcini and pecorino.

This partly reflects Delia's own odyssey, as her husband acknowledges: "She has travelled a lot in recent years. She's been to cookery school in Bangkok and across America and Japan, always looking at food markets." But Delia is also acutely aware of the symbiotic relationship between cooks and their food shops; quite simply, these ingredients are available at the supermarket now where before they weren't.

That would have happened with or without Delia, but there is no doubting her influence on its pace and direction - particularly since she became food editor of Sainsbury's The Magazine, which she and her husband own with the Owens and others. "Delia championed pancetta," says Wynn Jones, who edits The Magazine; "and although Sainsbury stocked it, they did so in rather limited areas. But she uses it in quite a lot of recipes. Now Sainsbury stocks pancetta in all forms - not just sliced - and has extended its distribution."

Delia has meanwhile been criticised for selling her soul to one supermarket. Wynn Jones responds that she has never endorsed products, or indeed the supermarket, and that she is very forthright with Sainsbury about what it stocks. She also appears to believe that by working with one supermarket, she will bring change to all. The magazine also, of course, makes money. More importantly perhaps, it is a joint project for Smith and Jones. And it is very successful, with a readership of 2.3 million and a clutch of awards.

As a food editor, Delia has brought her customary perfectionism to bear. John Tovey reports that she regularly sends back his copy for revision; Wynn Jones that all the recipes, even those from a leading chef such as Simon Hopkinson, are tested three times by the Delia empire before publication.

She is equally demanding as a friend, reports John Tovey. "She wants nothing but perfection, but she also offers great support." When Tovey came out of hospital after an operation earlier this year she and Wynn Jones dropped everything to go away on holiday with him, "though it can't have been the best time for them". Tovey has the highest regard for the changes she has wrought to British home cooking - in any other country, he says, "she would be Dame Delia".

Delia supports Norwich City football club, is a devout Catholic, (she attends mass almost every morning) and gives a proportion of her income to charity. Debbie Owen believes that she is remarkably unaffected by fame. Certainly, Delia herself insists she is not a great cook; "What I cook, anyone can cook." Tovey gushes: "She helps so many people, just by being Delia."

She is, in short, a bit of a goody two-shoes. Her admirers couldn't care less. She doesn't show off and leave the viewer thinking that cooking is some kind of mysterious black art for initiates. She explains her method in plain, homely language so that there can be no misunderstanding. It's not that anyone wants to be like Delia - she's not interesting in herself; but millions aspire to make a chocolate mascarpone cheesecake with fruit, nuts and creme fraiche like hers.

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