Wednesday 13 December 2017

Have a very Delia Christmas

After decades of leading fearful cooks into the light, Delia Smith tells Sarah O'Meara she's still on hand to help, especially at Christmas

Delia Smith
Delia Smith
Sparkling Mulled Wine Jellies With Frosted Grapes
Mushroom, Chorizo, Machego & Thyme Feuilles De Brick Canape
Parma Ham, Gruyere and Sage Feuilles De Brick Canape

At the age of 70, Delia Smith continues to radiate careful, controlled perfectionism.

Whether she's sharing her Christmas routine, describing the inexpensive delights of cooking lamb's kidney in sherry or explaining why she can never agree to a spot on Saturday Kitchen (she's always watching Norwich City), the presenter and author answers each question she's asked with the utmost diligence.

This Christmas, Delia's been reunited with Heston Blumenthal on screen in the seasonal Waitrose advert.

They make a deliberately incongruous pair. Blumenthal's eccentrically-filled mince pies contain lemon curd, rose water, apple puree and orange juice (not to mention that pine sugar dusting), while Delia's Classic Christmas Cake Prepared Ingredients box, already weighed and prepared for cooks, replicates the recipe she's been endorsing for years.

"You simply must buy it," she says, urgently, in her typically serious manner. "I just don't think people realise that it'll make them the perfect cake."

While ensuring the nation bakes the quintessential Christmas accompaniment is a pressing concern, she's extremely modest about her effect on our culinary skills.

"Food and cooking have always been the stars, not me. I was just in the background wanting people to understand," she says.

Food trends and fads have largely washed over her. "If I'm in a Michelin star restaurant and they've done this beautiful little smoked haddock souffle in a thimble... well I want a whole big plateful," she laughs.

While the Hestons of this world reinvent the wheel, her duty remains to her loyal fans, who continue to ask advice after all these years. "I've always had a lot of letters," she says. "And I have to say, if there's ever a problem with the recipe, you'll know in five minutes.

"People have taught me how to communicate in a better way. For example, I had a letter saying, 'You said a pound of skinned tomatoes. How do you skin a tomato?'"

Ever since cooking programme Family Fare launched Delia's television career in 1971, following her first book How To Cheat At Cooking, the cook-turned-author/broadcaster came to represent the sensible, edifying face of cookery.

In real life, her style is similarly restrained, a far cry from the relaxed banter-style of her modern successors.

"What's my advice for stressed people at Christmas? Well... you need the right cookbook," she trills, with a little laugh.

Much of her passion for food stems from a belief that without cooking skills, society as a whole is very much the poorer.

She recalls with horror the educational reforms in the Eighties that effectively pulled cooking lessons from the national curriculum.

"It was a terrible, bad, bleak day. Once all those kitchens and all that equipment is taken out, it's too expensive to put it all back again.

"I once said on a BBC programme, 'We lost cooking when Mrs Thatcher took it out of schools' and they edited the Mrs Thatcher bit out."

Talking about declining standards in the kitchen lights up her eyes. Fiercely worried about the deleterious effects of poor eating habits on a country that can't cook, Delia talks with zeal about the dangers ahead.

"I wish there was some way the Government could give people information about how to get nutrition without spending a lot of money. I really would support and do anything I could to help."

She follows this approach in her own Christmas traditions. Instead of presents, she and husband Michael Wynn-Jones donate to a charity. "It takes all the hassle away," she explains.

When it comes to festive food, however, Delia freely admits to indulging in excess.

"I use my own book. I just open it and say 'Right, at four o'clock you do this...'

"That Christmas Day page, the person it's really for is me. Because you only do it once a year, you're not going to remember anything. So you open and it says, 'Do this now, do that then' and then it's all done. It's like being on automatic pilot."

According to her own instructions, Delia puts the turkey in before she heads to mass on Christmas morning, and finishes the preparation on her return.

"We have Christmas lunch at lunchtime because otherwise the day is gone. Far too much is eaten and far too much is drunk, but I love it.

"I go out and buy all these special things. For example, New Year's Eve is the only time of year I will drink a single malt whisky because it's Scottish. And we'll have the best champagne we can have. You know, really treat ourselves."

She's spent just one Christmas away from home in the last few decades, preferring to hunker down in Suffolk with husband Michael, who she met while working at the Daily Mirror more than 40 years ago.

"We don't have lots of people round because we live in a tiny little cottage. There's usually about six or seven of us.

"Twenty years ago I did a series called Delia's Christmas. We started it in August and finished filming at the end of November. There was no way I was going to cook Christmas lunch after that, so we went to Barbados.

"They had Christmas carols, Father Christmas on a jet ski and lunch was flying fish," she says, her eyebrows raised in amusement.

But that was a one-off. Now she won't do without the seasonal trappings. Although she draws the line at posh chocolates.

"Cadbury's fruit and nut from the freezer does something that is extraordinary!"

Try Delia's canape recipes this year, to get that party started...


(Serves 6)


1 x 75cl bottle mulled wine

15g leaf gelatine (9 sheets measuring about 11.5cm x 7cm)

25g granulated sugar

375ml sparkling mineral water, very well chilled

For the frosted grapes:

110g-150g seedless black grapes

1 egg white, beaten

Caster sugar


First pour about a third of the wine into a medium saucepan and add the gelatine leaves and sugar, and leave to stand for about 10 minutes until the gelatine has softened. Now place the saucepan over a medium heat and stir the mixture until the sugar and gelatine have dissolved, then pour contents of the pan into a large bowl and stir in the remaining mulled wine.

Leave to cool, cover and chill in the fridge until the jelly is just on the point of setting - this should take about one to one-and-a-half hours, but keep an eye on it. Then give it a really good whisk.

After that, open the chilled sparkling mineral water, measure out 375ml and pour it into the jelly. Stir once or twice to blend everything, then ladle gently into six 200ml serving glasses (being gentle means trying to conserve as many bubbles as you can). Chill the jellies, covered with clingfilm overnight.

The next day make the grape decorations. For the best effect, try to separate the grapes into clusters of two or three depending on their size, leaving them still attached to the stalk. Then wash and dry them thoroughly and dip them first into the egg white and then into the sugar, making sure each one gets an even coating of sugar. Spread them out on baking parchment to dry for a couple of hours before using to decorate.

Serve jellies straight from the fridge with some frosted black grapes on top of each glass.


(Makes 12)


1 sheet feuille de brick

40g chestnut mushrooms, thinly sliced

55g chorizo, peeled and chopped into smallish pieces

50g Manchego cheese, grated

1 rounded teaspoon thyme leaves

Freshly milled black pepper


Line a large baking tray with baking parchment and preheat the oven to 180C/Gas mark 4.

Begin by laying the sheet of pastry on a clean chopping board, then sprinkle as evenly as possible with the mushrooms, chorizo, Manchego and thyme. Then finish off with some freshly milled black pepper. Now take a very sharp knife and cut into 12 evenly sized wedges and arrange these on the baking tray.

Bake on the centre shelf for 12-15 minutes or until crisp and golden. Transfer them to a wire rack to cool and become very crisp.


(Makes 12)


1 sheet feuille de brick

1 x 90g pack sliced Parma ham

50g grated Gruyere cheese

12 fresh sage leaves

1dsp olive oil

Freshly milled black pepper


Line a large baking tray with baking parchment and preheat the oven to 180C/Gas mark 4.

Begin by laying the sheet of pastry on a clean chopping board, then cover it loosely with Parma ham, leaving about 1cm of the lacy edge all round. Then sprinkle the ham as evenly as possible with grated Gruyere and some freshly milled black pepper. Now take a very sharp knife and cut into 12 evenly-sized wedges and arrange these on the baking tray.

Toss the sage leaves in the olive oil and place one on top of each wedge.

Bake on the centre shelf for 12-15 minutes or until crisp and golden. Transfer them to a wire rack to cool and become very crisp.

Recipes adapted from Delia's Happy Christmas published by Ebury. Visit for more recipes

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