Down, down, down we go, whisking along the winter lanes, onwards through the Suffolk flatlands. The morning is grey, the trees are bare, frost etches the brittle hedgerows.
Soon we crunch to a halt on the driveway of a pink cottage with a thatched roof. The door is opened by a neat, compact figure in dark trousers, arms by her side.
‘Hello Clarice,’ I almost expect her to say but, of course, that’s not what happens.
‘Welcome!’ cries Delia Smith, Companion of Honour, CBE, author, TV personality, director of Norwich Football Club, devoted Roman Catholic, egg boiler extraordinaire, Jedi of the jam tart, creator of the best recipe for Christmas cake known to mankind and her meatballs in goulash sauce are no slouches, either.
Delia Smith, 80, (pictured) who lives in Suffolk, has written three spiritual books in addition to her cookery books
It is hard not to curtsey in the presence of such greatness, although, unlike culinary contemporaries such as Dame Mary Berry and Dame Prue Leith, she has never been made a dame. It doesn’t bother her.
‘Well. I wouldn’t really like to be Dame Delia. That is too ostentatious for me,’ she says, with a shudder. Some may say that her CH gong outranks a damehood anyway.
She shrugs. ‘I like that it is so low key. I don’t even use the letters after my name.’
So very, very Delia. Being the cherry on the cake has never been her thing. Famously, she never tasted nor slurped her own recipes on her shows (‘a revolting notion’); and be it over a mango or a tango, she finds the trend for ostentatious on-screen sentiment a turn off.
‘I have never watched The Great British Bake Off. I just can’t do it. I can’t do Strictly Come Dancing either. I can’t do all this screaming and hugging and all this emotion and stuff. Just not my scene.’
This austerity is reflected in some of the things she has turned down over the years; a cookery chat show, a ten-minute cooking slot on a prime-time show, a publishing deal that meant a new book every year.
‘I only write one when I have something to say.’
Many years ago, then Prime Minister Tony Blair offered her a peerage, but she turned that down, too. ‘Where would I find the time to do it justice?’ she says today. ‘I was doing television series. I was writing books. There was no way I could sit in the House of Lords and give the role the attention it deserved.’
Delia revealed that her husband Michael Wynn Jones does most of the cooking in their home – but he uses her recipes. Pictured: her television heyday in 1995
We go through to the conservatory, where many of those very television series were made. Here, with the eastern light flooding in through the large expanse of glass, is where Delia patiently showed an agog nation how to poach an egg, whip up proper parsley sauce and make the perfect Sunday lunch or ‘squidgy’ chocolate cake.
In the process she sold 21.5 million cook books. At home these days she makes the occasional omelette, but it is her husband, Michael Wynn Jones, who does most of the cooking — though he does use her recipes.
As millions know, these are precision tested and honed to perfection, but because he is a man, he thinks he knows better than his wife.
‘Sometimes there will be a bit of him saying to me: “Oh I think this recipe needs a little more water or a bit more of something else.” ’
He does? ‘He does.’ How can he even dare? Another tiny shrug.
I don’t want to be Dame Delia. It would be too ostentatious
Although spry in her practical Sahara separates and FitFlop shoes, Delia is now 80 years old and has arthritis in both knees, which she finds annoying.
‘I’ve had this, that and the other. I think that the body has an age, but I don’t believe the souls have ages.
‘I believe everyone’s 19 on the inside — I know they are, Jan! Even if the body might not be doing what it should be doing.’
She converted to Catholicism when she was 22 and as well as her cook books, she has written three spiritual books because her entire life, in the kitchen and outside it, has been a search for the authentic.
Her faith, like the smoke from a snuffed candle once the dinner party is over, persists.
Delia and husband Michael Wynn Jones, became directors and then majority stakeholders of Norwich football club after deciding that they did not want ‘a holiday home, a yacht or a swimming pool’. Pictured: Delia Smith with a football fan at Norwich
In lockdown she has written a new book, not about pandemic recipes and not about religion or God, but about the essence of what it is to be human. These days if Delia talks about self-raising, she means your soul, not a bag of flour.
You Matter: The Human Solution is a slim volume of deep thoughtfulness, encouraging readers to consider the purpose of life itself and their role in it.
But Delia, what if — here is my big worry — there is no purpose? And we are all just part of one giant cosmic accident?
‘At the end of the day, however much we do know, we don’t know much. We should be using human ingenuity to figure it out,’ she says, and goes on to outline her theory that ‘the central mystery of human life is consciousness because nobody’s been able to nail it down, but the fundamental impulse of life is love.’
We are far from the shallow frying pan now, but she continues in this vein.
You’re not allowed to have passion in this country – if you do, you must be drunk!
‘The world is in chaos. And the only way I can see it changing is if we can change hearts and minds. We don’t have any great leaders, any gurus coming along and saying: “Here are the answers,” and I feel compelled to try to reach people.’
That sounds very ambitious.
‘But why not be ambitious? I’m just trying to throw out seeds. There are so many wonderful people out there, but they don’t know they’re wonderful and clever.
‘I really want people to believe in human life and believe in themselves. It might sound simple and flip. And I knew that when I started it, I was going to get a lot of flak.’
You mean, stay in your lane, cooking lady? ‘Exactly.’
Delia (pictured) estimates that she and Michael have spent ‘about £11 million’ on the club over the years, but they don’t regret a penny of it
But why not Delia? Her life experience is rich, varied and not without its own difficulties. Her childhood years were fractured when her father walked out, leaving Delia, her brother and mother behind. She failed her 11-plus and worked as a hairdresser and waitress before finding her passion in life — teaching people how to cook, which inadvertently led to her making millions.
She and Michael did not have children and, in 1996, deciding that they did not want ‘a holiday home, a yacht or a swimming pool’, they became directors and then majority stakeholders of Norwich, their beloved football club.
Years of joy and heartbreak followed as the club’s fortunes waxed and waned — along with Delia’s personal fortune, too.
She estimates they have spent ‘about £11 million’ on the club over the years, which she admits sometimes feels like setting fire to a bonfire of cash. ‘But it has enriched my life. I’d do it all over again. I don’t regret a penny of it.’
The club is currently languishing at the bottom of the Premier League and an irony is that cool, constrained Delia will probably be forever remembered for her ‘Let’s Be ’Avin You!’ moment of madness, when she tried to rally supporters at a match during Norwich’s 2004/2005 relegation battle.
Does she regret it?
Delia (pictured) admits that she can’t believe how loved she remains despite having not produced a new recipe in years
‘No, I love it. Well OK, it was a mistake. I forgot that Sky Television was there. So I went down to the perimeter and I just said, can you get something on the board to say, sing you guys? Because the crowd was just sitting there like little mice. There wasn’t time so they gave me a microphone and said, go on and say it. So I did.
‘And then afterwards everyone was looking at the floor, you know? Going “oh, dear.” Why was that?’ she suddenly asks.
Um, because people thought you were drunk?
‘Yes. That is right. Look, I had had wine with my supper, but I was not drunk. I know that I was wearing heels and it was muddy. It’s not easy walking on a muddy pitch with heels, try it!’
The fall-out was huge. Some critics even suggested she should be reprimanded.
‘The problem is that you are not allowed to have passion in this country. If you live here and you show passion, then you must be drunk,’ she sighs.
Passion, of course, comes in many forms. Long before Nigella and Jamie and lemongrass and gochujang paste, all we had was Delia with her plain-spoken recipes, her lack of razzmatazz and her determination not to be a celebrity, but just to get us all cooking.
‘That was my passion. I just wanted people to know how to cook. And if they could see it, they could do it,’ she says.
During the peak of her fame, families celebrated Christmas and Easter by her strictures, while millions left home for university or big-city life with a Delia Smith cook book. I know because I was one of them. I still have my copy of her Complete Cookery Course, spattered with gravy, inscribed by my late father, one of the building blocks of my life.
Delia said she cannot bear BBC MasterChef because aspiring chefs are told “no you can’t do it, you are rubbish.” Pictured: Duchess of Cornwall and Delia
And while it may have been years since she produced a new recipe, pop Delia’s name into any search box and you will find that she shimmers across social media platforms because people are still baking her cakes, making her marmalade and using her calm, clear instructions to feed their families and delight their loved ones.
Delia is the bone in the broth of British life, a woman who firmly believes that ‘a sausage roll is the ultimate canapé to serve with drinks’ and who, despite culinary fads, remains much loved.
‘Everywhere I go! I still can’t quite believe it, I’m very lucky. I find it so lovely, all that warmth that comes my way. It’s second generation now, too. I get young hunks coming up and saying: “Oh, my mum loves you,” ’ she says.
Then she looks at me and asks: ‘Do you do much cooking?’
My whole world stops. Before this interview I had given myself strict instructions; keep it professional, don’t start blabbing on to your heroine Delia about your bakes and your asparagus roulade, but before I can stop myself I’m off, telling her about a lentil soup (lentil soup!) I love.
‘You just fry some onions and add tomato paste,’ I hear myself saying, as she nods politely. ‘And then some paprika.’ Jan, shut up. ‘Oh. it’s really delicious. If you like, I can email you the recipe.’
Email her the recipe! Her deliaonline website, a marvellous resource free to everyone, contains thousands of recipes as well as a cookery school!
Delia (pictured) has planted 200 trees, installed solar panels and stopped taking private jets because she’s increasingly conscious of green issues
My lentil shame burns like a forgotten pancake, but moving on, Delia reveals she still keeps half an eye on the food world, and is disappointed with what she finds.
‘It is all so overdone now. A lot of the new cookbooks seem rubbish. I love Jamie so I am not going to knock him, but it is all entertainment now, isn’t it?’
She has a particular beef with MasterChef, the BBC series in which aspiring chefs are critiqued by an assortment of food ‘experts’ on their finished dishes.
‘I simply cannot bear MasterChef, it is awful. It is the opposite of what I try to do. My thing was to encourage people to cook, saying: “Come on, you can do it.” And then this programme comes along and says: “No you can’t do it, you are rubbish.” I hate it.’
We go for a walk in the garden, down to the adjoining cornfield that Michael bought for her 60th birthday and turned into a wildlife meadow with a large pond.
Delia is increasingly conscious of green issues. She has planted 200 trees, installed solar panels and stopped taking private jets.
‘We would sometimes treat ourselves to hire a plane to go on holiday. Now, because of climate change, we won’t do that.
‘And I think I would ration air travel to once a year. And we probably should have an electric car,’ she says as we inspect the crop of purple-sprouting broccoli in her walled kitchen garden, ready to be picked. What will she do with that? ‘Steam it, of course,’ she says. None of your tahini drizzle, miso-infused malarkey here.
‘I don’t even know what half the ingredients are any more,’ she admits.
Do her energy concerns mean she wouldn’t, for example, slow roast tomatoes for hours in an oven? ‘That is not a good use of energy. If you buy a jar of Italian tomatoes from Puglia, they’re dried in the sun.’
But what about the carbon footprint bringing them over? She throws up her hands.
Delia, who lives modestly with husband Michael (pictured right), plans to leave all her money to The International Rescue Committee
‘Well, I’m lost. I just don’t understand it. You know, all the mushrooms being grown for the vegans need power,’ she says, of the high-tech mushroom-producing facilities that supply supermarkets.
‘And all the fake meat products? Why don’t they just eat vegetables? Vegans think that ultimately there’s going to be no meat, don’t they? But we are a hill country. We couldn’t grow the crops to survive. We couldn’t sustain ourselves without some meat.
‘All I know is that my mother had three major operations in her 80s. She had two hips and then a shoulder. And afterwards the doctors said to give her plenty of red meat and Guinness.’
Back in the conservatory, lunch is served — smoked salmon sandwiches made by Michael. He brings out a bottle of wine but when I say I don’t want to drink, they don’t either. So we have apple juice and talk about the big stuff: God and death. Delia no longer goes to daily mass — only because there aren’t enough priests — and does not fear the end.
‘I cannot believe, I will never believe, that a beautiful person can cease to exist. The Christian part of me,’ she says, ‘is quite relaxed about death.’
She plans to leave all her money to The International Rescue Committee, the global humanitarian aid organisation which employs David Miliband.
‘I want to help refugees if I can,’ she says. ‘But maybe I won’t have any money left. Maybe Michael and I will spend it all.’
I wonder. The couple live well but modestly, although last year Michael did give Delia a diamond ring for their golden wedding.
‘Just a small one,’ she says, with approval. She proffers a plate with three iced cranberry muffins, clearly leftovers from Christmas.
‘I put them in the freezer and defrosted them this morning,’ she tells me.
Of course, she did. I would expect nothing less from my Dame Delia. As in lunch, as in love, as in life, she is the kind of woman who wastes nothing.
Exclusive extract: Delia on conquering fear
The old adage ‘fortune favours the brave’ always holds good. One way to combat fear is not to run for cover, but to run in the opposite direction; instead of fearing ‘fear itself’, we should be brave and face it.
Hiding from fear means pretending to be big, so the opposite is not minding being small. Be happy to be wrong. People who think they are never wrong are walking adverts for egoism.
Rejecting egoism means acknowledging that it’s perfectly OK to be wrong and make mistakes. And the key thing is in not being afraid to fail. Being willing to fail releases us from many expectations and anxieties. There’s no pressure — sometimes you succeed and sometimes you don’t, and a new freedom comes into play.
In an extract from her new book, Delia (pictured) says instead of fearing ‘fear itself’, we should be brave and face it
I may well, in spite of every effort, do or say the wrong thing, forget such and such and, just like the rest of the human race, make mistakes, but if I’m willing to fail, fear is utterly defeated and leaves me at peace.
I can give you a personal example of that. Publishers often ask their authors to do book signings, and so I found myself, one grey, damp morning in Leeds, positioned on the ground floor of a very large branch of Boots. Absolutely no one was buying cookery books that day.
So I sat for one hour, listening to intermittent announcements: ‘Today we have Delia Smith signing copies of her book’ . . . ‘Don’t forget, Delia Smith is signing her book on our ground floor today!’
All the time, I was just wishing I was!
Every now and then, someone would ask me if I knew where the corn plasters or some other item was, and afterwards, the book buyer was at great pains to assure me that the weather or the time of day had been the problem, not realising that it just didn’t matter to me.
I had learned from many other failed book signings that, in truth, it wasn’t a problem. I still giggle when I remember the time a bookshop hired the same bodyguard for me that they had used to protect Gordon Ramsay, only for the poor man to watch me sign copies for six people and a dog!
There will always be shades of egoism in all of us, but being as free of it as possible and able to have a laugh is much less draining.
- Extracted from You Matter: The Human Solution by Delia Smith (£25, Mensch) out on March 3. © Delia Smith 2022. Order for £22.50 (offer valid until March 14; UK P&P free) at mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.