Wrong ingredients

Food - Bee Wilson is upset about Delia Smith's methods in the kitchen

Many things upset me about Delia Smith. As her new television series simpers on, I'll confine myself to just ten - ten "star" ingredients as she might say.

1) "Star" ingredients are a good place to start. "If there were good-ingredient awards," she writes in her latest book, How to Cook Book 2, Marigold bouillon powder "would win first prize." All her other "stars" - from cranberries and limes to Sainsbury's Special Selection mi-cuit tomatoes - must be heartbroken.

Her ability to inspire scrambles (of buying as well as eggs) is well attested. What is less often remarked is what a bad approach to food it engenders. Delia's idea of how to cook is piling "star" ingredients, one on top of another, until you have the ultimate Delia concoction. Which brings us to her second ingredient:

2) Over-complexity. Why use one smoked fish when you can use four? Double-onion curry; spinach gnocchi with four cheeses; steak with five mushrooms. It's odd that she was accused of being too basic in the first volume of How to Cook. Her egg-boiling advice was actually a refreshing break. Usually with Delia, you can't taste the eggs for the chorizo and cheese - lots of "gutsy" flavour, as she would say. I recently made her salmon fish cakes. They had so many flavourings (capers, cornichons, mace, anchovy, parsley, mayonnaise, lemon juice, cayenne, eggs) that they all cancelled each other out, and the fish cakes, bizarrely, ended up tasting bland.

3) Her recipes are peculiarly rigid, which makes you nervous to deviate from them even by a parsley stalk.

She is forever talking about fear - people are "deeply afraid" of gravy, terrified of pastry. This actually makes you more fearful. Her refusal to taste anything, even when demonstrating how to eat spaghetti or skate, has the same effect.

4) Why oh why does she pour her olive oil out of that silly watering can?

5) Self-obsession. She's begun talking about herself in the third person - always a bad sign. She can't just make paella; it has to be "Delia paella". Her "how to" of sauce "begins with a decision: I will always do what Delia says"!

6) Her fans say the magic of Delia is that her recipes always work. This is true in the sense that they all result in food. But not all of it is edible. Her "marinated rump steak with aligot" is horrible, despite the gorgeous photographs. You marinate steak in equal quantities (!) of Worcester sauce and red wine with garlic, cook and serve with mash impregnated with obscene quantities of Lancashire cheese. If you want to waste some meat and potatoes, I suppose it beats bulimia.

7) Cheese with fish is nearly always nasty. Yet no fewer than five of Delia's fish recipes in the new book are cheesy. Salmon is ruined with pecorino, plaice with parmesan. Expensive tiger prawns are submerged under an oven-baked risotto made with bottled lobster soup, then topped with Gruyere. This is almost a definition of how not to cook seafood.

8) She tortures the English language. One example: Italian tinned tomatoes, she says, are "way and above the best" - a contradiction in terms.

9) Unsurprisingly for the author of A Journey into God, she is evangelical. Sometimes, comically so. In trying to convert us to the charm of capers, she remarks: "Nobody likes their first alcoholic drink, but we've all experienced how soon that catches on, and it's the same with capers." Indeed. I tried my first pickled caper last week, and now I'm halfway to Capers Anonymous.

10) The worst thing about Delia, though, is how good she could be. Her roasted tarragon chicken is lovely. Her soups are moreish. Her recipes for cakes, scones and bread are always wonderful. If only she were running a cathedral tearoom somewhere, with never a thought for TV lights and sales figures, Delia would be perfect - a real "star", in other words.

This article first appeared in the 31 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why arms sales are bad for Britain