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

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide