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Delia hangs up her apron

19 May 2022

Delia Smith, 80, is happy to leave her husband in charge of the kitchen, giving her more time for football – and exploring the meaning of life. By Cole Moreton.

Delia Smith at Norwich City vs Stoke City
Delia Smith at Norwich City vs Stoke City, photo by Roy Beardsworth/Shutterstock

Delia Smith has had an apple for lunch. That’s all. ‘I am quite a greedy person but I’ve got to keep my weight down because I’ve got bad arthritis in one knee. It’s easier to not  have lunch,’ says the woman who was so famous for cooking that people knew her by her first name – like Elvis or Marilyn. ‘...but I make up  for it in the evening.’

Even then, it is her husband of 50 years Michael Wynn-Jones who will make the dinner. ‘He’s retired and has taken to liking cooking, so he’s just dying to cook.’ From her recipes? ‘Yeah, there is a bit of tension sometimes where I’m like, “I can’t believe there is too much liquid in this, we tested everything.” And he says, “Oh, I just put a bit extra in…”’

I can see that might be frustrating for someone who became a superstar because of the calm way she explained recipes. ‘And he doesn’t like me going in and stirring things and turning the heat down.’

But then Delia has always been a natural teacher. She learned the ways of the kitchen from her mother Etty, left school at 16 and became a waitress before helping in the kitchen of a restaurant. In the Sixties she started writing recipes for the Daily Mirror, where Michael was an editor. They married in 1971, before she went on to make her name on television. She’s sold more than 21 million books too, so maybe she’s earned a break from the kitchen.

‘I was never a great cook, i just wanted other people to be able to do it too’

‘Every now and again, I’ll say to Michael, “I’m going to cook you a nice meal.”’ But most days she enjoys the experience of having her husband make the meals instead. ‘Michael’s very good at cauliflower cheese and we love really good sausages.’

These are easy to find locally, as they live deep in the Suffolk countryside, near Stowmarket. Back in the early days of her success they bought a thatched farm cottage as a place to hide away at weekends, but for a long time now it has been their main home. We’re sitting in the conservatory.

Delia looks outside, beyond the formal garden to a meadow, which Michael bought her as a present. The field has become a place for exercise, as Delia does circuits on her bicycle as often as possible.

‘There’s a little path, it’s a third of a mile. I was told I needed a new knee and I said, “I don’t want to do it, because I know people for whom it’s gone wrong.” So the surgeon said, “If you can cycle every day and build up the muscles you won’t get pain.” That’s what I’ve done. I’m really proud of myself.’

She and Michael have also cut down on the booze as part of their efforts to keep healthy. ‘We try not to have wine from Monday to Friday. Then we drink from Friday to Monday what we would have drunk [in the week]!’

The world of television seems far away: why isn’t Delia on our screens any more? She’s as articulate as ever, still looks very much like she did in the old days and is only 80: two years younger than Prue Leith and a spring chicken compared to Mary Berry, who is still going strong at 87.

‘There are lots of elements to that,’ she says without regret. ‘When I started, there weren’t many people on television doing cooking. When I finished they were ten a penny.’ Delia retired from the telly in 2013. ‘Also, physically and mentally, I’d had enough.’

Fair enough. She likes a quiet life in the country, although she’s also busy with Norwich City Football Club – Delia is a majority shareholder with Michael. ‘I’m in charge of the catering at the ground so that takes up about two and a half days a week,’ she says.

The couple were asked to help the club in 1996, when Norwich had been relegated from the Premier League and were struggling to survive.

‘The two of us sat down and said, “The thing we love the most is our football club, so why not put our money into that?”’ Norwich is now a well-run club back in the top league: in other words, exactly the kind of football team an investor might want to buy. ‘Amazingly, if we wanted to sell, we’d make a fortune.’

Unfortunately, Norwich were again relegated from the top flight this season but Delia has reaffirmed her commitment to the club.

Delia Smith at Aston Villa v Norwich City, Sky Bet Championship 2019
Delia Smith at Aston Villa v Norwich City, Sky Bet Championship 2019. Photo by Gareth Dalley/News Images/Shutterstock.

The moment when football fans embraced her as a national treasure was in 2005, when Delia went down onto the pitch, grabbed a microphone and urged the Norwich faithful to make more noise in support of their team: ‘We need a 12th man here. Where are you? Let’s be ’avin’ you!’

The clip went viral, because we’d never seen Saint Delia so fired up before. People thought she was drunk, didn’t they? ‘You’re not allowed to be passionate in this country unless you’re drunk. So therefore they had to say I was drunk. I had to go into hiding because there was such uproar. It was terrible, then it completely reversed. I had letters saying, “I wish we had an owner like you.”’

Beyond football her passion for these past five years has been writing a new book called You Matter, about nothing less than the meaning of life. The subtitle The Human Solution refers to a potential for spirituality and collective action she believes we all have. ‘I’m trying to say that we are all connected, whether we know it or not.’

Few people experience that as she did at the height of her fame. What does it feel like when everybody knows you by your first name? ‘Well, there’s a wonderful sense of connection, which overwhelms me still. If you’ve helped somebody to know how to cook when first married, for example, they are so full of gratitude, it’s just amazing.

‘I was never a great cook, not one who was making people gasp at what I was doing; I just wanted other people to be able to do it too, so I went the extra mile to make sure they  could.’

‘Aall my cookery career i was criticised and sometimes it was very hurtful’

Delia was famous as a Catholic at the height of her TV career, writing books including Journey Into Prayer, but the new book says there is deeper reality to life that the Church and science have missed: ‘I still am a person of faith, but my faith has matured.’

Does she still believe in God? ‘Yes, but I think that whoever or whatever we call God is right at the centre of everybody.’ In other words, what some people call the divine is real and present all around us, and also in ourselves. ‘I just don’t want people to think I’m trying to secretly evangelise them, because I believe it can only come from yourself.’

How does she think the book will be received? ‘It’s either going to just bomb or it could take off, but I think I’ll get a lot of criticism, probably.’ Delia is braced for people to say she’s misguided. ‘All my cookery career I was criticised and sometimes it was very hurtful, but I’ve got used to that.’

Gary Rhodes said she insulted viewers’ intelligence by showing how to boil an egg and Egon Ronay cheekily said hers was the missionary  position of cuisine.

Delia is ready to go public with her message, but there are limits. ‘I’ve told the publishers I’m not doing  Strictly and I’m not doing Piers Morgan. I want the book to be known, but I don’t need to sell it for the money.

At the heart of the book is a simple spiritual exercise she says has changed her life. ‘I’ve never been able to do anything mystical, so all it  is, is sitting down and being still and quiet. You just let your mind do what it wants to do.’ That’s it? ‘Yeah, that is all it is. Spending time in stillness and silence. Giving yourself this  therapy, time for yourself.’

This exercise helped her process the death in 2020 of her mother Etty, who lived in the same village and was a regular at Norwich City. ‘Everybody spoke about how wonderful she was,’  says Delia, but I hear hesitation in her voice. ‘She was a very special person, but she was very critical. So I think I owe her a lot, because my feet were always firmly on the ground.’

There’s a sadness in there that makes me wonder, does Delia have regrets? ‘One of the things about developing the spiritual side and knowing yourself is you instantly forgive yourself. As a human you make mistakes, so I could find something in every month that I wish I’d done differently, but it doesn’t matter,’  she says in the same gentle but firm, trustworthy manner that once taught us all to boil an egg. ‘Be kind to yourself.’

You Matter: The Human Solution by Delia Smith (Mensch Publishing, £14.99) is out now  in paperback

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