It was a little moment of epiphany on one of those interminable Sunday train journeys, when the world — or the part of it that runs on rails — slows to half its normal pace. I was reading yet another interview with Delia Smith about her new book How to Cheat at Cooking (Ebury Press).
Just the other day, the interviewer revealed, the great cook’s marmalade had caught on the pan because she had a new hob and the temperature was too high, “and now it’s got all these black flecks in it.” Horror of horrors.
If, as a certain kind of Christian will tell you, there is no such thing in the world as coincidence, this was a sign. The week before, I had made my first ever batch of marmalade. When I got the sugar to its rolling boil, the setting point had proved elusive. The 15 minutes my recipe had
predicted had stretched into 50 without effect. Fatally, I left the pan for a few minutes and went off sulkily to do something else. It caught, and now my marmalade, too, has these black flecks in it.
By coincidence, it was a recipe of Delia’s that I had been following. Not the dodgy-sounding slow-cooked version on DeliaOnline, but the classic one in her original Complete Cookery Course (BBC, 1982), which is an interdenominational culinary Bible if ever there was one.
“Shop-bought versions”, I had quoted her as saying in The Independent, on my visit to the World Marmalade Festival at Dalemain in Cumbria the week before, “can never match what can be made at home from just three simple ingredients — Seville oranges, water and sugar.”
Perhaps the four pints of water she suggested was too much. Perhaps the preserving pan I had bought was not wide enough at the brim to speed evaporation. Perhaps I should not have used golden granulated sugar, or the extra lemon. . . All this had preoccupied me for days. And now here was Delia in the same situation, blithely announcing to an unconvinced interviewer that it did not really matter because it tasted just as good.
There is a link between religion and marmalade. No one at the Marmalade Festival would have been rash enough to articulate it — certainly not the organiser, Jane Hasell-McCosh, even though she is a vicar’s daughter and has in the past made Dalemain a centre for Christian meditation techniques.
Instead, festival-goers talked elliptically about marmalade: the heady scents with which its cooking fills the house; the enrichment and detachment it brings to those who make it; the ethereal radiance of the glorious finished product; and the generosity it inspires — even a small batch producing jars that beg to be given away to your friends. There is no such thing, one enthusiast told me, as a marmalade miser.
As she has been open about the importance of her faith, interviewers like to call her Saint Delia. It is the thing that irritates her most. “The saint thing is just what people dream up about religious people — ‘Oh, there goes a goody-goody’ — but I can’t stand that.”
A journalist once wrote: “she goes to mass every day, but then she comes back and makes her secretaries cry” — to which she shrugs, and says that without her faith she would be far worse to live and work with.
“Being human means failing and not always doing everything right,” she concludes. Faith does not make you a good person. “What it does is make you relaxed and happy in your weakness. . . What the Christian faith teaches you is that it’s OK to fail; it’s OK to be weak.” It’s even OK to have those little black flecks in your marmalade. Blessed are the jam-makers.