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Forget your diet, whack on a dollop of whipped cream - yummy scrummy, it's a doddle. FRANCES GRANT gets laidback with a real people's cook.

Jo Seagar knows how to treat the lean and hungry press. "White chocolate," she says, passing round slices ofcake to accompany the late-morning coffee. "It looks a bit basic but when you eat it, it's pretty yummo, I reckon."

The pale fudge brownie is divine. So is the view from the deck of the Seagar homestead down the valley. The sun's shining, rural east Auckland's looking lush and her Clevedon country kitchen is wonderfully aromatic.

An appealing whiff of garlic from a pot on the stove greets reporter and photographer on the threshold. The white peaks of a meringue-topped pie can be glimpsed in the oven. And the very welcome offer of a snack is made as soon as we step through the door.

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Seagar and assistant Annabelle Ullrich are in the middle of testing recipes for next year's series of her popular cooking show Real Food For Real People. A friend has popped in and the scene is as laidback as you would expect in the home of the cook whose motto is "less stress, less fuss."

But there's one small note of formality: the earrings. We have not caught Seagar minus her trademark pearls.

This week the 43-year-old mother of two is going bush with the kids - well, down to the family's favourite camping spot by the stream on their 28ha farm - to film the final of her three-show summer and Christmas special.

The first show offers drinks and party tips for the festive season. Next in the line-up is traditional English-style Christmas dinner.

The third is a casual outdoors Kiwi do. "Father Christmas arrives on the farm bike and it will be splendid. We'll have bottles of champagne chilling in the creek, that kind of thing." And will she be in pearls? "Yes, of course."

There's no rational explanation to back her famous claim that a cook cooks better in pearls. "But there's something in it," she says, explaining she picked up the tip from a 1940s cookbook.

"It did say that before you jumped out of bed in the morning to rush out and cook your husband's breakfast, you put on your pearl earrings and lipstick. I've adopted the theory and I think it works. Haven't quite got the getting out of bed and cooking the breakfast bit right, but I'm halfway there."

She updates the advice for the record. "Put them on before he leaps up and makes the coffee, that's a good approach. Jot that down."

Now that begs a question. How skilled is husband Ross in the kitchen? "He has done toast once," she says. "But he is a big help. He does more than beyond the call of duty with children's things, he'll set tables, pour drinks, he's even been known to pick flowers. And he can hold a gin and a conversation, he's good like that."

He's good for more than that, apparently. "I wonder if you saw my number plates? How embarrassing. My husband got ESYPSY. I would have rather had diamonds and jewellery but there you have it. He thought it was a great idea."

Seagar's mumsy talk has become another trademark of her telly cooking style. How does she get away with it?

"It's a worry to be famous for that, isn't it? To be famous for it," she admits. "I hadn't realised I was saying things like that because they [the programmes] are filmed in advance. Yummy scrummy, easy peasy, it's a doddle - can I imagine saying that 10 times in a show! But obviously I did. And now it follows me everywhere."

Viewers don't seem to have taken exception, judging by the ratings for the hit show. The success of Real Food For Real People was a "lovely" surprise, Seagar says.

"I knew there would be like-minded people out there. I've done a lot of cooking classes and I knew there was a demand for entertaining tips and hints on how to do splendid dinner parties that would be memorable but not your whole life's work to make happen. But I hadn't realised the huge extent.

I've had 7000 letters."

Fame has a price - especially in supermarkets - but Seagar, who says she enjoys any "I've seen you on TV" approaches from the public, is happy to pay it.

"They do watch what I'm getting. I heard two women say, 'There's Jo Seagar', and we chatted away. Then as I shot off down past the cheese and things I heard one say to the other, 'Look, did you see she had Mallowpuffs in her trolley? You'd think she'd make her own.'

"And I thought, oh golleee! I have to pretend I'm buying a lot of those pizza bases and frozen curries for neighbours and friends, they wouldn't possibly be for me."

Her show has copped some criticism, she says, for its high-fat recipes. "My answer is it's food for entertaining, it's not everyday, it's special treats."

But rich food and well-rounded telly cooks seem to be striking a chord. Take the appealing British duo Two Fat Ladies, for example. "And me," she says happily.

"I'm a great believer in health being mental, physical and social wellbeing. I'm a very fit and healthy person, I can't remember having a cold or flu. I'm very mentally well.

There's so much more to it than just body shape."

There are low-fat recipes in her programmes, she points out. "For Christmas dinner I've made this wonderful angel food cake which is low-fat and terribly good for you."

No, how can angel-food cake be good for you? "Well, it's got no fat in it, it's egg white and very low sugar. It's a lovely light cake and fabulous with fresh fruit. But we've said, hey, this is Christmas. Whack on a dollop of gorgeous, scrumptious whipped cream, maybe with a slosh of brandy, what the hell. It is Christmas and it would be a sad sort of story if you couldn't do it then."

Impossible to contemplate such misery. The sun's shining and it's off to the beach for the photo shoot. Do we need another "snacky thing" before we go?

What an agreeable suggestion. Out comes a round of panini filled with chicken, lettuce, tomato and a hint of fresh coriander. Delish.

What: Jo Seagar's Easy Peasy Xmas

Where: TV One

When: 8 pm, Tuesday

-7DAYS, 12/11/98