Stirring stuff

The legendary Queen of Cakes Mary Berry is not just a sweet-talker but a lady with a formidable work ethic. Katharine Capocci catches up with The Great British Bake Off star ahead of a visit to the region.

The talk may be sweet, ranging from baking, cakes and cookbooks to ‘that’ Zara bomber jacket, but there’s no mistaking there’s a hint of steel to Mary Berry, Britain’s favourite home cook.

Our telephone chat is scheduled for 9.30am – and very glad I am that I ring through to her home in Buckinghamshire on the dot, my precision duly noted by Mary herself. Not a minute earlier, not a minute after… She is full of charm with a matronly, faintly formidable ‘no messing’ edge as she chats away easily for the duration of our interview, deftly but charmingly batting away any questions she doesn’t want to tackle.

Not even 10am and this super-organised doyenne of home cooking has “been to the hairdressers, done the shopping and back home”. It’s close to Christmas but Mary explains (should I be surprised?), she’s “absolutely fine for Christmas”. And she was on savoury duty this time, cooking a turkey for a big family get-together at her son’s home.

“I’m going to my son’s and I shall be cooking the turkey here, then I shall wrap the turkey up and it’s about an hour’s journey. There will be a big crowd of us all sharing the cooking tasks.”

The 79-year-old blue-eyed star of BBC1’s The Great British Bake Off has encouraged a new generation of home cooks and inspired millions more of us to dust off cake tins and don pinnies.

One of the nation’s most respected cookery writers, Mary has over 70 cookbooks to her name, although she modestly admits she doesn’t even know the exact number and insists some of them are more like booklets.

She’s currently riding high with the success of several cookbooks, among them the number one best-selling Mary Berry Cooks. Other latest titles include Mary Berry Cooks The Perfect, Mary Berry At Home, Family Sunday Lunches and Mary Berry’s Complete Cookbook. Millions of us swear by the latter bumper-sized tome of over 1000 family favourites, updated in 2012.

She concedes: “I’m very lucky. My feet are very much on the ground. I love what I do and it’s very interesting.”  

She does admit the rise in popularity in baking is in part down to the phenomenal success of Bake Off. Incredibly, some 13.5 million viewers tuned in for last year’s final, which successfully transferred from BBC2 to primetime BBC1 in 2014.

“Of course, it’s The Great British Bake Off. It’s something you can do at home and enjoy with the family. People watch the Bake Off and think. ‘I will have a go’ and it’s got families together and many of the things you go out together to are very expensive whereas cooking at home need not be expensive.”

Mary and her co-judge, baker Paul Hollywood, preside over the antics of amateur cooks tackling a series of weekly baking challenges. It’s fair to say there’s a sprinkling of tears, tantrums and soggy bottom traumas in the marquee mix. And it really wouldn’t be the same without cheeky co-presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins giving it the odd stir.

There’s a genuine warmth between her and Paul, whom she treats rather like a naughty schoolboy when he steps out of line! “We get on very well. We are totally different. I respect him. He’s a brilliant bread maker and he realises I know a bit about cakes.”

With another series of Bake Off in the offing, 2015 is shaping up to be yet another busy year for Mary, who turns 80 in March, and will mark the milestone with her family. She lives with husband Paul Hunnings, who often accompanies her on appearances at fairs, and is mum to Tom and Annabel. Sadly, her other son, William, was killed in a car crash, aged just 19.

Remarkably, Mary shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. “I have done a new series for TV, Absolute Favourites.” BBC Books will publish the accompanying book of the series airing in spring, Mary Berry’s Absolute Favourites, which will include 100 new recipes, on 26 February. Filming starts too in April/May on the sixth series of Bake Off.

As well as her own kitchen products range in John Lewis and Sainsbury’s; “they are very good quality,” she says, as you’d expect, Mary makes a number of appearances at the BBC Good Food Shows and other foodie fairs for cookery demos and Q&A sessions.

She is no stranger to our own region having visited a number of times in the last few years, including a fair at Newcastle Racecourse for a cookery demo and Q&A and Eggleston Hall in Barnard Castle. She’s next in the North East on 28 March for the opening of the flagship new Barker & Stonehouse furniture store in Stockton.

“I haven’t been yet but it’s very high quality. I’m opening the new store and I will be taking part in Q&As. Anyone can ask what they like. I’m doing two Q&As. I’m looking forward to coming to Barker & Stonehouse. It sounds as though it’s an amazing store. It’s very big – the biggest furniture store in Britain I’m told.”

Any talk of her being a role model is swatted away, even though the title’s well deserved. Mary, who received a CBE in 2012 and is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the prestigious Guild of Food Writers among her many accolades, trained at The Cordon Bleu in Paris and Bath School of Home Economics.

In the sixties she became the cookery editor of Housewife magazine, followed by Ideal Home magazine. Her first TV series, Afternoon Plus, with Judith Chalmers, aired in the early 70s. Throughout the 80s she continued writing books and filming TV series for the BBC from her home.

Her top-selling books sell well for good reason. “We research them very well. We test the recipes. We don’t have too many ingredients. They are practical recipes that people enjoy. They work, in short.”

She is still learning, she admits, and takes inspiration from all chefs. “I admire the chefs. They teach me all sorts of tips and techniques. When you go out for a meal you want to have something that’s too complicated at home. I admire them – I watch them all and still pick up tips.”

Her own favourite dishes – especially for big gatherings – are the family ones that her extended brood can tuck into.

“I like all the family dishes. I do an updated lasagne with sausagemeat. I fry until it’s all crispy and delicious. I do cottage pies and shepherd’s pies and we all love fish pies. Mary likes the fish pies because “everything goes in at once; it’s not too much washing up”.

For inspiration for her recipes she looks to the seasons and tries out new ingredients. “I try to cook things to have a twist on something I have done before and new ingredients. Some ingredients become popular like fennel and celeriac so I use them and I try to do recipes for things that they aren’t used to cooking.”

Although she insists she’s far from it, Mary’s a bit of a trend-setter, still donning jeans and snappy colourful jackets and scarves. And as for the kerfuffle over the floral silky £29.99 Zara bomber jacket she wore for one Bake Off show. The jacket sold out nationwide within days and saw the food writer acquire fashion icon status.

She explains the appeal of the jacket was really more for practical reasons: “I like the bomber jacket because I could put lots of things on underneath!” Particularly useful when filming on a chilly day in a draughty marquee in the middle of a field.

“I don’t know if I’m a trend-setter. I wear clothes for people of my age. I don’t wear too short, too tight or too much decollete. I wear things that are cheerful and not ‘mutton dressed as lamb’. I wear a lot of jackets.

“I think you should dress to your figure. I’m reasonably small and I’m a great one for comfort. All the things that I wear are comfortable. There are so many shops now, Zara and Jaeger etc. They are reasonably priced and stylish and good fabrics. “I dress myself for normal but we have a stylist on Bake Off but I usually choose the outfit myself.”

On the subject of cooking in schools, she says: “It’s being encouraged more. It’s coming back now. My aim would be that children can cook 8 to 10 nutritious meals that aren’t junk food.” Something that would see teenagers better able to cope “when they go off to uni or apprenticeships”.

As in other areas of her life, Mary exercises iron control when it comes to her own diet. “I have a healthy diet. I have sensible size portions and say no to a second slice.” To mangle her catchphrase, what more sensible advice to avoid a saggy bottom…

This interview with Mary Berry was taken from issue 32, Jan/Feb 2015.