Mary Berry is undoubtedly the nation’s favourite food writer. With more than 70 books to her name – including her recently published autobiography – and her role as co-judge on The Great British Bake Off, she can, it seems, do no wrong. Laura James went to meet her.
Mary Berry opens her newly published autobiography, Recipe for Life, with the revelation that “in the words of my father, my birth caused no end of trouble”. We soon learn that this was because she arrived two weeks early and on the very day her parents were due to move house. Having known Mary for more than 15 years, I suspect this was probably the first and last time in her 78 years that she caused any trouble for anyone. Visiting her at home in Buckinghamshire is always a joy and not only because of the delicious lunch that is invariably served just at the moment one starts to feel peckish. The Queen Anne-style house is quintessentially English; all comfortable rooms, gently faded Beatrix Potter colours and sofas one can flop down in. The drawing room overlooks a huge pond, which provides a home for Mary’s beloved ducks, and her cherished vegetable and herb garden. Both Mary and the house have always reminded me of the final lines of Rupert Brooke’s poem, The Old Vicarage, Granchester. At Mary’s you know there will be “beauty yet to find, and certainty and quiet kind” and you can be absolutely sure that if there isn’t honey, there definitely will be tea and a rather generous slice of cake.
The Mary Berry one sees on television is the very same in real life. She is giving of her time, unceasingly kind, scrupulously fair and always reluctant to make any comment which might hurt or disappoint. This generosity of spirit is at its most obvious when she has to offer criticism on The Great British Bake Off. While her co-judge, Paul Hollywood, is happy to get right in there and say that something tastes foul or looks hideous, Mary always finds something positive to say, even about the most spectacular of culinary catastrophes. The BBC Two surprise hit has catapulted Mary to the kind of fame usually reserved for boy bands, but it has left her remarkably unchanged. I ask if she thinks this would be different had she become this well known in her 20s. “I wouldn’t have been asked to judge The Great British Bake Off then,” she says, “because I wouldn't have had the experience. I was asked to judge it because I have experience of baking. I’ve written lots of baking books, I know what works and what doesn’t. That kind of knowledge takes years to acquire.”
Cooking has been a staple throughout Mary’s career, which is one of the reasons she has built up such a knowledge base. She does what she loves and what she is good at and would never, ever, be seen on a programme such as Celebrity Big Brother or I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. Her career began in her home town of Bath at the Electricity Board showroom, and later zipping round in her Ford Popular company car, making home visits to show customers how to use their new electric cookers. Later, she worked for PR agency Bensons, where she wrote the first of more than 70 books and also worked as food editor on both Housewife and Ideal Home magazines. Seated at her kitchen table, Mary ponders a little longer on the nature of fame, before popping on her reading glasses and focusing on a newspaper article by Alan Titchmarsh. “He’s brilliant on the subject,” Mary says, quoting the piece. “Here he says, ‘remember that fame is a by-product, not a goal in itself ’. “He also says, ‘Don’t waste time tweeting. No one else is remotely admiring of your daily life’. He is so right and I think he’s quite brilliant.” Mary's long-time assistant Lucy Young – a talented food writer in her own right – describes working with her as “a real privilege”.“The great thing about Mary,” she says, “is that she is incredibly knowledgeable and very generous with that knowledge. She wants people to do the best they can and to be happy. “She’s my best friend and like a second mum to me. She hasn’t changed a jot in the 20 years I’ve been here. Of course things have gone mad for her recently, but I’m the one who has to remind her to put some lippy on because people will recognise her. She just doesn’t realise what a national treasure she is!” Of course Mary is now widely considered to be a fashion icon too. She laughs at this and says: “I think I’m dressing for my age, but with a bit of fun.”
Mary’s figure would be the envy of a woman half her age. She puts this down to being sensible about food and her good genes – her mother lived to 105. “I don’t take any vitamins or do anything special. I simply eat a balanced diet and eating a bit of everything, but not too much. I do take it easy the day after the Bake Off!” Over lunch the talk turns to Christmas. “I love Christmas,” Mary says, “I think it’s a family time. I love all the build-up to it. I don't really think about it until December, but I try to get my cards done by the end of November. I have yet to achieve that though! “We usually have a turkey, but I have had goose in the past. I do most of the cooking. The family like to help and if anyone wants to contribute with a Christmas pudding or mince pies, they’re more than welcome.
“We have had Christmas at my daughter Annabel’s and I’ve taken the turkey with me. It’s really quite easy; you just cook it in the AGA, then wrap it up in foil and lots of covers. I got it to Annabel's within an hour and it was still surprisingly hot.” “We’re quite traditional at Christmas. I wouldn’t dream of going on holiday. We go to one of the children on Boxing Day and to the other on Christmas Eve. We do presents on Christmas afternoon, but the little ones have already had some presents, so it’s nicely spun out. “It’s great having an AGA cooker at Christmas as it’s always ready. Even if someone has a Total Control model, they’re bound to have it switched fully on over Christmas and, if not, it’s so quick to heat up. It’s brilliant that if people suddenly decide to drop in you have something to give them. I do soufflé croutons, which I take from the freezer, pop in the roasting oven and they’re ready in 10 minutes.
“When I first had an AGA cooker I fussed about temperatures, but I've never thought about it since – there’s no need to. “An AGA cooker is such a comfort. Imagine this kitchen without an AGA? We'd be sitting here in a very chilly kitchen, wishing we had a radiator on. Instead, the AGA is there to welcome us. Even if you walk in the door with fish and chips that you’ve bought on the way home, you immediately set the chips out on a roasting tin and put the fish at one end – it makes life easy.” It was around 20 years ago that Mary began doing her ‘AGA days’ at home, when she would teach her paying guests everything they needed to know about AGA cooking. Impressively, more than 14,000 people came through her door for these hugely popular classes. She gave up doing these just before The Great British Bake Off came along, believing the time was right to start taking things just a little easier. But rather than being able to slow down, Mary is busier than ever. The BBC has screened a documentary about her life; she has made numerous TV, radio and personal appearances; and Recipe for Life was recently published. “Thank goodness it’s done,” Mary laughs. “Once I got into writing my autobiography I enjoyed doing it, but it was very daunting at the start. Looking through old photographs helped. I did it decade-bydecade and collected thoughts from that period and made notes. “Catherine, who was helping me, interviewed a lot of people, including Lucy, the children, various producers and friends, for their views. So I was not saying how clever I am or how daunting it was. The views came from someone else. I didn’t really want to relive certain times at all. I don’t want to go back, I’m always looking forward. I’m an optimist, I think.”
Mary will also be back on our screens in the spring, with a new BBC Two programme, Mary Berry Cooks. “It’s all about real, family cooking with all the short cuts,” she says. “It’s mainly things we all do, such as a summer buffet, a dinner party, kitchen suppers. A bit of everything really. It was filmed here and lots of my friends are in it, as we had a bit of a gathering to eat the food at the end of each episode. I haven't seen it yet. I’ll wait until it's been viewed by the powers that be.”