I must have interviewed Mary Berry at least a dozen times and, in a world that seems full of odd twists and turns, there’s something comforting about the cosy domesticity at which she excels. She looks completely at home in her new kitchen, even though she and her husband, Paul, have not yet moved in but have spent the odd night there. Mary is looking to the future, says she is not at all nostalgic about the past and has no qualms about leaving her home of 29 years.
“Moving house is a new chapter,” she says. “I’m not looking back, I’m looking forward. It is very exciting to start afresh and there seems to be room for all our old favourites to fit in here and there.”
The new house in Oxfordshire is 35 minutes from the last in Buckinghamshire.
“Once you’re in the car you’re practically there. We can walk into the little town, which is essential when you’re looking to the future. One of us might not drive and it’s lovely to be able to walk to a shop or have coffee. We all agreed we needed to be near the young and yet we also wanted to be near our dear friends that we’ve known for 50 years.”
Work on the new house has been extensive. In all, 42 new windows have been fitted and Mary is new to it all – her last house, which she lived in for 29 years, required no work at all.
“There, we just moved in,” Mary says. “The person who lived there before had made it absolutely delightful, so we didn’t have to do much at all.”
The new house has been 18 months in the making and Mary has called upon a host of experts to help, including kitchen designer Nick Anderson at Guild Anderson. Her architect, David Rhodes, “went through every detail and couldn’t have been more helpful.
“It’s baffling when you’re very busy,” she adds. “I’m a cook, I’m not an expert on starting from scratch on a house. Luckily, my daughter’s sister-in-law, Leonie Bosher, is an interior designer and she’s been delightful. Together, we’ve chosen beautiful curtains, just the right colour walls and carpet. I’m so happy with the results and she lives round the corner, which makes it all the easier.”
It’s almost impossible to think about Mary before one’s thoughts move to Lucy Young, her assistant of 29 years. Mary tells me Lucy has had great input into the house, helping select fabric and wallpaper and planning her own office.
“She’s so excited about it – every drawer, every surface, she’s picked,” Mary says.
One thing Mary was sure on from the start was that an AGA was a must-have. Her new model is a 3-oven AGA Dual Control, which she chose for its flexibility. The ovens are on all the time, but the hotplates only need to be switched on when they’re needed, meaning the kitchen is always cosy, something Mary relies on – “I’m a cold mortal,” she jokes.
“I don’t move without an AGA. It’s part of my life. When people ask about it I always say the most important thing is the warmth. Oh, and by the way, it cooks brilliantly. Now I have a Dual
Control, which is wonderful as it’s so much more economical. I can turn the hotplates off when I don’t need them and can have the ovens on at half power or on full.
“I didn’t for a minute consider not having an AGA. It takes the thinking out of cooking. I use it for all sorts of other things too. I put seeds at the back of the AGA to dry out. When I buy too many mushrooms, I slice them up and put them at the back of the AGA to dry. I wash my cashmere clothes in the washing machine and hang them by the AGA. It does so many jobs for me. I couldn’t imagine life without it.”
Mary’s cocker spaniel, Darcey – named after Darcey Bussell because she’s so light on her feet and very beautiful – also loves the warmth and can often be found curled up by the AGA.
“The colour of the AGA was very exciting because Leonie and I had chosen the colours for the kitchen and I knew I wanted a grey AGA but there wasn’t quite the right shade in the range at the time. So, AGA made it specially for me. I matched it to the colour of a jumper. It’s a lovely colour and it goes with everything. It’s now in the range and is called Slate.
“I have three ovens on this one – roasting and baking and you can keep things warm in the simmering oven. It’s a very versatile machine. I have two favourite ovens: the roasting one as I want things in next to no time, and the simmering oven because often I want to reheat. Providing I’ve cooked it beautifully to start with
I find that reheating a casserole in the simmering oven works best for me as you don’t break up the meat, you just give it an occasional stir.”
Another of Mary’s passions is gardening. She’ll be at the Chelsea Flower Show working for the BBC and in her role as an ambassador for the Royal Horticultural Society. She says she has no gardening qualifications but instead goes with “an enquiring mind”.
The new house was extended so a terrace has been created, an Alitex greenhouse erected and six raised beds built for a vegetable garden.
“We’ve started from scratch with the garden here,” Mary says. “I’ve admired Bunny Guinness’s practical gardening style for many years. She really has more vision than I do and has been brilliant. I wanted it to be similar to our old garden, but condensed.
“I’m a bit odd because for the past year I’ve been bringing our compost from the kitchen in the old house to a compost heap here. So now I’ve got a beautiful compost heap ready for next year. It’s very important to feed your plants, as well as your family and friends. Everybody is coming from the old house, including Kevin the gardener. He knows the plants we like and together we look after them well. He’s a plantsman and I love gardening with him.”
Mary’s work life shows no signs of slowing down. “I have a new series coming out at the end of February called Quick about cooking quickly. You can certainly do that with the AGA. My tip would be use a wide-based pan when you want to cook fast. If you put a litre of water in a small deep pan it’s going to take twice as long to boil as in a shallower pan.”
She’s also busy working on the next series of Britain’s Best Home Cook and her generous judging style continues to win her fans.
“There’s no point in being horrid to people if they cook something nasty,” she says. “You explain where they’ve gone wrong and encourage them to do better next time.” Few would argue with that and it is this fair and kind approach that has helped make Mary one of our best-loved television personalities.