Mary Berry: The Queen Bee of Baking

PUBLISHED: 11:27 16 November 2012 | UPDATED: 16:17 26 October 2015

Mary Berry: The Queen Bee of Baking

Mary Berry: The Queen Bee of Baking

Is Mary Berry showing any signs of slowing down? It's as unlikely as one of her souffles failing to rise, says Katie Jarvis

Mary Berry: The Queen Bee of Baking

Is Mary Berry showing any signs of slowing down? It’s as unlikely as one of her soufflés failing to rise, says Katie Jarvis

Signature bake? Technical bake? Showstopper bake?

Pah! Producing 25 perfectly-square fondant fancies is a doddle compared to trying to interview Mary Berry. Her assistant, Lucy Young, is so lovely and helpful. It’s just that (at a time of life when you might be expecting more crumble and less whisk) Mary Berry is busier than ever – and there’s a constant stream of media requests at her Queen Anne door.

Somehow, I make it through to the final round; but when I phone at my appointed time of 9am, there’s no reply. I wait three minutes (the amount of extra time I allow a sponge that’s not quite golden all over) and call back. “I’m so sorry,” she says, answering immediately this time. “I was in the kitchen, unloading the dishwasher.”

Unloading the dishwasher? Unloading the dishwasher? But you’re Mary Berry! The writer of the first cookbook I ever bought. And now, decades on, still Queen Bee of Baking, aristocrat of the Aga, and author of the only lemon drizzle cake-recipe I’ve ever needed.

In this 21st century world, Mary Berry is a contradiction. A delightful contradiction. She looks beautiful, but with a rare dignity that owes nothing to surgeons or potions. Hers is a beauty that demands due respect for skills and experience gained over a lifetime of hard work. Her cookbooks have sold round the world in their millions, yet her mantra is the same as her mother’s once was: Before you think what to have for supper, see what there is to be used up in the fridge. She speaks with the clipped tones of a good background – strict headmistress of a posh girls’ school, perhaps - but with a warmth that softens the blows she has to deliver as a judge on the nation’s unexpectedly favourite programme,

The Great British Bake Off.

Why is it so popular, this show that pits 12 bakers against each other in stickily Herculean challenges: gingerbread houses, mille-feuille, pork pies, profiteroles?

“I think it’s successful because everybody can follow it,” Mary says. “They like the fact that the bakers are all amateur – they’ve never been employed in any form of cooking. People say: ‘That could be me! That could be my auntie. She does it like that’.  It tempts people to actually bake the things.”

The only time I’ve thought, “That could be me” is when Danny dropped a chocolate sponge onto her shoe. But I know what she means. There’s something engagingly ordinary about the contestants. Who can forget young mum Cathryn’s anguished cry of ‘Oh my giddy aunt’ when her teacakes failed to set? And who can honestly say they didn’t shed a tear when vicar’s wife Sarah-Jane was (gently) booted off?

Isn’t it awful, having to deliver such blows?

“It is terribly hard and I hate it but you’ve got to; and you just have to remember to be totally fair, whether it’s boys, girls, or whatever. You have to find the faults, find the pluses, and the best move on.”

And what about Mary’s fellow judge, Paul Hollywood; he of the withering ‘soggy-bottom’ put-down? The bad cop to her good. There’s a chemistry between them that, somehow, works. Why is that?

“The answer is I don’t know,” she smiles, “but it does, doesn’t it! It works.”

This author of more than 70 cookbooks, who also owns a hugely successful salad dressing and sauce business with daughter Annabel, lives in a stunning house in Buckinghamshire with husband, Paul, a dealer in antiquarian books and paintings.

But Mary’s origins are in Cotswold Life territory, for she grew up in Bath, where her father worked as a surveyor. What’s little known is that the city owes him a great debt. As well as serving as Mayor, Alleyne Berry founded the Bath Assembly (now Bath International Music Festival) and was a key mover in establishing the university at Claverton Down. “He was very much involved with Bath; he wanted it to become one of the leading tourist cities, which it has done and which it wasn’t. And he did everything to promote it,” Mary acknowledges, with obvious pride. “He qualified in the North but went to Bath and fell in love with the city and chose to work there.”

As a result, Mary and her two brothers enjoyed a childhood both urban and rural: picnicking, picking primroses and blackberries among the still-rural hedgerows, messing about on their father’s boat on the Avon. It was idyllic with a ‘but’. For at the age of 13, she contracted polio, spending three months in Bath’s isolation hospital, only able to view her mother through a window. It’s a trauma she dismisses – “It was more traumatic for my parents than for me because I didn’t really know what was going on” – but she still recalls the thrill of her dad bringing her much-loved pony into the orthopaedic hospital. Polio’s only lasting legacy is a ‘crumpled’ left hand which, she laughingly says, means she can’t darn socks. “I was lucky.”

She berates herself for not working at school and admits that her father was disappointed she wasn’t academic. But she was to achieve in her own way. After a couple of spells in France, she found her feet. “The first when I was 17, which I hated, because I’d never been away from home before”; nor did it help that their first meal was horsemeat, considering she’d left her beloved pony behind. The second visit was a Cordon Bleu course, which she loved. Shortly afterwards, her father had to sit up and take notice when she landed her first job, working for Bath Electricity Board on a salary of £1,000 a year.

Her successes since then owe everything to hard work. In between, she brought up three children – one of whom, William, tragically died in a car crash when he was 19. But despite her constantly busy life, Mary Berry has never lost her values. In fact, family life forms the core of her philosophy. “What I want people to do is to cook at home and sit down and eat it as a family,” she says. “I do a lot of preparing ahead so people can’t say, ‘oh, I’m working; I can’t do it’. I say, well you can do it all at the weekend and it will freeze.

“Eating together as a family is terribly important. If you want to know what your children are up to, they’re not going to tell you while the television is on, are they?”

It’s something she now does with her five grandchildren, who range in age from one to 10. “They came to stay this weekend and I did a pasta bake with the five-year-old. He was proud to bits to be able to bring it in to us all at lunchtime.”

The extended family will be together again this Christmas. “I will be doing the cooking but everybody brings something – a pudding, or some bits and bobs to go with the drinks. I’ll have done the laying of the table and the tree but we’ll all be in the kitchen.”

And then there’s the New Year. Mary has just finished filming something for the BBC (currently under wraps; but expect something different). And Bake Off starts filming again in April.

Slowing down? Mary Berry? It’s as unlikely as one of her soufflés failing to rise.


Latest from the Cotswold Life