Celebrity interview: Mary Berry, Queen of Baking

'I really do enjoy seeing people sitting around a table eating good, honest food' (c) BBC Pictures

'I really do enjoy seeing people sitting around a table eating good, honest food' (c) BBC Pictures - Credit: sub

Bernard Bale chats family, polio and being a bad student with Mary Berry - and even gets her to share a recipe with us

It’s been another exciting year for Mary Berry, Britain’s Queen of the Kitchen, whose earliest culinary conquests were in the kitchens of the family home in Bath where she was born into a baking dynasty.

Mary Berry is not just the Queen of Baking but an inspiration to women of all ages. Now in her early 80s she is still a big television star and looks like staying at the top for many years to come – after all, her mother lived to be 105.

When she was 13 and growing up in Bath, Mary contracted polio. The legacy is still with her as she has a twisted spine and a left arm and hand which are thinner than her right. Did she feel sorry for herself? No, she gained strength from her affliction.

“I was in hospital for three months, away from my family,” she says. “One of the things I missed about home was the smell of the fruit pies and tarts that my mother would bake on Sunday mornings. It would have been easy to get depressed but somehow it toughened me up and made me realise that I must make the most of life, whatever the odds might be.”

She certainly did. Perhaps it helped that Mary’s great-great-grandfather was a master baker by the name of Robert Houghton but that was not at the back of her mind when she found herself working for Bath electricity board and teaching customers how to use their new cookers.

“It was an ideal start for me. I wasn’t a very good pupil at school, in fact I really didn’t like any of the subjects, except cookery. I had an inspirational cookery teacher, Miss Date, and she was the sort that presented it so that you couldn’t help but enjoy the subject. When it came to leaving school I couldn’t think of anything else other than something to do with cooking.

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“I had studied catering and institutional management at Bath College of Domestic Science and I felt very comfortable making Victoria sponge so I used to go to people’s homes and show them how to make a one using their new electric cooker. It was great fun and I think it gave me a taste for showing people how to do things, especially in the kitchen.

“I went on various other courses myself including one in France. I struggled with that one. Everyone was very nice but I was homesick and on one occasion I found myself eating horse, which was awful because I loved the pony I had left behind in Bath.”

Jobs came and went as Mary tried to find her real vehicle and perhaps it was when she became food editor of a magazine that things really started to take shape.

“That opened different ideas and opportunities for me. I had gone through the right door and eventually that led to me having books published and getting more creative, as well as getting in front of the public,” Mary recalls.

It is fair to say that Mary Berry was a pioneer among a new breed of career women. She learned how to juggle her time and attention between work and her family, to whom she was devoted.

“I had three children but I also had to fit in doing work,” she says. “I was a freelance and that helped because it meant that my work was a bit more flexible, but the children had to be taken to school and fetched. I found that like a lot of working mums I permanently felt guilty, but I always made sure that I was there at all of their school events and at home to cook the family supper in the evenings. I also made sure that I was a mum that they could talk to and never be too busy for them.

“Very few of my friends worked and things were very different back then, You didn’t get maternity leave like you do now, but I really loved what I was doing. My family came first but my work was also important to me.”

It would be nice to say that the rest of Mary Berry’s story is delightful history but it has not all been sunshine for our favourite cook. In 1989 her 19-year-old son William died in a motor accident.

“It was dreadful of course and it was difficult to find any positives from something like that in your life but I think it brought us even closer as a family.Our two other children, Thomas and Annabel were a great support to us.”

As she has said, family is very important to Mary. It is the feeling of close family that has been one of her greatest cooking inspirations, hence her latest book, Family Sunday Lunches.

“I think it is a maternal thing to a great degree but I do love to have people round a table to enjoy a good meal,” she explains. “That mostly means family but I like to cook for friends too. Of course I enjoy all kinds of cooking and baking but a really nice roast dinner is something that everyone loves and it is always well worth the effort involved. I really do enjoy seeing people sitting around a table eating good, honest food.”

Despite her setbacks Mary gritted her teeth and always carried on and here she is today, one of the most popular and successful ladies on and off our TV screens.

She was awarded a CBE in 2012 and is also a Freeman of the City of London, a Freeman of the City of Bath and received an Honorary Degree from Bath Spa University. She has certainly battled against the odds – and won!

With a new TV series this year, Mary has never been so busy and she is loving every minute of it.

“I like to be on the go, I can get bored very easily,” she says. “I am always looking forward to achieving one thing and then moving on to the next challenge. It feels that I am alive when I am busy. I also think I am very fortunate to be fit and healthy at my age. A lot of my peers aren’t and so I do feel lucky. I think I have to put it down to good genes as my mother lived so long but also a healthy diet and a little bit of exercise.

“That doesn’t mean that I go to the gym or anything like that but I like to walk and I am still known to play an occasional game of tennis. I don’t expect to star at Wimbledon though – unless it has something to do with strawberry tarts.

“I think also there is a lot to be said for the good old Somerset air – there is nothing healthier.”

In her new TV show Mary Berry’s Secrets From Britain’s Great Houses, Mary samples the culinary histories of stately homes and creates new recipes inspired by her visits.

“I have always had an inquiring mind so I know I will be inspired by the great houses we visit,” she says. “My heart remains in Somerset though.”

See the recipe for Mary Berry’s classic fruit cake here.