The big interview: Mary Berry

Mary Berry
Mary Berry
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Mary Berry may turn 80 next year, but the Queen of Cakes has never been busier. Catherine Scott tries her best to catch up with her.

Talking to Mary Berry it is hard not to be infected by her zest for life. She may have just turned 79 but she lives life at the pace of someone far younger.

Mary Berry

Mary Berry

“I like to be on the go,” says the Queen of Cakes. And it is lucky as the doyenne of family cooking has never been more in demand. She is busy filming the fifth series of the Great British Bake Off with Paul Hollywood, has just finished her solo show, Mary Berry Cooks, for BBC2 with accompanying recipe book and is now preparing to star in the first spring BBC Good Food Show in Harrogate later this month.

“My mum went to college in Harrogate and I am very much looking forward to visiting again,” she says. “I feel 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 put it down to good genes, a healthy diet and a little bit of exercise. I don’t go to the gym, but I do play tennis.”

Longevity is definitely in the genes. Her mother Marjorie died at the ripe old age of 105 and there is nothing to show that her daughter won’t match and surpass this achievement.

However health hasn’t always been on Mary Berry’s side. As a child she contracted polio and had to spend three months in hospital. This resulted in her having a twisted spine, a weaker left hand and thinner left arm.

She says that the period of forced separation from her family whilst in hospital “toughened her up” and taught her to make the most of every opportunity she would have.

Family is very important to her. She says it is what inspires her to cook and was why she very much wanted to make her recent BBC series.

“It was all about family cooking which is what I am all about. I want to get people sitting around a table eating good, honest food.”

Mary Berry is known to an entire generation of television viewers as one of half of of the Mary Berry/ Paul Hollywood double act as judges on BBC’s smash hit The Great British Bake Off.

Known for her tough but fair judging, to the current generation she is definitely the Queen of Cakes and harsh critic of the “soggy bottom”.

But to previous generations Mary Berry was the champion of family cooking; it was she who helped many a home cook learn how to master the challenges of Aga cooking, writing a number of recipe books exclusively for Agas. She has written 70 cookery books in total.

“People nowadays know me for baking, but really I am about all round family meals and I have really enjoyed being able to show that in my latest series and cookery book,” she says. “The Great British Bake Off has been amazing and I love every minute, but it has been nice to do other things, I do have quite a savoury tooth.”

Her name may now be synonymous with cooking, but Berry ended up with a career in the kitchen almost by chance.

“I wasn’t very good at school, in fact I really didn’t like any of the subjects, except cookery. I had an inspirational cookery teacher, Miss Date, and so I enjoyed it. When I left school I thought ‘I’ve got to do something’ and I decided that catering was the life for me and I went and did a catering qualification.”

Her ambition was to move out of the family home in Bath to London, something which her parents would not allow until she turned 21.

At the age of 22, she applied to work at the Dutch Dairy Bureau, while taking City & Guilds courses in the evenings. She then persuaded her manager to pay for her to undertake the professional qualification from the French Le Cordon Bleu school and she moved to France.

She then became a recipe tester for PR firm Benson’s, where she wrote her first book.

In the 1960s she became the cookery editor of Housewife magazine, followed by Ideal Home magazine. Television work soon followed. Her first television series Afternoon Plus with Judith Chalmers came out in the early 70s and was a big hit with a lot of British mothers.

Mary Berry was one of the first career women who knew what it was like to juggle work with bringing up a family.

“I had three children I had to fit in doing work,” she explains. “I was freelance which was a bit more flexible, but the children had to be taken to school and fetched. You permanently feel guilty. But I would always make sure I was there at school events and home to cook supper in the evenings.

“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 loved what I was doing.”

Berry, who has been married to husband Paul for 47 years, was devastated when their son William died in a car crash in 1989, aged just 19.

Coping with that terrible loss has, she says, given her the ability to remain unruffled in any situation.

She has two other children, Thomas and mother-of-three Annabel and is very much enjoying being a doting grandma. She cooks with them regularly, passing on her joy of all things culinary to them.

“We make all sorts of different things together. They get to choose what we make. Often it’s something like homemade jam. They just love it.”

She believes that everyone can make time to prepare and cook good home meals.

“I don’t mind cutting a few corners,” she admits.

“Why spend hours making flaky pastry when you can buy perfectly good ready-made? But I don’t agree that people haven’t got the time to cook properly.”

She does believe that home cooking is making a resurgence, believing it is one way to tackle the obesity crisis.

“I think a balanced diet is the way to stay fit and healthy,” says the slim 79 year old who is never short of an opinion.

“People have too much sugar in their diet. There is no need to add extra sugar to your diet. It also about sensible portion sizes and not going back for second helpings. Children will eat fruit or a carrot if they are hungry, but a lot of parents offer them a bag of crisps instead.”

As well as being hailed as the Queen of Cakes, Mary Berry is also being held up as a fashion icon, and although it has come as something of a surprise, it isn’t something she has any intention of discouraging.

“People are very nice, they seem to like what I wear,” she says after last year being listed as one of the 50 best-dressed over 50s by a national newspaper. “I like to wear things that suit me for my age. I don’t want to wear anything too short or low cut. I do think people tend to dress a bit too young sometimes.”

Does turning 80 worry her?

“Not at all,” she says. “I’m just extremely grateful to be as fit as I am. I think I have taken every opportunity that’s come my way, even if it isn’t always the exact thing I wanted to do. You never know what’s round the corner.”

And she has no intention of slowing down her hectic lifestyle.

“Why would I? I’m having so much fun,” she says with a mischievous giggle.