Since her first cookbook was published in 1966 (The Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook), her mission has been simple. “To encourage people to cook, to bake and enjoy it,” she says. Television? No problem. “I think television is like a huge cookery class. That’s the joy of the masterclass element in this show. Once viewers have seen people attempt something like a Battenberg cake, and get into trouble, then I come along and slowly and carefully show them how to make the perfect Battenberg, stopping when it might go wrong and encouraging them to have a go at home.”
Home, and the straightforward pleasures therein (rather than sex, travel, swearing, weeping or any other of the current hooks for television cooking shows), is at the centre of the Mary Berry vision. “I do family recipes for different occasions. I don’t use too many different ingredients,” she smiles. “I don’t use ingredients that people aren’t going to use again. And I don’t make things complicated.”
A typical recipe will have no long list of different tasks, no weird spices, and no requirements for bizarre utensils such as octagonal saucepans. Is it any wonder her books are so popular?
“I am the first person to go out and buy puff pastry made from butter,” she says. “I won’t make things that are going to take an awful long time, because people have other things to do with their time. You have family life, don’t you?”
This is a somewhat bittersweet observation, since Mary and her husband, Paul, were bereaved 20 years ago when William, one of their three children, died in a car crash. “We were lucky to have him. And if he walked through the door now I would say, ‘Where have you been, young man? Come on,’” she says briskly.
The loss is still clearly felt today. “It doesn’t go. And we miss him enormously. As a family [she has a daughter, Annabel, and a son, Thomas] we are forever talking about Will. We remember the good and the bad, he was naughty just like the rest of the children, at times. But every family has something that happens in their lives.”
Languishing is not something that Mary does. Looking on the positive side, even amid the horror of losing a child, is the MB way. “I am really pleased that if he was to die, that he didn’t leave a wife and children,” she says. “Because you know, that would have been a sadness for them. And he died at a time when he was truly successful with his sport and his school, and he was totally happy with himself. So we have really nice memories of him. He had done well.”
It takes fortitude, being able to say that about your son of just 19 years, who died at the wheel on his way to pick up a paper at the village shop. And it’s what seems to have sustained and pushed her forward through an impressively long career.
“I like to be busy. But after Will died, I didn’t want to continue working in London. I wanted to be at home with my husband. So that is when I set up the Aga Cookschool. And that didn’t half fill my mind. Fortunately it was very successful and I loved every minute of it.”