The day Mary Berry came to tea

Emma Freud has a personal cooking lesson with the queen of baking herself...

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The day Mary Berry came to tea
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At this point, I need to declare an interest: I worship Mary Berry. I wrote a “Love Letter to the Bake Off” for RT last year and was consequently invited to take part in the Sport Relief GBBO. I have never worked so hard for anything in my life – including my college finals – and despite baking brownies containing candied bacon that almost caused Mary Berry to choke to death, I was named Star Baker. It was the greatest day of my life.

MB minus 3 hours

I push everything messy into a cupboard and remove from the kitchen shelves any objects that are ugly, non-colourful, inherited, or made by the children at ceramic cafés. I also hide the tortoise shelter, guinea-pig run, cat bed and dog bed, but can’t find anywhere for the full-size cardboard cutout of Kate Moss, so she stays in the kitchen.

MB minus 30 mins

I suddenly remember I am meant to be giving Mary Berry lunch, but have been too busy hiding the offensive crockery to prepare anything. I find some cheese and soda bread and wish I was Mary Berry, who would never have forgotten to make lunch for Mary Berry. Someone tweets me to check I have folded my loo paper into a point. I haven’t. I do.

Mary Berry Is In The House.

She walks up my front steps, flanked by a handsome driver and a lovely publicist, looking like a cross between the Queen of England and the most beautiful woman on earth. She is wearing a rabbit fur gilet. Badger (my cat) wanders over, clearly sensing his lunch has arrived, so I give him to Mary Berry. She holds my enormous, luxurious, silky black cat in her arms and says, “He’d make a lovely coat." First delight of the day... Mary Berry is funny.

Mary Berry is taken to “wardrobe” (the stylist has set it up in my bedroom) and “make-up” (the make-up artist has taken up residence in my bathroom). I follow her up the stairs like the most annoying host on earth, pointing out things in my home that I want her to see, like the framed photo of her on my desk. At this stage I am horrifying even myself. She chooses the clothes she wants for the photographs, and starts to undress. There is a look between the stylist and make-up artist that makes me realise I have outstayed my welcome. I exit, mortified.

The cooking lesson begins

I am standing in my own kitchen about to be tutored in baking by the Queen of Cake. I resist the urge to lick her. Have you always been a great cook, I ask. Were you good at school? “I was good at domestic science, which was lucky, because I wasn’t a good girl. I was naughty, I didn’t work. Isn’t that awful.”

When she left, her first job was for the Bath Electricity Board. “In those days, if you bought an electric oven, someone came to your home to show you how to cook in it. That person was me. I would teach them to cook a Victoria sponge in every oven.”

So how many VSs do you think you’ve made in your life, I ask. “On average, about one a week since I was 15 and I'm not 78. So... around 3,276.

Mary Berry and I fill the food processor with the ingredients for her lemon cake. “Oh,” I say, as we turn on the machine, “this is a no-baking-powder cake, how classy.”

“Oops,” says Mary Berry. “Have you got any baking powder, please?” We blend the ingredients into a moist lemony batter. “Ooh,” I say. “This is a sugar-free cake, how modern.”

“Oh Emma,” says Mary Berry, “you forgot the sugar!”

“But you’re the teacher!” I say.

“Yes, but this is your kitchen,” says Mary Berry.

The photographer moves in to capture the finished cake. “Can we put my cat in shot with the cake?” I ask. “And my guinea pig? Or will we get health and safety onto us?”

“I don’t give a stuff about health and safety,” says Mary Berry, “but I don’t like your guinea pig, horrid little claws.”

We finish the cake and I realise that: a) even Mary Berry can make mistakes, and b) she is still naughty.

Why we are here

Mary Berry has a new cooking programme out. It’s called Mary Berry Cooks and goes way, way beyond cake, to dinners, lunches, salads and pies... delicious, honest, English, gorgeous. I ask her if she has a mission for making it?

“I do believe that a family should eat together – as soon as their tummies are full, they talk. Your children tell you what they’re doing when they eat... If you don’t eat together you don’t know what’s going on in your family. And doing a cookery programme is like having an enormous cookery class. I’m a teacher, it’s what I do.”

To prove the point that she’s not all about a scone, Mary Berry produces a slow-cooked lamb with rosemary, paprika and mint. It’s cooked on a rack above a roasting tray. “Next time,” she whispers, “put some Dauphinoise potatoes into the roasting tray. The juice from the lamb will fall onto the creamy potatoes. Rather lovely, don’t you think?

The great Mary Berry lemon tip

One of the things that makes Mary Berry remarkable is that as a child she survived years of serious illness when she was crippled with polio. As an adult she is still affected, it’s just that she doesn’t pay it any heed. She leans over.

“Look, my spine is all curved here. It looks strange when I wear a swimming costume, but it’s fine in a jersey, isn’t it? It doesn’t bother me.”

Despite never having missed an episode of Bake Off, I’d never noticed before that one of her hands is tightened and contracted – nothing is going to stop her chopping, zesting or paring, and she has a manicure every three weeks to keep them pretty. Her hip is twisted, but she climbed the 50 stairs to my bedroom four times while chatting away merrily, and never mentioned it.

Are there any inherent problems? "My upper arms have no strength, so I find it hard to squeeze a lemon,” she explains, “but I’ve found a great tip to get round that. I always heat a lemon in the microwave until it’s warm. That way the juice flows out with no effort at all. Clever, isn’t it?” #GlassHalfFull.

Mary Berry Leaves the building

Having finished the cake – “Be careful, too much baking powder will make it over-rise and then fall” – we chat over tea. “The Queen and I fed biscuits under the table to the corgis at Buckingham Palace when I went for lunch,” and she has her photo taken in my dining room for the RT cover. “No, thank you, I do not want to hold your guinea pig.” Time to go.

She asks when my children will be home from school as she wants to see their faces when they behold “our” cake, but they’re not due back for an hour. So she asks if I would like to keep the slow-cooked lamb for the children’s supper. I nod so vigorously I think my head may eject.

My Mary Berry theory

The astonishing thing about Mary Berry is that rather than being stuck with one attitude, she adopted and retained the greatest qualities of each decade of her life. Born in the 1930s, she embodies the work ethic of the 40s, the integrity of the 50s, the open-mindedness of the 60s, the freedom of the 70s, the indulgence of the 80s, the progress of the 90s and the impishness of the 00s.

She carries each of those qualities simultaneously in a harmonious cashmere whole. Now, in the teenies, she is reaping her righteous reward – national devotion. She’s dignified, vibrant, interested, open, modern, polite, spirited, optimistic, grateful, kind, compassionate, generous and wise. The easiest of guests, the gentlest of souls with the sweetest of temperaments, but also the stamina of a horse, the determination of a fighter and the vision of a crusader – a perky mixture of old-fashioned excellence, and an openness to contemporary values.

Her failings? She’s not great at receiving compliments. I ask her about being so popular. “What?” she says. “Is that a question?”

“Yes,” I say. “Has it changed things for you?”

“I haven’t changed – I’m not trying to be anything I’m not. I’m just doing what I do, what I’ve always done. What people seem to enjoy isn’t me, it’s the notion of cooking and eating together – that’s what’s popular.”

Post mortem

The children adore the lemon cake, and are later presented with their first, and probably last, dinner cooked by Mary Berry. They say they are a bit full, but thanks anyway. I am going to keep it in the fridge until they are mature enough to appreciate it. Or have them adopted for ingratitude. And I will make them watch every episode of Mary Berry Cooks so they can fully appreciate the minor miracle of humanity that is the fine lady who came to our house and taught me how to cook a cake with hot lemons and no sugar.

Mary Berry Cooks is on Monday at 8:30pm on BBC2.