Four years after she started on The Great British Bake Off, Mary Berry has finally got used to wearing jeans. She admits that her hair and make up are a lot more – shall we say – attended to these days.
And people come up to her in supermarkets and show her pictures of their cupcakes. Meanwhile, Paul Hollywood also has a huge fan base, and like her, has got a bit smarter. “No, I haven’t. I am absolutely the same,” says the silver-haired, blue-eyed baker. “Common as muck.”
“You are not,” says La Berry, twinkling at him. “You now wear smart shirts with proper collars. And proper cuffs. Don’t you remember, when we first did Bake Off, you used to often appear with those… polo shirts?” she continues, despairingly. “Doesn’t he look lovely now?” She looks at him as one might a naughty child. “Really stylish with your sleeves turned up, and a nice collar. No, he wasn’t like that at first. Now he looks smashing. I have noticed other people doing it like him, and I like it.”
Hollywood grins at her. She twinkles back. Of course the chemistry between the comforting home baker from the Home Counties and the rough diamond from the professional kitchen is one of the secrets behind The Great British Bake Off, about to launch into its fifth series, and now upgraded to BBC1.
What has changed for the two since the show began? Precious little, they say. It’s still about people baking stuff for Mary and Paul to taste. Except the stuff that is being baked now is really quite spectacular. Just as Berry and Hollywood have scrubbed up somewhat during the past four years, so has the baking public. It’s not fairy cakes and Battenbergs any more. Everything is “laminated” this and “drizzled” that, with ingredients not even heard of when the show began. “I have learnt from the Bake Off,” says Berry, who speaks of the show as if it were a solid object. “Last year I learnt about freeze-dried raspberry powder. Because I don’t research my recipes on the internet, I knew nothing about it. Then I went home and tried it out with my recipes.”
She looks at me, perhaps hoping I’m about to go home and try it out myself. “You don’t have the wetness from the raspberry, you see, and there is a very strong powder from freeze-dried raspberries that can run through ice cream. It gives a very intense taste.” I look at Hollywood. Is there anything he has learnt from the show? “Me?” he says, incredulously. “No! I’m a professional baker. But as a group, the standard has gone up phenomenally this year. Very professional,” he says hastily.
“This year they have watched the series. And they have concentrated on their bakes,” says Berry of the 12 contestants. “And not the peripherals. Which is good. We can only judge them on the bake. Not on ribbons or extra sauce, or sprinkles, or things they have made around to create the atmosphere. The bake is the atmosphere and that is what we taste. The viewer can’t, of course, taste, and the taste is very important. And we are the only two people who can describe that.”
Four years on, and Berry is as svelte as ever. She shakes her head carelessly as if to say: keeping your shape while tasting up to 36 different bakes a day? Child’s play! “It’s terribly important to taste absolutely every bake properly,” she says. “So you eat very lightly after that, for a day. Just a few salads. And then back to normal eating.”
Her slightly more solid counterpart, who has previously admitted that doing Bake Off has had a ruinous effect on his middle, rolls his eyes. “Yeah, well I do marathons all the time. And I love muesli. Can’t you tell?” She gives him a withering look.
One thing that hasn’t changed is Berry’s firm enthusiasm for being the doyenne of home cooking. “I am just so lucky because this is doing something I really love. I love the Bake Off, and now it is just like going back to a family every year, because the team doesn’t change.”
So what about the advent of jeans in the Berry wardrobe? “Beforehand I would never have worn them,” she says. “Other than for a dog walk. Then I arrived here, and there were Mel and Sue in jeans and Paul in jeans and I thought, well, I need to be the same as all the others.” Although she also leads the way; a floral bomber jacket from Zara sported by her on the show in 2012 sold out in hours. “It is all very exciting. At home, I don’t really think about what I wear. Now people really notice, and you make more effort. Although I dress for my age,” she says. “I mean, I can’t wear short sleeves like yours because of… what do you call it? Bat wings?” she asks Hollywood. “Bingo wings!” he says drily.
Not that she has any. Indeed, she looks remarkably together. Would she ever consider turning back the clock with the help of chemicals? “Botox? No, no!” How about other… work? “No. I think surgeons should be saving lives rather than pulling faces about. But I do think about what I look like now, whereas before I didn’t, unless I was going out to a party.”
Berry and Hollywood. Even their names go happily together, like ice cream in the manner of Baskin and Robbins or Ben and Jerry. They think one reason for the show’s success is its fundamental honesty. Good old baking, judged in a marquee by two people who have been cooking for so long that they probably can’t remember a time when they couldn’t separate an egg. “We get no pressure from the BBC to say, ‘We need someone from Scotland to win’. Nobody does that,” says Berry, firmly. “We make the decisions.” She pauses. “I often look at other cooking programmes and it doesn’t seem that way.”
Their work for the latest series has just finished. The contestants have already baked and their produce has been tasted. Can they say what their favourite concoction was? “It was the cake baked on the very first programme,” admits Berry. “A cherry cake. People are terrified of cherry cake and we had it as the technical challenge. We got very different results.”
Hollywood, as ever, is a bit more down to earth. “I did like the Swiss roll. Because when I was a kid that’s what we had. With custard.”
“With custard?” says Berry.
“Yep. Honestly, you haven’t lived until you have poured custard over Swiss roll,” enthuses Hollywood. Berry looks as if she might be quite hard to convince.
“How disgusting. A cold Swiss roll? With hot custard?”
Mary Berry shakes her head. They walk off together to have their photograph taken. It’s a winning combination.
See The Great British Bake Off tonight at 8:00pm on BBC1
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