“Really,” says Mary Berry. “You should always have some stock on the go.” She opens her fridge door. Inside, along with the milk, a new pack of Lurpak Slightly Salted butter and jars of Mary Berry brand chutney, there is a Pyrex jug of her homemade chicken stock. Rich, wobbly and glistening, it looks, to borrow a favourite phrase from her new series Mary Berry Everyday, utterly scrumptious. Good enough, I suggest, to spread on toast. “No, no,” she says sharply. “It’s not dripping, it’s stock!”
At the kitchen table her husband Paul, a retired antiquarian bookseller, wearing a cravat and about to address a bowl of Brown Windsor soup, raises the merest hint of an eyebrow. This is Mary’s territory, he seems to suggest, and here we do things Mary’s way.
Mary’s territory is a pristine Queen Anne house in Buckinghamshire, where the couple have been joined by five-year-old Atalanta, the youngest of their three grandchildren, for the day. But actually, we do things Mary’s way whenever an amateur cook sits down in front of a television across Britain. The 81-year-old’s career, in an apparently unstoppable late surge, has eclipsed previously dominant performers such as Nigella. Why is she so popular? “I think of myself as a dedicated teacher, and I hope that I am the teacher they love and listen to and that they want to follow me.”
Part Margaret Thatcher, part Mrs Beeton, and yet far, far nicer than those comparisons suggest, Berry speaks to that corner of the national consciousness that wants to be told what to do by a well-manicured woman of a certain age and told, if possible, while eating a double-chocolate cake with a Maltesers topping. It’s one reason why The Great British Bake Off, in which she appeared with Paul Hollywood, Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, was so successful.
Berry didn’t expect Bake Off to leave the BBC for Channel 4 in 2016. “No one was more surprised than me,” she says. Paul Hollywood soon went – with her blessing – to Channel 4, but Berry, an esteemed cookery writer, editor and presenter since the 1960s and a mainstay of the show, didn’t follow. “It was the BBC’s programme, it grew there,” she says. “So I decided to stay with the BBC, with Mel and Sue.”
Berry is clearly fond of Hollywood. “I would always stand by him,” she says. “Paul and I had our differences about what was important to us but he is a brilliant bread-maker and I admired him a lot.” Mention Mel and Sue, though, and Berry beams. “They are extraordinary,” she says. “They are extremely bright and their humour is spontaneous and very cheeky. They are hilarious and I am so fond of them.”
Hollywood’s move to Channel 4 is reported to be worth £1.2 million over three years. Was Berry – whose book, chutney and kitchen equipment businesses have been valued at £15 million – tempted by Channel 4’s money? “No, I wasn’t,” she says. “And anyway, I was never asked to go.” Really? “Well, I avoided being asked. It was suggested what would happen if I did go to Channel 4; what I would get, the advantages. But I didn’t ever have a meeting with them. I’d made up my mind. To me it’s an honour to be on the BBC. I was brought up on it.”
That loyalty goes back over 70 years, to when the seven-year-old Berry lived through the Bath Blitz, a two-day 1942 German bombing raid on her home town. “Oh gosh, the noise!” She says of an attack that took 417 lives and injured 1,000. “It was very bad, a lot of deaths. We had an old sofa and chair in the basement and hid down there and went to sleep.” Berry’s family would gather round the radio for the BBC news. “Everybody went silent when it came on. We followed the war all the way with the BBC.”
Berry believes the war and food rationing, which lasted until July 1954, made her genera- tion careful. “My mother said if we didn’t have sugar in our tea we could have the occasional cake. And we did.”
They had a vegetable plot and kept a goat, pigs and chickens. Did she dispatch hens for the pot? “Oh no! My brothers used to chase me with a dead bird on a stick. And my father wasn’t good at killing things. He kept doves.” When Paul went to ask Mr Berry for Mary’s hand, he accidentally ran over and killed a dove. “He called me a blithering idiot,” says Paul. “So I left it for a week.”
The first time Paul asked Mary to marry him she sent him away because he’d been drinking. The second time likewise. “It’s a big step, you need a bit of fortification,” he says. The third attempt was sober and on a bench in Hyde Park. She said yes and they have been married for 50 years. Paul has mostly avoided appearing on TV with Mary, sidestepping any comparisons with Fanny and Johnnie Cradock, a similarly middle-class cookery couple, where Fanny baked the cakes and Johnnie poured the gin. “Oh no, I’m not like him at all,” he says.
And Mary is not like Fanny, who was fired by the BBC for failing to hide her distaste for a competition winner’s food in an episode of The Big Time in 1976. “If it’s going wrong, tell them how they will do better next time,” Berry says of struggling cooks. “And find something nice to say.” That’s her secret – along with the tips. These include stripping cucumbers with potato peelers, pre-heating milk for béchamel sauce and preserving game. “Once frozen,” she says, “a pheasant will keep for the season.”
It’s a remark that gives away her comfortable background. The daughter of a former mayor of Bath and privately educated, Berry is not an everywoman, but she is conscious that many of her viewers are not well off. “You can’t just say buy a free-range turkey or organic produce. A lot of people can’t afford organic food,” she says. “And I don’t do any of the clean food thing. It says sugar is out.” Her face registers disapproval of such an idea. “There’s nothing wrong with having a little sugar. I eat sugar and I’m not huge.” In fact, she looks sensational, and I tell her so. “I’m quite good, aren’t I? I’m not bad.”
The only sign of impairment is not due to age but the twisted hand she has carried since contracting polio when she was 13. “I have a funny left hand,” she says, “and a curved spine, but it doesn’t bother me at all.”
On winning the National Television Award for Best TV Judge
She attributes her continuing health to moderation and having a little bit of what you like. She is partial to puddings and cakes and advocates similar treats for children. “It’s lovely for the young to come home from school and have some cake. Not lots of donuts, just a slice of cake.” She takes a glass of wine most evenings with supper. Does she follow guidelines suggesting two alcohol-free days a week? “Good God, no.”
Salt, sugar, fat and booze all feature in the Mary Berry Everyday book, which jazzes up old favourites, such as cottage pie. “I like good family cooking,” she says. “Family cooking” is a mantra for Berry; she must say it 20 times during our conversation, determined to make the moments when we come together to eat special. And Berry knows how fleeting these moments can be. She and Paul had three children: Thomas, Annabel (Atalanta’s mother) and William. But in 1989 William was killed in a car crash driving his younger sister into town. He was just 19.
There was an emotional interlude in last year’s broadcast of Mary Berry’s Easter when the family visited William’s graveside, but it is the less dramatic off-screen details that are, perhaps, more telling. “After the crash Annabel used to gather up the newspapers and hide them,” says Berry. “So I wouldn’t see the reports.”
Berry’s ability to be positive is sobering. “To us it was an immense blessing that Annabel survived,” she says. “If it had been the other way round, if William had killed his sister, his heart would have broken. He would have blamed himself to the end of his days.”
Surviving such tragedy gives her a perspective others in the television industry might lack. Berry didn’t like it when, in early episodes of Bake Off, contestants were visibly upset on camera. “In life you shouldn’t keep bursting into tears. There are occasions when you want to cry your heart out, but not on a television programme. If you do something that doesn’t work out, you have to gather yourself up and keep going.”
Practical, encouraging and to the point, it seems a particularly Mary Berry way to end our conversation, but before I leave the kitchen she has one more piece of advice for me. “Time goes quickly,” she says. “So never be ashamed of buying a packet of puff pastry.”