My phone rang: “Radio Times here. Would you like Mary Berry and Claudia Winkleman to come to your house to chat about their new series? Hello? Hello, Emma, are you still there?” I picked myself up off the floor and whispered, “You had me at Mary.”
So it came to pass that the greatest cook in the UK has teamed up with the funniest girl in the country to present a new show. Claudia is the most in-demand TV presenter in Britain, the highest paid woman on the BBC and writes a magazine column in The Sunday Times. She has an honesty and fearlessness that means she is capable of turning her hand to any genre, medium or platform.
What Mary has is rock-hard integrity, immensely high standards and the unconditional love of the country. After Bake Off moved to Channel 4, she could probably have taken any job in the UK, possibly including being the Queen – or at the very least she could have justifiably stayed at home baking cakes with I WON LIFE written on them. But after 83 years of activity, she wasn’t finished, and the search had begun for her next challenge.
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So what format could be interesting enough to tempt these two giants out of their nests? The answer is Britain’s Best Home Cook – an eight-week series involving ten contestants competing to impress three judges with their culinary skills. So far, so straightforward, but what Mary and Claudia saw in this programme was a blinding mission…
MARY BERRY There’s no froth. None of this stacked food. No layer upon layer and a drizzle on the top.
CLAUDIA WINKLEMAN It’s a proper celebration of home cooking. Nobody’s making a jus. Nobody’s making a timbale.
EMMA FREUD No one smeared?
MARY No one smeared. It’s real cooking, cooking from scratch using seasonal ingredients.
CLAUDIA It’s about people making their favourite family recipes. It’s cooking from the heart.
EMMA Is this in some way a reaction against high concept food and fine dining? To get back to the heart of food?
MARY Our contestants don’t want to be professional chefs. They’ve been cooking for their families for years and they’ve handed down recipes. The most important thing about a show like this is sincerity, it must be genuine. My aim is to get everybody in Britain cooking at home…
CLAUDIA …because home cooking is really the way we talk about our lives. It might be the boss coming around for dinner, or the first time you meet your son’s girlfriend. The best meal you ever had doesn’t have to be a supper at a restaurant with a Michelin star. It might be the fish pie when your sister turned around and said that she was pregnant and everybody cried. They become the favourite meals. It’s about moments.
EMMA Do families eat together enough?
MARY If you sit down and feed your family round the table, they’ll talk to you. Children tell you all sorts of things when they’re happy and full and everyone is together – it makes them ready to chat.
CLAUDIA I think the enemy of family cooking is probably taking phones to the table.
If the programme fulfils its purpose it will be doing the nation a genuine favour. According to a recent YouGov survey, a third of children eat their supper in front of the TV, and 29 per cent do the same for breakfast. Adults in the UK eat 79 million ready meals and 22 million takeaways every week. The knock-on effects of these stats are deeply worrying. But mission aside, there’s a lot riding on this programme – both for the stars, and for the BBC: there’s a huge appetite for it, but also a huge expectation.
EMMA Were you nervous about the show?
MARY I love judging because by now I know what I’m about – but I really wanted to do it well. I asked myself if I was doing the right thing and I realised this person on my left [nodding to Claudia] would be roaring with laughter and making it all very relaxed. The bonus point for me was having her.
CLAUDIA And I was a bit nervous, because I don’t like expectations.
EMMA Really? Even at this stage in your career where you’ve had so many successes?
CLAUDIA Oh yes. You hope people will like it, but if they don’t, we have to take it. I like to keep my head down – my bright orange, heavily fringed head – and I normally do.
EMMA So why do the show?
CLAUDIA They had me at Mary. I didn’t know what the show was, and it didn’t matter. I mean, it could have been a programme about ponies and I would have been like, “With Mary? Actual Mary? The Mary? I’m in.”
Claudia is 46, Mary is 83. Claudia is a city girl who thinks the countryside should be illegal, Mary is a rural soul who loves her dogs and garden as much as her Aga. Yet the two dames have a huge amount in common. As I watch them go through their paces with the photographer, they are both deeply professional and adorably playful. They know their brief is to entertain, rather than to pout or pose, and neither gives out any feeling of grandeur or high status. They’ve both been through the mill of heartache in their own ways, are both deeply compassionate and passionate, both enthusiasts and enablers.
When Claudia first presented It Takes Two (the sister show to Strictly Come Dancing), she had zero knowledge about the world of dance. What she had was an excitement and energy, alongside a huge vat of irony, which took the viewers along with her. She performed a similar magic trick when she took on the Film programme for BBC1 in 2010. And she’s now doing it again. This is a girl who knows less than nothing about cooking – “My favourite recipe? Marmite on toast, obviously.” But her commitment, delight and humour at finding herself heading up a culinary show means we are engaged and delighted to stay for the ride.
Twin Claudia’s zeal with Mary’s lightness of touch – being an expert without arrogance or condescension, never making a contestant feel foolish, always judging with integrity, but somehow seeing something good in every dish – and you have an interesting recipe. Claudia has her idiot enthusiasm, Mary her unpretentious expertise. These are two magnificent women who have chosen to work – when, let’s be honest, neither of them really have to – in order to encourage people to feed themselves well, nurture their families, and talk around the dinner table rather than downing a takeaway while scrolling through Instagram.
Their passion for their mission comes across in every frame. As Claudia tells me, “Chris, one of the judges, started off by saying to the contestants, ‘Show me love’. It sounds ridiculous, but when you’re cooking at home, that’s what you’re doing. If somebody comes to your house, you could just make them a piece of toast, but if you put your heart into it, it’s an expression of friendship.”
At that moment, Mary asks about my massive cat Badger. She admired him the last time I interviewed her, and I’m touched she remembers him. She pats his sleek, black, shiny fur and coos, “Can you imagine what a lovely pair of gloves he would make?” She’s joking (I hope), but I keep an extra careful eye on the whereabouts of my giant house rabbit after that.
We stop for some lunch. Claudia has a bag of salt and vinegar Snack-a-jacks and a handful of Haribos. Fun fact: Mary always has soup for lunch. I knew this in advance so I made her my world-famous curried parsnip soup. (TBH, it didn’t used to be world-famous, but since Mary Berry devoured a healthy bowlful, it’s become my signature dish. We get to talking about the contestants on the show.)
CLAUDIA One of them was such a big fan of Mary’s that she couldn’t look at her without tears brewing. At one point Mary said to her, “That’s very good,” and she just cried and cried.
MARY But it was a happy experience. From day one, I don’t know what made us laugh but we hardly stopped, it was a lovely time.
EMMA Were you strict with the criticism?
MARY We’re there to judge, but we’re not mean, we’re not trying to make them cry, we want to be constructive for them to do better next time.
EMMA The show has a very spontaneous feel…
MARY There’s no script to learn. Claudia was told what was needed, and then she got down to it. Mostly she was there as a friend.
EMMA Well, you certainly weren’t there for your cooking tips, were you…
CLAUDIA It’s not my forte, no. I once bought mince pies and pretended that I’d made them. I put flour in my hair and popped on an apron. Someone came round and asked “How did you make these?” I said, “You take some minced beef and you sweat it down.” I was confused.
As they leave my home, I find some marmite flavoured chocolate and give it to Claudia, who is so excited she tries to take out shares in the company. And I give Mary a loaf of what my children affectionately call my “disgusting home-made bread”. It looks good, but if I am to be entirely truthful with you, it’s not that great. Later that night Mary texts me a photograph of her eating my bread, saying how much she loves it. Maybe she’s not quite as honest as I thought…
Britain’s Best Home Cook is on Thursdays at 8pm on BBC1