Former Great British Bake Off judge Mary Berry begins a new series on BBC1 this Wednesday, Mary Berry’s Country House Secrets. But where will the cook be travelling to when she visits some of Britain’s most historic houses? Find out more from Berry herself below.
As a wartime child born in 1935, holidays for me were always in England. We went camping or stayed at farms in Cornwall, Devon, Tenby or Saundersfoot. The entertainment was very simple; we’d go to the beach for the day and come back and pick beans at the farm for supper. I was a very outdoorsy child and my brothers and I didn’t do anything indoors unless we had to. Those holidays were a fortnight and the most exciting thing that happened all year. Mum had a Primus stove and was always making tea wherever we went and there were sandwiches and picnics – it was lovely.
With my own children I’ve followed exactly the same path as my childhood. The five of us – my three children, my husband and I – used to go camping and to farms in Cornwall and Devon, go out for picnic lunch and have breakfast and supper at the farm.
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Nowadays, every year we go on a family holiday, all of us together. It’s often abroad and we rent a house and do lots of outdoor activities to exhaust everybody. I haven’t been camping for a while, but my children do it and absolutely love it.
What I have been doing more is visiting country houses with my husband or my friends. I’ve been interested in what goes on in country houses for years, but it was when I got married in 1966 that I became particularly interested in going to them. I am just fascinated by the way of life in them and what family life was like in the past. It’s also wonderful to see how our great houses have been preserved over the years and it’s such a great day out.
And it’s not just fun for my generation; many of the houses I went to for this series had wonderful outdoor playgrounds and things of special interest for children, because we all spend more time indoors now. There are great things to be done outside – collecting leaves from trees and identifying them, finding different types of pebbles… children can be entertained for hours.
I spent six days at the four country houses for this series and each of them had something wonderful about them that I’ll never forget. Who wouldn’t want to go down the back stairs and see what life in a grand country house is really like?
Just as grand as in Downton Abbey, it has a wealth of visitors who are fans of the show. But it’s surprisingly also a really warm household. I spent most of my time with Lady Fiona Carnarvon, who was absolutely welcoming and very proud of the house. I made some raspberry tarts and had tea with her and then I made the gamekeepers a pheasant stew. I cooked it and took it down to them all – they had wonderful appetites! I was terribly interested in their wonderful spaniels as I love dogs and these were so well behaved. It was such fun seeing the Carnarvons being a normal family together, cooking supper on a Sunday night.
Powderham Castle, Devon
It’s a very long way off most people’s beaten track and more simple than the others – but it’s magnificent. Lord Devon has only been at the castle for two years with his wife [American actress AJ Langer], since his father Hugh Courtenay died in 2015. I made scones with Lord Devon’s children and in return he offered to cook for me. There were some cockles in the river Exe nearby and he cooked a recipe using them. I can’t normally bear cockles because they often taste gritty but I couldn’t say no. Luckily they tasted absolutely delicious and I’d go back for more.
Scone Palace, Perth & Kinross
It’s absolutely beautiful but Scone hasn’t benefitted from as many visitors as Highclere. Roddy the gamekeeper took me out onto the freezing cold moor to see the deer. It was lovely to experience real country life. I made a venison wellington and cock-a-leekie soup and Lady Mansfield cooked some salmon for us all. It was fascinating sneaking behind the home’s traditional kitchen you will see on the programme, to find the family’s own kitchen, which is just like anybody else’s – nice and practical.
Goodwood House, West Sussex
The owner, Lord March, is an absolute live wire and very good at hosting his world famous motor racing extravaganza at his home. I cooked a pre-race breakfast for him – a big field mushroom with lots of eggs and bacon and cheese piled on top – as he gets terribly hungry. There’s a lovely organic farm at the house and I cooked some produce with the Dowager Susan, whose husband the Duke of Richmond has died since we visited the house. She was enchanting and we made a lovely layered sponge cake together, filled with strawberries and cream, for a cricket match, as it was at Goodwood that the first cricket rules were put to paper. It was enormous and everyone loved it. I then did some sheep shearing – according to the shepherd, I’m a better cook than shearer!
Mary Berry’s Country House Secrets begins on Wednesday 22nd November at 8pm on BBC1