The icing on the cake

PUBLISHED: 06:26 06 October 2014

Mary Berry

Mary Berry


Baking doyenne Mary Berry might have made DIY biscuits trendy, but be under no illusion, she considers herself a traditionalist. After all, the rules of The Great British Bake Off remain resolutely clear.

“We have the same principle each year: That we want to find the best Great British baker. Everything else is the same, bar one thing – the standard of baking. It’s constantly on the rise, if you’ll excuse the pun.”

That would be because, since the show first came to air, so many of us have taken to the kitchen, armed with sieves and wooden spoons. And Mary has been credited for sending baking goods sales through the roof, her name becoming synonymous with the phrase “soggy bottom”. “But when you make a quiche that’s how it can come out,” she shrugs, by way of explanation.

Mary has successfully developed a cult fan following, but there’s one aspect of the fame game she’d rather skip: “There are a lot of photo opportunities, and it’s not something I’ve been that used to over the years. There are lots of ‘selfies’ going about. It’s lovely that people want their photo taken with me, but it still feels a bit strange . . . all of that adulation.”

Busy as she is, Mary still makes time to tour the country with the BBC Good Food Show. “It’s lovely to share our recipes live with audiences – on television you can’t see people, but with the shows they’re there in great numbers.”

And rumours have circulated that the baking icon has been holed up in Norfolk in recent months, filming the BBC One genealogy programme Who Do You Think You Are? True? Well, she’s bound to secrecy of course, but she does let slip that many of her family have lived in Norwich in the past. “It has been a real adventure and it’s incredible to think of so many generations living through so many experiences. I’ve been intrigued by how much of Norfolk I’ve been able to see and enjoy – it’s a beautiful and wonderful place.”

Away from the television cameras, Mary is tied to the county twofold; there’s family, and then there’s food. She is quick to praise the fresh, locally sourced produce associated with the area.

“When I think of Norfolk I think of all the wonderful crabs and seafood,” she says, highlighting the fruits of the sea. “I love the scallops and prawns and scrimps and fish . . . so much flavour and versatility.”

Norfolk bakers, however, may be little inclined to incorporate the county’s fishy produce into their bakes (though a seaweed doughnut probably wouldn’t raise an eyebrow on The Bake Off!)

Instead, with our annual EDP Norfolk Food and Drink Awards, in association with the East of England Co-Op plus the county’s fabulous Norfolk Food and Drink Festival under way, Mary offers one piece of expert guidance to our would-be bakers – “Weigh your ingredients carefully!” – following this by quickly reeling off from the top of her head the rules to creating the perfect Victoria sponge.

“Use the ‘all in one’ method, with either softened butter or baking spread. Beat well, use the right size tin, put the sponge in the oven at 160 degrees, keep an eye on it and you should get great success. But for goodness sake, weigh your ingredients properly!”

Her chosen bake is faithful to her culinary beginnings: “The very first thing I made in a cookery class at school was a treacle sponge and everybody seemed to enjoy that”, and despite spending a lifetime surrounded by sugar-laden delicacies, her foodie mantra remains “everything in moderation”.

Sticking to the rule book (well, she did write it), you won’t find Mary trialling the latest no-calorie sugars or additives. “I don’t do low fat. I’d rather have a smaller portion,” she offers. “I think that’s where we need to be as a nation – let’s give ourselves the nicest treats, yet do everything with an eye on moderation. So if I’ve eaten lots of cakes, the next day I’m fairly frugal and sensible, and I will stick to salads and soups.”

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Mary didn’t leave the world of work behind when she started a family. She’s enjoyed a successful career that has taken her far from home – training at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, working for Aga stoves, writing multiple cookbooks and starting a line of salad dressings and sauces with her daughter, Annabel – though she still posits family as the centre of everything.

“I did feel guilty working so hard as a younger mother, but it was a necessity at the time, and I always tried to get up as early as possible to start the day with a few work tasks so I could spend quality time with the children before they went off to school. It was still difficult, but life is.”

Even now as she prepares to become an octogenarian in March, the idea of slowing down isn’t of interest. “If you retire and just sit back, then you will have a very unhappy time. You’ve got to keep busy: Take up a sport, help with a charity, but make sure you plan what you do with your later years. For me, I’m still following a brilliant dream, and I’m so happy it carries on . . . with every series, I’m delighted.”

Mary on Mary

Our own food writer Mary Kemp has happy memories of Mary berry’s visits to her East Harling kitchen.

“I used to go down to Mary Berry’s house when she was doing cookery demonstrations in her kitchen, and I got to know her – also when I was promoting British pork. Then, when I started to do cookery demonstrations here at our farmhouse, on the off chance I asked Mary if she would like to come along. Wonderfully she said yes, and for about four years she would come along to my kitchen to demonstrate. We would have 20 people sitting watching her – it was marvellous.

I really benefitted from her knowledge, not just of cookery but also business – she is a very good businesswoman – and it was like having a visiting mentor, so I was very lucky to see both the professional and personal side of Mary Berry.

What I especially admire about her is that she really is such a professional; she doesn’t believe in creating recipes that need a new larder full of ingredients, she really considers who is going to cook her recipes and those recipes work. I have all her cookbooks and I always recommend them to people. She is a lovely lady.”

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