If there were a referendum for a new queen of Great Britain, it would be won, by a landslide, by Mary Berry.
Her writing and broadcasting career has spanned six decades, during which she has smashed all known TV statistics and produced so many cookbooks that even Wikipedia has lost count.
The queen of cakes, national treasure (and my hero) came to my kitchen where I cooked her stunning Christmas pavlova.
Emma I have developed a thesis about you, Mary. I’m not sure you’ll like it.
Mary Oh, yes, just fire away. I shall be quite happy, whatever it is.
E Okay, you were four years old when the war started, do you remember it?
M You know, I do. I remember the noise of the planes. We had an Anderson shelter in the garden covered with a mound of earth, and when you heard the sirens you had to go into the bunk beds inside. Mine was on top so it was often wet as the shelter leaked. And my school was bombed, which I was thrilled about.
E Did it make you feel that the world wasn’t safe?
M Good gracious, no.
E At 13, you contracted polio. What effect did that have on you?
M I didn’t know I had polio. I just knew I was very, very ill because mum lit the fire in our bedroom which was rare. I was taken to the isolation hospital in Bath and put in a glass room where I couldn’t move my head. My parents weren’t allowed in to see me, and I still didn’t know what was wrong. I asked a nurse who said, ‘You’ve got infantile paralysis,’ but I had no idea what that meant. But I was so lucky – I got better and better.
E Did you ever feel that it defined you, or changed you?
M No, no, I didn’t. But I did used to enjoy games so much, and I couldn’t do that any more after the polio, which meant I was no longer good at anything at school. I hated the work. I wasn’t proud of myself then.
E Were your parents proud of you?
M No, not at all. Although they were pleased I did well at domestic science, and that I used to bring nice things home to eat. But it was a different era – we were almost ‘seen and not heard’. My parents weren’t involved with us, and I sensed their disappointment.
E Did you go to university?
M I always liked teaching, but I didn’t have enough exams to study it at college, so I had to do catering. I wasn’t very confident, so I also did a teaching qualification at City & Guilds.
E Did you want to be an actual teacher – or just have the skillset?
M I wanted qualifications because they do give you confidence. And I needed the communication skills that teaching gives you.
E Do you think that qualification helped later on teaching people to cook on TV?
M It’s all linked. Whether it’s on television, radio, through a book, it’s the same technique.
E How did your parents feel about you moving to London?
M They weren’t happy – I had to wait until I was 21. I answered an ad in The Telegraph and was interviewed in London to cook with the Dutch Dairy Bureau. I came back and said to my parents, ‘I’ve got the job and it’s £1,000 a year’. My father was so shocked, he got the train to London the next day to check out the man who offered me the job.
E Did that stop you?
M No – I knew I wanted to go to London, I didn’t mind how hard I worked, and even though I didn’t have the backing of my parents, it was great.
E You had a brilliant career as a food writer, then a magazine editor, and in the 90s you opened a cookery school.
M The reason for that was because I lost my son William in a car crash and I didn’t want to go to London every day and leave my husband. So I had to think of a solution, of something that I could do at home. I thought ‘nobody knows more about the Aga than I do, I’ve got the qualifications’, and wasn’t I lucky – I knew lots of journalists because I’d been working in magazines. I invited eight of them to come to my house and have ‘an Aga day’. They really enjoyed it, went back and put it in the papers. We were full to bursting and we never advertised once.
E What a great way of marketing! You were the original influencer. I was intrigued by a piece about you a few years ago where you said you aren’t a feminist.
M No, no – I won’t talk about it.
E Mary, I know it’s not a subject you want to discuss, but the truth is, there aren’t many women of your generation who have been as brave and defiant as you. You could have been frightened by the war, cowed by your polio, subdued by your parents lack of approval; when William died you could have packed it all in, but you never saw yourself as being ‘less than’ at any of the important junctions in your life, and that wasn’t the way women usually behaved at that time. You actually embody feminism.
M If I’m an example, that’s fine, but I don’t want to lecture people about it. I hope other people would do the same, but I’m not going to shout about it.
E Okay – but not every woman would have made those choices. Where does your spirit come from?
M I think it comes from my parents. My mother played bridge until she was 104. My father was very positive and achieved far more than I’ve ever done. I’ve always felt that any decoration should have gone to him – there wouldn’t be a university in Bath without him. That’s far more than I’ve done in my life.
E But you’re only approaching your prime! Next year, at 85, you’ll be presenting the second series of BBC One’s Britain’s Best Home Cook.
M I’m very spoiled. Aren’t I blessed to have this programme with Claudia [Winkleman] – she thinks she keeps order, but she doesn’t really. And now we have Angela Hartnett who is so knowledgeable. Everybody is so honest, it just seems to flow, I love it.
E You still have such a mission to bring people together through food.
M The one thing I want to do is get people sitting down together at the kitchen table. That’s when everything comes out – you can solve all sorts of problems once you’re all together and the phones are off.
E You say that, but, in breaking news, you’ve just got rid of your dining room…
M Yup – we’ve put the table in the kitchen now.
E How the world’s changed.
M Yes, the world’s changed, but it needn’t be scruffy.
Find the recipe for pear & ginger pavlova in the November 2019 issue of BBC Good Food magazine.
Read more articles by Emma Freud
Good Food contributing editor Emma Freud is a journalist and broadcaster, director of Red Nose Day and a co-presenter of Radio Four’s Loose Ends.