A very Berry Christmas
PUBLISHED: 08:00 25 December 2014 | UPDATED: 16:15 26 October 2015
Bath's Mary Berry talks exclusively to Somerset Life about what makes Christmas special for her.
The 70-plus cookbooks under Mary Berry’s belt make her a worthy judge of The Great British Bake Off. Qualified as she is, she never expected such fame to come from what is surely now TV’s favourite baking show.
Telling Somerset Life “to have this opportunity at this stage of my career is wonderful. I am so lucky,” the 79-year-old may be flattered by the attention, but at the end of the day, what’s most important to her remains her home and family.
Mary’s ties to Somerset go back a long way. “I went to school in Bath, college in Bath, and I often go back to Bath with my family,” she says, and explains that it was in the Georgian city that she first discovered her passion for baking.
Confessing that she “wasn’t academic,” her domestic science lessons at Bath High School saw Mary rise to the top of the class. “It was all I liked doing at school so it quickly became the thing I excelled at,” she recalls, “and the first thing I made was a treacle sponge - everybody seemed to enjoy it!”
Calling her childhood city ‘very beautiful’, Mary still visits frequently as residents of Bath can attest. After all, she had the honour of turning on the Christmas lights last winter.
“I loved it!” she smiles, adding “and I’m going to read a lesson at the Abbey this Christmas time.”
Mary’s successes and her commitment to the area (she’s President of the Bath Spa University Alumni Association) might have earned her the Freedom of Bath during this year’s annual mayor making ceremony, but she isn’t the first of the Berry clan to give back to her home city. Her father served as mayor of Bath in 1952 and founded what is now the Bath International Music Festival.
But it took a trip outside of Somerset and across the Channel for Mary to truly find her bearings. After training at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, she returned to the county and found work at The Bath Electricity Board. Since then, she’s travelled up and down the country giving AGA demonstrations, presenting cookery shows and attending culinary events – oh, and acted as Food Editor for Housewife, followed by Ideal Home magazine. She may have traipsed across the UK for both work and leisure (Mary has a holiday home in Salcombe, lives in Buckinghamshire and often returns to Bath), but she’s adamant she won’t be seduced by the bright lights of Hollywood.
“I like being at home with my family,” she says, “I wouldn’t go to America.”
The baking doyenne has been married to retired antique bookseller Paul Hunnings since 1966 and the couple went on to have three children, however their son William sadly passed away following a car accident aged 19.
Today, after 48 years of marriage, Mary is a proud mother and grandmother who insists that the extended family spend their Christmases together. As you’d have guessed, “I will be doing the cooking,” she says, “but everybody brings a little something.” With the holiday season at the Berry residence a traditional affair, Mary has to cater for up to 12 around the table. “I love it all,” she grins. “The dinner, the trimmings, the cold turkey sandwiches.”
Every year, Brits confess to mounting stress in the run up to 25 December. Mary would advise preparing in advance to reduce the workload. “If you’re organised then it can be stress-free,” she advises. “I always make a big list of what I need to cook, then get as much of it done before the day as I can so I can relax and enjoy myself.”
Mary’s got dozens of her own recipes to put to the test (Berry Christmas cake, anyone?) and the festive table may also reap the benefits of her kitchen garden. “It makes your life more interesting to garden,” the green-fingered baker says. She’s grown rocket, sweet peas and root veg in the past, and would encourage others to follow suit.
In fact, Mary’s even got her own salad dressing range, which complements her home grown crops, which her daughter, Annabel ‘takes a big part in’.
Annabel might have learnt her culinary skills from the master, but come 25 December it’ll always be a Mary Berry trifle: “It’s not Christmas without one!”
When the festivities are over, and as the frost thaws and the days start growing longer, the Berry household will have another reason to celebrate; Mary turns 80 this March, and whilst she brushes this milestone aside – “I won’t even notice it” – the matriarch will be gathering her family for a summer holiday.
Having spent November demonstrating alongside Paul Hollywood at the BBC Good Food Show, it’ll be a well-deserved break. “It’s lovely to share our recipes live with an audience. People are there for a day out, they want a treat and we want them to enjoy themselves.” A live audience may leave little leeway for mistakes, but Mary is always up for a challenge – “If things go wrong then we show the audience how to get them right again!”
She may be approaching her ninth decade, but Mary shows no sign of slowing down. Her on-screen style has received universal praise, and her days are full. “I play tennis, I go walking, I see my friends, I go out to eat,” she says, and in fact, her tennis quartet is waiting for us to finish the conversation so they can go off and play. It’s time to leave them to it.