We’ve been following her baking advice for decades, but now Mary Berry is stepping out of the kitchen. It’s time, says the former Bake Off queen, that we all rediscovered the art of turning a house into a home...
Mary Berry on what makes a house a home
when the nation’s best-loved cook decides to share her household tips, Good Housekeeping needs to know about it. And when that cook is GH favourite Mary Berry, could there be a more perfect cover star for our January issue? She arrives at the shoot, as energetic as ever, regaling the team with her exciting plans for the year ahead. In Mary’s Household Tips &
Tricks, the national treasure steps from behind the kitchen counter and casts her experienced eye across the entire home. She shares with us her entertaining and hosting essentials, the secrets of her 51-year marriage and what she really thinks of a certain baking show…
We’re dying to ask – how did you find the new version of The Great British Bake Off? I did seven years and loved every minute of it. But you have to go some time, don’t you? It is all about the brilliant format. All the family can watch and there’s no bad language. It has continued in exactly the same format and place. You just feel as though it’s continuing, but you’ve plucked out Mel, Sue and me. If I could have chosen someone to take my place, and if they’d given me all the cookery writers set in a row, I would have said that Prue (Leith) would be the one. The others I don’t know so well, but they’re all doing a good job. It’s just people get a bit crabby about the ads. The main thing about the programme is that the judges have to be fair. Paul Hollywood knows his subject. He has the gimmicks: he shakes hands and does all that, and people love it.
You’re 83 in March and working just as hard as ever. Are you still ambitious?
I don’t have too many ambitions now. I’m very lucky to still have my husband after more than 50 years. I’m lucky to have wonderful grandchildren. I’m full of admiration for my own children because they’re all enjoying what they’re doing.
You’ve just celebrated your 51st wedding anniversary with your husband, Paul. What have you learnt along the way?
It is a long time! I’m so lucky. We are very happily married. I appreciate him enormously and tell him so – which is not reciprocated! But there we are. I don’t mind at all, because he is very old-fashioned. I think he is quite happy with his lot. Paul is not in the slightest bit romantic! Some very good advice my father gave Paul is never to go to bed on an argument. Otherwise one of us – and it will be me – will be awake all night. Paul will have gone to sleep! It is much better to discuss a whole situation and see how you feel. I think that is very good advice.
What scares you?
I shouldn’t think about it, but I can’t bear the thought of being a widow. Many of my friends are now widows and I’m so proud of them. It’s a scary thing.
You must love this time of year with your family… It’s a time of getting everyone together and we all look forward to it. Every family has its routine. One of the best things is to have a table with a jigsaw puzzle on it. We have a new 1,000-piece puzzle each year. We make it a peaceful area for old and young.
Tell us your secret for successful entertaining Think of Christmas lunch as being just a large family roast, drop your shoulders and plan it. The first thing to find out is how many people you’ve got coming round. Are you going to have a New Year’s party? Are you having a lot of people over before or after Christmas? What does your family enjoy eating as leftovers? Appetites before Christmas are ravenous, but after Christmas they’ve had enough and they won’t eat as much, so adjust your menu. Lists are so important – as soon as you plan what you’re going to eat, they don’t half help. You can freeze things and finish them off later. I love chestnut stuffing. You try buying frozen chestnuts – which I think are the best – the week before Christmas, and they’ve gone! It’s a matter of going early on and looking around the stores to see what they have to offer.
How early do you plan for the festive season?
From the end of November. If you’ve got children, get them busy! If they are good designers they can draw your placemats on cardboard. However little they are, they can do little place names.
What’s a real festive no-no?
I hate fake decorations. Quite honestly, you can do absolute wonders with table decorations with a bit of Oasis foam. I always buy a Nordic pine Christmas tree because it will not drop needles. When you go to buy it, there are always pieces lying around on the ground, so ask if you can have a few. Then collect a bit of ivy to make a table decoration. Add some fairy lights and switch them on when you’re eating – it looks lovely.
Tell us about New Year’s Eve, Mary Berry style... We share a New Year’s party with the same six couples every year. We all bring a dish. The hostess, in theory, doesn’t have to do anything except lay the table and make it special. People love to contribute. Otherwise you’re thinking: ‘Should I take a bottle of Champagne? Should I make home-made biscuits?’ This way, you don’t have any of that. You just arrive with your dish. If you’re the one doing the main
In college we were taught how to run a house. I scorned it at the time!
[continued from previous page] course, it’s got to be something that can just be popped in the oven. The first course is cold and the pudding is cold. But we make up all sorts of canapés and chocolates, too. The next day we all go for a walk with our dogs to the pub. And if you are going to a pub on New Year’s Day, for goodness sake, book it early!
What about making edible gifts?
They have to look good. Lakeland does very good cellophane bags and gift boxes. Let the children do the labels – it’s appreciated so much more. People appreciate the time you’ve spent.
Are you difficult to buy presents for?
I would say I have everything, so they don’t need to buy me anything. But I’m always pleased to have things for the garden. My lot know I would love some spring-flowering cyclamen.
How would you describe your new book?
It’s the hints and tips that I’ve gathered over the years. In college, we were actually taught how to run a house. I scorned it at the time. We were taught how to make beds and that you should arrange the pillow with the open end away from the door. I always face it that way. You know, the things your mother tells you… You take note, and then you think: perhaps I’ll follow her. It’s things like loading the dishwasher from the back, which is just common sense, but it’s a matter of jotting these things down.
What else did you learn from your housewifery course?
Half the time I was mucking about, but a little bit of it went in. Unlike the generation that’s now coming up, which doesn’t iron, I do iron, and I quite like it. It’s quite useful to know how to change a plug and things like that. I’d rather not push it off on to somebody else.
Do you still do all your own cleaning at home?
My husband tells me I’m a good scrubber! Recently, he gave me his really old suede shoes, which should be chucked out, and said ‘Can you liven these up?’ So I steamed them over the kettle and then brushed them. I quite like cleaning. I hate making beds, but most cleaning I quite enjoy.
Have we lost the art of doing things the old-fashioned way?
Nobody has help now, or they have very little… Working mums sometimes have help. Everything is far more informal – people don’t have dining rooms any more, and they all eat in the kitchen.
What really irritates you about our current eating habits?
All these fad diets – clean food and the like. It’s really about eating a balanced diet. You are what you eat. You can go to markets and get all sorts of vegetables and fruit very reasonably priced. Everybody wants smoothies, but I’d rather have the texture of vegetables and fruits. If you want to have kale and spinach made into a smoothie, you have it. But for me, I just want a balanced diet – fruit, veg, meat and fish. And, as we get older, we tend to have smaller portions.
What else is important to you?
We must recycle. Once you get into it, it’s quite fun. But you must wash all your tins out – it’s disgusting if you don’t. If you get into the habit of doing it every time you empty a can, you take pride in it almost. It’s not a chore.
What makes you happy?
Many things makes me happy. A lot of things make you sad, because you can do nothing about them, but I think I’m very lucky to have a united family, and that’s what I’m here for.