Mary Berry: 'To be honest, I don't eat an awful lot of cake'
As the baking idol returns to our screens to share her all-time favourite recipes, Kate Whiting catches up with the national treasure
In the company of Mary Berry, it's easy to become completely mesmerised. She's as neat as a pin, pale bob coiffed to perfection, set off by her trademark hot-pink cardigan.
And then there are the idyllic-sounding, Famous Five-esque tales of childhood holidays by the sea, and catching and cooking her own fish for her latest television series, all delivered in her clipped, warm grandmotherly voice, with smiles and a small hand reaching out every so often to pat you affectionately on the arm.
If it weren't for the arm pats, I'd have forgotten why I was with her entirely, happy just to smile back and listen, basking in the Berry glow. But there's the rather pressing matter of her new non-Bake Off series to discuss.
Absolute Favourites sees Berry, who's just celebrated her 80th birthday, travel from the seaside to the countryside, to farmers' markets, allotments and herb gardens, and then back home to share the inspirations behind some of her most beloved recipes with her family - and the nation.
In the first of six episodes, she indulges in one of her favourite seaside passions, prawning on the Kent Coast, before cooking up a new dish of seafood linguine, which she tops off with a knickerbocker glory, after a visit to an ice cream parlour in Broadstairs.
"I loved childhood holidays by the sea. We used to stay on a farm in Devon and we walked to the beach every day, did the same thing - paddling, castles, picnic - and then came back at about four o'clock and helped with milking and gathering eggs and had tractor rides," she says, beaming.
It was on such trips that she learned to forage for blackberries, mushrooms and sloes for sloe gin, and she still makes sure she's prepared when she goes out walking today.
"The other day, we saw some mushrooms and my son said, 'Mum, have you got your bag in your pocket?' I've always got one in my pocket, just in case. You never know what you're going to find."
Episode two takes her into the countryside to forage for wild mushrooms, which she cooks in garlic and serves on toasted brioche, before achieving a long-held ambition - learning to fly-fish.
"It was such an exciting day. We went down to a widow's house and her stretch of water on a tributary of the River Test; her husband had been a great fisherman.
"I've never seen anything so beautiful. As you looked down, it wasn't very deep, the bottom was crystal clear and you could see [the fish] - it reminded me of the river at Lacock when I was child, and leaning over the bridge and seeing that shallow water."
Berry did catch a fish, and holds up her hands to illustrate how big it was: "I'm not exaggerating, it was this size." It was so big, in fact, it didn't fit in the pan she was meant to be cooking it in.
"I had to take it off the bone and fry the fillet. If only I'd caught one smaller and just put three slashes in, it would have looked so much better. But it was real, it was delicious."
Berry, whose enduring and wide appeal is evident in the fact she's just been voted number 73 in FHM's Top 100 Sexiest Women 2015 list (beating Jennifer Lopez, no less), grew up in Bath, the daughter of a surveyor dad and housewife mum.
"My childhood was very conventional, I was a wartime baby, so brought up in frugal times, and I was fortunate enough to have a mum who did everything from scratch.
"We had rationing, so we had to have goat's milk, but we didn't know any different. We had eggs, we had vegetables from the garden and we kept pigs, so we had a lot of pork and chicken.
"It was very happy, quite different from childhood nowadays, no theme parks. We did things at home. We just had friends round to play and made things, we carved things out of wood and did hopscotch. There was no option to go anywhere."
The first thing she remembers cooking is a treacle pudding in her cookery class at school.
"I took it home and my father said, 'It's as good as your mother's', which was real praise."
In her mid-20s, she went to Paris to study at Le Cordon Bleu, which, at the time, she says, was "pretty phoney" - and she was "lonely", living in a hostel on the city's South Bank. In 1970, she published her first of many cookbooks, the Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Nowadays, surprisingly for someone who has to taste test an endless array of cake every year on The Great British Bake Off, she doesn't have much of a sweet tooth.
"I used to have a very sweet tooth, but at home, I eat very little sugar. To be honest, I don't eat a lot of cake. I have to watch my waistline, and I have no wish to get large. I have been large - and people will be very beastly to me, those who haven't [been large] before, and they will say, 'I don't want to get like her because she eats so many cakes'."
It's not all healthy eating and cooking from scratch for Berry, though - she admits she is partial to a ready meal, every now and again.
"Say I've been working at Bake Off for three days, on the way home, I will go into Marks & Spencer and do their £10 thing. First of all, I go for the wine - that, for me, is a huge treat."
- Mary Berry's Absolute Favourites, Friday, May 15, 8pm
Mary’s rise to baking royalty
- Mary made her TV debut in 1973 when she landed a slot on The Good Afternoon Show with Judith Chalmers. The now legendary cook said she "had a voice like the Queen".
- A triumphant return to TV beckoned in 2010 when she was invited to be one of the judges on the Great British Bake Off with Paul Hollywood which became an unlikely TV hit.
- Bake Off made the headlines last August over the 'Bingate' controversy. Local bearded baker, Iain Watters, 31, had a meltdown over his Baked Alaska amid accusations of sabotage on the show.
- Her most recent TV success propelled her into sex symbol status at the age of 80. This year's FHM Top 100 Sexiest Women poll put her at a respectable 76 ahead of Jennifer Lopez and Daisy Lowe.
- Mary insists on eating a "good portion" of cake while judging the Bake Off contestants' creations, adding: "They've taken the trouble to make something, their parents are watching, and they want to see me have a proper slice."