Mary Berry: 'I'm lucky to have family and there's nothing better than cooking with children'
Mary Berry's cooking up a storm on her new TV show, Absolute Favourites. She chats to Kate Whiting about simple ingredients, deep fat frying, and her favourite foods
Over eight decades, Mary Berry has seen food fads come and go. And the latest one - kale - she deals with in typically firm fashion.
"No, I don't like it and I see it everywhere. I grew a new kale, which was rather big and a dark colour, and it looked so pretty in the garden. Then I started to cook it and it was so strong and bitter. I know it's good for us, but I'd prefer to grow land cress or something a little bit different."
But Berry - who grew up with rationing, turned 80 in March and has written more than 70 cookery books since the late Sixties - is softer on other "new" ingredients, including the basil she grows in the garden of her beautiful Buckinghamshire home.
"When I trained and when I was a housewife, I automatically used dried herbs. You couldn't get fresh ones in a supermarket, you could grow them but people didn't know quite how to do it," she says.
"Basil was something you only got in France and now we sow basil in the garden in May and we've got it in the garden from late June onwards. We make our own pesto.
"Things have certainly changed, and this is the joy of new ingredients. I can remember when butternut squash was new, and we all thought, 'Butternut squash?' But we love it now.
"We also grow fennel," adds Berry, who makes a fennel slaw in her latest book, Absolute Favourites, which accompanies her new BBC Two show.
"My husband says, 'What are you putting fennel in? We didn't have it as children, my mother didn't do it.' I say, 'Hard luck, you're going to have it.' I really enjoy fennel, I've worked out how to cook it. People say it tastes of aniseed, but it doesn't; if you cook it, it's just the most beautiful vegetable. If you finely slice it and marinate it as the base of the salad, it gives the most beautiful flavour, you've just got to convert people to it.
"But I'm never going to convert them to kale, because I think it will come and go, personally. There are certain things I will not do, because I don't like it myself."
She's certainly not a fan of deep-fat frying, either - "every chef's programme, they wheel in this machine, but at home, you do it on the cooker and it's dangerous" - but she gets her fill of chips when she goes out ("usually other people's"), and cooks oven chips at home for her five grandchildren when they visit, which makes her own children admonish her with an "Oh Granny".
Her grandchildren appear in the BBC Two series, Mary Berry's Absolute Favourites. Her 12-year-old twin granddaughters, Abby and Grace, make biscuits, while her grandsons are put to work on a pasta bake.
"I've learned you don't have two stirring at the same time. I gave them their own jobs, I said, 'You make sauce, you cook the pasta', so they're separate, because boys will be boys."
Food and family have always gone together for Berry, who married husband Paul in 1966 and had three children, Thomas, Annabel and William, who sadly died when he was just 19.
"I'm very lucky to have family and there's nothing better than cooking with children - there's no happier way of keeping children amused than teaching them," she says. "Our grandchildren can all use knives, they can all use a potato peeler to do Parmesan and things like that. If you teach them the right way, that's much better than saying you can't use a knife, isn't it?"
For all her TV success over the years, including most recently with The Great British Bake Off, Berry still likes to think of herself as a "family cook, with all the problems that everyone else has".
"I've had failures - I've used salt instead of sugar, I've had cakes going down in the middle, but that's good, because then we can commiserate."
As for her absolute favourite meal, she loves nothing more than a nice plate of potted shrimps.
"If ever I was on my own, I would have one of my son's hens' eggs, some really good bread and some potted shrimps, which I would warm through with butter and a bit of spice, on toast. Those are the sort of things I like."
Absolute Favourites by Mary Berry (photography by Georgia Glynn Smith) is published by BBC Books, £25
WATERMELON, FETA, CUCUMBER AND MINT SALAD
(Serves six as a main dish or 10-12 as part of a buffet)
Berry says: "This is my favourite salad at the moment - fresh, full of flavour and crunchy texture. Any small black seeds left in the watermelon after deseeding can be eaten, although I prefer to remove the larger ones. This delicious salad is best made and served on the same day."
1/2 small watermelon, peeled, deseeded and cut into 2cm cubes
200g good-quality feta cheese, crumbled into small cubes
50g pitted black olives in oil, halved
1 small bunch of mint, chopped
For the dressing:
4tbsp olive oil (or oil reserved from the olives)
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Peel the cucumber with a potato peeler, cut in half lengthways and, using a teaspoon, scoop out and discard the seeds. Cut into crescent shapes.
Layer half the watermelon, cucumber, feta and olives in a bowl, repeat again, then sprinkle with the chopped mint.
For the dressing, whisk together the oil and lemon juice, season with salt and pepper and pour into the bowl.