She’s instantly recognisable to millions across Britain—but for this celebrated cook, nothing hits the spot more than a good family meal at home…
Mary Berry is extolling the benefits of an AGA. “It’s the heart of the home,” she enthuses. “It’s such a comforting thing. This morning was very cold—if I hadn’t come into the kitchen with my AGA, I would have done a bit of shivering.”
16 years after Mary Berry’s New AGA Cookbook, Mary has completed “one of the things I really wanted to achieve” by writing an updated version of the celebrated tome. “We’ve done lots of new recipes because people’s tastes change,” she explains. “We’ve also got many more different ingredients. When I wrote the original, nobody knew what a butternut squash was. And now we all love it, don’t we?”
Mary’s enthusiasm makes an ordinary list of ingredients sound like poetry. Cookery is, quite simply, her life’s passion. “I just love family cooking. I like to use local ingredients and I like to use ingredients in season and I like to prepare ahead.”
I tentatively suggest that the iconic AGA harks back to an era when people took time over their cooking, whereas now we live in more of a microwave culture. But Mary has no truck with this. “If you’ve got an AGA, you don’t need to put any effort in because it’s always on.”
"If you keep yourself fit and trim, you can enjoy life much more.”
Her book—which, she points out, can be used for normal ovens too—is a compendium of simple yet impressive dishes, such as buckwheat pancakes, smoked haddock gratin and the classic Swiss roll. Controversially, for a presenter of The Great British Bake Off, she reveals, “I prefer savoury to sweet. I like warming and snacky things—toasted sandwiches, pizzas with very little bottom and an awful lot of top, watercress and celery soup. I focus a lot on the main dishes.”
Having written over 70 cookery books, she’s spent decades creating delicious dishes. How on earth does she maintain such a slight form? “That’s discipline,” she says. “I could easily eat more than I do, but I don’t really like the consequences. If you keep yourself fit and trim, you can enjoy life much more.”
The 80-year-old seems such an embodiment of capable domesticity that it’s easy to forget her reputation comes from years of professional hard graft. Self-admittedly “hopeless” by academic standards, after school she went to study at Bath College of Domestic Science and then at the Paris Le Cordon Bleu.
It’s surprising to hear that she didn’t enjoy the latter. “The original Le Cordon Bleu wasn’t a patch on what it is today,” she states. “Now it’s a really big school with great standards, but when I was there that wasn’t so. I didn’t like Paris at all. I stuck it out, but it wasn’t the highlight of my time.”
"People now have busy lives, but once or twice a week it’s lovely to sit all around together. With a full tummy, they begin to talk to you."
It’s evident that Mary’s family life is hugely important to her. “I’m very proud of my family—all united, happily married with grandchildren and so forth.” Her cooking is, of course, integral to the fabric of their life.
“I’m very keen on the family getting together around the table because you learn so much of what’s going on. With a full tummy, they begin to talk to you. People now have busy lives, but once or twice a week it’s lovely to sit all around together. I’ve kept that going throughout my family life.”
As for her fame, she’s refreshingly unaffected. “I don’t even think about being a celebrity,” she states. “People are immensely nice. They’ll tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Oh, I make your pear frangipane,’ or, ‘I always do your lemon drizzle cake.’ I don’t think they’ve got anything nasty to say about me because I’m not made that way.”
It’s this candour—coupled with her lack of starriness—that contributes to her immense charm.
“I’ve stayed with my family, I’ve lived in the same village for 40 years and I’ve always had the same work attitude,” she says. She also emphasises her normalcy by calling herself a cook rather than a chef. “I don’t use as many ingredients as chefs, and they often have sous chefs to prepare the vegetables. My cupboard and larder are limited, like everybody else’s. Everything I use, I use again. I try to do recipes that everybody can do, and I put in every detail so that they get success.”
Busy as ever, Mary’s ready to dash to her next appointment. Before she goes, there’s one more question: does she ever not feel like cooking?
“Yes, but I usually have something in the freezer that I can pop in the AGA.” Practical and always prepared—that’s Mary to a T.
Read the full article in the December edition of Reader's Digest
The Complete Aga Cookbook by Mary Berry and Lucy Young is out now
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