Dame Mary Berry is quite delighted by the food she was served during a recent hospital stay. Piping hot, nutritious and thoughtfully portioned for both small and hearty appetites.
‘It really tempted you,’ she says. ‘You hear about hospital food being awful, but we had a menu every day – several choices – and I particularly remember the meatballs with mustard sauce.
‘And what was so clever was that you could choose the size of your portion. If you’re feeling pretty groggy and sorry for yourself you just want a little. And there was always fresh fruit and a choice of sandwich.’
Who’d have thought the nation’s most beloved TV baker and exacting cookery judge would be quite so complimentary about our habitually maligned NHS catering? But Mary’s praise for the food served at the Royal Berkshire Hospital, Reading, is matched by her gratitude to staff – from doctors and nurses to cleaners – who looked after her during a ten-day stay this summer.
Mary Berry, 86, (pictured) reflected on the 10 days she spent at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading after breaking her hip
Today, a walking stick and slight limp are the only signs of the surgery she underwent in August for a broken hip.
Stylish in navy slacks and a fuchsia pink lobster-print blouse, she is imperturbably bright and energetic. At 86 she’s working as hard as ever.
She has a new book coming out, Love To Cook – ‘I’ve written more than 80 books,’ she declares, surprised herself at this prodigious output – and there’s a BBC2 TV series to go with it.
Weekend readers can share in Mary’s simple, confidence-boosting recipes as a diverse and delicious selection – from Hoisin Chicken With Cashews to Roasted Vegetable And Coconut Curry and her favourite Pear And Almond Tart – is published in the magazine this week and next.
While many her age have sunk gratefully into sedentary retirement, Mary is as alert as ever, dispensing tips, sharing culinary skills and generally revelling in the joy of imparting to others the love of cooking that has informed her whole working life.
And to cap it all, just two months ago she had a major operation. How does she manage it?
Perhaps it’s her optimism. Resilience, fortitude and good humour – the qualities that saw the nation through the war – are Mary’s hallmarks.
The story of her accident is proof of this. It’s punctuated by humour and little homilies – there are valuable lessons to be learned even from misfortunes – and she doesn’t moan about a thing. Why, she’s even cheerful about her three-hour wait for an ambulance!
Mary said she was picking the last of her sweet peas when she tripped over some bricks and injured her hip. Pictured: Mary on the cover of Weekend magazine
‘We have raised beds in the garden and on a Sunday afternoon I’d gone out to pick the last of the sweet peas when I tripped over some bricks and went down really hard,’ she recalls.
‘I had a new knee a few years ago and I thought, “Oh, I’ve hurt my knee.” I sat quite still. I’d encourage everyone to have a phone with them always, when they’re out dog-walking, crossing a field… with a phone you can always get help.
‘First I phoned my husband Paul, who was in the house watching cricket. I don’t think he heard it ring – or if he did he thought, “Blow that. The cricket’s more important.”’ She laughs.
‘I knew my daughter Annabel was playing in a tennis tournament so I phoned my son-in-law Dan instead and he said, “I’ll be with you in ten minutes.” He saw me and said, “I’ll get an ambulance.”
I got my own room, maybe they thought I’d be trouble
‘I said, “Oh, no, I’m fine,” but he overruled me. He rang for the ambulance and they said, “We’re very, very busy.” It was Sunday afternoon and there were lots of football injuries and whatever.
‘Dan went into the house and got lots of coats and put them all round me. My two dogs, Darcy and Freddie, immediately came and sat on either side of me and wouldn’t leave me.
‘We decided not to tell my husband because it would have been quite a shock for him. Dan was concerned about the wait but I said, “I’ve got you. I’m warm. We can wait patiently.”
‘We waited for three and a half hours, until 6pm, and quite right too! I was perfectly happy. There may have been a road accident.
Mary (pictured) said she had her own little room in the hospital and everything was first-rate
‘I quite understood that they were busy – and Dan was caring for me. He kept me chatting. When the ambulance arrived Dan told Paul. It was a shock for him, seeing me go off.
‘They took me to the Royal Berkshire Hospital and they were so good at explaining. One foot was turning out and they said I’d broken my hip.
‘They operated next morning, first thing, and I was never nervous. I didn’t get a shiny new hip. They just repaired the old one and popped it back in. And oh, they were all lovely! I had complete confidence in the doctors, and the nurses were brilliant.
‘Even with their masks on you could see their eyes smiling. Everything was done to such a high standard; even making the bed. As a Girl Guide I learned hospital corners, and there wasn’t a ruck in the sheets. Nothing was too much trouble.
My mantra is to share what I know
A posy of roses, dusty-pink and sweetly perfumed, picked from Mary’s garden by her housekeeper Alison, sits on the table where we chat. For Mary, gardening and cooking go hand-in-hand, and she keeps her own veggie plot stocked with ingredients.
Mary visits allotment holder Terry Walton in South Wales in her new BBC2 shows (pictured)
‘We grow what we like to eat,’ she says. ‘Celeriac, carrots, spinach, onions, shallots, strawberries and raspberries. At the back door I’ve got five pots of herbs, the ones I use most for cooking.’
In the BBC2 show accompanying her new book, Mary visits allotment holder Terry Walton in South Wales (pictured, with Terry’s wife Anthea) and cooks lunch outside using freshly dug potatoes from his plot. They picnic on these with ham and homemade gooseberry chutney.
‘Terry is a breath of fresh air and I learned so much from him,’ says Mary, who never tires of learning and imparting knowledge.
‘My mantra is to share what I know.’ Will she ever retire? ‘I’ll stay on telly until I don’t enjoy it any more – and I can’t imagine that day coming,’ she says.
‘So I haven’t a single complaint. Even the girl who cleaned took a pride in it. They told me, “Ring the bell if you need anything,” but I tried not to. There was no need.
‘Everything was first-rate. And I was so lucky. It was all NHS and I had my own little room – maybe they thought I’d be trouble [she winks] – but they were always popping in.
‘The nurses brought photos of their lemon drizzle cakes and pictures of their children making my cakes. I’m always delighted. They say such nice things.’
If proof were needed that Mary is a thoroughly good egg, here it is: even during her hospital stay she was thrilled that others were enjoying her recipes. She hasn’t taken anything stronger than paracetamol for pain relief and attributes her good recovery to ‘lots of physio. I’m still hobbling but I’m getting better.
‘I’m trying to walk in a straight line. In a month I’ll be filming – I’ll be fighting fit by then – and I can stand for as long as they want me to.’
She attributes her stoicism to her upbringing: her father, Alleyne Berry, a surveyor and former mayor of Bath who helped set up the university in the city, never fussed.
Mary recalls him gashing his head open during a DIY project, but refusing painkillers or an anaesthetic for the stitches because he was looking forward to Sunday lunch ‘and a nice bottle of wine’ – which would have been forbidden if he’d had analgesics.
It comes as a surprise to learn that young Mary, born in 1935, was a tomboy. The middle of Alleyne and his wife Marjorie’s three children, and the only girl, she’d build dens, graze her knees and devise lethal ways of heating water for picnics on makeshift stoves.
A three-month spell in hospital with polio when she was 13 also ‘toughened her up’.
But the quality that has stayed with her since the war years – when her parents, determined never to buy anything on the black market, cultivated their own food – is frugality and a dislike of waste.
The Berrys dug for victory, gave over the rolling lawns of their glorious Regency villa to vegetable growing, and kept a goat for milk and a pig for meat. Sugar, rigorously rationed, was saved for the occasional cake, ‘and Mum was very good at doing delicious things with bits of meat people usually ignore, like offal, tongue and oxtail’.
Today, as a growing awareness that we need to preserve the planet gathers pace, Mary’s wartime habits are coming into their own. Love To Cook and its spin-off TV show, ‘have come at a time when we want to be frugal,’ she says.
‘We don’t want to throw away food so there are plenty of tips on making the most of leftovers – the outer skins of onions give a veggie stock both flavour and colour, for instance – and there are tips on reusing plastic and wrapping food in beeswax paper; we’re conscious of buying locally, too.’
However, there are plenty of nods to current trends. ‘Annabel and I went foraging for samphire in Wales and I did a lovely salmon and samphire tart recipe with it. People are nervous with it, yet it goes so well as a vegetable with fish.
Mary (pictured), who is a judge on BBC1’s Best Home Cook, said she has hilarious chats with the show’s presenter Claudia Winkleman
‘Delicious! The young are keen on plant food, too, and I put a mushroom burger in the book for my granddaughter Abby and she says it’s the best she’s had.
‘There are all sorts of burgers: salmon and dill, lamb and mint, beef and horseradish. You can freeze them individually and take out different ones to have on their own or with a brioche bun.’
Mary, of course, is baking royalty; the Queen of Cakes since she became co-judge with Paul Hollywood on The Great British Bake Off from its launch in 2010 until 2016, when it relocated from the BBC to Channel 4. And while a judge on BBC1’s Best Home Cook she became firm – if unlikely – friends with the show’s presenter Claudia Winkleman.
‘We’d have the most hilarious chats,’ she says. ‘It was very draughty and cold in the studio so I’d take a hot water bottle in and then Claud started bringing one in, too, and we’d sit together like a couple of old women under our rugs.’
US customs put me in a cell for drug smuggling
Mary dedicates a recipe from her latest book, Lemon Limoncello Pavlova, to Claudia, who ‘said she would dream of lemon and meringue’.
I wonder what high jinks she and Claudia got up to… and she remembers telling her friend about the time when, flying to the US with her ingredients for a cookery demo (flour and sugar) weighed carefully and placed into little plastic bags, she was arrested at the airport on suspicion of drug smuggling.
‘It jolly well wasn’t funny at the time,’ she says now. ‘The customs men took my suitcase and they would not believe I wasn’t carrying drugs. They put dear Lucy, who has worked with me for 31 years, in one cell and me in another.
‘They said, “Do you expect to be paid for this, ma’am?” and I said, “Yes, my fee’s been agreed.”’
Mary (pictured) said the secret to maintaining a slim figure is having just a small piece of cake and not a second
There is much laughter, then Lucy arrives with two generous slices of Mary’s Paradise Chocolate Cake, parcelled up for me to take home. Mary is, unsurprisingly, a firm advocate of cake-eating, although she limits herself to a slender slice. Has she always been slim? ‘No! I was 11 stone when I was younger,’ she cries.
‘So the secret is to have a small piece and not a second, otherwise people will look at me and say, “I’m not going to make cake because that’s what will happen if I do.”’
She confesses, too, to taking culinary shortcuts.
‘I cheat like mad! If I have people for lunch at short notice I might buy Madagascan vanilla ice cream from Waitrose, scoop it into balls and put it on a tray with chopped stem ginger, which I love, and pour syrup over it. I’d never pretend I’d made it though. And I never make puff pastry. It comes in a packet!’
She believes fervently that children should learn how to cook nutritious meals; skills that will sustain them into adult life. She scrolls through the photos on her phone to show me one that her grandson Hobie, 13, sent to her from school: he’s proudly holding aloft a dish of the pasta bake he made, to his granny’s recipe.
‘We put a bit of tuna and mustard in it and Hobie said, “I’m going to put a lot of mustard in because Louis [his brother] doesn’t like it and there’ll be more for me!”’
Hobie, she says, has just broken his collar bone; Louis has a broken thumb. So everyone’s been in the wars – although I suspect they’re all equally good at dusting themselves down and getting on with life.
Mary (pictured) said being elevated to dame in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list left her feeling quite overwhelmed
Like our own dear Queen, Mary belongs to a stoic generation. There is something quite regal about her, but it is allied to a sense of mischief and fun.
Already a CBE, last year she was elevated to dame in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.
‘I’m honoured and quite overwhelmed. It’s the icing on the cake,’ she said at the time. She hasn’t yet been invested, but the ceremony is coming up this month at Windsor Castle.
Mary, a style icon since she wowed the nation in a floral bomber jacket from Zara on Bake Off, will be recycling a favourite dress. ‘It’s beautiful: pink silk, and I’ll pair it with a vintage Chanel coat I bought in Paris, and of course sensible shoes so I don’t topple over!’
Much as she’d love to have taken the whole family, Covid has restricted the guest list, but Paul, 89, a retired antique bookseller, will accompany her. They’ve been married since 1966 and the idyll of their close-knit family was shattered when, in 1989, their second son William – then aged just 19 – was killed in a car crash.
Annabel, a passenger in the car with her brother, survived the accident. Now Mary holds particularly close her daughter, son Tom and five grandchildren: twins Abby and Grace, 18, Louis, 16, and Hobie, and ten-year-old granddaughter Atalanta.
I’ve had a lovely life. But things don’t always go exactly to plan
A favourite family roast – lamb with mint sauce and redcurrant jelly – was the last meal Mary ever cooked for William: she remembers how she laid the table in the dining room as he was home from Bristol Poly and she wanted to make it a special occasion.
That same nostalgic lamb roast – given a new twist with sweet potatoes to replace the roast spuds – crops up in Love To Cook (it’s one of the recipes from the book you can try in this magazine), and I wonder if the family still raise a glass to their beloved Will when they eat it.
‘We do,’ smiles Mary. ‘And little Hobie, who is very keen on his rugby, often refers to William and wears his rugger shirts.
‘They all wear them. Annabel’s husband knew him; Sarah, my daughter-in-law didn’t, but it’s nice that we all remember him.’
Mary (pictured) has been married to Paul, 89, a retired antique bookseller, since 1966
In the bustling kitchen of her home in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, a favourite black-and-white photo of Thomas, William and Annabel as children, all togged up for a sailing trip, is displayed on the TV screen.
‘Quite a lot of people lose children around 19 when they start to drive,’ says Mary.
‘They ask me, “How do you cope? The bottom’s gone out of my world,” and everyone takes it differently, don’t they? When I was 29 one of my flatmates was killed in a plane crash and afterwards her parents didn’t want a single photo of her in the house.
‘They couldn’t discuss her. It was a closed book. But for most people it’s nice to remember the good things, and we think how lucky we were to have Will.’
We’re sitting in Mary’s orangery, bright with autumn sunshine. In the garden the blowsy heads of white lacecap hydrangeas sway in the breeze.
‘I wouldn’t be surprised if William walked through the door now,’ says Mary.
‘I’d tick him off for being away so long. In my mind he’s still 19. That’s how I imagine him: exactly as he was on the day he died. But of course he’d be 51 now, probably with receding hair.’
She isn’t lost long in the reverie.
She picks herself up, bright blue eyes glazed with tears, and concludes, ‘Sometimes things happen and maybe it’s because you can cope. I don’t know. I’ve had a very lovely life. But things don’t always go exactly to plan, do they?’
Love To Cook by Mary Berry will be published on 28 October by BBC Books, £26. © Mary Berry 2021. The accompanying TV series, Mary Berry: Love To Cook, will air next month on BBC2.