Food & Drink

Dame Mary Berry at 88: ‘I don’t want to retire at all – I love what I do’

Mary Berry, with husband Paul Hunnings, after being made a Dame Commander by the then Prince of Wales (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)
Mary Berry, with husband Paul Hunnings, after being made a Dame Commander by the then Prince of Wales (Kirsty O’Connor/PA) Mary Berry, with husband Paul Hunnings, after being made a Dame Commander by the then Prince of Wales (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

Mary Berry says she still has a “passion” for cookery and isn’t planning to hang up her apron any time soon.

“I don’t want to retire at all. I have a passion for what I do and I love teaching,” says the former Great British Bake Off judge, 88, who began her TV cooking career in the early 1970s.

“I mean, I’ve got wonderful health… I’m really lucky. I love what I do.”

Born in Bath, she moved to London aged 21 and studied part-time at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu culinary school, alongside jobs, doing cookery demonstrations and recipe testing.

“I’ve always worked very hard, early on taking any work that came my way,” says Berry, who married Paul Hunnings in 1966. The couple have two children, Annabel and Thomas (their other son William died aged 19).

“I worked in a butcher, I worked in a fishmonger, I worked during the night when I was on a holiday in a bakery that made wonderful bread. My husband was with the two children while I worked.”

Investitures at Windsor Castle
Investitures at Windsor Castle Mary Berry, with husband Paul Hunnings, after being made a Dame Commander by the then Prince of Wales (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

After becoming food editor at now-defunct Housewife Magazine, then Ideal Home (which is still going strong), Berry published her debut cookbook in 1970 and landed her first TV gig shortly after.

“My first TV cooking was with Judy Chalmers on Good Afternoon and I did farmhouse cooking,” Berry recalls.

“I like to think that television is the best way of teaching to a very large audience. I want to inspire people to enjoy cooking more.”

Quickly proving popular with viewers, she remained a fixture on TV screens over the next four decades, joining Paul Hollywood as a Bake Off judge from 2010 to 2016.

“Of course you need the backup of a book,” Berry continues, nudging the conversation back to the topic at hand, her latest recipe book, Mary Makes it Easy.

“I like to feel that with a book I’m holding somebody’s hand who is a little bit nervous and trying a recipe the first time, and I want them to have real success.”

Something in the region of her 96th cookbook (the exact total appears to be lost in the sands of time), it’s all about simplicity, with a focus on one-pot wonders (like chicken tartiflette or meatball toad in the hole), quick dinners you can prepare in advance (veggie bolognese; humble pie) and freezable sweets (elderflower and lemon traybake; maple and orange pudding).

“We all want something easy, don’t we?” says Berry, who admits even she still has the occasional slip-up in the kitchen.

“I forget to put the timer on, I take things out too soon, all the things a housewife – or whoever’s doing the cooking – [might do]. We all make mistakes.”

Having experienced times when cash was tight, the frugal foodie has lots of advice for home cooks who want to cut costs.

“It’s all about planning,” says Berry, who is a big fan of doubling up on recipes and freezing half for a later date.

“The freezer is like a second larder if you label things properly. I write, say, ‘roasted vegetable lasagna, very good’ and I may even put in my diary when I’m going to use it.”

As well as a culinary career spanning six decades, Berry – who became a Dame in the 2020 Birthday Honours – has been happily married for 67 years. What’s her secret to a harmonious home?

“Well, you know in my day you got married for richer or for poorer, till death us do part, which to me is very important,” the octogenarian says.

“We don’t have arguments, I just go in the garden or the greenhouse if he’s annoying me. Try and never go to bed on an argument,” she advises.

And count your blessings: “I’m immensely grateful still to have him. Many of my friends haven’t got their husbands.”

Recently, some of Berry’s 1970s TV demonstrations have found a new audience on TikTok, with quaint clips showing her making the trendiest dishes of the day, like chicken stroganoff, ox tongue (“such a lovely idea for a picnic”) and sherry trifle – not that she would know.

“I have no idea. I don’t do social things like TikTok, I don’t do Twitter,” says Berry (her assistant Lucy runs an Instagram account on behalf of the pair.) “It’s very nice that people are enjoying the early ones.”

She gently admonishes me when I confess that I’ve never sampled tongue: “You can buy it ready sliced in the supermarket. Have you never had it? You’re a foodie…

“I like it very much, my husband does, too. We have it occasionally. It’s more reasonable than having ham.”

Having seen many a food fad come and go, the one she struggled to get on board with the most was nouvelle cuisine, aka “little bits of something on a plate”.

“All the chefs were doing it and I remember well my mother, I think it was her 100th birthday, and we went to a very posh restaurant, it was nouvelle cuisine,” Berry recalls.

“I can remember the plates arriving for my brothers and my cousins. My mother got hold of the waiter and said, ‘That’s not enough for a man!’ And she was quite right.”

Mary Makes it Easy
Mary Makes it Easy Mary Berry’s new book is all about keeping things simple (Laura Edwards/PA)

Mary Makes it Easy is published by BBC Books, priced £28. Photography by Laura Edwards. Available now.