Fêted as much for the twinkle in her eye as the sparkle in her style, it comes as no surprise that Mary Berry was a bit of a tomboy in her youth, and once challenged her brother to a boxing match, only to get a bloody nose for her pains.
Born in 1935, to Alleyne and Marjorie Berry in Bath, she was the middle child with two brothers and grew up to be an ‘outdoors’ child, building dens and lighting fires to fry bread and filched hens’ eggs.
‘Special occasions were marked with particular dishes – helping my mother to prepare these was almost as exciting as the celebration itself,’ she explains. ‘On Christmas Eve, Mum would make fish pie for supper, a tradition I continue to this day.’
A family holiday to France, aged 12, ‘marked my awakening to the amazing potential of food – the charcuterie, the fresh herbs and fruit, so many wonderful and delicious things’. But, at 13, she contracted polio, and cites the enforced separation from her parents in a glass isolation room as ‘toughening her up’.
Not an academic girl, domestic science was her saviour. ‘I found something I was good at,’ she says.
Aged 18, Mary did a two-year course at the then Bath College of Domestic Science, followed by a Cordon Bleu course in France. Her first job was demonstrating electric cookers for the South Western Electricity Board in customers’ own kitchens – whipping up a quiche or Victoria sponge to show how easy the oven was to use. ‘I love to show people how to make something really well, so they get the same thrill out of making it as I do,’ she says.
Big city and wedding bells
Mary moved to London when she was 22 to work for the Dutch Dairy Bureau, developing and demonstrating recipes using Dutch butter and cheese. Then she moved to Benson’s, a PR company, again developing recipes using their clients’ products. Generously, they gave her two days’ leave a week to work as cookery editor for Housewife magazine.
She married her brother’s friend, Paul Hunnings, in 1966, aged 31, and went on to have three children: Thomas, William and Annabel. A move out of London to Penn in Buckinghamshire in 1970 coincided with the advent of laminated cookery cards and her first book, the Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook, ‘the turning point of my career’. This led to a magazine-style TV programme called Good Afternoon. The cookery segment was shot at Mary’s home in Penn – ‘I was not the least bit famous at this time’.
In 1988, the family swapped this house with the owner of Watercroft in the Cotswolds, and the children were at boarding school. On a weekend at home in 1989, William and Annabel were in a car crash. William, aged 19, was killed. ‘You don’t ever get over it,’ she says quietly.
She started Aga workshops in her kitchen in 1990. They ran for 16 years, with more than 14,000 attendees. Then, in 1994, the BBC invited her to make a TV series to go with her bestselling book,Mary Berry’s Ultimate Cakes, which led to Mary Berry At Home. Around this time, she and Annabel joined forces as Mary Berry & Daughter, selling her salad dressings, sauces and chutneys at local markets. They now sell worldwide.
At the age of 71, in 2006, Mary stopped doing the Aga workshops and was looking forward to a quieter pace of life, with more time for her grandchildren and garden. She was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Guild of Food Writers in 2009 and thought it ‘a wonderful way to mark the beginning of my retirement. And then, just a few months later, came the phone call that would change my life.
Out of retirement
‘I plan to be a judge on The Great British Bake Off until I get the sack. It’s enormous fun and I love every moment.’
In 2012, Mary was appointed CBE for services to culinary arts, and also given an honorary degree for lifelong achievement in her field by Bath Spa University.
Visit Mary Berry's official website here
This article originally appeared in Saga Magazine. For more fascinating articles like this, delivered direct to your doorstep each month, subscribe today.