On Cookery and Kindness: Mary Berry speaks to the Phil

The renowned baker visited the Phil yesterday to speak about her contribution to the culinary arts

Beloved baker and television personality Mary Berry became an Honorary Patron of the University Philosophical Society yesterday. She delivered a talk to a packed audience in the GMB, followed by a Q&A session chaired by Sorcha Ryder, president of the Phil. In receiving the Gold Medal of Honorary Patronage for her contribution to culinary arts, Berry joins a distinguished list of patrons including former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon, Professor Brian Cox, Al Pacino and Dame Helen Mirren among others.

Before commencing, Berry set the tone for what was to be an affable, warm and genuine interview: ‘‘I don’t have a microphone but can everyone hear me? Even those at the back? I have a very quiet voice you know!’’ Ryder began by questioning Berry on the factors that led her to pursue a career in the culinary arts. Exemplifying the down-to-earth approach she has become known for on shows such as The Great British Bake Off, Berry credited a disinterest in academia with having pushed her towards cookery: ‘‘I wasn’t very clever at school. My favourite subjects were breaktime and games. When I came to be 13, the clever cogs in the class did Latin and Maths and the people like me did domestic science.’’ She described the influence of a teacher called Ms Date, who particularly encouraged her interest in baking and who Berry said was the first teacher to offer her praise in school. Berry’s early talent became obvious when she brought home her first domestic science project, a treacle sponge pudding, which was deemed ‘’just as good as my mother’s’’ by her father. Thereafter, Berry studied catering and institutional management at Bath College of Domestic Science, although she mentioned that this choice was “so looked down upon” at the time.

‘‘I didn’t like the total responsibility. I didn’t want to tell people that they weren’t very good. The person cooking knows they did badly, they need to be encouraged to do better’’.

Despite writing her first cookbook in 1970 and occupying the position of food editor for Ideal Home and Housewife magazine, Berry was not catapulted into the public eye until starring as a judge in The Great British Bake Off. She enthusiastically revealed that when approached to partake in the show, she “was really very thrilled … I thought ‘I could do that’. I know cooking, I know the science of cooking.’’ Unwilling to assume the mantle of solo judging, Berry requested the BBC find a male counterpart. ‘‘I didn’t like the total responsibility. I didn’t want to tell people that they weren’t very good. The person cooking knows they did badly, they need to be encouraged to do better.’’ She was subsequently paired with Paul Hollywood, which the Guardian later lauded as the best reality TV judging partnership to ever exist. Alongside presenters Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, the pair went on to became the face of an award-winning show that attracts millions of viewers on a weekly basis and has been labelled a major factor in reinvigorating the home baking scene across the United Kingdom.

Berry described the explosive popularity of The Great British Bake Off as an organic process that ‘‘didn’t have a format at the start, it really built … I’m thrilled with how it’s gone on”.’ When quizzed on her favourite memory from the show, Berry was quick to point to Nadiya Hussain’s win in 2015. Hussain’s success was heralded in Britain as a victory for cultural diversity and Muslim acceptance, and Berry praised the former winner for being ‘‘a great Muslim ambassador”. Unsurprisingly, questions were raised around the transfer of Bake Off from the BBC to Channel 4 and Berry’s subsequent departure. She maintained that integrity drove her decision to leave the show. ‘‘BBC took the programme on at the beginning, it was their instigation and I thought ‘should I leave just for money?’ It was the right and proper thing to stay with the BBC.’’ Showcasing the spritely optimism for which she is loved, Berry went on to say she does not regret leaving Bake Off as ‘‘I’ve done so many exciting things since.’’

Age shows no sign of slowing Berry. Although in her early 80s, since departing Bake Off she has presented a six-part series called Mary Berry Everyday; a four-part series called Mary Berry’s Country House Secrets and a recent series called Britain’s Best Home Cook. She described the latter as focusing on “properly family food, nothing too complicated”. Her latest cookbook, Quick, is due for release on March 14 and, has brought Berry to countries ranging from Italy to Morocco on a quest to learn ‘‘how different people cook different things quickly’’. She acknowledged her longevity, stating that: “I am immensely lucky to be well. I’m 83 and when I get out of bed everyday I feel lucky to be well. It’s in my genes. Mother died at 105 but even then she used tell me to walk faster – I am very fortunate. I absolutely love what I do.’’

“I always think when children come back from school it’s a shame if they don’t have a slice of cake. There’s no need to diet!”

Amongst her achievements, Berry was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2012 for services to culinary arts. When asked how she felt upon receiving such an award and subsequently meeting Queen Elizabeth, Berry exclaimed that “You don’t believe it for a start!’’. Refreshingly humble, she described her struggle to buy a suitable outfit for the event and, laughing, regaled how “I chose the one in the end that was in the John Lewis sale. It was £150 down to £35!’’

The audience’s questions were wide ranging. In response to a query about maintaining a healthy diet, Berry doled out a firm helping of common sense, recommending a balanced approach alongside “plenty of exercise and not too many biscuits from the tin”. Simultaneously, however, she affirmed the importance of treating oneself. “I always think when children come back from school it’s a shame if they don’t have a slice of cake. There’s no need to diet!” When questioned on the advice she would give to students attempting to cook on a budget, Berry said to “take advantage of the less expensive foods. Vegetables are very, very cheap. Cut the amount of meat you’re eating’’. She cited the Israeli-British chef Yotam Ottolenghi as one of her favourite cookery writers, although quipped that his recipes are often ‘‘overly complex’’ and maintained that, unlike “some of the chefs who are showmen … I hope that my recipes work”.

Berry was then quizzed on her choice of comfort food, which led her to  mentioning her love for toast and marmalade, adding that cooking a comforting meal under pressure is ‘‘about having things in your cupboard that you yourself can make … that are not too expensive and that you enjoy”. Repeatedly, she drew attention to the necessity of deconstructing cookery so that it is seen as something accessible and desirable. “My cooking is all about making other people want to cook. When I went to college, I did catering followed by a teaching qualification. Everything I do is about teaching other people, of all ages, to cook.’’

“At eighty-three years of age, Berry’s vibrancy set a fine example of wisdom, elegance and humility for all those gathered in the GMB”.

When questioned on the best advice she has ever received, Berry mentioned her school headmistress’s reminder to value money for what it represents. In her characteristically wise way, she encouraged the audience to remember that “whether given as a gift or you’ve earned it, money is a representation of somebody’s work and you must respect that”. Her final words affirmed a deep-rooted passion for cookery: “I don’t think I could have done anything else. I just fell into it. I absolutely loved it in the past and I love it now.’’ At 83, Berry’s vibrancy set a fine example of wisdom, elegance and humility for all those gathered in the GMB.