Ella Walker meets the doyenne of British baking to find out all about her new show, Mary Berry’s Quick Cooking, which sees her jetting off to Rome and joining Rick Astley on stage.
Adored for her time in the Great British Bake Off tent, her reliable recipes (the woman’s lemon drizzle cake is actual perfection), and her bright ensembles, Mary Berry is a certifiable national treasure.
There’s no doubt that, at 83, she’s both a telly marvel and a genuine culinary legend.
Now, her latest exploits involve whizzing round Rome on the back of a Vespa (“That was enormous fun,” she says with a smile. “What a perfect way of seeing Rome.”) and playing the drums while appearing live on stage with Rick Astley (more of which later), for her new BBC Two series Mary Berry’s Quick Cooking.
The show and accompanying cookbook see the Bath-born recipe writer and presenter sharing her tips and tricks for putting together flavourful dishes at speed, inspired by those she meets on her travels – from Italy to Morocco, and the street food offerings of a British music festival.
It was a series of firsts for Cordon Bleu-trained Berry, who, for starters, had never visited Rome before.
Between joining women who rolled fresh pasta all day in the open window of a restaurant, as though on display, and visiting the city’s famed produce markets – where a yellowy-green courgetti with a slight stripe caught her eye (“I’ve been looking at the seed packets – I’m going to grow it myself.”) – Berry grappled with the temperature.
“It was very, very hot,” she says, recalling the breeze-free, 40C (104F) heat that assailed her and her crew.
It was particularly demanding during a shoot on the top of a building, where Berry was whipping up a bruschetta recipe of crisp toasts piled high with tomato, avocado and tapenade.
The view was “absolutely breathtaking” and they’d constructed a bit of shade out of a sheet so “things didn’t melt on the table”, but she had to contend with the distraction of her photographer being so hot “they were pouring a jug of water down his back as he was taking the pictures”.
The music festival had its own challenges, too.
“I suppose I’m a bit old-fashioned, but I have never been to a festival,” explains Berry, who discovered herself a convert.
“I liked the aspect that there were mothers, daughters, grannies, everybody with children [all together] – there was so much for them to do and there was excellent food for them to buy.”
She tasted Ghanaian street food, learnt to grill steak swiftly with spandex-wearing chef DJ BBQ, and made cheese muffins with singer Rick Astley.
“I had no idea who he was,” Berry whispers in mock-horror. “Anyway, I met him, and he was absolutely delightful.”
“His shoes were beautifully polished,” she adds with a grin.
Muffins duly baked, the 1980s singer invited her to join him on stage, where she was wheeled out playing the drums. “He said, ‘You’re a natural!’ – absolute rubbish.”
“It all moved in like a play, so there was no way I could get out,” she remembers with a laugh. “But it was very fun.”
And when she came off stage, she understandably treated herself to “a lovely glass of red wine”.
Talking of rarefied experiences, when it comes to other people cooking for her, Berry admits invitations can be few and far between.
“Erm, no,” she replies when asked if people get her round for dinner much. “People who ask me for dinner, they’re good friends and nearly always they’ll say, ‘This is my mum’s [recipe]’ or, ‘I got this when I was on holiday’,” – so there’s always a caveat of some kind.
But, says Berry, really “they’re passing on an idea to me and I love it”.
“Friends give me lots of tips and I’m very grateful, and my own children give me tips.
[They say] ‘Mum, have you tried…?'”
“My son was telling me this morning, he’s bought a big bit of granite and he’s heating it up for four hours and then putting it on the table and frying on it,” she says, impressed.
“Something that’s coming back I gather is fondue – mine are all doing fondue; cheese fondue, meat fondue, veg fondue – so there you are.”
Although she may sound sceptical at the prospect of the return of fondue, Berry is certainly one for trying things – presumably it’s a must if you’re a judge on the likes of Britain’s Best Home Cook.
“I must say I wasn’t mad on the sea urchin,” she says though, recalling a particular pasta dish she ate in Rome that saw cacio e pepe (peppery, creamy pasta) conceal one of the wobbly, copper coloured creatures in its depths.
And she’s not one for following trends.
“I don’t do cauliflower rice,” she explains, and notes: “I don’t go for kale so much.”
“I absolutely adore cabbage,” she continues. “Those little sweetheart cabbages or savoy cabbages shredded up, stir-fried. It cooks quickly, it gives colour and people say, ‘Oh, kale crisps’ – well,” she says dubiously, tailing off and pulling a bemused face.
However, on the topic of meat, sustainability and veganism – perhaps the most juggernaut-like food trends in recent times, Berry notes: “I definitely eat meat but we don’t eat as much quantity of meat – we don’t eat it every day of the week – and we do do vegetarian.”
While Quick Cooking is full of recipes that “all the family will enjoy”, she is highly sensitive to people’s lifestyle and dietary decisions.
“People should do exactly what they want,” she says firmly. “You’ll find vegan things here; you’ll find an awful lot of vegetarian – but the choice is yours.”
– Mary Berry’s Quick Cooking starts Monday March 11 at 8.30pm on BBC Two.
– Mary Berry’s Quick Cooking by Mary Berry is published by BBC Books, priced £22. Photography by Georgia