The Penguin Q&A: Mary Berry

The Great British Bake Off queen talks food inspirations, who she’d want at her perfect dinner party and her secret ways with stains

Mary Berry
'Some people spend their money on hats, I spend mine on the garden' – Mary Berry

What is your earliest reading memory?

I can remember my mother reading the Peter Rabbit books to me, and Ameliaranne and the Green Umbrella. 

What is your earliest food memory?

I think I loved roast lamb and mint sauce; we used to have it on Sundays.

When did know you wanted to write about food?

I didn’t ever want to write about food. I was very interested in developing recipes and in about 1966, my boss said: ‘The cookery editor of Housewife magazine is in Spain and there’s no one to do the column – the editor has asked if you’d do it.’ I said: ‘I didn’t pass English at School Cert, I couldn’t possibly write.’ And she told me: ‘Yes you can; when you tell me about a recipe it’s in a language I understand, so just write as you talk.’ That’s the best advice I’ve ever been given. So I didn’t go into writing by choice and I don’t consider myself a good writer at all. I’m good at producing recipes that work and I think I know what people want. And I learned the more help you give the reader the better.

How do you prefer to write?

By hand, with a pencil, one with a rubber on the end. I make a lot of mistakes. 

Which food writers inspire you?

Nigel Slater writes superbly. Then the same as everyone says: Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David. They’re scholars in their own right, who, by the way, cook as well. 

Is there a cookbook you’d recommend every foodie should own?

I think one should go to a specialist in the subject you’re looking at: if I wanted to go Chinese, I’d go to Ken Hom; if I wanted seafood, I’d go to Rick Stein.

Do you have much time for reading for pleasure?

No, but I try to read a good novel when I’m on holiday.

Who’s your favourite author?

I have lots of authors I like: Maeve Binchy is a favourite. I only read authors who give happy endings. I think the last book I finished was a Maeve Binchy, a collection of short stories her husband brought together after her death.

Do you have a favourite fictional character?

I’m much more interested in characters I know, so I like autobiographies. I liked reading Relish: My Life On A Plate by Prue Leith. It was quite saucy – I enjoyed it a lot.

Who would you invite to your perfect dinner party and what would you serve?

I’m just writing them down… they’ve really got to go together, haven’t they? I’d like to ask Emma Soames, Kirstie Allsopp and Kirsty Young, for a real girls’ evening – I think they’re all such fun. And they know each other. As for food, no idea, I’d get someone else to do it – I think the company’s most important, not the food. Although they’d want something like lobster, I should think, and fillet steak; they wouldn’t want things too mucked about. 

Not many people know this but I’m very good at…

Getting stains out of clothes. I’m brilliant, my husband’s always bringing me things and my assistant Lucy brings me her cashmere to wash. I research it and I get the marks out – nothing’s stumped me yet. I have all sorts of pots and potions for different things. 

Do you have a guilty pleasure?

Spending far too much on plants for my garden. If I get a moment, I’m always looking for something rare and beautiful. I get them mainly from the RHS. I’m growing micro herbs at the moment. Some people spend their money on hats, I spend mine on the garden. 

What do you always carry with you?

A tiny little purse which has all sorts of pills in, like paracetamol and cough sweets, and enough so I’m prepared when my husband or someone else needs something. 

What moment in history would you have wanted to be present at?

I was at school in France when the Queen’s coronation happened – I heard it on the radio, but I’d have loved to have slept out all night on The Mall and watched it happen around me.

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more