Topping & Company Booksellers in Bath are known for their events with poets and authors, including top food writers such as Anna Jones. But once in a while, a true classic comes to town. Amy Barrett and Leah Fleming headed down to The Forum to indulge in a magical evening with a culinary legend…
Most people will agree that Mary Berry is something of a national treasure. The event at the Forum attracted a wide age range: we looked around at the audience and found we were sat with a group of over 60-year-old ladies, a couple of 30-year-olds and, in front of us, what looked like students. Everyone loves Mary.
Kathleen from Toppings spent the hour having a conversation with Mary about her new book, Classic, and TV show, Britain’s Best Home Cook. Mary was really open about her personal life, giving us an insight into the time she spent living in Bath during the war. In the audience questions, she paid tribute to her teacher at Bath College of Domestic Science (now Bath Spa University), Mrs Date, who had also taught a relative of someone there that evening.
Top tips for home cooking
Throughout the evening, Mary gave her expert advice on how to improve your cooking. One of her main messages was to always cook the things that you enjoy, and that is sure to make you fall in love with cooking. One thing I will take away from the evening, is that Mary advises that when making a white sauce (roux), use warm milk instead of cold and the mixture will get smooth far quicker. She also told us that a thinner roux and ragout will cook lasagne sheets better in the oven, leaving no need to pre-cook the pasta sheets. For non-meat eaters, Mary makes a mean mushroom version of the classic.
There’s nothing more boring than your host being in the kitchen all the time and not talking to the guests!
Mary Berry’s cookbooks are a staple in any kitchen, and Classic is no exception. Although she includes more indulgent desserts as well as everyday meals in her books, Mary is an advocate for the statement ‘everything in moderation’. She wants her readers to cook the things they enjoy, in balance with healthier meals and she believes this is key for health and happiness.
Mary on style, work and home
When asked about her style, Mary told us she favours comfort over anything else. “I’m very fussy with what I like,” she explained. “I like things bright and cheerful and jolly and practical.” At the event she wore her favourite trousers, wide legged and laid back for maximum comfort. Mary echoed a worry of many older ladies when she mentioned ‘bat wings’: “I cover those up all the time! And I particularly like a nice jacket – a jacket hides a multitude of sins!”
Her new show, Britain’s Best Home Cook, airs on BBC throughout May and June. “You’re going to love it,” she assures us. “Do bear with it – remember how the Great British Bake Off started and has built up over the years? Start with the first one and do go onto the second and third… It’s very different but it’s good fun.” Mary has loved getting to know each cook over the 10 weeks, and says she never stopped laughing working alongside Claudia Winkleman.
Keep an eye on what is sustainable, and know what fish we should and shouldn’t be having
At home, Mary likes traditional meals. But she makes sure she doesn’t spend all her time cooking. “There’s nothing more boring than your host being in the kitchen all the time and not talking to the guests! Your friends are the important people, so it’s good to prepare as much as you can ahead of time.” Kathleen asks Mary if her husband has learnt a lot from her over the years. “You must be joking!” she replies and the crowd laugh with her.
Sustainability and supporting local businesses
Throughout her talk and in the question and answer session, Mary stresses the importance of having an ethical and organic kitchen wherever possible. “Keep an eye on what is sustainable,” she suggests, “and know what fish we should and shouldn’t be having.”
When asked how important it is to grow the food you cook, Mary reminisces on her father’s gardening at home when she was younger. “We loved to grow food. I can remember my father growing celery when I was young… I was brought up to grow your own food.” She turns to the crowd, and asks: “Has anybody had joy with celeriac?” There are a few nods. “I tried to grow it for a while,” Mary tells us, “and then I bought plugs – plugs are lovely because someone has already started for you!” She comments on how times have changed: her father would never have grown celeriac at home. And, if you don’t have time to garden, she suggests that most vegetables, such as celeriac, are cheaper to buy from your local country shop compared with the supermarket.
At the end of the event the crowd gives Mary a deafening applause – everyone truly does love her. She shakes Kathleen’s hand then address us: “You are supporting a proper bookshop here – do support them and tell your friends, because if we’re not careful they won’t be here in the future.”