Mary shares her past and a few secrets too

Undated BBC Handout Photo from Mary Berry's Absolute Favourites. Pictured: Mary Berry. See PA Feature TV Berry. Picture Credit should read: PA Photo/BBC/Shine TV. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TV Berry. WARNING: Use of this copyright image is subject to the terms of use of BBC Pictures' BBC Digital Picture Service. In particular, this image may only be published in print for editorial use during the publicity period (the weeks immediately leading up to and including the transmission week of the relevant programme or event and three review weeks following) for the purpose of publicising the programme, person or service pictured and provided the BBC and the copyright holder in the caption are credited. Any use of this image on the internet and other online communication services will require a separate prior agreement with BBC Pictures. For any other purpose whatsoever, including advertising and commercial prior written approval from the copyright holder will be required.
Undated BBC Handout Photo from Mary Berry's Absolute Favourites. Pictured: Mary Berry. See PA Feature TV Berry. Picture Credit should read: PA Photo/BBC/Shine TV. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TV Berry. WARNING: Use of this copyright image is subject to the terms of use of BBC Pictures' BBC Digital Picture Service. In particular, this image may only be published in print for editorial use during the publicity period (the weeks immediately leading up to and including the transmission week of the relevant programme or event and three review weeks following) for the purpose of publicising the programme, person or service pictured and provided the BBC and the copyright holder in the caption are credited. Any use of this image on the internet and other online communication services will require a separate prior agreement with BBC Pictures. For any other purpose whatsoever, including advertising and commercial prior written approval from the copyright holder will be required.

In the company of Mary Berry, it’s easy to become completely mesmerised. She’s as neat as a pin, pale bob coiffed to perfection, set off by her trademark hot-pink cardigan.

And then there are the idyllic-sounding, Famous Five-esque tales of childhood holidays by the sea, and catching and cooking her own fish for her latest television series, all delivered in her clipped, warm grandmotherly voice, with smiles and a small hand reaching out every so often to pat you affectionately on the arm.

If it weren’t for the arm pats, I’d have forgotten why I was with her entirely, happy just to smile back and listen, basking in the Berry glow.

But there’s the rather pressing matter of her new non-Bake Off series to discuss.

Absolute Favourites sees Berry, who’s just celebrated her 80th birthday, travel from the seaside to the countryside, to farmers’ markets, allotments and herb gardens, and then back home to share the inspirations behind some of her most beloved recipes with her family - and the nation.

In the first of six episodes, she indulges in one of her favourite seaside passions, prawning on the Kent Coast, before cooking up a new dish of seafood linguine, which she tops off with a knickerbocker glory, after a visit to an ice cream parlour in Broadstairs that hasn’t changed since she was a child.

“I loved childhood holidays by the sea. We used to stay on a farm in Devon and we walked to the beach every day, did the same thing - paddling, castles, picnic - and then came back at about 4 o’clock and helped with milking and gathering eggs and had tractor rides,” she says, beaming.

It was on such trips that she learned to forage for blackberries, mushrooms and sloes for sloe gin, and she still makes sure she’s prepared when she goes out walking today.

“The other day, we saw some mushrooms and my son said, ‘Mum, have you got your bag in your pocket?’ I’ve always got one in my pocket, just in case. You never know what you’re going to find.”

Episode two takes her into the countryside to forage for wild mushrooms, which she cooks in garlic and serves on toasted brioche, before achieving a long-held ambition - learning to fly fish.

“It was such an exciting day! We went down to a widow’s house and her stretch of water on a tributary of the River Test; her husband had been a great fisherman.

“I’ve never seen anything so beautiful. As you looked down, it wasn’t very deep, the bottom was crystal clear and you could see [the fish] - it reminded me of the river at Lacock when I was child, and leaning over the bridge and seeing that shallow water.”

Berry did catch a fish, and holds up her hands to illustrate how big it was: “I’m not exaggerating, it was this size!”

It was so big, in fact, it didn’t fit in the pan she was meant to be cooking it in.

“I had to take it off the bone and fry the fillet. If only I’d caught one smaller and just put three slashes in, it would have looked so much better. But it was live, it was real, it was delicious.”

Berry, whose enduring and wide appeal is evident in the fact she’s just been voted number 73 in FHM’s Top 100 Sexiest Women 2015 list (beating Jennifer Lopez, no less), grew up in Bath, the daughter of a surveyor dad and housewife mum.

“My childhood was very conventional, I was a wartime baby, so brought up in frugal times, and I was fortunate enough to have a mum who did everything from scratch.

“We had rationing, so we had to have goat’s milk, but we didn’t know any different. We had eggs, we had vegetables from the garden and we kept pigs, so we had a lot of pork and chicken.

“It was very happy, quite different from childhood nowadays, no theme parks. We did things at home. We just had friends round to play and made things, we carved things out of wood and did hopscotch. There was no option to go anywhere.

“The biggest treat in the school holidays was going swimming, and I remember the smell of the swimming pool in Bath, it was always chlorine - and you queued up.”

The first thing she remembers cooking is a treacle pudding in her cookery class at school.

“I took it home and my father said, ‘It’s as good as your mother’s’, which was real praise.”

In her mid 20s, she went to Paris to study at Le Cordon Bleu, which, at the time, she says, was “pretty phoney” - and she was “lonely”, living in a hostel on the city’s South Bank. In 1970, she published her first of many cookbooks, the Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Nowadays, surprisingly for someone who has to taste test an endless array of cake every year on The Great British Bake Off, she doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth.

“I used to have a very sweet tooth, but at home, I eat very little sugar. To be honest, I don’t eat a lot of cake.

“I have to watch my waistline very carefully, and I have no wish to get large. I have been large - and people will be very beastly to me, those who haven’t [been large] before, and they will say, ‘I don’t want to get like her because she eats so many cakes’.”

She stays trim by walking and playing tennis, but you’ll never catch her going casual in a velour tracksuit: “My age group look dreadful in tracksuits!”

It’s not all healthy eating and cooking from scratch for Berry though - she admits she is partial to a ready meal, every now and again.

“Say I’ve been working at Bake Off for three days, on the way home, I will go into Marks & Spencer and do their £10 thing. First of all, I go for the wine... and that for me is a huge treat!”

lMary Berry’s Absolute Favourites starts on BBC Two on Friday, May 15