NATIONAL treasure Mary Berry is sat with a refreshing cup of tea, enjoying a well-earned breather in between cookery demos and signing books.
The 77-year-old, dubbed the Queen of Cakes, is snucked away in a quiet room at Newcastle Racecourse in Gosforth Park, a plate of biscuits to hand, although they look untouched.
Mary is due back ‘on stage’ at the mobile kitchen in half an hour for another 45-minute demo where she will be passing on tips gleaned from decades of home cooking.
And fans of the Great British Bake Off star are already bagging their seats in anticipation of the demo.
It’s not every day you get to see the doyenne of home baking in action – and the crowd, clutching their tickets, don’t want to miss out.
One of the UK’s best-known and most respected cookery writers, Mary incredibly has over 70 cookbooks to her name, and nine accompanying Thames Television series.
The newest book in her collection is Mary Berry’s Complete Cookbook, re-released last month and updated. It’s the sort of really useful, no-nonsense, family cookbook no home should be without.
In the flesh, Mary is slim and very attractive, her blonde hair cut in a soft bob, her coral pink sweater perfectly matching her lipstick.
She appears calm and completely unflappable – as indeed she is – and her piercing blue eyes don’t miss a thing. My shorthand certainly gets the Mary Berry once over.
A household name with her practical home cooking recipes, she’s the star attraction at the Living North Live 2012 fair.
She has travelled up from home in Buckinghamshire for the day. She was last in the region a few months ago when she did a cookery demo at Eggleston Hall, a Georgian country house in Barnard Castle, used as the location for TV show Ladette to Lady.
She’s not a frequent visitor to the region but has liked what she’s seen so far at the spring fair, a showcase for local businesses and strong on foodie exhibitors.
As a judge on BBC2’s Great British Bake Off alongside artisan baker Paul Hollywood, Mary’s star is well and truly in the ascendancy once again.
And she’s really rather enjoying it. She tells me filming starts again in a couple of weeks’ time for the third Bake Off series, which airs in July.
The programme sees amateur cooks pitched against each other in a series of innovative baking challenges.
It has struck a chord with budding home bakers and has just been nominated for a prestigious Royal Television Society award. Mary says: “The Bake Off has been an enormous success because I think people who watch think ‘that could be me’.
“They are all amateurs. They are really good family cooks.
“They have been entered by their children, their mums, all sorts of people, and it’s a genuine cookery show.
“They come as very good cooks and get better and better. It’s very exciting being part of it. It’s very fair, very calm, very encouraging.”
On the resurgence in baking, she says: “It’s lovely being at the forefront again.
“The supermarkets and cook shops have been inundated for mixing bowls and ingredients. People are passing on skills and baking with their children. It’s better than Play- Doh!” says the champion of traditional family cooking.” She says with a smile: “Just walking around before, a mature lady stopped me and said: ‘You have got me baking’.”
It clearly gives Mary a fillip that baking is back on the rise.
Her recently re-released Complete Cookbook has also got people reaching for their pinnies.
“We re-photographed every recipe and included quite a few new ones and it is proving very popular.” Indeed it is, as scores of people queue patiently after the demo for Mary’s signature.
She adds: “It’s very nice that people enjoy the books. It’s lovely.
“They’re not too complicated. I hold their hand all the way through with step by step guides.”
Mary published her first cookery book in 1966, The Hamlyn All Colour Cook Book.
Fast forward 36 years later and some 70 cookbooks later.
Her latest book is fully revised and updated. Mary Berry’s Complete Cookbook brings together Mary’s renowned kitchen wisdom in one comprehensive collection.
Alongside classic dishes and old favourites such as beef Wellington and the perfect Victoria sponge, Mary has written 27 brand new recipes using popular ingredients, including spiced lamb shanks and sumptuous chocolate whoopie Pies.
Mary likes to point out, she is very definitely a cook, though, and not a chef.
“I don’t call myself a chef, I’m a cook.” She thinks chefs use too many ingredients sometimes.
“I don’t want to encourage people to deep-fry. A chip pan should not be in the house.”
She admires Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, though, and his stance on fish and chickens.
“Hugh has just won another award and he deserves it.”
The demo itself is good fun, as Mary prepares a chicken dish with pesto, Taleggio and roasted tomatoes, a yoghurt cake, and baked cheesy nibbles. She advises on full fat yoghurt for the cake.
“I’m a great believer in full-fat everything!”
And one of the main faults with cakes is to overcook them, apparently.
Mary chats easily while she demos and her talk is peppered with references to her husband Paul, her son Tom, daughter, Annabel, with whom she has produced a range of sauces and salad dressings, and her grandchildren.
Sadly her other son William was killed in a car crash, aged just 19.
Grandson Hobie cooks with her, she tells us, and he was so naughty one day he had to take a cake into teacher to placate.
How impressed would teacher be with that offering.
She’s a big advocate of getting children interested in cooking, starting them off early.
A ticket for Legoland for four can cost £100, she says. “But if you get children into the kitchen it will cost very little, they will be totally absorbed and there’s something at the end of it.”
She takes questions at the end covering diverse subjects such as problems cooking with chocolate ganache and the merits or otherwise of silicone cookware.
And her favourite cake? “I love a Victoria sandwich.” But it’s a cake made with treacle and stem ginger of her mum’s that’s a particular favourite. She also reveals: “My mother died at age 105 so you have got me for a bit!”
Mary Berry’s Complete Cookbook, published by Dorling Kindersley, rrp £25, www.dk.com
Taken from Mary Berry’s Complete Cookbook
Makes 12 133 cals each
60g (2oz) butter, plus extra for greasing
250g (8 oz) self-raising flour
2 tsp baking powder
30g (1oz) caster sugar
About 150 ml (1/4 pint) milk, plus extra for glazing
Butter and jam to serve
5cm (2in) pastry cutter
1 Lightly butter a large baking tray.
2 Sift the flour and baking powder into a bowl. Rub in the butter with the fingertips until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar.
3 Break the egg into a measuring jug and make up to 150ml (1/4 pint) with milk. Beat lightly to mix.
Add to the bowl and mix to a soft dough.
4 Lightly knead the dough until smooth. Roll out until 1 cm (1/2 in) thick, cut into rounds with the pastry cutter, and put on the baking tray. Brush with milk.
5 Bake in a preheated oven at 220°C (200°C fan, Gas 7) for about 10 minutes until risen and golden. Cool on a wire rack. Serve on the day of making, if possible, with butter and jam.
Omit the sugar, and add 125g (4 oz) grated mature Cheddar cheese and 1/2 tsp mustard powder to the dry ingredients before mixing in the egg and milk.
Roll out the dough into a 15cm (6in) round and cut it into wedges.
Brush with milk and sprinkle with finely grated cheese. Bake as directed.