Dame Mary Berry: “How could you not love somewhere that gave us the lovely Maids of Honour tarts?”
PUBLISHED: 11:43 20 October 2020 | UPDATED: 11:13 21 October 2020
The ‘Queen of Baking’ has fond memories of Christmas in Surrey and a taste for one of the county’s historic delicacies
With a vast army of fans herself who would have thought that the Queen of Baking - and recently appointed Dame - Mary Berry would indeed be a fan herself. Of what? It’s not a what – it’s a where – Surrey.
“Although I am from Somerset originally, I am a big fan of Surrey and used to live in the county for some years before necessity caused a move,” Mary explained. “I am not far away though as we now live at Henley, a short trip along the beautiful river.”
An inspiration to women of all ages and now in her 80s Dame Mary is still a huge television star and looks like staying at the top for many years to come – after all, her mother lived to be 105!
When she was 13 and growing up in Bath, Mary contracted polio, the legacy of which remains with her to this day - she has a twisted spine and a left arm and hand which are thinner than her right. Did she feel sorry for herself? No, she gained strength from her affliction.
“I was in hospital for three months, away from my family,” Mary explains. “One of the things I missed about home was the smell of the fruit pies and tarts that my mother would bake on Sunday mornings. It would have been easy to get depressed but somehow it toughened me up and made me realise that I must make the most of life whatever the odds might be.”
She certainly did. Perhaps it helped that Mary’s great-great-grandfather was a master baker by the name of Robert Houghton but that was not at the back of her mind when she found herself working for Bath electricity board and teaching customers how to use their new cookers.
“It was an ideal start for me,” she says. “I wasn’t a very good pupil at school, in fact I really didn’t like any of the subjects, except cookery. I had an inspirational cookery teacher, Miss Date, and she was the sort that presented it so that you couldn’t help but enjoy the subject. When it came to leaving school I couldn’t think of anything else other than something to do with cooking.
“I had studied catering and institutional management at Bath College of Domestic Science and I felt very comfortable making Victoria sponge so I used to go to people’s homes and show them how to make a Victoria sponge using their new electric cooker. It was great fun and I think it gave me a taste for showing people how to do things, especially in the kitchen.”
No many a family are indebted to Mary Berry for the amazing smells and tastes that waft from the kitchen as a result of the bakes made from the recipes she has published in the many (over 70) cook books she has published over the years. Her latest, Mary Berry’s Simple Comforts, includes over 120 easy-to-follow, fuss-free recipes to help make delicious, heartwarming cooking easy, enjoyable, and accessible for every home cook.
“There is nothing so cosy as the smell of baking and if other families have benefited from what I do then I am really, very pleased,” she says.
While she may well be the Queen of Baking, the former Great British Bake Off judge enjoys sampling other people’s cooking and admits a penchant for one of Surrey’s local bakes in particular.
“It is such a beautiful county and how could you not love somewhere that gave us the lovely Maids of Honour tarts, which I believe date back to the days of Henry VIII but definitely originated in Surrey,” she says. “They are not difficult to make but really lovely if you visit the Maids of Honour in Richmond where they are a speciality. I always think you enjoy what someone else has made so much more than when you bake them yourself. I am often asked if I ever buy cakes from someone else – of course I do and enjoy them.”
Mary is also a fan of Surrey for its abundance of farmers markets, from which she likes to source her ingredients.
“There are some excellent farmer’s markets in Surrey and I remember paying a special visit to the one in Guildford a few years ago,” she says. “We were filming at the time and I couldn’t resist touring the various stalls. I always find farmer’s markets fascinating and the fact that you can talk to the producers makes the purchase all the more special.”
Mary has retained many of her Surrey connections including RHS Wisley, of which she is a patron and a regular visitor. She has also been known to officially switch on the Christmas lights.
“I do enjoy Christmas time and I think it was the smell of baking at Christmas which really captured me,” she explains. “It was always nice on a Sunday but at Christmas time it was even better and I still enjoy baking at this time of the year. Actually I like the whole Christmas cooking experience but nowadays all the family join in and make a contribution so it is not just the meal that is shared but the making of it too. I have many fond memories of Christmas at home in Surrey and memories always last longer than food.”
- Mary Berry’s Simple Comforts by Mary Berry is out now (BBC Books, £26).
MARY’S MINCE PIES
“One of my really favourite parts of the whole festive food thing are mince pies. They are very special and you can have them at any time. They can be a greeting for guests when they arrive, they can be a part of the dessert, they can be handed round with a cup of tea later in the day or at supper time on Christmas Day or Boxing Day. Not only that but they can be served cold or warm and with or without a custard, cream or any other sort of dressing. They can, of course, be even more traditional and made as a savoury bite. They are an essential part of the season and I cannot imagine Christmas without them.”
For this recipe you will ideally use a 12-hole muffin tin and 8cm/3in fluted pastry cutter.
For the pastry
·175g/6oz plain flour
·75g/2½oz cold butter, cubed
·25g/1oz icing sugar, plus extra for dusting
·1 large orange, grated zest only
·1 free-range egg, beaten
For the filling
·250g/9oz good-quality ready-made mincemeat
·100g/3½oz ready-to-eat dried apricots, finely chopped (do this in a food processor if you’re short on time)
·125g/4oz uncoloured marzipan, grated
Preheat the oven to 200C/180C Fan/Gas 6 and place a baking sheet inside to heat up.
For the pastry, either pulse the flour and butter in a food processor until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs, or rub the flour and butter together in a large bowl using your fingertips.
Stir in the icing sugar and orange zest, then stir in the beaten egg and mix until the ingredients just come together as a dough. Wrap the dough in greaseproof paper and chill in the fridge for 10-15 minutes, or until firm.
When the pastry has rested, unwrap it. Place the greaseproof paper on a work surface and lightly dust with icing sugar. Place the dough on top, dust with icing sugar, then cover with another sheet of greaseproof paper. Roll the pastry between the sheets of greaseproof paper to a thickness of 1-2mm. (If you are confident rolling out pastry you do not need to use the greaseproof paper, but it does help prevent the pastry tearing if the dough is a little sticky)
Stamp 12 rounds from the pastry using a 8cm/3in fluted pastry cutter. (Any leftover pastry can be frozen and used to make jam tarts.) Line each hole of the muffin tin with one of the pastry rounds and prick the base of each with a fork.
For the filling, mix the mincemeat with the chopped apricots until well combined. Divide the mixture equally among the pastry cases. Top each tart with some of the grated marzipan.
Slide the muffin tin onto the hot baking sheet and bake in the oven for 12-15 minutes, or until golden-brown and crisp. Dust with icing sugar and serve warm.
Tip 1: To give the tarts a stronger orange flavour, you could add half of the orange zest to the pastry and half to the filling.
Tip 2: Chill the marzipan in the fridge to make it easier to grate.
Tip 3: These tarts can be make up to three days in advance and stored in an airtight container. They can also be wrapped in cling film and aluminium foil and frozen for up to two months.
Look out in the December issue of Surrey Life, out November 25, for some comforting winter recipes from Mary’s new cook book.