Can Mary Berry teach a fruitcake like Liz Jones to bake Answer: Of course…but it was the toughest bake-off of her life
00:46 GMT, 11 August 2012
To say I don’t cook is something of an understatement. In the five years since my divorce from a husband who used to do all the cooking, I have made precisely two meals.
The first was leek and potato soup for my foodie friend Lucy. I used just one leek to six potatoes, which resulted in a bowl of glutinous brown slime; she only ate the dry bread (I have never owned any butter).
The second was a vegetarian chilli. I put it on the hob to cook, but forgot about it. Only when I saw flames did I realise it was burning.
Kitchen nightmares: Liz Jones, left, manages to make a strawberry meringue roulade from scratch – despite confessing to being unable to boil an egg – with a little help from the Great British Bake Off's Mary Berry, right
I still served it to my dismayed friend whose relief was palpable when one of my four collies climbed on the table, and gobbled it off her plate.
It’s not an exaggeration to say I cannot boil an egg. How on earth do you know when it’s done If only it would give out some sign. I’ve just made my old collie scrambled egg, but it became an omelette the moment my back was turned! How did that happen
I have a giant American fridge freezer, but there is never any food in it, apart from M&S prawns for the cats, who used to have their own shelf, but now have jurisdiction over the whole thing.
I’ve never owned a rolling pin, a baking tray, a palette knife or a mixing bowl. Yes, I have a pair of Dualit scales, but these are used only to weigh the horses’ feeds. I have a toaster, although I never use it as I have a fear of crumbs.
But perhaps my biggest culinary confession is that my Aga gave up the ghost some years ago, and I have not bothered to get it repaired because its only function had been to air sweaters.
But while I never cook, I adore cookery programmes. I want to live in Lorraine Pascale’s sunny home, and wear her tight jeans and immaculate white shirts. I want Rachel Khoo’s coquettish sex appeal. I crave Nigella Lawson’s confidence and affluence. I love Nigel Slater’s herb garden, and wish I were married to Jamie Oliver. Oh, and I’d adore animalistic sex with Gordon Ramsay, too.
Painstaking: Liz, pictured above left placing strawberries onto her roulade, says she may invest in a wooden spoon after a successful day in the unfamiliar surroundings of the kitchen
I just do not want to eat their food. Or clean up after their mess. Or do the shopping for the inevitable ingredients.
My favourite of all of the cookery shows though is, of course, the Great British Bake Off, of which Mary Berry is the undisputed star.
The series, which returns on Tuesday, as welcome every summer as the very first swift, has such a British air you can almost smell the mown grass inside the canvas marquee. It’s as safe and retro as a Cath Kidston tea towel.
So when I get the chance to learn to bake with Mary, I jump at it — well, at the opportunity to meet the great woman herself, rather than the cooking bit.
When I arrive at Mary Berry’s Queen Anne house in Buckinghamshire and tell her I don’t have the means with which to cook or even warm up anything, she looks at first shocked, and then says she is very sorry for me.
‘How do you survive, what do you eat’ she asks, ushering me into her immaculate kitchen, all shiny, functional Aga, and a giant fridge which I’m sure is full of food.
She lunges at me with an apron. I recoil at such an anti-feminist piece of clothing, as though it were a Victorian corset, or a hobble skirt.
My refusal to cook is not only the opposite of the servile little woman, it frees up so much time, too: no washing up, no shopping or chopping or wiping.
‘But that is no way to live,’ says Mary, her blue eyes watery.
And when I tell her that I’m a life-long anorexia sufferer and a committed vegan, she almost puts down her wooden spoon. But I can see that Mary, who at 77 still rises every morning at 6am, and puts in 12-hour days, which is how she has managed to write more than 70 cookery books, is unafraid of a challenge.
Today’s mission To cook a strawberry meringue roulade from scratch. I have brought my own ingredients because a couple of days before I was emailed a list of them by one of Mary’s two home economists (Lucy, who has been with her for 22 years, and Lucinda, with 12 years’ service; ‘I’m such a battleaxe, you see, I can’t keep staff,’ says Mary, twinkling).
I hate ingredients. I see food not just as fattening, but as a tool of male oppression. I cannot stand supermarkets. In fact I refuse to enter them, preferring bijou delis where I buy artisan olive oil that stands unused for a decade.
On my shopping list was a bag of caster sugar, double cream, Greek yogurt, and six eggs: Kryptonite, in other words. And strawberries — about the only part of the cake I’ll be able to ingest.
Back at Mary’s, she has assembled her armoury of tools on her spotless worktop: a KitchenAid mixer as big as a Buick, an oblong baking tin and a ream of greaseproof paper.
As I stand next to her, it’s like being transported back in time to when I would stand next to my mum, who I can never picture without a pinny.
While my mum’s cooking was comforting and delicious — chocolate sponges, fairy cakes and Yorkshire pudding — I think this is where my food aversion started. With seven children to feed, my mum never stopped cooking.
Too poor to buy anything shop-made (a Lyons Swiss roll was a treat), and with no appliances to speak of — only a hand-operated whisk, and no dishwasher — she was always exhausted, her red face dusted with flour. I soon equated cooking with an endless round of fatigue, mess and ingratitude. I swore I would never be a slave to the kitchen.
They look Berry tasty: Aga expert Mary Berry has become a hit with viewers as a judge on cookery show the Great British Bake-Off
A deeply feminist career woman, I saw my sterile, dysfunctional kitchen as a badge of defiance. I tell Mary I would no more cook a man a meal than allow him control of my bank account.
‘But there is something satisfying about taking the trouble to make something, and then have your friends gasp in amazement,’ she says. ‘They will be flattered you’ve taken the time to bake for them.’
Mary has just had 57 people to lunch, and always allows her five grandchildren — twins Abby and Grace, and Louis, Hobie and Atalanta — free run of her kitchen. The boys even have their own frying pans and spatulas.
‘Mums should always spend time cooking with their children: it’s so much cheaper than going to an amusement park,’ she says.
But what if you cook them something, and they won’t eat it This is clearly something Mary has never had to contend with.
And so we begin. First, I grease the baking tray with a knob of butter, then line it with parchment paper. Then I separate the eggs, tipping each egg white into the KitchenAid mixer, one at a time. I tell Mary the flecks of blood make me want to gag, and her face turns as pink as her blouse, valiantly trying not to laugh. We then whisk the whites, adding the sugar slowly.
Does she not worry about all this sugar, all the fat in the double cream ‘I think it’s better to just eat a smaller slice. On the programme, I taste everything the contestants bake, a decent piece, but then I’m pretty careful the next day. If you are making a quiche, put some cream in, and have a small slice of something beautiful.’
Everything about Mary — who first realised she was good at cooking in domestic science class at school, under the wonderfully-named Miss Date, and studied at the Cordon Bleu School in Paris — is marvellously old-fashioned.
She has no truck for the current mania among mums to be fastidiously hygienic. ‘If something falls on the floor, I pop it back on the plate. The floor is washed once a day, and it won’t kill you.’
She refuses to buy organic. ‘It’s so expensive. I tend to buy veg in farm shops, and I can tell if a carrot is a good one. I never ask people to buy expensive ingredients that then sit in their cupboard for years, never to be used again. I can always rustle up something from what I have in the fridge.’
I tell her I can’t understand the speed of chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver. ‘I always take my time,’ she says. ‘Now, you have to spoon the egg-white mixture into the tin.’
I do this, smoothing it out. My mum made a Christmas cake every year, and the icing was always a snowstorm: rough peaks, with a tiny Santa in the middle whose trousers became less crimson with every passing decade.
‘I always do a snowstorm, too,’ says Mary, showing me her Tupperware box of ancient cake decorations. ‘I think shows like Masterchef are too haute: they produce a tiny plate, with a perfect jus, while my cooking is very much something you can do at home.’ While she says she gets on ‘perfectly’ with her fellow judge on the show, Paul Hollywood, she adds, ‘We have great discussions, as he is a professional baker, and I’m a home cook.
‘He wants perfection, and I have to remind him all the contestants [several thousand applied for the new series, which were then whittled down to 12] have never worked in a baker’s, or run a cafe. I think taste and texture are important, not perfection.’
She has a reputation as a hard taskmaster, though. ‘I want to teach people. I was on Desert Island Discs, and lovely Kirsty Young brought me some biscuits her daughter had made. And I wrote her daughter a note, saying they tasted wonderful, but the biscuits were a little too brown round the edges. Next time she must take them out of the oven five minutes sooner. There is no point just telling a child everything they do is wonderful.’
We are now sprinkling almonds over the egg and sugar mixture, ready to place in the oven. Even the way I’m holding the tray is wrong, and will certainly get me burnt. While it cooks, I combine the cream, which I whip first, and the yoghurt. Then I wash and hull the strawberries, and fold these in. Lucinda, thank the Lord, is timing the meringue. I get it out: it’s like a miracle! It’s all brown and toasted, but still soft in the middle.
‘Well done!’ says Mary. ‘Now, you have to turn it out onto a plate.’ Oh god. The possibility for mess. But I tip it, so the almonds are on the bottom. I have to make an incision one inch in from the side, to ease the rolling. I’m now sweating, and exhausted: there is so much standing involved in cooking. I’m tired.
But I valiantly begin to roll the meringue into an inept sausage.
‘No! Stop!’ shouts Mary. I have forgotten to add the filling.
I unravel it, and dollop the filling in the centre, smearing it out to the four corners. Now I can roll it up, using the parchment as leverage. I have to admit here that Mary helps, too. I have a few large cracks, which we sort of squeeze together and underpin with the almonds.
Next, we make fans of the strawberries, and dust with icing sugar. Mary’s own version is smothered, while mine looks like a snow scene during global warming. ‘I have such a fear of calories,’ I tell her, ‘that I can’t be generous.’
But it does look pretty fantastic. Can Mary teach anyone to cook ‘They must have the passion, be interested,’ she says tactfully, something I’m clearly not. But I do enjoy my day basking in Mary’s warmth, in her fragrant mummyness.
My cooking will never win prizes. I will never, I know with certainty, own a sugar thermometer in order to make jam. But I might just invest in a wooden spoon.
‘Baking saved my life,’ Mary says, talking of the time after her 19-year-old son was killed in a car accident. Maybe it will save mine. So, I have a slice of something beautiful.