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Mary Berry’s Complete Television Cookbook, by Mary Berry, 1983

There’s Nigella, Delia and Jamie – and now there’s Mary.

As co-host of The Great British Bake Off, Mary Berry, in her eighth decade, has become the nation’s favourite fantasy grandma. Yet in spite of being the author of more than 70 books, and having first appeared on TV more than 40 years ago, it took the 2010 debut of The Great British Bake Off to establish Berry as a household name.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Berry was familiar to anyone who watched daytime television as the cookery expert on ITV’s magazine programme Good Afternoon (1972-1979). Sporting heavily sprayed hair, colourful blouses and a clipped accent, Berry offered cookery tips to housewives across the land. A series of books followed and, in 1983, these were amalgamated into Mary Berry’s Complete Television Cookbook.

In the introduction to an earlier book, Berry outlines her approach: “I believe that we all want to produce meals that are good and nutritious to eat, that preparation should not demand too much time, and that the ingredients should not be too costly.” This sensible if unremarkable attitude is consistent with Berry’s background. Born in 1935, she trained at a domestic science college and the Cordon Bleu, and later worked as the cookery editor on Housewife and Ideal Home magazines.

In Television Cookery Berry assumes her readers “have the same attitude to cooking that I have”. Her voice is more teacher than friend. When describing her kitchen layout she explains, “I took great care planning it. Make sure you do the same.” Interspersed with the recipes are “Cook’s Tips”, offering firm but helpful advice: “Never turn out the caramel custard until the moment of serving. The caramel loses its gloss and colour with standing when turned out.”

The food in Television Cookery – meringues, jellies, hotpots, bakes and briskets – falls into that category of recipes that were cooked by skilled housewives before the explosion in food media turned everyone into an expert. Berry certainly made no assumptions about her readers’ knowledge of foreign food. In a chapter on “Oriental Cookery” she explains that, “The cuisines of India, China and Japan vary greatly”, later reiterating that Japanese food “differs greatly from that of China”.

Though not adventurous, most of the food in Television Cookery would be welcome at a family meal today, though it’s unlikely hot grapefruit with ginger, sugar and butter, or liver and onions, will make a comeback any day soon.

As with many cookery books, it’s less the recipes that have dated, more the photography. While the decision to stuff sardine pâté into a hollowed-out lemon involves more faff than would be fashionable today, it is the pictures of neat salads, evenly layered slices of cheese and artfully positioned veg, each shot in muted colours and served on patterned crockery, that place the food firmly in the 1980s.

Berry’s passion for baking does become apparent in Television Cookery: “There are few more pleasant domestic pleasures than that of a kitchen full of the delicious smells of home baking,” she enthuses. And with recipes for eclairs, tacky gingerbread, apple strudel, Swiss roll and, of course, a Victoria sandwich, there are hints of the expertise for which Berry would later become famous.

Given that Berry has been so prolific, it seems odd that she’s only recently achieved celebrity status. During the 1980s and 1990s the quantity of onscreen cooking exploded. Driven by ratings rather than Reithian principles, cookery shows offered TV companies the opportunity to gain revenue from books, DVDs, magazines and global spin-offs. Celebrity chefs, each one with a USP, were central to these brands and it was Delia Smith, not Berry, who reigned supreme.

It was not until the 1990s with the commission of a cake series from the BBC that Berry found her niche. With this and a number of cake, pudding and dessert books behind her, Berry began to establish herself as the Queen of Baking.

But compared with the contrived exuberance of most celebrity chefs, it’s perhaps easy to see why Berry, with her “keep calm and carry on” manner, has taken a while to be noticed. On The Great British Bake Off, the competition leaves Berry to do what she is best at – offering advice, and setting high standards. Without feeling the need to show off.

Polly Russell is a curator at the British Library; ‘Mary Berry’s Complete Television Cookbook’ by kind permission from the British Library collection


Lemons Filled with Sardine Pâté

Cook’s Tip. This makes an inexpensive starter and looks very pretty with each lemon garnished with a bay leaf.

4 small lemons

2oz (50g) butter, softened

2oz (50g) cream cheese

4½oz (125g) can sardines in oil

Ground black pepper

● Cut a thin slice from the base of each lemon so that they stand flat, then cut a larger slice from the top of each lemon and scoop out the insides using a grapefruit or serrated knife and strain through a sieve.

● Cream the butter and cheese together. Drain the sardines, mash with a fork and beat into the butter with two tablespoons (30ml) of the strained lemon juice and plenty of black pepper.

● Pile the mixture into the lemon shells, top each with a lid and serve on individual plates. Serves four.

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