Christmas will be different this year – so let’s make it really special, says the nation’s favourite cook…
A little blip called 2020 isn’t going to stop Mary Berry having a classic Christmas, and neither, she insists, should it you. Her fondness for the season is why she made her new BBC show, Mary Berry Saves Christmas. Knowing we might not all be with our families this year and are perhaps facing the prospect of donning the festive chef’s hat for the first time, Mary teaches three regular folk, who have never cooked before, how to make the feast.
She has enlisted the help of The One Show’s Angela Scanlon, Jay Blades from The Repair Shop (one of Mary’s favourite shows) and comedian Tom Allen to cheerlead each budding chef along, while she gives video instructions from her home. The dishes include a turkey crown, in case numbers are too limited for a full 15lb fanfare; a butternut squash tart for the festive vegetarian, and a mango and passionfruit pavlova.
‘It is joyful and fun. I wanted to put my teaching hat on to give them something that they would really enjoy and learn a skill from,’ says Mary over the phone from her home near Henley, Oxfordshire. ‘Our three novices put their heart and soul into it. They hadn’t done any cooking other than opening cans or heating up takeaways. The elves – Jay, who was wonderful, and won the hearts of all of us, Angela, who was a lovely chatterbox and Tom, who was so funny – were there to hold their hands and give them confidence as they went. Wait till you see how our non-cooks manage, with proper instruction, to make really good results for their family and friends.’
I ask about Mary’s own Christmas plans. ‘My husband [Paul Hunnings, to whom she’s been married for 53 years] and I plan to be at my daughter’s,’ she says. ‘It will be a small gathering, but a lot of effort will still be made.’ The second lockdown gave Mary precious time to plan, which, she says, is key. ‘I like to get a huge piece of paper, not the back of an envelope, and plan,’ she says. ‘Then you can start buying and cooking. You can make mince pies in advance – you could do the mincemeat yourself, but I buy mine and then add stewed apple, because the younger members of the family don’t like it so spicy. To find the best brands, I look in the newspapers and magazines to see which mincemeats they say are particularly good. I do the same for smoked salmon. You expect Waitrose and Marks & Spencer to be up there, but even Iceland seems to be moving up.
‘How about making some good stock in advance and freezing it as the base for your gravy? You can make it from inexpensive chicken wings, or roast chicken, and you can make stuffings and bread sauce to freeze, too. And hasn’t it been wonderful to have more time to put a little note in each Christmas card this year? I’ve been writing a few every day.’
She will top up gifts with homemade shortbread and stem ginger biscuit parcels, or perhaps a bottle of her famous nonalcoholic punch. ‘People like food presents, especially if they don’t like cooking,’ she laughs. ‘My own Christmas list is mainly things for the garden
– I’d like some little Cyclamen coum. It’s generally plants and bulbs that I ask for.’
Mary’s tree will be resplendent in handmade decorations from her five grandchildren. ‘I usually get help from them,’ she says. ‘It’s so exciting opening the box of decorations, and they always love to bring out the pieces they have made – little silver bells created from egg boxes, things like that.’
Hosting is rotated each year between Mary and her children, Annabel and Thomas. When it’s Mary’s turn, the table will have been prepped (or, as she puts it, ‘faffed about with’) on Christmas Eve, with Carols From King’s on the radio as she does the last bits of wrapping before she and Paul pop out to friends for a drink (not this year, she adds: ‘We must follow sensible rules and not deviate from them’). The big day starts with church for Mary and Paul, and home in time for family arrivals and elevenses, with a little glass of something. ‘I do rather control it for me, though,’ she laughs. ‘We’ll have nice wine with lunch. We don’t overindulge – we want to enjoy everything.’ Dress code is smart, even for the teenagers; tradition is important to Mary, especially this year, when ‘we haven’t had much chance to dress up’.
For dinner, she says, ‘My family really like things they’ve always had, so it’s a traditional turkey. I vary the stuffings – one with apricots, which is lovely and crispy, and a meat one that goes in up the front end of the turkey. We have celeriac purée made with crème fraîche – some of my family hate it and some love it! I make too much gravy, because it’s nice to add to the turkey soup the next day. For me, the most valuable part of the turkey is the bones, to make the soup.’ And for a foolproof pud? ‘My daughter’s mother-in-law always brings Christmas pudding,’ she says. ‘My tip is to turn it out just before the meal and leave the basin on top to keep it warm, so you don’t have anxiety about it sticking. If you’re making it yourself, butter the bowl, line it with nonstick paper then butter that again.’
After lunch, and the Queen’s speech, ‘everybody is pushed out of the house for a walk’, she says, ‘then it’s back for Christmas cake and a cup of tea, even though they don’t really want the cake because they’re still full! After that it’s charades and our family tradition: everyone has to come with a prepared reading, joke or quick quiz – and we all laugh and cheer.’ Mary usually chooses a poem.
In terms of festive telly, Call The Midwife is a must: ‘I always look forward to that,’ Mary says. ‘And the great news is we’re going to be having The Vicar of Dibley this year! Those shows are wonderful, and make you forget the problems of the world.’
It feels apt that Mary has been made a Dame. ‘I’m immensely proud,’ she says of receiving her place on the Queen’s Birthday Honours in October. ‘I only had one O-level – well, you could divide that into cooking and dressmaking – so it’s really special for me. My parents and my brothers, who are no longer here, would have been chuffed to bits to see me receive it. My aim is to make people enjoy cooking as much as I do, and to pass on the skill in a very simple way that I’ve learnt. I love the thought of people cooking at home, and me holding their hand while they do it.’
Perhaps with Mary holding our hands, this year might not be quite as bleak as we feared. ‘We’ve got plenty of Christmases to come,’ she says. ‘This is just a different year.’ Mary Berry Saves Christmas? She just might.