Trad and trusted advice from the nation’s favourite home guru.
Welcome to this extract from my new book, Mary’s Household Tips & Tricks.
I’ve had a lot of time to gather tips about cooking and how to run a house. When I was 19, I took a two-year course in institutional management at Bath College of Domestic Science. The focus was on catering, but they also taught us housewifery, as it was referred to then. Our teacher Miss Neilson used to sit us down and teach us the basics: laying the table, making beds and cleaning loos, among other things. They might all sound like common sense but I am very grateful to her for the knowledge she shared.
My mother was very frugal, something that was especially important living through the war, and I learned a lot from her. Even with rationing, we would have pudding on Saturdays – this was only because my mother had said, ‘No puddings unless you give up sugar in your tea.’
My focus may have been on cooking but it has always been centred on the home. In my books and TV programmes I am very keen to share tricks for preparing ahead or just making a recipe easier – I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve written or spoken about warming lemons to make them easier to juice.
This book is a natural follow-on, though it isn’t just made up of my mother’s tips or mine. It is a collection of what I’ve learnt over the years along with all the helpful hints that friends and family have imparted to me. It is about helping you with life and guiding you through chores – not about creating more work or telling you what you should do. Some of the tips may not mean anything to you, because everybody’s needs are different, but anything I suggest is included on the basis that it might make life a little bit easier!
Good household products need not be expensive and you might already have the ingredients in your cupboard.
There is no sugar coating it: cleaning sounds boring, but once you get down to it, it’s very rewarding. What’s more, if it’s done properly the results will last. Take a moment to stop and look at things that need a bit of attention
Bicarbonate of soda is incredibly effective for a number of cleaning jobs around the house and is mildly abrasive too, making it a good alternative to chemical cream cleaners.
Clear vinegar is efficient at cleaning glass when diluted slightly.
Lemon Squeezed-out lemon halves are also good for cleaning glass and are well worth saving for cleaning the shower: rub on glass doors and chrome fittings to remove cloudy stains and bring back shine.
Lemon and bicarbonate of soda Combined, lemon and bicarb are effective for cleaning chrome and anything that needs buffing up.
HOW TO MAKE FRUIT VINEGAR
If you want to clean with vinegar, as I often do, but are worried about your house smelling like a fish-and-chip shop, try this fruit-infused alternative.
Step one Pour clear vinegar into a glass jar until three quarters full.
Step two Add the peel of a citrus fruit (such as lemon, lime, orange or grapefruit) and a few sprigs of mint or a cinnamon stick – whichever combination you find most appealing.
Step three Leave it in a cupboard to infuse for around a month.
Step four Use a strainer to extract the scented vinegar liquid and pour it into a fresh jar or empty spray bottle.
A kitchen should always be practical and efficient. Organising fridges, freezers and cupboards wisely will make your life easier in the long run.
It’s very useful to have a storage space – either a cupboard that pulls out or a built-in space with dividers – close to your oven for storing roasting tins, baking trays, and chopping boards. Rails fixed to the wall near the oven or hob are a clever way to hang utensils.
With today’s busy schedules, it is helpful to have a rough routine. A memo or noticeboard in the kitchen (or a magnetic board on the fridge) can provide a handy visual reminder to pick up items once you have run out.
Light causes spices to fade and lose flavour so they should always be kept in a dark place. If you have good-quality cupboard doors, you can fix spice racks to the back of them. Ideally, the whole spices should be together and any baking ingredients kept separately
RE-USE AGAIN & AGAIN
Empty glass jars can be put to a number of uses, but some labels can be very tricky to get off, even when given a prolonged soak. Armed with the right method, your jars can be sticker-free in seconds.
Step one Start by soaking jars in hot water with a little washing-up liquid for a few minutes or until you can peel the labels off.
Step two In a small bowl, mix cooking oil (vegetable is perfect, nothing expensive or special – save that for eating!) with some bicarbonate of soda so it forms a paste.
Step three Dab on to a non-scratch sponge scourer and rub over the sticky area.
Step four Rinse in hot soapy water to get rid of any oiliness and pat dry.
When entertaining friends and family, it’s a good idea to do as much as you can to prepare food in advance – then you can actually spend time with your guests when everyone arrives.
Tableware doesn’t necessarily have to match. Mismatching plates and bowls shows personality. Cutlery should be placed in the order in which you will use it, so a smaller knife and fork on the outside for the first course, then a larger size on the inside. Napkins can be placed to the left (beside or underneath the forks) or in the middle of each place setting.
ROUNDING OFF THE MEAL
What can be nicer than finishing a lovely meal with a selection of tea and coffee? When I used to run workshops in my kitchen and made tea and coffee for a large group, I learned a trick for fitting 16 cups and saucers on one tray.
Step one Divide the saucers into four stacks of four.
Step two Lay four cups sideways on top of each stack, tucking the handles into the next cup so they all slot together and sit on the saucer perfectly.
Step three Decant once you have brought the cups to the table.
‘Grasp the nettle’ is a phrase my husband often uses: in essence, stop talking about doing something and do it. It is rewarding and something most of us, myself included, could do with when it comes to hand washing, ironing and clearing out wardrobes
It is always useful to have a full cupboard of freshly washed linen, especially during the holiday season when guests come to stay. For a similar selection of vintage textiles, try Pillo (pillolondon.com). I’m a great one for pre-soaking garments before washing and I always soak whites and other colours separately, with a different laundry powder for each. If you do this, you don’t have to scrub or do anything else to them
STAINS & REMOVAL
Stains are always best treated fresh. It is important not to panic and start scrubbing straight away, however. The first thing to do is gently dab at the affected area with a dry cloth or kitchen paper to remove the worst of it, or, if it’s a solid stain, scrape it off as cleanly as possible with something like a blunt knife. Only once you’ve done that should you think about the stain that is left behind.
Red wine Table salt helps to soak up the wine and is something that most of us have to hand. Cover the affected area immediately then press against it gently with a cloth; the salt crystals should soak up the excess liquid.
Candle wax often drips on to tablecloths and sleeves. Scrape away as much hardened wax as you can, then cover the affected area with greaseproof paper and iron on a low setting. The heat should melt any remaining wax, which will then be absorbed by the paper.
Lily stamens Dab the affected area immediately with a piece of sticky tape to remove the loose pollen.
Make-up around collars and necklines. Wipe with make-up remover wipes or baby wipes as soon as you notice the stain, then soak with biological laundry powder before washing as usual.
If you have an old washing machine that hasn’t got a special delicates or wool setting, don’t use it for these items. Instead, wash garments by hand in a sink or tub, then dry them flat. I find that covering a garment with a towel, rolling it up and stamping on it helps draw out excess water. Towels and bath mats need to be washed weekly. If you have hard water a dryer will help to make them fluffy again and you can also use a fabric softener – otherwise they can dry as stiff as boards. Too much fabric softener can reduce how absorbent they are, however, so be sparing.
This is my favourite room of the house. Even if you have a very small space, it’s worth making it a clean and tidy domain. This can be tough as glass is one of the trickiest surfaces to clean.
Whether large or small, all bathrooms need some storage space. A shallow wall-mounted bathroom cupboard is a huge joy. If the shelves inside are narrow, you can’t double stack your jars and potions so you can easily see everything. For a similar unit, try Cox & Cox, coxandcox.co.uk
The best thing to get rid of marks on chrome items such as towel warmers is a metal polish cream. If your showerhead is above a bath, a non-slip mat is a good idea and a machine-washable one is especially convenient. If the mat can’t go in the machine, give it a good scrub in warm soapy water and leave to air dry
A freestanding bath brings a touch of luxury to any bathroom and is perfect to relax in. For a similar style, try Soakology, soakology.co.uk. Mirrors above baths get steamed up and are therefore often dirtier than mirrors in other areas of the home, so they need frequent cleaning. Scrunched-up newspaper and a solution of diluted vinegar works really well for removing grime
THE LIVING ROOM
This needs to be used for more than one purpose. One person should be able to read while another watches a film, for example. Take this into consideration when it comes to room layout.
CHOOSING A SOFA
Generally, sofas stuffed with feathers are softer and have a more informal look. A fibre- or foam-filled sofa will have a firmer feel and is good for those with allergies. Whatever material you choose, durability is important.
Cotton and cotton blends are versatile and hard-wearing. Covers can usually be removed and dry-cleaned (follow the instructions on the label).
Linen and linen blends can have a textured look. Covers may usually be removed and dry-cleaned (follow the instructions on the label).
Velvet will develop a crushed appearance over time. Avoid getting it wet.
Wool is warm and cosy but may bobble.
Leather can be sealed or unfinished. Easy to keep clean by wiping with a slightly damp cloth. It will crease and age with time, but this is part of its charm.
If you have pets and they are allowed on the furniture, placing a blanket on their favourite spot is a good way to protect the surface from grubby paws and fur
Let what you enjoy doing in the living room dictate the position of your furniture. If you have a fireplace, this is a traditional focal point around which to arrange your seating. Otherwise a television is a good natural centrepiece. If you’re only burning wood in your fire, take the fresh ash (once it’s cold) and keep it in a sack in a dry place. Wait until the weather is dry, then scatter it around any fruit trees or in flowerbeds in your garden as a fertiliser and natural source of potassium. It is absorbed better in the growing season
This room is worth investing in as it is where you go to switch off and feel warm and cosy
How much insulation duvets offer – in other words, how warm they are – is measured in togs. Fifteen is the highest, warmest rating. Duvets can be filled with natural feathers or synthetic fillings. What you choose is a matter of personal taste, but if you suffer from allergies, synthetic is probably a better option.
Pillowcases come in different styles and sizes but the two most common are the housewife and the oxford. The main difference between them is that pillows fit snugly into housewife pillowcases, whereas oxford ones have a decorative border of fabric around the edge. Fitted sheets come in two depths: regular (up to 30cm) or deep fit (generally 32cm-36cm). Regardless of how thick your mattress is, a deep fit is easier to use.
HOW TO DO HOSPITAL CORNERS
These days, fitted sheets are very popular and readily available, so you don’t need to worry about a loose sheet if you don’t want to. But if you do, here’s how to achieve hospital corners
Step one Spread the sheet over the mattress with the bottom width of the sheet tucked under.
Step two Stand at one corner by the bottom of the mattress and pull up the edge of the sheet so it forms a triangle above the bed.
Step three Tuck the part of the sheet hanging below the mattress underneath it.
Step four Fold over the part of the sheet being held above the mattress, flat against the edge of the mattress.
Step five Tuck the overhanging part of the triangle underneath the mattress.
Step six Treat the other three corners in the same way.
Whether guests are staying for the evening or for the whole weekend, think ahead to all the acts, make notes and have everything ready so that when the curtain goes up, you’re set
If you are good at a craft such as sewing or knitting, then why not put it into practice? Little bags of dried lavender are quick and fairly straightforward gifts to make. Guests can take them home and tuck them into a nightwear or jumper drawer.
When you have people coming to stay make sure the bed is well aired, with clean sheets. For a similar table lamp, try John Lewis (johnlewis.co.uk)
Flowers are always a lovely touch and show that you have thought of your guest. If supermarket-bought, take them out of their plastic covering and wrap them in some brown kraft paper tied with raffia or ribbon for presentation. VV Rouleaux (vvrouleaux.com) sells a great selection of trimmings.
I have objects that I enjoy looking at – vases and jugs, framed pictures – but I am reasonably tidy. Having designated areas, whether it be a drawer, box or cupboard, where you allow the paraphernalia of day-to-day life to accumulate is one way to prevent clutter taking over.
How you organise your books will depend on how many you have, the space available and what your reading habits are. Try dividing your books by colour of spine or genre and then put them in the places where you will need them. That way if you only ever read in bed, you can make sure that there’s a dedicated space in your room for the books you’re keen to read.
If you happen to have space under the stairs, make the most of it. Fitted cupboards and drawers with hooks on the backs of doors can make this an ideal storage space.
Get 20 per cent off Mary’s book
This is an edited extract from Mary’s Household Tips & Tricks: Your Guide to Happiness in the Home by Mary Berry and Lucy Young, which will be published by Michael Joseph on Thursday, price £20. To order a copy for £16 until 22 October, visit you-bookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15.
Mary will be at Henley Literary Festival on Friday at 8.30pm, henleyliteraryfestival.co.uk
PICTURE CREDITS: Georgia Glynn Smith, Getty Images, Narratives, Loupe, Gap Interiors, Gallery Stock, BBC Gardener’s World, PlainPicture, Nicky Adams