Queen of Baking, Mary Berry: Fashionably fabulous at 81
Bairbre power went to London to party with the Queen of Baking, Mary Berry
They say to be careful about meeting your heroes and I've encountered a few disappointments over the years - from the famous classical musician who would only keep talking for as long as I was buying albums to the pouting rock stars who are driven back on tour by alimony payments and really don't want to talk.
However, meeting my childhood baking heroine, Mary Berry, thankfully lived up to my expectations and produced quite a few surprises too - not least that Mary Berry is actually great fun, has a great laugh and is a wonderful asset to a party… especially her own.
I was treated to an up-close encounter with my lemon drizzle cake idol at a private party the BBC hosted for Mary at the swish Fortnum & Mason in London's Piccadilly - the store where the Queen allegedly buys her groceries.
The party was to mark the launch of Everyday, Mary Berry's new BBC book and TV series, which is all about making everyday dishes that little bit different but with the minimum of fuss. Her last three books with the Broadcasting Corporation sold 1.2m copies, a commercial hit which contributed nicely to Mary's estimated wealth of £15million. Hers is a solid, lucrative brand which crosses books, chutney and kitchen equipment - and proves that there is so much more to Mary than just baking.
Mary Berry is a one-woman powerhouse when it comes to creating recipes, and in a 60-year career she has written over 70 cookbooks. Everyday showcases her skills beyond cakes and breads, which were the focus of hit TV show The Great British Bake Off, which flipped the 81-year-old grandmother of three firmly back into public's gaze.
As the only Irish journalist invited to the cocktail party, I was kind of short of familiar faces to chat with so it gave me the perfect opportunity to stand back, survey the proceedings and watch the GBBO queen - she of the infamous soggy bottoms rules - perform in real life, away from the cameras.
Mary has two Pauls in her life, but there was only one there: husband of 50 years, retired antiquarian books expert Paul Hunnings, who proposed three times before she finally said yes to him on a bench in Hyde Park.
And then there's Paul Hollywood, Mary's co-presenter on GBBO for the last seven years - the baker who became famous overnight in the U.S. after he had an affair with his co-presenter on the American version of the show.
If British newspaper reports were to be believed last year, Mary turned down an eye-watering £7m to move tents with The Great British Bake Off as it controversially relocates to Channel 4, with only the silver fox himself, Hollywood, making the move. However, Mary has confirmed that she was never actually asked to go and, on closer questioning, admitted: "Well, I avoided being asked."
Loyalty is clearly a major factor in Mary's life, and you could sense it at the party, as she spoke glowing about her team of staff, many of whom have been with her for 15-25 years, "so I'm really not a dragon - nobody leaves; they all seem to stay," she said.
Despite all the media furore over Hollywood's defection to the Channel 4 show, Mary insisted she "would always stand by him".
"Paul and I had our differences about what was important to us but he is a brilliant bread-maker and I admired him a lot," she told the Radio Times this week.
Mary turns 82 on March 24, and you can still recognise flashes of her steely nature and that old-school British backbone. In her own words, Mary "followed the war" on the BBC and, as far as she is concerned, it's an honour for her being part of the institution, so moving to a rival station was never really on the cards.
I witnessed her resolve at the party and, in her succinct speech, Mary nailed the subject early on, so everyone could spend the rest of the night just enjoying themselves. There was going to be no elephant in the room on the top floor of Fortnum & Mason.
"This is the fourth book and series that I've done with BBC Books," Mary said. "They really are family and, I promise you, we're not looking for a change."
I would have been gobsmacked if Hollywood had been at the party but the two popular co-presenters of the show, Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, were there. Mary's face broke into a wide beam as she looked down at them from her dais in the corner. Flagging up the presence of Mel and Sue to roars of delight from the partisan crowd, Mary declared, "They are my guardian angels, and they are firmly with the BBC too. We haven't seen each for such a long time. Some of you are going to have to carry Sue because she's been in foreign parts and she's a bit weak [laughter] and we saw Mel on Saturday on TV. Didn't she look dishy?"
Speaking of fashion, this glamorous octogenarian has become something of a pin-up on the fashion front in recent years and GBBO gave us Mary Berry the style icon. Women rushed out to buy her silk floral jacket from Zara which reportedly sold at eight times its swing tag price on eBay.
Then there were the colourful jackets from M&S, Oasis and Ted Baker, and her Preen pink leather bomber jacket earned Mary fans a quarter of her age.
Charming to chat with, Mary politely batted away compliments about her clothes and colour with a gracious smile and a "thank you". It's clear as punch how comfortable she is changing up and down her look - from colourful jeans with suede loafers and cashmere sweater for photos in her Buckinghamshire kitchen to high-octane sequins at the recent National Television Awards, where she won the prize for Most Popular TV Judge and punched the air with delight.
On party night, Mary - minus the incredible false eyelashes she wears in photos for her book - wore a silver sequinned dress with scooped, round neckline at the back, her signature statement pearls, and super- glamorous gold shoes with bows. In these sensible chunky - albeit sparkly - heels, she powered her way around the room with speed, throwing her hands up in delight as she spotted more friends arriving in.
The biggest surprise of all for me at the party was Mary's wit and sense of humour. She had the crowd in knots as she shared amusing anecdotes about her family, allowing glimpses into the life of the woman who started off her career by going out to houses to show women how to make Victoria sponges in their new electric ovens.
Family time is everything for Mary. She tragically lost her youngest son, William, in a car accident in 1989 when he was 19. Her only daughter, Annabel (pictured right with her family), was in the car at the time and escaped unhurt. Her son Tom is a tree surgeon. Mum and daughter launched a range of salad dressings and sauces which they later sold. Mary describes her husband, Paul, as "wonderful. He is always there for me. Take today: I have a big day today and he was so brilliant - cleaning and tidying everything up after breakfast. But him do the cooking? You must be joking. I do the cooking at home and, on the rare occasion I am not well, he will always make an omelette. And after two or three omelettes, I am normally better."
Back in the Second World War, the Berry family in Bath (where her dad was the mayor) had a white goat for milk - but when it came to milking goats with her granddaughter Atalanta (pictured left) Mary had no luck. However, the five-year-old did and the triumphant gleam on her face was captured on camera for the Everyday TV series.
Mary's highlights for the series included cooking langoustines on the beach "with a very dishy fisherman" but she ended up getting bitten alive by swarms of mosquitoes, while the fortunate camera- men were under nets. Returning to Scotland, her mother's homeland, Mary admitted to being "very heavy-handed" with the whisky when it came to making Scotch whisky cream.
The biggest laugh of the night was probably at the expense of some of the new food babes on the block. Introducing her book with its recipes and tips, Mary announced: "And I promise you, there is no sign of something called 'clean food'."
'Clean food' evangelism has mushroomed through bloggers and a clutch of young female authors, but it has come under fire from nutritionists who pooh-pooh the bone broth and spiralising veg approach, warning that it could trigger eating disorders in teenage girls. Conversely, Mary is all about family-friendly recipes - and she includes salt, sugar, alcohol and fat. Most nights, she has a glass of wine with her meal and adopts a very straightforward approach to life. ("Never be ashamed of buying a packet of puff pastry," she said.)
Mary was having none of this 'clean' party food. Gesturing towards the arriving trays, she announced with a twinkle in her eye: "It's bold food - you must be starving," and so arrived waiters with trays filled with paper cones of fish and chips. Delicious.