Mary Berry and the grand dames of cooking

Mary Berry

Mary Berry's career spans decades, and at 77 she remains a doyenne of British cooking. But with a plethora of young, dynamic cooks out there, what is the enduring appeal of "grandmotherly" cooking?

When you want to cook something, you'll find there is a smorgasbord of cookery books and TV programmes featuring colourful, beautiful, stylish, bright, well-promoted food writers at your fingertips.

But what keeps us reaching for old favourites, and those written or presented by older women of note, such as Mary Berry, Delia Smith, Anna Del Conte, or Claudia Roden?

"They are quiet and unassuming, they don't do social media, They are humble. They don't brag," says Silvana de Soissons, editor of The Foodie Bugle.

Such humility can be hard to find in today's foodie scene, but Silvana says these are attributes that set the older cooks apart.

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Mary Berry's perfect Victoria Sandwich

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So much so, it could be argued some of the great names had been fading from mainstream consciousness.

"I hadn't heard of Mary Berry before (Great British) Bake Off," says Nelly Ritchie, of Nelly's Cup Cakes, who has since become a fan.

"I thought she was really refreshing. Other bakers and cooks might be more 'professional', but she is a home baker, a cook, and grandmotherly.

"She is not nasty, she is always constructive and has a good word to say even if something is a disaster," she explains.

Mary Berry has written more than 70 cookery books. She began her career by training at the Bath College of Home Economics, recipe testing and then headed to Paris to do a Cordon Bleu course.

In the 1960s she became cookery editor of Housewife and later Ideal Home magazine. She puts her success down to old-fashioned hard work.

"I'm very grateful for all my life experience, from working in a baker's, a fishmonger's, and also testing recipes right from early on in my career," Mary Berry explains.

"I have a simple knowledge of the science of food," she says.

"Mary is a very extraordinary creature... as she has had a second bite of the cherry if you like, she had already been loved and admired for decades (before her recent fame)," Lewis Esson, the co-chair of the Guild of Food Writers says.

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Many commentators argue that older women disappear from view later in their careers, but Mary Berry thinks both she and her contemporaries' wisdom is appreciated.

"I think we've got trust - and there's that trust and experience - we've tried and tested everything," says Mary Berry.

Trust grows when recipes actually work, and simplicity is key, she adds.

"I think people like recipes that are simple, with not too many ingredients. I hope I write them clearly and that you won't find too many ingredients from the internet or speciality shops, but rather every thing you will have in your cupboard.

"I'm always learning, always about new ingredients, trying to do new things with old classics with new twists."

Silvana de Soissons is also a fourth generation professional cook and says she has "always used Anna Del Conte, Elisabeth Luard, Claudia Roden, Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, Mary Berry - all the old school".

Why? "Because they wrote proper books, with history, narrative, provenance, and properly tested recipes," she says.

She feels the cookery writing market has become saturated.

"I'm sorry to say, food publishing is coming to an abyss, you have to put down only sanitised, simple, dumbed-down recipes to reach a wide audience," she says.

"Now they churn out one book a minute from any old cook, they come at you like a tsunami, and there's no gravitas anymore.

"Where's the craft? The wisdom, the knowledge, the testing?

Who's who:

Anna Del Conte

Anna Del Conte: Italian-born, Anna (above) moved to Britain in 1949 and became known for her Italian cookery books, starting with a Portrait of Pasta.

Mary Berry: Trained in Bath, Mary was a home economist, before writing her own recipes. Has published more than 70 books and hosts the Great British Bake Off.

Claudia Roden: Born and brought up in Cairo, Egypt, her 1968 bestselling classic A Book of Middle Eastern Food revolutionised Western attitudes to Middle Eastern cuisine.

Jane Grigson: Jane Grigson was born in Gloucester in 1928 and raised in Sunderland. She published Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery in 1967 to critical acclaim. Deceased.

Delia Smith: At 71, Delia is the UK's top selling cookery writer, having sold more than 21 million books. She recently parted company with Waitrose who she represented in adverts.

Elisabeth Luard: A food writer who lives in West Wales and whose books cover Mediterranean tastes. She co-authored a book on how to introduce children to flavours around the world.

Elizabeth David: Published Mediterranean Food in 1950, when rationing was still in force. Named as the most influential English cookery writer for bringing the cuisine to the nation. Deceased.

Marguerite Patten: Last but not least, Marguerite Patten was born in 1915. She has written 167 cookery books and given thousands of demonstrations, and has been called the queen of wartime thrift, and has sold more than 17 million books.

"Cooks like Delia test some recipes three times, in order to sell books. Now you cannot sell books unless you have a TV show, you need to be pretty, have cleavage out, or be slightly eccentric, a posh hippy boy, or an Essex boy," says Silvana de Soissons.

Lewis Esson agrees the brand that is built around a name often comes ahead of the actual cooking.

"Often with TV... they are looking for a story, not authenticity, or the quality of the recipes, they are looking for catchy stories surrounding the presenters," he explains.

He says there is a big difference between those who make their reputations by writing books, and those who start out first on TV - although Delia, who did so, "is something else entirely", as she is so rigorous in her recipe testing.

Delia is not the only one known for superb standards.

Anna Del Conte was born to a wealthy Milanese family, and arrived in Britain in 1949.

She is a much-revered Italian cookery writer, first publishing Portrait of Pasta in 1976, widely appreciated for being one of the first cooks to help British people learn more about Italian food, and has garnered acclaim from cooks such as Nigella Lawson.

However, Anna Del Conte "doesn't consider herself a celebrity," says Lewis Esson.

"I have said to Anna Del Conte and these other older cooks, why don't you go out there and reinforce your brand? Their sales are dwindling, but they are not prepared to launch into the same amount of hype," says Silvana de Soissons.

Food writing does still come first for many, explains Lewis Esson, and he believes, rightly so, as "TV feeds a different need".

"One of the things that is different between books and TV is that books can be quite inspiring, but a lot of chefs on TV, instead of encouraging people, can actually put people off.

"They say it is easy, but it doesn't look easy."

So who do the grand dames of cooking look to?

Mary Berry says: "When I was starting out I always wished I could write like Elizabeth David, but I couldn't. I liked Katie Stewart and... I've gone on to admire chefs and cooks who are individuals and gone on to specialise... like Ken Hom.

"I don't know many but I think that Rachel Allen is fantastic and knows her stuff."

Too much knowledge can also be hard to relate to, Nelly Ritchie says.

"All the younger ones seem to be professionally trained, and I find that a lot more frightening. I do like them, but Mary Berry and Delia cook for families and are relatable. But the young ones have got their place," she says.

While Silvana de Soissons says she does not "see anybody coming up to fill their places", Lewis Esson recommends Fuchsia Dunlop.

"She went to China as an unknown and did the courses, and wrote about her studies, she has a deep understanding about the principles, great narratives and makes great recipes, they are fantastic," he says.

But for now, Mary Berry, Anna del Conte, Delia and company show no sign of retiring.

"I've always enjoyed what I've done, I haven't ever wanted to change," says Mary Berry.

"It was hard when I had three little ones but I stuck with it. When I hear friends and others say 'I love to make your lemon drizzle', I get great enjoyment out of that."

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