I have a confession to make: I am one of the few people in the United Kingdom who did not watch the final of Great British Bake Off on Wednesday night. In fact I've never watched the programme. It doesn't interest me. The smirky gags about 'soggy bottoms' are tired, and I've started getting a twitch whenever I hear someone say something 'has a good crumb'. There are loads of crumbs. Which one is good? What about the other crumbs all over the table?
It might also have something to do with Mary Berry. I know she is now virtually the Queen, but she and I don't really get on.
I've met Mary Berry twice. The first time was when we were both guests on a daytime cooking programme called Great Food Live. I went on there originally to promote my second book, Three Sheets to the Wind, and they kept inviting me back to do beer and cider items. Just when I was getting quite good at doing it, becoming their resident drinks person, the show got cancelled. It was a shame - it was a great show.
At this point Mary was not a household name, but she had been around for ages as a solid, dependable cookbook writer and presenter who could turn her hand to anything. The show was recorded as live, in one take, with minimal editing. As well as doing my drinks round-up I would usually be asked to find something to pair with a dish that one of the chefs was demonstrating. On this occasion someone made a rich treacle tart, and I selected a sweet barley wine to go with it. Four of us stood in a line behind the cooking station, facing the camera, and Mary was standing next to me. Just before I was about to do my bit introducing the beer, she turned to me, gestured vaguely towards the bottle and whispered, "I hope you're not expecting ME to drink THAT."
I was gobsmacked. The whole idea of the show was to try stuff. It was an informal set-up and everyone just dug in, grabbing spoons and talking over each other. In all the TV I ever did, it was the first of only two occasions when someone simply refused to try the drink I'd taken on.* I began to say something like, "Well, I'd expect you to give it a try, given that's the reason you're standing here," but before I could I was up and had to do my bit, which I fluffed slightly having been so flustered.
The next time I met Mary Berry was six months ago, at the presentation of the BBC Food and Farming Awards. Because I was presenting the award for best drinks producer, I was sitting in the front row, two seats down from Jamie Oliver (who was friendly, decent and not at all a knob). Mary Berry arrived and spotted someone she wanted to talk to sitting just behind me, so she came over and leaned heavily on my shoulder as she stretched across to have a conversation. She's only little, but the conversation carried on for several minutes during which she leant her entire weight on me, and I could do nothing but sit there patiently. At no point did she acknowledge me, apologise or make a joke about the situation. Other than the fact that she was using my shoulder like a crutch, it was like I wasn't there. When she had finished her chat, she said nothing to me and walked away.
I hear she's quite direct on the telly. In my limited experience in person, she's the rudest woman I've ever met.
But while she may not like beer, she bloody loves cider. While I was researching World's Best Ciders, I discovered that back in 1977, she even wrote a book about it.
It's full of recipes for all kinds of dishes, organised by season, with a section at the end featuring cups, coolers and cocktails. For Bake Off fans, there's even a 'Crunchy Cider Cake', a stodgy looking thing that calls for '1/4 pint sweet cider such as Woodpecker'.
Why yes. In fact if you look closely at the front cover, that's a two-litre bottle of Woodpecker she's pouring from. That's because the book was published by H P Bulmer & Son. Almost every recipe calls for a sweet cider such as Woodpecker or a dry cider such as Strongbow. Many of the cocktails include that lost classic of the cider world, Pomagne.
I don't have a problem with this - Bulmer's stumped up the cash for the book and actually, doing a cookbook as a way of promoting your brands is a great idea. I would even cook with these ciders today if I had them lying around.
But I wonder if Mary Berry still drinks them?
*The other person who flatly refused to drink the beers I took on a show was Gordon Ramsay's wife Tana, when she was one of the presenter's of Great Food Live's successor, Market Kitchen. After needing five takes to walk towards the camera while saying 'Hello and welcome to Market Kitchen', she simply shook her head when I presented each of several beers to her and co-hosts Matthew Fort and Tom Parker-Bowles.