She’s one of our best-loved cooks who has found success as a farmer, restaurant owner, cookbook author, TV host and head of her own foundation. But as ANGELA SAURINE discovers, there are few things that Maggie Beer treasures more than Christmas get-togethers
Maggie Beer is very lucky. At no time does she feel that more acutely than at Christmas, sitting at a table in the garden of her Barossa Valley farm with her family, surrounded by eucalypts, fruit trees and rose bushes.
Naturally, the day always involves a huge spread. This year, there will be goose and turkey that she and husband Colin have raised, and salads with mango, paw paw and avocado. Dessert will include a jelly with fresh raspberries from the farmers’ markets in Angaston.
“If we’re lucky and the yabbies are running we’ll have yabbies as well,” she says. “Everyone peels their own. Yabbies are one of the things I have grown to love living in South Australia.”
Some years the menu includes oysters, but only if they’re not spawning, as Beer believes they are not at their best when they are. There will be 14 people at the table this year, including Beer’s daughters, Saskia and Elli, and six grandkids, aged from two to 20.
“We have a beautiful tablecloth and serviettes, and we have a pine Christmas tree that everyone demands,” Beer says. “The scent of the tree is so lovely. We decorate it with hanging baubles. It’s really special. I have always loved having all the family around and it’s just a joyful time. It’s always been a feast of beautiful food and everyone’s involved. It’s a very happy time of sharing.”
While this can be a hectic period for most of us, Beer is used to that. As well as having a farm shop selling her range of gourmet products, a function centre and accommodation in the Barossa, the much-loved Australian cook and food writer is a regular on our TV screens, including appearances on Masterchef Australia and co-hosting The Great Australian Bake Off with Matt Moran.
Two years ago, she also established the Maggie Beer Foundation to help improve the flavour and nutritional value of food in aged care homes. The foundation’s education program gives chefs and cooks from that industry the chance to participate in workshops with Beer and aged care experts. It has also given several grants to build edible gardens in care homes.
“Food has been important to me all my life and I feel very strongly that everyone deserves to have a good food life, and no more so than those unable to make their own choices,” she says.
At age 71, Beer shows no sign of slowing down – just the way she likes it.
“I have a lot of energy and there’s so much I love to do,” she says. “I’m a very fortunate person. I live in a beautiful place with a very close family in the community and I’m part of it all.”
Beer and her husband moved to the Barossa Valley in 1973 with the aim of breeding game birds. This led to the opening of their Pheasant Farm Restaurant, which would go on to attract critical plaudits and a devoted following. The restaurant closed in 1993, freeing up Beer to focus on other things, including starring in the ABC program The Cook And The Chef with Simon Bryant.
Recognition has come thick and fast. In 2010, Beer was awarded Senior Australian of the Year. The following year she was named South Australian of the Year, and she was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for her service to tourism and hospitality in 2012. She was even immortalised on a postage stamp in 2014 as part of Australia Post’s Australian Legends Awards.
“I don’t see any need to slow down as I have so much to do both with my business and the foundation, and I love what I do,” Beer says. “I do need to give myself the discipline of not working weekends though.”
When she does get downtime, Beer loves to read, spend time in her garden and sings in a choir. “We go to the sea, which revitalises me,” she says. “We also have a place by the water.”
Before becoming a food authority, Beer had some eclectic jobs. At 19 on a working holiday to Auckland, she was a lift driver in a department store. She also worked for British Petroleum in Libya as an assistant to a senior geophysicist.
Being such a recognisable face is part of the business, and not something she struggles with too much. “I don’t live a city life,” she says. “I’m tucked away in the country for most of the time, so when I am out and about, even though I can be overwhelmed by it at times, I’ve only ever found people truly lovely.”
She finds support in her friendship with fellow famous foodie, Stephanie Alexander, whom she first met in 1984. “I never stop learning from Stephanie’s amazing body of knowledge,” she says. “She is a very loyal friend and her work with the Kitchen Garden Foundation is nothing short of visionary.”
It takes one to know one.
FRESH RASPBERRY CAKE WITH