Michelle Rowe talks to the prolific Maggie Beer on the eve of the release of her latest book, Maggie’sKitchen
MAGGIE Beer is one of the country’s most passionate advocates for the use of seasonal produce. From humble beginnings running a pheasant farm in the Barossa Valley with her husband Colin in the 1970s, Beer has transformed herself into one of Australia’s best-loved chefs, food producers, exporters and cookery writers.
Beer, co-hosting the popular ABC TV food series The Cook and the Chef with Simon Bryant of Adelaide’s Hilton Hotel, was last month recognised at the Australian Food Media Awards with its People’s Choice award.
Her new book, Maggie’s Kitchen , a compilation of 120 of her favourite recipes, will be released on Monday. Your first food memory? I’m not sure if I was three or four years old but the memory is so vivid. We lived at Rose Bay, Sydney, just up the road from the flying boat squadron. There had been a huge storm buffeting the shore, then a blackout. Mum had candles burning within minutes as we huddled around the small kitchen table and she served us golden syrup dumplings. Was it the smell, the taste, the feeling of safety? I’m not sure, but not only is it my first food memory but it was the only time mum cooked them and yet even just talking about them, my whole body smiles. Why did you choose this path? I guess the path chose me in that it was a necessity that turned into serendipity. When we first started breeding pheasants we could sell them just for novelty value but no one knew how to cook them. Any written recipes that people might have tried were pretty horrific and would have resulted in dry, overcooked birds, so no wonder they didn’t come back a second time. Cooking came naturally to me, so that’s what I started to do . . . cook our pheasants, our quail, pickle our quail eggs, make our pate and utilise every bit of the birds.
We started the farm shop and sold fresh birds with instructions on how I cooked them and offered roasted pheasant and stuffed quails as picnic food on the side of the dam.
Still, I wonder how I had the audacity, with no experience or training, to start a restaurant (the acclaimed Pheasant Farm Restaurant, which closed in 1993) but I’m so happy I did. And today we’re a farm shop again, serving picnic fare, so we’ve truly come full circle. The first thing you cooked? It’s ironic, really, given that I have to steel myself to cook a cake, but it was an orange butter cake for my grandmother for her birthday. I was seven and used a recipe so carefully and was very proud of it, though I can’t remember my grandmother giving me any encouragement . . . Even so, I can almost smell it as I think about it. Your biggest food disaster? It has to be my hare pie for more than 100 guests for a banquet held in one of the amazing buildings at Yalumba winery. It was for our Barossa Music Festival. The pie itself was delicious, if I do say so myself, but the pastry . . . Because the banquet was such a huge job, I’d asked a local biscuitmaker to make the pastry for me. I took down my example, which was Stephanie’s recipe for lard pastry, but what I didn’t know was that because of the sheer volume the baker would have to use his machinery rather than make it, as I did, by hand.
On the night, the pastry collapsed and fell into the centre of the pies. It looked like a dog’s breakfast. It was a very grand night, with the governor of the time, Roma Mitchell, in attendance. And music lovers who had just attended the opera had such high expectations of a great feast.
I faced the guests and made a theatrical gesture of how I didn’t intend to act as drastically as legendary French chef Francois Vatel.
It’s said he was so devastated when the fish didn’t arrive for a banquet he was arranging for Louis XIV that he committed suicide. Your biggest culinary influence? In many ways it was my parents. My father, particularly, was a great cook and was obsessive about freshness and quality. As a child I learned so much without realising it. Even when financially there were really tough times in our family, quality of food never suffered. Then the luck of coming to live in the Barossa continued my journey. This is where I really learned about seasonality, simply because we lived it and it framed my whole philosophy on food.
We were so busy surviving in the days of the restaurant that we could not afford to eat out or travel for years. But that very thing allowed me to develop my own style by simply being a produce-driven cook.
I loved the writings of Elizabeth David. She had abundant ideas and suggestions that spoke to me, as I’ve never had the patience to follow recipes. Then later I was influenced through my friendship with Stephanie Alexander. The recipe your family loves most? It’s a toss-up between one of my daughter Saskia’s Barossa chooks — preferably the super-sized ones that are too large for most (cooks) — served with a traditional stuffing with lots of liver, onions and herbs in the centre of the table or, when someone is feeling off-colour, a chicken soup with fresh noodles. The ingredient you always have at hand? Good fresh and fruity extra virgin olive oil. It’s the one ingredient I just can’t do without. Your favourite cheap and cheerful place to eat? As a family, particularly when the girls were young, we would often eat at Amalfi Pizzeria Ristorante in Frome Street, Adelaide. It’s still the same family and we still love going there. Your perfect dining experience? To be at a table with good friends in a comfortable space where the food has been cooked with love and the staff are knowledgeable, sensitive and proud. Your favourite food? Whenever I can find it, fresh sea urchin, unadorned. Your proudest achievement? The fact that everything we produce is with the same care and attention as if it were in my home or restaurant kitchen. The biggest compliment I’ve had was from a colleague who recently said that my new ice creams — which are sold all over Australia and therefore, due to the sheer logistics, have to be weeks if not months old — taste like I’ve just made them in the kitchen an hour before. It’s been worth five years of trial and error to get them right. Your wish for the Australian food industry? My fervent wish is that all farmers become so passionate about what they grow or rear that they become the experts on how to use their produce and how to look after it. Your advice to the amateur chef? Shop and be seduced by what looks the freshest, the most vibrant, and then find a good recipe to follow if unsure how to cook it. The next step is to keep it simple. Good produce needs so little doing to it, so don’t complicate things. Follow the principle that less is more . . . the more being your enjoyment in sharing your table, and having everyone in the family involved. What next? I guess more of the same. Given that I love what I do and have more ideas than I have time in life to fulfil them, my quest is simply for a bit more time for myself and my family and friends. Maggie’sKitchen by Maggie Beer (Lantern, $59.95) is released on Monday. The changes you’ve seen over the years? Over the past 30 years I’ve seen the most exciting growth in food in Australia, much of it driven by our multicultural society and the advent of more accessible travel. That has opened our horizons. The best of our restaurants sit with the best of the world; the best of our produce, too, but in truth it has to be sought out and there is so much more we could do. There is a lot of acceptance of poor quality because of a lack of interest in, or perhaps knowledge of, food.
There has been a great divide between those who cook for the love of it, or sometimes just the health of it, and those who are driven by convenience and disinterest. There are families who just don’t know how to cook the cheaper yet most luscious cuts of meat and who don’t know just how different fruit or vegetables are when picked fresh from their garden. There has also been a lack of passing down of cooking skills from one generation to another.
But I have great optimism we can change this. Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Foundation now has federal funding to roll out pilot projects in states other than her home state of Victoria, where she already has 27 primary schools and another 20 to be announced any day, which have both a kitchen and a garden and specialist teachers for both.
Each child has three lessons a week on growing and acquiring cooking skills. I’ve seen first hand how it can change their lives in that it brings them into contact with flavour, with seasonality and with cooking skills. That contact with flavour and seasonality is our biggest hope for the future.
Less is more: Maggie Beer is committed to encouraging the home chef to make the most of fresh produce
TV set: Beer with Bryant on TheCookandTheChef