Fam­ily favourite

Michelle Rowe talks to the pro­lific Mag­gie Beer on the eve of the release of her lat­est book, Mag­gie’sKitchen

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

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.

Pic­ture: James Braund

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

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