By Melissa Keogh
Quince paste, pheasant paté and verjuice – food made famous in Australia by beloved country cook Maggie Beer who recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of her Barossa Valley pheasant farm and two of her iconic products.
This year marks four decades since Maggie and her husband Colin launched the farm shop on Pheasant Farm in Nuriootpa and began producing well-known favourites, pheasant farm paté and quince paste.
Using fresh, seasonal produce and making the most of what you’ve got has been Maggie’s ethos from the very beginning.
“I was very lucky to have been brought up in a household in Sydney where food was truly important and my father was passionate about produce,” she says.
“Even when there was very little money we always ate well and cooked everything from scratch but with great knowledge about food. We used every bit of the animal, we cooked offal and did all the things to make the most of whatever was available. I was brought up where beautiful (food) was the norm.”
Maggie and her husband Colin left Sydney in 1973, returning to Colin’s much-loved South Australia and settling in the Barossa Valley. Previously, Colin had trained as a commercial pilot in New Zealand but upon returning to Australia found it hard to find work due to a lull in the industry.
The couple bought a working vineyard near Nuriootpa and established as a base to establish the breeding of pheasants. However, it wasn’t until Colin won a Churchill Fellowship to study game bird breeding in Europe and America, that they came across the idea of opening a farm shop to sell both fresh and cooked birds to show how beautiful they were that they began to be serious producers.
Maggie was able to work with the birds that Colin farmed and the seasonal produce of their Barossa neighbours. Within the year, they morphed into the Pheasant Farm Restaurant and began building the foodie empire her Barossa farm has now become.
Together, Maggie and Colin had adopted a ‘waste not want not’ ethos, with Maggie cooking everything she grew and making the most of every part of a vegetable or animal; making patés, terrines, and stocks.
Despite verjuice being around for thousands of years in Mediterranean cooking, Maggie became the first in the world to commercially produce the sour juice, which is made from unfermented grapes and used in salad dressing and glazing.
Verjuice and patés remain an almost every-day staple in her kitchen.
“I use it (verjuice) three or four times a week for glazing vegetables … it’s something I use in half of all the cooking I do to brighten flavours,” she says.
“Then paté is for entertaining usually, although one of my grandchildren, Ben, who is 11, comes every day from school, he has to have a paté sandwich. All my grandchildren grew up eating paté as the norm because it’s just so good for you and it’s full of flavour.”
Maggie’s success over the years has spread not only throughout the Barossa, but across the nation through our TV screens as she is often appears as a guest judge on reality cooking show MasterChef. She also co-hosted ABC TV show The Cook and the Chef alongside prominent SA food identity and chef Simon Bryant.
The title of the series places Maggie as the cook, because surprisingly she’s self-taught and has no formal training as a chef. She calls herself a “produce-driven country cook” and is passionate about using home-grown produce where possible as well as sourcing produce from local growers.
“Nothing will taste better than what you have pulled out of your own garden, that’s nirvana,” Maggie says.
“But not everyone has a garden or time for a garden, so the next best thing is what is on your doorstep and in-season, the flavour and the nutritional benefits will always be greater.”
Maggie says she owes much of her success to the Barossa region, saying it taught her the value of seasonal produce as well as using all parts of a plant or animal when cooking.
“It’s been the luck of my life coming to the Barossa. Learning of the rhythm of the seasons and beginning with our own produce and the growers in our backyard; the Barossa has been my long-term secret ingredient.”
But with success comes change and earlier this year, Maggie sold the balance of her business to long-term investment partner the ASX-listed Longtable Group. Maggie continues to be the face of Maggie Beer products and works one week per month in product development.
“It’s been the perfect weaning off something that has been my life work,” she adds.
Keen to know Maggie’s favourite winter recipe? Click here. Hint: quinces.
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