Maggie Beer needs no introduction. The acclaimed chef, known across Australia and beyond for her passion for using fresh, local and seasonal produce, and her love for her home in the Barossa Valley, has inspired many to get back to basics when it comes to cooking.
From humble beginnings in Sydney's west, to working on her farm breeding pheasants, Maggie has grown a food empire which now includes farming, food production, exporting, food writing and TV presenting.
Maggie also runs her incredibly successful restaurant Farm Shop in the Barossa, which attracts visitors from all over the world.
We had a chat to Maggie about her life on the farm, her food philosophy and her hopes for the next generation of farmers.
1. What drew you to moving from the city to the Barossa Valley? What were the biggest adjustments moving to a rural community?
I moved from Sydney to the Barossa when Colin and I were married. I had no idea what life would entail once we arrived here, but I was more than happy to give something new a try. I was also very young! Moving to the Barossa marked the start of a very personal food journey for me. All my life I'd been interested in food, yet being in the Valley has introduced me to the rhythm of the seasons and the rich diversity of the produce the Valley's climate offers. It was an incredibly steep learning curve, and that has never stopped, but being inspired by that fact rather than overwhelmed has everything to do with the people who are willing to share their craft. Not everyone is happy to hand over years of hard earned information, but I was lucky enough to find myself introduced to so many who were not only happy, but genuinely excited to share their passion for country living.
2. How did you find moving to a farming community - were the locals welcoming?
Moving to the Valley and being surrounded by ever changing seasonal produce has always been my greatest inspiration, and that in turn has allowed me to learn my craft by trial and error and I've gone along from one idea to the next. I can't even begin to imagine what life would be if it were anywhere else but the Barossa! I felt welcome from the moment we arrived.
3. Do you primarily use local produce at your restaurant and how did you go about establishing those relationships with local producers?
We seek to source local produce first and foremost at the Farm Shop, but if there is something we can't find locally, we look to the next closest option from another SA region. The partnering process always starts as close to home as possible because I'm absolutely passionate about promoting not only the produce of South Australia, but also the producers themselves; local or further afield, producers are chosen on their merit as a priority. These partnerships are such a bolster to both parties, allowing new information to be shared and better ways of doing things to be discovered. As with everything I do, flavour drives the end result and with that in mind there are equal parts applied research and serendipity with the partners I work with. A win, win for everyone - especially those on the 'eating' end of the deal!
4. What do you love about the land that keeps you working with it every day?
I take every inspiration from the abundant surrounds of the Barossa and its Mediterranean climate everyday. It gave me my original food philosophy from all those years ago, which still stands today; to always cook from the heart, with ingredients at hand, never letting anything go to waste.
5. What makes you sad and what makes you excited about farming today?
The things that make me excited are the little things. I truly believe the seemingly little things can end up making the biggest impact, so many of my ideas start with the things we feel we can maintain on a daily basis; introducing vegetable gardening into our daily lives, keeping a couple of chooks, and relying on Farmer's Markets to help reestablish our connection to the provenance of what sits on our plates. Plant a fruit tree; the notion of greening our planet by planting more trees is one I whole-heartedly agree with but even better perhaps would be to make that tree of a fruit bearing kind. Our entire garden was created with the conviction that we would only plant what could be eaten and it has returned our efforts tenfold. Imagine if all the trees used in town planning were fruit trees? How wonderful to have fresh fruit within everyone's reach.
What makes me sad is a lack of lateral thinking and the conviction to give things a go regardless of 'trends or traditions'. Nothing was ever gained by bowing down to the fear of 'getting it wrong'.
6. What do you think the biggest issues are facing farmers today?
Water. Without a doubt. We have always been aware of just how precious water is to all aspects of our business, having a hand in every stage of production from growing the fruit, to processing it, to distributing it and retailing it. 30 odd years ago we knew then how important water would be to our livelihood and so we put the infrastructure in dams; metered bores and huge rainwater thanks in place to not only preserve water as much as we could for our orchards, vineyards and olive groves, but of course I'm always looking for more ways to conserve this most fundamental of life's building blocks. Even the smallest things count. We have a bucket in our shower that collects the run of water while the right temperature of the shower is being reached, and you'd be amazed at just how much water this saves each day, that can then be put onto the garden or potplants .
7. Why are you supportive of getting more young people farming?
We are so lucky to have access to the growers we do here in the Barossa, I don't think it's something that can be contrived. A strong food culture develops organically over time, based on the day-to-day lives of the people that make up the community. The Barossa has such a rich diversity of produce that it has naturally allowed and encouraged an ever-growing tapestry of food-based ventures, but all of them are steeped in a common history. That's the key; there must be substance that sits behind what appears idyllic. It's only if the next generation continue this legacy, than any of it becomes worthwhile beyond our own lifetimes.
8. Do you have a dream farm? If so, where, what growing and what happens on a perfect day?
I live on it! It was the luckiest accident of my life that Colin and I settled in the Barossa Valley because it very surely began my passion for seasonal produce, and in turn, the recipe fieldwork and sharing that led me to my total immersion in the world of cooking, which quickly included farming. Growing quinces, olives, grapes, apples, pears, pheasants, geese, just to name a few, all came about as a natural extension of my involvement in the food world. For me, good food and farming will always be inextricably linked, and the Barossa is the most wonderful location to put that theory to the test.