Impress: Maggie Beer
If there is one person who embodies the themes of nature and nurture, it is Maggie Beer. The nature side comes from her intuitive use of fresh, seasonal ingredients in her recipes and her vast range of food products. The nurture side from her background as a farmer, tending crops from seed to fruit in the wonderfully fertile soils of South Australia’s Barossa Valley.
Of course, one could posit that Maggie’s nurturing element also comes from her wholesome, nourishing dishes that bring comfort to our bellies and warmth to our hearts. Or, from her soft caring nature. What you see on TV is what you get with Maggie. She comes across as very maternal, and she is. She’s thoughtful, happy and humble, very much like your best-loved auntie who cooks your favourite recipe, a dish that seemingly hugs your soul and lingers in your memory forever after.
All this is quite remarkable when you discover the Maggie Beer story. Originally a Sydney girl, Maggie turned a fondness for food into a way of life when she married her true love, Colin, and moved to the Barossa to support him in his dream to farm pheasants.
Maggie took to farm life like a duck to water, growing crops, preserving food, cooking and even starting up her own restaurant. Then she started making her own pâté - her first ‘product’. It was the start of her 35-year ‘overnight’ success.
“It was only when I came to live in the Barossa 42 years ago that I really understood the seasons, because here we have four very distinct seasons and we live the rhythm,” Maggie tells me when we sit down for a chat on a warm day in the heart of the Barossa Valley.
“All I have ever had to do to cook is follow it as it happens and relate to the produce at hand.”
As her orders grew, so did her range, to pastes, jams, dips, oils and, of course, verjuice. In the early 1980s, festooned with an oversupply of Riesling grapes, Maggie turned adversity into opportunity. Having often read about an ingredient called ‘verjus’ in French country cookbooks, she produced what is thought to be the world’s first commercial batch of verjuice, a product these days synonymous with the name Maggie Beer.
“I’m quite proud of the verjuice story,” says Maggie. “It’s been around since Roman times, but I’ve pulled it out of obscurity and lots of people have followed, and that’s wonderful because verjuice gives this lovely acid balance to food.”
What’s in a name?
These days, Maggie Beer is a household name, the brand probably more so than the woman. It is a double-edged sword lending your name to a brand. It helps in the beginning to get recognition, but should the business grow, it can be like the mariner’s albatross, each weighing the other down. However, it is here where the yin and yang of life has rewarded Maggie. She has only ever given out love and respect, and it has come back to her. She is lauded as a matriarch of the Australian food scene and her business is a reflection of her, run in a morally healthy way by good, honest people.
“I often have to pinch myself because I feel that coming to me and it’s not something you seek out,” Maggie says of the adoration she receives from the food loving public.
That is not to say she hasn’t been shrewd and tough enough to make strong business decisions. She admits she is a control freak, even cooking all the dishes for this photoshoot, But she has done it all her way. The natural, nurturing way.
“I’ve always been onto this continuous improvement, it’s part of me, I’m driven. But all I have ever done, one step in front of the other, was do what I love and believe in it, without any grand plan, just loving the moment.”