One of the nicest things about being a guest at a Writer’s Festival, is meeting interesting people, who happen to have written a book or two.
So, I was thrilled to meet Maggie Beer, great cook and writer, TV personality, food producer, terrific grandmother and lovely lady.
I was intrigued about her book, ‘Maggie’s Recipe for Life,’ which she has written in collaboration with Alzheimer’s specialist and researcher, Professor Ralph Martins. Like Maggie, the book is more than a cookbook: innovative, interesting, sensible and full of great suggestions to stave off dementia. . . and eat well!
I asked her how she got together with Dr Ralph.
‘We met in Canberra in 2010, when I was made Senior Australian of the Year, and he was Western Australian of the Year. Later, we met again in Perth, and we started talking about food, and he spoke about curcumin (a compound in turmeric, now considered a vital must-have ingredient for health), and we struck up a friendship.
Food is Life
‘For me, life has always been about good food, real food, unprocessed where possible. So, Ralph asked me to speak at an Alzheimer’s Conference and, afterwards, said we should do a book together. This we did, but it took two years to do it, as I’m so busy,’ she laughed. ‘I learned things that I’ve always done instinctively but, from Ralph, I learned the science of ‘why’. Things like the value and strength of variety, eating in the rhythm of the seasons, which is the essence of everything. However, you can get locked in to not spreading your wings a bit. Instinctively, I knew that protein is important but, for me, it’s not about red meat, although I was brought up on meat and three veg almost every night.
‘But, we hardly eat red meat. We have such a plant-based diet because we have wonderful gardens, my daughter does beautiful chooks, and we eat a lot of fish. I don’t remember when I last bought a steak.’
Maggie came from a household with a father who was passionate about food.
‘For us, it was all about flavour, using every bit of the animal, making brawn, eating the brains, liver, tripe, pig’s ears and the tongue. The meat was always the back cut, and hung, a process which was years ahead of its time. My food instinct comes from my father. It’s just something you don’t have to be taught, you just know.’
Maggie wanted to be a teacher, although her father was against it, as she had a maiden aunt who was a teacher.
‘Actually, she was the headmistress of a boys’ school, way ahead of her time. And, along with my Mum, all Dad could see were a lot of bossy women! I left school at 14 , as my parents became bankrupt, and I started work in a business that made chenille bedspreads. My parents insisted that I stay in my first job for at least one year, or I’d be considered just a flighty bit of fluff. I then had more jobs in my life than you could imagine, looking for what I wanted to do. I was 34 before I found it.’
Maggie, with her husband Colin, moved to the Barossa Valley in South Australia, and became farmers, where she found her passion.
‘Then, Colin got a Churchill Fellowship to study game-bird breeding in Europe. When we came back to Australia, we had the farm, and so I opened a farm shop. I cooked using everything we grew. That was 1979, and that’s where it all started. And I love what I’m doing.’
Maggie has good advice for people who want to live and work on the land.
‘Your Manning Valley is dairy country, and I’d be looking at artisanal cheeses, which are so amazing. The public needs to know the difference between commercial, highly-processed cheese and artisanal cheeses, which are made by traditional methods. Such cheeses have a richer, more complex taste, especially if they’re ripened (aged). Then, of course, with cheese comes bread, and vinegar, and olive oil. We have, in the Barossa, a small facility producing non-homogenised milk, with the thick cream on top, and it’s sold locally. It’s the same with grains, which can become rancid very quickly but, if you mill your own for the local markets, it works. Farmers’ markets have much to celebrate, they’ve changed the landscape.’
She adds, however, ‘Of course, it’s not always easy with the food regulations. We have four QA people (Quality Assurance) in our business: a micro biologist, food technologist, and so on, as bureaucracy has now gone a bit wild.’
Maggie is an energetic powerhouse, juggling her time. ‘We sold 48 percent of the business 18 months ago, to re-invest in new kitchen equipment and warehouses. I do all the product development, and oversee the quality. I have a family that I’m very close to, and we have six grandchildren who all live in our valley, where our farm is open seven days each week. We have olives, and a soft orchard of apricots, peaches, apples, pears and quinces, so there is value-adding of all of those, plus there is an eatery at the farm. ‘
And, if that wasn’t enough, Maggie is very passionate about her Maggie Beer Foundation, which she established to try to improve the food served in Aged Care facilities, as a step towards staving off, and treating, Alzheimers.
‘We need to find good aged-care workers and organisations, and use them as bench marks to show what is possible, that there is no reason to just be institutionalised. We need to show that there’s a new way of thinking, that steps back and understands the difference that food can make to well-being, physically as well as with mental acuity. It’s so important to have something to look forward to, and good nutrition helps the muscle mass. Also, people need to be connected as, without support’, they develop depression and loneliness, and don’t bother to cook.’
Maggie radiates good health and energy. She explains, ‘I love my garden, working in it, and I walk every day. As well as my work and family, I love to sing, so I have music in my life. Good food and joy, two very important things.
Time with the Girls
‘When my two daughters were growing up, we worked every weekend right through their lives, we’re lucky that we are very close, but independent. My six grandchildren are each different, but each has something special about them. They all love food, and adore coming to me without their parents, as well as all coming as a family, we are very much part of their lives. One is artistic, one is into cooking, one into music. They all have their own thing, so I can take what they love, and help them develop that. They are all readers, of course. Our girls never had television until they were ten and twelve, and that was our way of combating the fact that we worked so hard. We didn’t open the farm eatery at night, until they were that age, and that was just for just one night each week. We made sure that we did lots of reading and creative things together. But I don’t know if you could do that these days.’
Maggie’s book, with the advice of Professor Martins, is crammed with information, ideas, recipes and sage advice about lifestyle, growing, cooking, eating yummy food and enjoying what you eat.
Maggie certainly has the recipe for a happy, healthy life !
“Maggie’s Recipe for Life” published by Simon & Schuster Australia.