Surprise, surprise, MaggieBeer, the Barossa’s most famous resident and advocate, is actually from here in South-West Sydney.
Little Margaret Ackermann, just 4, left her first home on Dover Road at RoseBay to move with her family to Lakemba and in time go to BankstownEastPrimarySchool and WileyParkGirlsHighSchool. It was “quite a change”. “My father had a manufacturing business, kitchenware, and food for our family was absolutely the highlight. We ate an awful lot of meat, certainly more than I’d eat now.
I'm not trained, I do things by instinct rather than technique. So often I cook and I don't know how I'm getting the results I am. It just happens.
“I left school at 14, with my older brother, to help keep the family, which struggled when the business went bankrupt. It gave me tremendous strength. Never went back to school, though my brother did to do engineering.”
Years later, she married ColinBeer, they moved to the Barossa in SA and he encouraged her to develop her food business, now a multi-million-dollar empire. Not that she’ll talk about money.
She’s “busier now than I've ever been in my life” and at 72 has no plans whatsoever to retire. Her new book, Maggie's Recipe for Life, has "200 delicious recipes to help reduce your chances of Alzheimer's and other lifestyle diseases".
I’d interviewed her at the Barossa for the final episodes of The Cook & The Chef. She remembered. Hi Ian, how are you? The marriage vote was just announced moments ago – congratulations to you both! And so it should be! That's terrific news!
Thanks so much Maggie. You’re the first to congratulate us! And congratulations to you on your book. Speaking of which, some celebrity chefs use too much butter and sugar and salt because they taste good. Your book corrects that. I've always focused on the freshest ingredients and using what’s in season locally. There's nothing as wonderful as the fresh produce we have here in the Barossa. And that's something I've always emphasised.
Can we still afford to have a little of the bad things? Yes! I don't believe in cutting out everything you like. Moderation, that's the key. I don't drink wine during the week, for example. But on Friday, Saturday and Sunday we have a beautiful wine with our meals and we really enjoy it. It's not about cutting out the things you love but learning to moderate them.
Refreshing! You've given me permission to enjoy things. Oh, yes! It's not about taking away the enjoyment of good food. It's about the flavours, most importantly. I was never trained to cook, I just go on my own instinct. I'm a produce-driven cook and living in the country here with produce that's so fresh and ripe there's just so little you have to do to it. Just go for the best and freshest.
What sort of dietary changes should we make? It's all about colour and freshness. Brightly coloured vegetables are so very good for us. Just take greens, for example – there are so many varieties of vegetables that are green! Lettuce, capsicums, cucumbers, beans, parsley, And they're all so very good for you. And the range of other bright colours – the brighter the better! And it's never too late to start introducing these things into your daily diet. It's never too late to start caring for your diet, caring for your body.
What about someone struggling with chest pains, high blood pressure, high cholesterol. That would be many in their 50s and 60s? No, not at all! That might be a problem for people in their 70s and 80s, but not people in their 50s or 60s. Goodness no.
Often a bad test result forces you to re-evaluate lifestyle, diet, exercise. Did that happen to you? Well, no. But a few years ago I got very sick, with pneumonia, and I lost a lot of weight. And I decided I wanted to keep it off. It was an important moment for me. Also, meeting Ralph Martin [co-author of her book] and talking with him made me realise there’s so much we can do in our attitudes to Alzheimer's. Know that the bad things are there but also know that we can do something about them and that we all have to care enough to do so. That's why we wrote the book. It's not just about Alzheimer’s but it’s also for the elderly who are unable to care for themselves any more. And it's for all of us wanting to take good care of ourselves and not compromise our diets in things like flavour and deliciousness.
What's the balance you've struck personally between meat and fish? We don't eat a lot of meat. But the thing is I do like a nicely cooked piece of steak so we do have that from time to time. I like all food – there's not much I won't try. except chilli. Colin on the other hand can't eat offal, he won't touch it, so I can't serve that to him.
Has there been anything you've struggled to cut down or out? One of the things I really do like, and I'm not a great lover of sugar, I don't have a sweet tooth, but I really enjoy pavlova! And I don't deny myself that pleasure!
Great! And we just love your dried-apricot pavlova, cooked it so many times. Oh, do you? That's great! We have such an endless variety of beautiful fresh fruit and vegetables here. We're really so lucky.
When cooking for guests do you cater to them or serve what you and Colin would usually have? Oh, I just serve what I’d usually prepare, nothing different. What we call a healthy diet is not boring, it's delicious! And people seem to love what we serve when they drop by. Taste is first and foremost so important in everything we eat. And everything we serve.
Have you been able to get to the point where you might revive The Cook & The Chef with Simon? No! It just took so much out of us to do it. We loved doing it and even though we're opposites in the kitchen Simon and I get on so well, we're very dear friends. And we still get together to do live cooking presentations at the Dementia Centre. But, no, we both found we couldn't continue the pace. We both have such busy lives and something had to give. But we just loved doing it. and we had such a wonderful response to it. Wherever we'd go, people would come up and chat or want a photo with us. It was humbling and wonderful. As much as I loved it, it was so exhausting. It was such a huge commitment on top of everything I was doing I had no time for myself. At my age I really couldn't keep going like that. It was that bittersweet – hate to give it up but I physically couldn't do it. It was a difficult 42 weeks each year. Everything was missing out. My garden, my family, let alone my husband. I needed some leisure time! I have a passion for music and sculpture. But it was a shock when it ended. I so missed the public. You know, it was amazing the number of children, the number of families that said we all love to watch you together. I mean, who could not miss that?
We never rehearsed on that show. That would've made it flat. We were both confident enough that we weren’t even trying to be perfect. We were able to show everything, warts and all, particularly me because no one needs to see my knife work ’cos I'm so bad at it! [laughs]. And we were happy to show things when they went wrong. But we also showed how to make them right when they go wrong, like forgetting something, “Oh, Let's put it in now!” Commonsense is so the word. People kind of lose that and think that they have to do something absolutely exactly as the recipe is written but it’s not prescriptive, it's a guide. Like when I’m cooking with my daughters [Saskia and Elli], there are no straight lines.
So-called reality TV cooking shows turn cooking into a race. But cooking is not a spectator sport, that's not what good cooking is about. Yes, you're right. But what I can say is that these shows have a lot of value in popularising cooking and encouraging people back into the kitchen and that's a tremendous step. Just to inspire people to get in and have a go.
Some celebrity chefs are infamous for being rude, even vicious to their staff. I hate the term celebrity chef actually. I really hate the term. It's like saying someone's a "passionate person" or something's "gourmet" It's kind of a tired word. Look, in the kitchen, as in real life, it should all be about respect for the people you're working with. I have a rule in my kitchen – respect and calm and no shouting. I don't want meals coming out of my kitchen that have been put together in the middle of screaming and abuse. That's not on.But as to who has influenced people the most? I actually think Jamie Oliver has done an amazing amount, firstly in Britain but then here, inspiring youngsters, young men, who want to cook because Jamie is cool. He's had a huge influence and he also has great grounding and philosophy as well. I'm not trained, I do things by instinct rather than technique. So often I cook and I don't know how I'm getting the results I am [laughs]. It just happens.
What was your first job as a cook? That was in Scotland at a place called Loch Earn and I was about 21 and had never cooked anything but a few things at home and I just applied for a job in The Times in London, that was in the 1960s. And I went to Loch Earn and I lasted six weeks before they thought I should leave because I’d used the whole of the pantry supplies for the next 12 weeks [laughs].
Over the years, there must’ve been times when you said I give up. Ooh, yes. But it's such a fleeting thing. Things can compound and you say I give up! But it never lasts more than an hour or so. It's usually people, you know, it's usually people issues where you know someone's not happy and that's what's usually the hardest thing to deal with. You want everyone to be happy – but I can’t, look, take that back. We've had flood, we've had fire and we've had pestilence but we've never seriously thought of giving up. If you've got your health, you have the optimism that goes with it and – have I ever really said I give up? Yeah, that's a hard question actually. It's a really tough one, yeah. It lasts such a little while it’s hard to reflect on what it actually is but, yes, it’s usually people. You've got someone who thinks you haven't done the right thing by them or they haven't done the right thing by you. They’re the things that get you down.
Did becoming Australian Senior of the Year bring any unexpected life changes? Yes, lots! Most importantly I met Ralph Martins in Canberra at the ceremony and so began a wonderful friendship. I have learnt so much from him and it's been an honour to work with him on this book. And congratulations once again to you and Dane. That's the way the vote should've been!