Maggie Beer Talks Pheasants, The Barossa and Verjuice

11 February 2013

"When I meet people, I can't tell you how many times I'm asked what Verjuice is," said Maggie Beer, one of Australia's most loved cooks.

"So when we had the space available in the studio kitchen - after we wrapped up filming The Cook and the Chef, I thought it would be a great chance for the Farm Shop team to run a cooking demonstration and also let people see where the show was filmed."

Maggie Beer Maggie Beer in the Kitchen

Every day at 2pm at Maggie's Farm Shop in the heart of South Australia's Barossa there is a focus on one of the many ways you can use Verjuice, a product of unripened grapes. The team also uses other products from the range, but Maggie finds that everyone wants to know what to do with Verjuice.

"There are tastings afterwards and time for questions and photos. It has been a great success, not only in encouraging people to use that half finished bottle of Verjuice at the back of the fridge, but also to show people how much of a difference one ingredient can make to your cooking. And the demonstrations are free!"

Maggie, who was born in Sydney, began her love affair with the Barossa in the 1970s.

"My husband Colin was, as he puts it, 'a boy from Mallala' and Colin's desire to farm pheasants, along with the fact that the Barossa was only a 30 minute drive from where he grew up, meant that the Barossa virtually chose us. We'd go down and visit Colin's parents at Mallala and we'd always drive through the valleys," she said.

"So the Barossa happened just because every time we went through it, I loved it. Whether it was spring, winter, summer, it was always green. Within weeks of arriving, we were at the Barossa Vintage Festival. It was fantastic! Immediately, this sense of community prevailed. And it's never left us."

Maggie and her husband opened their first restaurant, The Pheasant Farm in 1979 and ran the operation as part of Colin's pheasant breeding business.

"When we first started breeding pheasants we could sell them just for novelty value but no one knew how to cook them. Any written recipes that people might have tried were pretty horrific and would have resulted in dry, overcooked birds - so no wonder they didn't come back a second time," said Maggie.

"Cooking came naturally to me so that's what I started to do - cook our pheasants; our quail; pickle our quail eggs; make our pate and utilise every bit of the birds. We started the farm shop and sold fresh birds with instructions on how I cooked them and offered roasted pheasant and stuffed quails as picnic food on the side of the dam. Still I wonder how I had the audacity, with no experience or training, to start a restaurant, but I'm so happy I did. And today we're a Farm Shop again, serving picnic fare, so we've truly come full circle."

 The Farm Shop

As a central attraction for visitors to the Barossa, The Farm Shop is a fantastic opportunity for families to sample the region's produce. On offer are picnic baskets for all tastes, including special baskets for children - so everyone can enjoy lunch, either inside or out, while watching the birdlife and turtles on the dam. There is also a sign-posted nature walk pointing out the ingredients used in the products. For Maggie, connecting the environment to the food on the shelf at the Farm Shop is really important.

"It must be remembered that the Pheasant Farm is first and foremost a farm, and the shop is part of that. Our first olive grove is here, as is the quince orchard. Lush vineyards lie on one side of the river, flanked by huge river red gums supplying a blissful outlook," she said.

"It is, in actual fact, the reasoning behind our 'picnic fare' menu - to encourage visitors to be immersed in the landscape where our produce is grown. Picnic fare is a casual picnic style lunch with a choice of pate, dried fruit from our orchard, olives from our grove, dukkah and olive oil and locally made woodoven bread or seasonal cheese."

When asked about her favourite international destination, Maggie reminisces about a Parisian holiday.

"I have loved so many places I've had the good fortune to visit, but based on food experience (which it always is) I'd have to say Paris. It was at an oyster bar - Colin and I shared a dozen oysters, large and 'meaty' and in perfect condition. They were served with brown bread; butter; lemon and a dish of red wine vinegar and eschalottes chopped very finely. Colin had a glass of Sancerre and I chose a Chablis. These were both really good wines yet the marriage of the Chablis and oysters could not have been better," she said.

"There are so many wonderful places to visit in the Barossa - I do love Peter Lehmann Wines as a stand out because of its wonderful location near the river and the beautiful artwork in the cellar door, not forgetting the fantastic wines of course! Yalumba has long been a favourite, again for its consistency in quality wines but also because of the superb, carefully tended original gardens surrounding the wine sales. Then there are the small producers I love to visit. Turkey Flat, Willows, Whistler Wines and Rockford - so many wonderfully different places to chose from. The Barossa offers a truly unique experience."

Maggie's Farm Shop is located at 50 Pheasant Farm Rd, Nuriootpa, South Australia and is open year round 10.30am - 5pm, excluding Good Friday, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year"s Day.

Lyndon Barnett

Guided by curiosity and a sense of adventure, Lyndon travelled independently to 69 countries on six continents. As such, travel is Lyndon's only addiction. He enjoys with equal measure - scaling the peaks of a South American mountain at altitude, attending opera in a European Opera House or hunting for a bargain in an Asian market.