Despite my family’s tendency to avoid centre stage and keep every celebration low-key, my mother’s seventieth birthday earlier this year seems to have been worthy of an unusual degree of fanfare. As I was up in Manila and missed the various lunches, drinks parties and dinners held in March, I promised belated birthday revelry when I came to Adelaide in June. And so it was.
Three nights in the Barossa Valley, just the two of us, which – I love modern technology – I had researched and arranged over the internet before I arrived in Australia. I hadn’t spent much time there since working on my thesis four years earlier, and I was looking forward to popping in again. We headed out through the Adelaide Hills on a fresh June morning. It’s a really lovely drive, especially after years of believing the only way to the Barossa was along the Main North Road and through Gawler – never the most scenic of experiences. We arrived at The Pheasant Farm on the outskirts of Tanunda in time for lunch.
The Pheasant Farm came to life in 1973. Maggie and her husband Colin Beer had moved to the Barossa Valley from Sydney and begun raising pheasants on their property near Nuriootpa. Unfortunately, no one knew what to do with a pheasant, South Australians being more familiar with lamb and beef. So Maggie taught them. A self-taught cook, restaurateur and writer, Maggie Beer has since become an iconic Australian foodie.
The restaurant is a thing of the past, one I am sorry to have missed, but the Farm Shop is now a mecca for Maggie Beer’s many fans. While it is no more than an outlet for Maggie Beer products and there is nothing here that you won’t find on supermarket shelves, it is in a beautiful rural setting.
The shop sits above a deep, glacier-blue dam. If you are there at the right time of year, you can watch the extraordinary long-necked turtles from the deck, or wander along the gravel path that circumnavigates the dam. Beware high heels, however, the gravel can be life-threatening to weak ankles. (Yes, I speak from experience, how did you guess?)
Behind the car park is an aviary full of display birds: stately, elegant peacocks and glorious varieties of pheasant that will not end up in the pâté. A golden pheasant, with a headpiece like an Egyptian prince, struts his stuff for a seemingly myopic and distinctly ‘Plain Jane’ partner not remotely impressed by his extravagant flirting. A silver pheasant glittered like a newly minted coin. Another had feathers of Thai silk that shimmered into life as he spun on his heel and presented a back like a black opal, the shimmering black feathers burnished with patches of saphire green, cobalt blue and blood red.
Lunch was advertised as ‘picnic fare’ but consisted only of a small basket containing one of Maggie’s pâtés served with a couple of small, bland white rolls, a tiny dish of kalamata olives and something called freekeh* salad, which was less than memorable, that we ate off old fashioned tin picnic plates for the princely sum of $15, accompanied by a bonus glass of Pheasant Farm Tempranillo. Feeling peckish and chilled, we ordered the day’s special too, which I have to say was an improvement on the picnic basket. This bowl of rich pheasant and hazelnut soup was perfect comfort food for a light winter lunch, and also the only sample of fresh farm cooking. One on-line reviewer asked indignantly how Maggie Beer could ‘evangelise about fresh simple food on TV, and serve mass produced, fast food in her cafe’? I am inclined to agree.
After lunch, we joined about twenty other eager visitors to watch a short cooking demonstration on how to improve your roast veggies using vina cotta and verjuice, or just gallons of butter. As Maggie warns you on the display on the way in, she has never been about fads or health, but all about taste. And you’ll get no argument from me – although it was probably lucky that we were sharing those delicious, heart-stopping mushrooms with twenty others! The cooking demonstrations are staged in the reconstruction of Maggie’s home kitchen that was used for the popular four year series, The Cook & the Chef, which Maggie co-hosted with Adelaide chef Simon Bryant. The set is nostalgically familiar for fans of the show, and when we visited three years ago, my then Maggie-obsessed son was delighted to be photographed at the kitchen bench. Yet I have to admit to a sense of disappointment. This demonstration was all too brief, and it was really only a marketing tool to advertise Maggie’s fetish for verjuice and vina cotta. And while our instructor was very sweet, there was, of course, no sign of Maggie herself.
It is, nonetheless, a great spot for those who enjoy Maggie’s products and who loved the TV show. It is fun see the set and check out all her products in such an attractive location – and with the chance to taste everything as you shop, an opportunity that isn’t offered at either Coles or Woollies! Also, the staff makes great coffee and is happy to answer all your questions. And of course, before you leave, you can stock up on bags full of verjuice, vino cotto, fruit pastes, pâtés and ice cream… and any of the Maggie cookbooks you are missing!
*Freekeh, by the way, is an ancient, high-fibre grain, related to bulgur and native to Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Egypt. The green wheat grain is roasted, giving it a smoky aroma and a nutty, toasted taste. The name freekeh is derived from the Arabic word al-freek meaning “rubbed,” which refers to the rubbing of the grains to remove the husks.
*With thanks to Google images, apart from my own photo of the dam at the Pheasant Farm.