Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful. This is a stunning production imbued with the personality of the author, local context, and an appealing warmth, packaged with style and a sense of understanding of the author's values.
Maggie Beer, one of the three modern icons of Australian food (the others being Gay Bilson and Stephanie Alexander), has written a book to weigh down your lap as you browse, read and cook from its pages. It's a hefty tome, similar in size to Stephanie Alexander's Cook's Companion, though marginally thinner. The padded fabric cover is beautifully embroidered (!) with the image of a tree laden with fruit, presumably evoking the grand old pear tree Beer writes about on her property (farm), even though the fruit don't seem to be pears…. A lone pheasant sits on the end of one bough — a reference to Beer's Pheasant Farm Restaurant in South Australia's Barossa Valley, which closed in 1993. Unusually, the book has been printed on good weight, smooth, cream coloured paper. Most cookbooks on the market using cream or yellow paper come from North America, using stock that is often rough and cheap, not lending itself to photographs. Maggie's Harvest features numerous colour pictures, even though this is not the typical, glossy paper for colour book images. Following the increasing trend of printing pictures onto matte stock (Movida, Secrets of the Red Lantern, Jamie at Home), this book takes things one better: the quality of paper is good enough to produce wonderfully vibrant, slightly contrasty colour images. And even better, many of these images capture the essence of Australian rural life.
Maggie's Harvest is, in keeping with the author's own philosophy and the prevailing food ideology, organised by season. And in what feels quite Australian, it starts with summer and ends with spring (take that you northern hemispherics!). Within each season are entries for a range of ingredients (22-26 in each), with one exception: Christmas gets a special mention, and tasty it is too! And for each ingredient section there's a large dose of enjoyable narrative, culinary knowledge and a handful of recipes. I'm often a little sceptical about books which organise by season or ingredient because they can end up as a mish-mash of insipid blurbs about this or that followed by illustrative recipes. That is not Maggie's Harvest.
First I read about anchovies, then I became immersed in the apricots. I extracted myself only to fall headlong into the capers and capsicums. And here and there are memories and experiences which will resonate with many readers, Australian by birth or by adoption. My heart thumped a little harder when i saw sections on loquats (nespoli) (childhood backyard), quandongs (Aeroplane jelly!), kangaroo (abandon beef; eat Skippy!) and crabapples (Mum's jelly). That's not to say that overseas readers would find it too parochial — the wisdom about ingredients and cooking to be gleaned from the book is immense. Cultural enlightenment is an added bonus.
Maggie Beer has achieved something quite enviable. She tells stories, reminisces, mentions friends and shares enthusiasms all without developing the rather supercilious or pretentious tone that others often do (I mention no names!). There's no self-aggrandising and it's written with an air of warmth and openness which just pulls the reader in. This is not a book you can skim through.
Come Christmas, I can see many a scrawny pine tree or glowing fibre-optic masterpiece with a Maggie's Harvest nestled beneath it. Perhaps it will still be sleeping in the brown paper it comes wrapped in from the publishers (the fabric is wont to mark, alas), but hopefully not the tacky shrinkwrap that some booksellers have been suffocating it in.
I've been reading Maggie's Harvest for the last three days and haven't yet found a flaw (except for the very occasional mention of her own products which I find a little irritating). Unlike the last book I reviewed, the text is literate, strong and flowing, and Beer acknowledges the work of her editors in shaping this wonderful book. At the risk of exhausting you with one last burst of effusive gush, this is what a good book about food and cooking can be!
Maggie's Harvest is published by Penguin Books (under the Lantern imprint). 736pp. ISBN-13: 9781920989545. RRP A$125.
Phew, I'm all worn out by this positive energy. Like my review of Interlude (restaurant), I'm just not recognising myself anymore!