Review: Maggie’s Harvest, by Maggie Beer

cover of book

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.

pattern detail

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.

apricots excerpt

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.

partridge excerpt

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.

bottom of cover

Phew, I’m all worn out by this positive energy. Like my review of Interlude (restaurant), I’m just not recognising myself anymore!

– DM

Tarte aux framboises (raspberry tart)

frosted raspberries on tart

Here you have my first straight food-porn post. Um, I mean the first unabashed food-porn post. A birthday nearby was the occasion for making my first tarte aux framboises.

These raspberry tarts (on a smaller scale) are one of my staples when in Paris (alongside religieuses, tartelettes au citron, mille-feuilles, tartelettes au chocolat, macarons, umm… you get the picture, n’est-ce pas? And the occasional vegetable.

No recipe for you today, just pictures. The tart was made using:

  • 250 g pâte sablée (rich sweet shortcrust pastry)
  • 250 ml crème pâtissière (good pastry cream with vanilla bean and a touch of kirsch, in this case)
  • 120 g of fresh raspberries (at A$8/120 grams, I wasn’t going to bedeck the tart entirely with berries! If there’s a French(wo)man in the audience, I beg forgiveness for the berry-paucity)


empty pastry case

pastry case full of custard

naked raspberries on top of tart

frosted rasperries

full view of tarte aux framboises

It took three people a mere ten polite minutes to reduce this to crumbs.

– DM

Review: Interlude Restaurant, Melbourne

What do you do when you find dinner too enjoyable? How is an irritable, jinxed diner like me to cope with a meal which delivers no disappointments and offers barely a scrap to quibble about? I felt embarrassed at how effusive I was. I sat through the meal thinking of all the people I needed to tell.

This might look like a puff-piece (an advertorial), especially as I dined as a guest of the establishment, but I assure you it isn’t.

Interlude, at 211 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy (Melbourne, Australia), has attracted attention for chef Robin Wickens’s use of avant garde cooking techniques and for the food he produces. I came to Interlude because of the techniques, while preparing an article on modernist cookery (oft confused with the concept ‘molecular gastronomy‘, see here for the contrast) in Melbourne. Earlier in the year I had dined at one of the temples of this new cookery, Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, and was prepared for a similar experience at Interlude (though hopefully slightly less theatrical). The Fat Duck review can be found by clicking here.

The meal comprised of fourteen dishes, of which four were sweet. The use of sous-vide, gelling, dehydration and other techniques is interesting and exploited well. I am deliberately not going to provide comprehensive detail about the dishes, and nor will there be photos. Imagine and then try the food yourself (or don’t). One of the banes of any chef’s existence is the expectation created by detailed reviews of specific dishes.

The food

It started with some lattice potato crisps and beer nuts. The crisps were delicious (though eventually went soggy, as homemade crisps are wont to do) and the peanuts tasted of beer. A nice touch, but also one that led me to anticipate more surprises later.

A chestnut dish with elements that many might expect to be sweet, but which were in fact distinctly savoury. It was rich and almost overwhelming. I wondered if this would be a continuing problem.

Grits with buffalo wings (a type of chicken dish for those who don’t know the term). No trickery. Not really. But the novelty of Mexican truffle was interesting. (Mexican truffle is really huitlacoche or ‘corn smut‘, which is much less likely to succeed on a menu!)

Lamb with coffee. Let’s just say it involved an atomiser. I’d had the atomisation thing done to me before (at the Fat Duck), with ‘Essence of Lime Grove’ being sprayed over the table. At Interlude the diner gets to self-administer the spray, with the unintended result that my wardrobe smells of coffee.

Like cauliflower purée through a straw… one of Wickens’s better known dishes is a glass tube of four flavours. I don’t know how successful this is. I watched four other diners ‘eat’ this dish, and most sucked and swallowed with barely an olfactory moment intervening. A pity. If you happen to go to Interlude, please let the contents of the tube dwell a while on your tongue.

Jerusalem artichoke soup. Very welcome on a cold Melbourne night. Combined beautifully with brussel sprouts and tonka beans, amongst other flavours.

Squab breast with quinoa, black treacle and blackberry. Perhaps the only dish where I thought the balance of flavours was off. It tasted fine, but the squab lost the battle.

Aged sirloin and rib meat. A whimsical presentation but serious food. Look carefully at the onion rings.

Venison with celeriac cream. Without doubt the most ‘mature’ dish of my meal. I would gladly have eaten this many times over. I began to wonder what it would be like to dine à la carte at Interlude.

Energy drink. Okay, it tasted like those effervescent indigestion salts. Lemony and tangy and fizzy. Not a winner for me. Certainly zaps your palate clean though!

Piña colada in a spoon. Heaven – though only if you have a soft spot for piña colada (me).

There’s something wonderful about a table set with three dessert spoons and three dessert forks. Per person! A dessert lover’s utopia?

Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb. And a touch of cashew. But not a lump of rhubarb in sight. Whereas the savoury courses had, for the most part, used new cooking techniques for practical purposes and with obvious result, the desserts seemed to use these techniques to more entertaining or surprising effect. The difference between Robin Wickens on savoury and Pierre Roelofs on sweet?

If I tell you that the next dish comprised of the flavours parsnip, apple, vinegar, rosemary and date, and that these were presented as lumps, ice-cream, puffs, cream, cubes and crisps, would you be able to work out which ingredient took which form? It hardly matters when it tastes so good.

The third dessert consisted of sago, vanilla, pink grapefruit, almond, rosewater and yuzu. As long as you like rosewater, this is a fresh, clever dish. Less fussy that the previous dessert, but just as impressive.

And a surprise fourth dessert which leaves you wondering how a doughnut can be distilled into an ice-cream. A touch of whimsy to end the meal. I almost wished it had preceded the more sophisticated desserts, but I concede it would be a cute lead in to a digestif coffee or the like.

[I’m sure I’ve missed at least one dish, but hey, you get the picture!]


This is sophisticated, clever food without a hint of patronising the diner or prioritising tricks over gustatory enjoyment. I don’t know how well it works à la carte because, as with all dishes that are in some way novel, there’s a risk that the satiation-value of a meal is underplayed. I don’t know how large the à la carte portions are, but I did see a table devour theirs very very quickly. Customers were not all dining there for the food experience, but all seemed to be aware that their meal might challenge preconceptions (positively).

It seems on the face of it that one of the three dégustation options is a better bet. The meal I had was something like the largest dégustation menu (17 dishes, A$175 without wine). I believe a diner would probably come away from that menu feeling that the meal had been worth it. Just as an aside, the wines were excellent matches to most dishes.

A final note: If you go looking for lay reviews of Interlude, you will occasionally find complaints that the dishes were ‘too salty’. I was perplexed by this before I went, not understanding how a number of diners could have a similar complaint over a period of time, yet the restaurant has regular received high praise in the food media. Having now eaten at Interlude, I think I understand the problem. Well, it isn’t a problem, as far as I’m concerned. I think Robin Wickens’s cooking presents a strong umami profile across all of the savoury dishes. Umami is the fifth ‘savoury’ sense, often written about in association with Japanese cuisine and associated with the presence of glutamates which give a ’rounder’ or ‘fuller’ flavour sensation. Mushrooms, cheeses, meat, meat stocks and a number of other foods fall into this category. Wickens’s dishes are fantastically umamamami, but not in a monotonous one-note sense. These dishes were complex and full. The problem? I would guess that diners who aren’t familiar with this sort of flavour landscape, or who perhaps prefer flatter or less orchestrated flavours, will associate the umami with saltiness.

Another glowing description of Interlude can be found at Morsels & Musings.

The restaurant

Interlude Restaurant
211 Brunswick Street
Fitzroy VIC 3065
Tel: 03 9415 7300

Note that Interlude will be moving to a new city location in the middle of 2008.

– DM

Review: Secrets of the Red Lantern, by Pauline Nguyen

Secrets of the Red Lantern - cover

The recently released Secrets of the Red Lantern is a beautiful book. The photography is warm, despite a muted palette. Decorative patterns add a great deal to the appeal of every recipe page. The fabric cover of the book reproduces a silk image of a tree’s branches and blossoms in the upper half, and the handwritten name of the author (and family) on a red background in the lower half.

I had seen pre-release promotional materials for Secrets of the Red Lantern and was more than a little enthusiastic about seeing the final product. When I finally saw the real thing I grabbed it immediately. Beautiful.

I’ve spent the last few days reading it; I’m sad and frustrated. Despite the visual attraction and the promise of delicious food, Secrets of the Red Lantern has some profound flaws which could greatly mar the experience for some readers.

More about that below, but first a brief description of the content.


The blurb on the back of the book says:

Secrets of the Red Lantern overflows with sumptuous, traditional recipes, perfected and passed down from Pauline Nguyen’s parents and presented night after night to great acclaim at the successful Vietnamese restaurant Red Lantern.

Much more than a cookbook, it is the honest, revealing story of the Nguyen family – starting with their escape from Vietnam during the war and their eventual settlement in Australia.

At the heart of this book is a love for food – it helped to ease homesickness, became central to their early success in Australia and, in the end, reconciled the family and helped create Red Lantern’s success.

Lavishly illustrated with personal and food photography, Secrets of the Red Lantern now unlocks the Nguyen’s secret recipes so that we can understand their creation and share the family’s passion.

A large part of the book is devoted to Pauline Nguyen’s personal narrative of her family’s experience, with many interesting photos to add life and colour. Each section of the book begins with a number of pages of text and photos, and is then followed by a handful of recipes. The story is not a pleasant one. Few Australians have much understanding of the refugee experience or, more to the point, the Australian Vietnamese experience. It is good to see an attempt to recount the conditions under which people escaped Vietnam to seek a new life, how they were treated as refugees in camps and then in Australia, and how they and their community have struggled and changed over the last thirty years here.

Combining this narrative with the theme of food is logical for this family, and many of the most evocative books on food combine personal adventure, experience, or suffering with the web of memory and emotion sustained by food. However, the story of this family involves so much suffering — much of it in Australia and at the hands of the writer’s father — that I found it uncomfortable to be reading their story in the context of what is clearly meant to be a cookbook. By ‘uncomfortable’ I don’t mean confronting or disquieting to my sensibilities; instead, I felt that the narrative was out of place for the type of work that this volume represents. This should quite possibly have been two entirely separate books: the family story, and a cookbook. A raw, unhappy description of — in part — a group of children’s experiences at the hands of a tyrannical father is difficult to squeeze comfortably between the covers of a cookbook.

Naturally, this is a subjective issue and others might not mind it. However, there are other significant objective issues that spoilt it for me, but I think the human interest focus will leave many readers reluctant to criticise the story and tolerant of the flaws.

recipe 1

The publishers know their marketing requirements and created a package that would sell itself. You are, after all, pretty much guaranteed a winner in the soft lifestyle market if you bundle (1) excellent production values, (2) beautiful pictures of food, (3) a strong human interest story, and (4) a cuisine that many people like but few know much about.

If you just want a book that looks great, has interesting recipes and delicious photography, then this is certainly a good book. The food is a modern, personal perspective on Vietnamese cuisine, as served at the Red Lantern restaurant, and the book successfully communicates the concept of Vietnamese food being about individual tastes and preferences.

If, on the other hand, you expect some fairly basic standards of writing and editing in something that aims to be much more than an unpretentious recipe book, then reader beware!

My commentary below is fairly unflattering (but don’t doubt my enthusiasm about the food). In criticising Secrets of the Red Lantern, I run the risk that some readers who focus on the symbolic value of the book will be unaccepting of the analysis that follows. They have the choice of not reading further, or of reading and then commenting at the end if they so wish (but please keep it reasoned and civil).

[UPDATE: In an email from Murdoch Books received as I was finalising this review, they confirmed that sales had been excellent and that my views weren’t ‘widely shared’ among the media reactions so far.]

Recipes and food

If you want to skip the detail about the editorial flaws in the recipes, click here to go to the next section.

Attractive and tasty, the range of recipes is interesting and promising. Many start with comments from chefs Luke Nguyen or Matthew Hansen. If you cook from this book I think you will enjoy many pleasurable meals.

The recipes have been written/edited with an international audience in mind, meaning that many amounts appear in metric, Imperial and cups. Many ingredients also have alternative names in parentheses. This is thoughtful, though at times makes for cumbersome text. There are also some inconsistencies and omissions.

Yields for soups and stocks are stated in litres, fluid ounces and cups, and here things give a clue to the strange approach to this book.

250 ML (9 FL OZ/1 CUP)
15 LITRES (525 FL OZ/60 CUPS)

It would seem that the Imperial measures are for a UK audience, despite the USA being the place that is most clearly unmetricated. This matters only a little bit if converting small amounts, as a ‘US customary unit’ fluid ounce is 29.6 ml, while the old Imperial fluid ounce is 28.4 ml, but is nonetheless a curious choice.

Restating 15 litres of stock as 525 fl oz is more than a little idiosyncratic (not to mention incorrect). Never heard of pints? The cup measures are Australian (though this is never mentioned) rather than American, contrary to what you might expect from the mention of ounces immediately preceding them.

It’s odd, again, to choose UK Imperial measures when the majority of the parenthetic renaming of ingredients is for an American audience (e.g., shrimp, cilantro), though with the occasional UK accommodation (aubergines, mangetout).

Then we have a few instances of brand-specified products – something that makes life difficult for anyone who doesn’t have access to that particular product:

red curry powder (‘Ayam’ brand)
crabmeat paste with soya bean oil (‘Pork Wan’ brand)

And there’s the curious choice of specifying ‘makrut (kaffir lime) leaves’ in a recipe. The number of Australian readers who will recognise the term makrut is miniscule. So why prefer it over the common one (kaffir lime)?

Here, in the ingredients, is where the book fails to live up to a cook’s expectations: a gorgeous volume about Vietnamese food, one of the few available anywhere, yet it fails to explain less familiar ingredients (no glossary or explanation for rice paddy herb, sawtooth coriander, perilla, ‘Vietnamese basil’, rau kinh gioi, ‘nem powder’ and more) or to provide a coherent picture of how everything should come together in Vietnamese cuisine.

The recipes seem, thank goodness, to work.

recipe 2

The narrative and the lack of an editor

Pauline Nguyen has a sad, valuable, and at times fascinating story to tell. Like the majority of authors, her prose would normally have gone through an editorial filter to produce something fairly tight, reasonably well expressed and mostly interesting. It’s a pity, then, that this work is modern Australian English, blog style, ranging from stylish description to jarring officialese to clichéed emptiness to rambling diarising and back again. I wrote to Murdoch Books to ask if there is a new philosophy of ‘raw author’s voice’ taking hold.

I doubt — without even a pinch of exaggeration — that a copy editor laid eyes on the manuscript, as the problems in the text are consistent throughout. And not just trifling matters that an uptight editor might carp on about (split infinitives, starting sentences with ‘and’, misplaced commas, etc). No, this is undisciplined text which needed help. At times it looks like someone writing a bit above the linguistic ‘register‘ they are comfortable with, and sometimes it’s just modern ignorance about language (malapropisms, agonised metaphors, etc). And there’s almost certainly a good dose of non-native speaker in the prose as well. I don’t mean that patronisingly — many of the register problems, mismatching tenses and malapropism/confusion phenomena can be found in non-native speaker writers and weak native speaker writers alike. Making editing decisions about this kind of text is important and sensitive. (I won’t go into the linguistic background to this, as I think that’s probably a distraction.)

Editors are meant to iron out these bumps whilst retaining the author’s underlying voice. Perhaps because this is such a skilfully packaged cookbook, Murdoch Books couldn’t be bothered doing the extra work?

[UPDATE: The email from Murdoch Books indicated that there had indeed been editors and proofreaders involved. I bite my tongue.]

I also feel there is a lack of depth to the food theme. It’s fine to use gastronomic metaphors and to recount meals or dishes and their occasional symbolism, but there is little explanation, cultural history or context for the food — the narrative will leave the uninitiated only a little wiser as to what most Vietnamese food is.

Meanwhile, statements like the following are bland and dismissive:

There is great fondness and respect dedicated by food writers and pho obsessives alike to the national soup of Vietnam. … Pho has integrated so completely into Australian society that there is no longer the need to refer to it as ‘beef noodle soup’ – everyone knows what pho is. p191

Sure, as long as they live in a major metropolitan area and have actually been to a Vietnamese restaurant.

I started reading this book with enthusiasm. At first I was irritated by the poor quality of the prose. Then I gradually found myself angry with the publishers for mistreating an author in this manner. I’ve criticised Pauline Nguyen’s writing here, but the important point is that it’s probably not her fault that it made it into a book in this way. The publishers seem to have let down both the author and the readers.

I haven’t included examples in most of this critique. Some can be found below, without any commentary from me. If you don’t find anything jarring in them, then you will probably find the narrative less distracting than I did, in which case I encourage you to enjoy the book and its recipes.

– DM


In the mornings, Lewis, Luke and I would wake up weary-eyed to the smell of old alcohol, dirty dishes and stale cigarettes, and knowing a big job laid waiting for us. p76

The United Nations representatives gave him the occasional job of translating menial documents. p107

He had received such a beating that blood poured freely from his nose and his once slanted eyes swelled like two bloated goose livers. Then the soldiers declared that Linh be thrown into the gaol cell, the Vietnamese surged forward in uproar, only to be stopped dead in their tracks by ten heated rifles. p110

The soldiers lowered their arms when Paul Jones, the program director of the camp, summonsed my father for a private meeting. p110

She was an American who spoke the Queen’s English and liked to elongate her words by curling her ‘r’s and rounding her ‘o’s as though her mouth and lips were permanently wrapped around a tight cumquat. p113

In the kitchen, I helped my mother set up the mis en plus while my father greeted his regular breakfast customers. p182 [original emphasis]

Over time, the wounds healed and the bruises faded as the entire community banded together, determined to fix the issues affecting it. Residents walked the streets with members of the local government, pointing out areas that needed attention. The state government’s participation saw the installation of closed circuit security cameras, improved street lighting, widening of footpaths, removal of vegetation and the increase in pedestrian police. p189

I can still recall the stench of my fear when I stepped onto the wrong train going home from school one day. It was overcast – the claustrophobic clouds had already descended with an air of nervous anxiety. In a flutter of lateness, I had mistakenly caught the express train … p223f

How it aches my heart that your tears are dry. How my body trembles that you cry only deep inside. p225

The Parisian daylight had yet to become night, even at the late hour of half past eleven in the evening. An unnatural stillness filled the air as the city waited for darkness to truly fall before the night-owl activities commenced. The sun, in its mysterious glory, had cast a warm majestic hue over the city’s beige limestone walls, setting her aglow in magical pink-orange luminosity. p285