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

10 thoughts on “Review: Maggie’s Harvest, by Maggie Beer”

  1. Well, what a lovely review! The look and feel of the book sound very attractive. Do you think it’ll make it to markets abroad, or is it a little too geared towards an Australian audience for that? And like you say, it sounds like it would make a very nice gift (not that I’m hinting!)

  2. The day after reading your review of the book, I spied it in a bookstore and rushed over to stroke the cover.. MMmmm.. plushhh. Love the photography, and I’m a big fan of Maggie Beer, so I’ll be getting this book eventually.

    Have you seen the new Pier book as well? Highly highly covetable.

  3. Thanks for the comments! I’d expect Maggie’s Harvest to reach British shores quickly because of its style and content. The pricepoint might be a problem though. In North America I’d guess that only specialist bookshops will see it (even though one might claim this book has more common resonance between NthAm and Australia). The book certainly is strongly about the Australian context, but without being anywhere near as culturally narrow as many works which come from the US or, to a lesser extent, Britain. I think the narrative would be enjoyable for anyone and most of the recipes completely transferable.

    @Y: Haven’t seen Pier yet:(.

  4. I heard it’s been scotchguarded so the cover will not stain! I saw it on special (Boarders maybe) for $95 but don’t quote me until are strain my brain and remember where I sait it at that price… could have been Target… let me work it out and get back to you… Vida x

  5. As with all these tomes, there are a few places doing specials on them on and off. As for the cover being Scotchguarded (stain protected): I read that too, but unpacking them at the bookshop I can assure you I wouldn’t want to have had grubby fingers — that fabric will mark!

  6. My only problem with the book is that I wish someone who had reviewed had made a point of telling readers that it’s packed to the rafters with previously published material from her Allen and Unwin days. I sat down over Xmas with it and thought, ‘Hang on…’. It is a lovely tome though.

  7. Oh Lucy, thanks for bringing that to our attention! I wasn’t aware of how much overlap there is and that seems pretty disappointing.

  8. I absolutely love this book. I know this is an old post but I couldn’t help but gush in admiration of these gorgeous recipes. It’s such an heirloom piece. I keep mine in pride of place in my little kitchen, and, as with all good recipe books, my favourite recipes are easy to discern owing to their dog eared and food splashed state!! I have just read the comments though and had to speak in defense of my favourite book (and cook!). In the intro, Maggie Beer does say that it’s a collection of old and new favourites, some of which appeared previously but had since gone out of print. No complaints here though – such a great and comprehensive collection. Makes me hungry just thinking about it.

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