EXCLUSIVE: Maggie Beer on how family, community & good food got her through the toughest time in her life

“I couldn’t have done it without help.”

Maggie Beer is a good woman. If you cracked her open like a perfect free-range egg, you would find goodness in her soul. The Weekly’s food director, Fran Abdallaoui, says what she admires most about Maggie is that everything she does – from championing local growers and seasonal produce to developing better food for our elders – is grounded in a sense of kindness, conscience, generosity and care.

When I mention this to Maggie, she laughs self-consciously, but when pressed to explain why she is this way, she begins thoughtfully, “I think it comes from life … I think it comes from life and from your parents. Having empathy is really important. Also, I was brought up in an interesting time, when things were … simpler and the ethics were entrenched. The philosophy of the way you treat animals and the seasonality of vegetables – that was part of my growing up. You add that to a passion for food and flavour – beautiful food every day – and people and empathy.

“I inherited from my father this natural ability to cook. I’ve never been taught. I just know. That came from him. From my mother, I inherited the joy in life every day. Even through the hard times. So I was lucky in many ways. And my love of music – what that does for a person. You couldn’t possibly be nasty to anyone if you love music.”

Maggie hails from a family of music lovers and singers, and 18 years ago she founded a community choir which she sings with to this day.

“My father had a beautiful voice. My aunt and my uncles – everyone singing,” she remembers. “I was brought up with classical music. My beautiful mum had the worst voice in the world. Everyone would say, ‘Doreen, please stop.’ So somehow my brothers and I never tried to sing.

“Then it just happened. I’d never sung in my life, but here in the Barossa, long lunches and dinners, and the girls would be at one end singing and the boys would be talking football over the next bottle of red. And I said, ‘This is too much fun. We’ve got to do something about it.’ So we started the choir. At maximum we’re 17 people. It’s in our house … I get such pleasure, such joy from it. It is the best.

“We sing a fair bit of jazz and then there’s the Carpenters or Whitney Houston. Charmaine Jones, who leads the choir, is also an amazing educator and she plays the piano – I have a beautiful piano – and she orchestrates.”

Maggie’s favourite song, “in my whole life”, she says, “is Summertime from Porgy and Bess. I like Ella [Fitzgerald’s version] best, but I also like Nina Simone. I like it in so many different ways. I like it in opera, I like it in jazz, blues, every way.”

I mention that I first heard it as a teenager – Janis Joplin’s version. Then Ella and Billie Holiday.

“Oh, I’m going to listen to the Janis Joplin one now,” Maggie says with the excitement of a kid who’s found an unexpected gift.

“People were so kind. I wanted to give back, and that helped me through.”

Music, family, cooking – these all helped Maggie through the loss of her youngest daughter, Saskia, three years ago. At 46, she died suddenly and unexpectedly in her sleep. But Maggie admits that one never truly recovers from the death of a child.

“I needed help to get through it,” she begins, by which she means counselling as well as the support of family. “Handling grief is the hardest thing. No one wants to experience this. I badly needed help, and the help is to understand that you never get through grief, but it comes alongside you and you continue on with life, and eventually you find joy again. I couldn’t have done it without help and without the strength of family … And Sassy is always with us.”

Saskia’s death coincided with the COVID onset and Maggie threw herself into her place of comfort, the kitchen.

“People were so kind to us,” she says. “The outpouring was so significant. I wanted to give back, and that helped me through. I did all these ‘Cooking with Maggie’ videos. Just my assistant with a phone and me. For a while, I did them every day. Nothing helps you through the rawness. Nothing. But when you’re doing something you love, that you can give to other people … It’s about having a purpose, and that purpose has helped as much as it is possible to be helped.”

The family is also giving back through a Churchill Fellowship which they’ve founded in perpetuity in Saskia’s honour. The first winner, Sascha Randle, is a Melbourne chef who very much shares Saskia’s spirit – indeed the pair had met.

“It was so special to have that connection,” Maggie says. “It is a special way to have her remembered … Sascha has this wonderful background in food – her grandparents were continental butchers. Her knowledge is about salumi, charcuterie, which of course Sassy was just so passionate about … Sascha has come to the farm to meet the family, and of course we keep in touch with her. It’s special.”

Maggie enjoys the company of young people. Her relationships with her grandchildren are among the most precious in her life – and that hasn’t diminished as they’ve become adults.

“Helping to give them a sense that they’re part of a family, a sense of belonging,” she says, is a role that grandparents can play all through life.

“They don’t like being made public though,” she adds quickly. “When they walk with me, they say, ‘Nonna, you’re ours.’ They don’t want to share that.”

Maggie’s six grandchildren have always called her Nonna.

“I declared that,” she says proudly, “when our eldest granddaughter, Zoe, was born, because I didn’t like the word ‘grandma’ and I love everything Italian and I’m very emotional and I’m very tied to music. So they all call me Nonna … And their grandad [who didn’t opt for ‘Nonno’] is a very wise and funny man.”

Maggie and Colin married 53 years ago. They have since lived, worked and raised a family together in, it has to be said, a very Italian-inspired atmosphere of food, family, love and ‘la bella vita’.

Nowadays, she says, she and Colin are taking a little more time in their busy lives to spend together.

“Colin has begun helping me in the garden, doing the jobs I can’t do, and that’s lovely,” she explains. “I’m loving that. We walk together. We love going to the beach, we love going to the theatre, we love having family and friends around us, but we also love just being us.

“He has always been my greatest supporter. We’re a real team, but we’re very different. I’m driven, he’s laid-back. That’s why it’s good. He makes me laugh at myself as well as laughing at him. He’s very funny. He has a very quick, dry wit. He makes me laugh every day of my life.”

I ask what her happiest times of day are – they are both spent with Colin.

“One is the end of the day, when Col comes from the farm and I’ve been in the office or the garden. During the week I don’t drink, but Friday, Saturday, Sunday, when we have that glass of wine before I even start to cook and unload, is a really lovely time of day. The other time is our coffee in the morning and going walking together up the hills.”

Maggie looks out the window towards the orchard and vineyard which Colin nurtures. An afternoon chill is descending.

“It feels autumnal out there,” she says, “but it’s a very late vintage. We’re still picking grapes today. We’ve been grape growers for 49 years and it’s the latest ever. It’s been the coolest summer and our wettest year, so that leads to problems with the rain and grapes splitting. It’s not easy. Being farmers is never, ever easy. There’s always something, but that’s what farming is about.”

Maggie describes herself as “an autumn person”.

“No matter where I am in the world,” she says, “autumn is my time.”

Her favourite cold weather food?

“Probably something like lamb neck slow-cooked with quinces, served on a bed of polenta. The most important thing to me is always to have beautiful, simple food that is in season, and to experience the joy of it. It’s such a simple proposition.”

And it’s a proposition that Maggie believes should be available to people in aged care settings too. Back in 2010, when she received the Senior Australian of the Year Award, Maggie was asked to speak to 1000 CEOs of aged-care organisations. It was the beginning of a life-changing journey and a mission she says will occupy her for the rest of her days.

Maggie researched the quality of life older people experience in aged care, and how that is linked to the quality, joy and creativity to be found in the food they eat. It led her to create the Maggie Beer Foundation to educate governments, corporations, cooks and chefs in aged-care homes, and ordinary Aussies like you and me.

“People, as they age, deserve to have beautiful food every day,” she insists. “Every single person should have the chance to have beautiful, simple food of the season because it will give them so much pleasure, and everyone deserves that pleasure.”

One of the great delights of this project has been meeting new people and sharing ideas across disciplines.

“Every single person should have the chance to have beautiful, simple food.”

In June, Maggie will travel to Sydney to speak with a panel of experts at the Vivid festival about how food can create physical and mental wellbeing, and build rich and nourishing communities.

“The more we collaborate and learn from each other,” she says, “the more we can achieve. We have to change this, and we can do it by pulling all the people who feel passionately about it together to learn from each other and support each other.”

What, I wonder, are the aspects of her life that Maggie wants most to hold onto as she ages.

“Okay,” she begins, “choice is important, and for me, the first thing is food. I could never give up the scent and flavour of real food, and dining well. I could never give up the chance to have gardens and music and activity and mental stimulation. I couldn’t give up any of those, but food is the centre of the plate. When the food is right and you’re feeling good, everything else is going to come around it. And interactivity. Having something you need to do and want to do and have choice to do. What is that Montessori quote? ‘Everything you do for me, you take from me’.”

Maggie and Colin’s girls both experienced Montessori education and she believes the principles of independence, respect and choice hold true as we age as well. “It’s not just for children, it’s a life learning,” she says.

At 78, the greatest challenges in growing older that Maggie has found so far have been a few more aches and pains – she has carpal tunnel syndrome – and … “I have a lot of energy because I walk every day,” she says with a glorious smile, “and I love that, but I have noticed in this last year that I also love a nanna nap.”

She has noticed, too, that the way she perceives the world and stores information is changing.

“I would like to go back to the piano,” she says, “but I know I don’t learn as quickly. I’ve learnt quickly all my life. On the other hand, my mind is open to many more things. So that’s a positive. I understand better how everything comes together and is part of a whole cosmos. That’s what you get to. That’s a good thing. Another positive is self-confidence. ‘If you think I’m an old person, that’s your problem, not mine.’ You have nothing to prove.”

The sun dips towards the west in a clear saffron sky. It’s been a good day for harvesting. Tomorrow is the Barossa’s Vintage Festival.

“Our daughter Elli has organised for our truck to be there,” she says.

“We will sit on the back of it and watch the vintage parade go by and she’ll have nibbles for us. Just being part of a community is very special.”

And in the meantime, it’s Friday and Maggie’s favourite time of day.

The sounds of Colin tinkering in the kitchen drift over to us. A cork is popped.

“Colin will have opened a bottle of red,” Maggie predicts, “and I’ve got some beautiful beef for dinner, and eggplant and zucchini from the garden. That’s all I need.”

Even with its grief and heartache, life is good.

To buy tickets to hear Maggie speak at Vivid Sydney, visit the website.

Hair and make-up by Tracy Collins. Maggie wears Et Al clothing and Dinosaur Designs jewellery throughout.

Related stories