Natural habitat

Author: Frances Hibbard

Maggie Beer has burnt the kale chips. Not singed. Burnt. Burnt to a charred pile of barely recognisable blackness. And the beloved Barossa cook's reaction to her culinary faux pas, witnessed by the 30 or so people crammed around the pass in the Southern Ocean Lodge kitchen to watch Beer face off with her kitchen sparring partner, Simon Bryant, in a come-to-life version of their long-running television program? Laughter. The kind of gut-felt giggles that at first take you by surprise, but then leave you with little choice but to join in.

And therein lies the magic of Beer. No disrespect to Bryant's rather more contained delivery style, or the theatrical beauty of the surrounds, but the prevailing reason every room at the luxury lodge on South Australia's Kangaroo Island sold out many months before the second annual KI Food Safari kicked off comes down to the cult of Beer. The chance to see her, well, burn the dinner. And to chuckle good-naturedly about it.

Three days earlier, the incoming safari guests don't exactly scream when they arrive at Islander Estate winery to find Beer, her dry-witted winemaker husband, Colin, and Southern Ocean Lodge chef Tim Bourke fixing their lunch spread in the hay shed, but you get the feeling that many of them want to.

But then, Kangaroo Island is full of surprises. The 34 guests who signed up for the six-night safari, which was proudly sponsored by Gourmet Traveller, spend the week discovering KI's many treasures. Such as the geese raised by David and Lorraine Huxtable alongside their hydroponic vegetable plantings, or the organic honey produced by the island's Ligurian bee colonies.

The pure-strain Italian bee was introduced to Kangaroo Island in the late 19th century in what was then something of a maverick move to safeguard its future. And that world-first classification of the island as a Ligurian bee sanctuary worked a charm: the migrant bees are believed to be the last of the pure breed in existence. Island Beehive's Peter Davis now works as much on teaching people about the insects as he does distributing his organic raw honey, which is the sweet result of the bees' grazing on the island's canola fields - the same crops used by Kangaroo Island Pure Grain to make canola oil.
Kangaroo Island is full of such stories. Of passionate locals who have been doing what they do for decades, of committed producers who care far more about quality than a spot on a shelf in a big-name supermarket.

At Island Pure, South Australia's first sheep dairy, general manager Justin Harman describes to an audience of safari guests the way conventional dairy farmers react to their products, which range from experiments with sweet labne to an authentically ripened Manchego style. "For a thousand years people were getting milk from sheep and goats, because they naturally make very beautiful cheeses and yoghurts," explains Harman. "But we get one litre of milk from each ewe per day, whereas you get 20 litres from a cow, so a lot of dairy farmers come in here and are just scratching their heads at the idea of it."

So why do it? And why give up the short cut provided by a vacuum pack to instead opt for the labour-intensive path to perfection? "These are very healthy products, with a flavour similar to cow's milk, but the nutritional content is very different," Harman says. "But really, I'm just passionate about regional food and authentic food and we're out there promoting the real food grown on Kangaroo Island."

Farm-to-table, paddock-to-plate - give it any punchy marketing name you like, but the Kangaroo Island story is one Beer and her husband have been watching unfold during their countless visits. "Col wants to have a place here," Beer says. "We've been talking about it for years." She's also been preaching and practising the local message from her home and farm shop in the Barossa for the past three decades.

This depth of experience isn't lost on Southern Ocean Lodge chef Tim Bourke. He says that working with Beer in the kitchen is a "great privilege but also quite stressful", because of his respect for her as a cook and also her boundless enthusiasm for quality produce and for the people who strive to produce it. It's what makes Beer such a drawcard as safari leader for the KI event.

"I've been thinking about this and wondering who will take over from Maggie? There are lots of people I respect, but she's being doing it for such a long time, and she's just so opinionated," says Bourke. "We had a 20-minute conversation about pork fat yesterday. She's so passionate."

Bourke himself has adopted a staunchly "keeping it on KI" culinary philosophy since returning to the island for his second stint at the lodge in early 2012. The young chef was there at the outset when James and Hayley Baillie (who also own Capella Lodge on Lord Howe Island and are currently developing boutique hotel Baillies Sydney) opened Southern Ocean Lodge five years ago. The modernist glass structure, by esteemed South Australian architect Max Pritchard, was considered Australia's original superlodge, the first legitimate rival to established New Zealand destinations such as Huka Lodge and Blanket Bay.

Bourke survived the intense pressure (and scrutiny) of the ambitious project's beginnings but later took a breather, travelling and doing a cooking stint at Sydney restaurant Jasper's. The time away highlighted the abundance of the island, and he returned to the lodge newly inspired by the rich bounty on its doorstep.

The Kangaroo Island Food Safari, which will feature Beer, Bryant and Bourke again this year, and for the first time will welcome Damien Pignolet into the fold, was born out of the realisation that the lodge kitchen, in spite of its splendidly isolated position, wanted for little. "My sous chef has just come back from London and he's talking about foie gras and truffles, and to be honest, I don't really miss any of that," says Bourke.

"There's nothing that I wish I could get here that I can't. What I've been focusing on instead is working with producers on the island to convince those who grow, say, only potatoes, to perhaps grow something else.

"We have a herb garden here at the lodge and I have a garden at home where I'm growing a few things. And it's rewarding because I'm really starting to see things like nasturtiums come on a bit," says Bourke.

And then there are the island's many producers who feature throughout the safari experience: the esteemed Andermel Marron crayfish farm for abalone and marron, Southrock lamb, Kangaroo Island Gold yabbies, the KI Olive Oil Company. The labne we see Island Pure cheesemaker Sally George creating in front of us turns up as a component in the canap├ęs that Beer and Bryant square off to create on night three of the safari. The Cook and the Chef Live, if you will.

Team Beer plumps for glory via dishes such as locally grown lentils with orange, lime and Island Pure haloumi, or crisp polenta bites with a mushroom duxelles and labne. The aforementioned kale chips with parmesan require a second attempt, following the first batch's fiery demise.

Bryant, meanwhile, makes the most of the island's robust yabbies, serving them in tempura batter with an Island Beehive honey and sesame dipping sauce, along with a locally caught garfish cured in lemon and dressed with Australian wakame.

It's a riot of activity, tasting plates, noise, camera flashes and flavours. And in the end no one actually knows or cares who wins the cook-off - everyone's eating too much and laughing too hard. Thanks, Maggie.


The next Kangaroo Island Food Safari, on 24-30 August with Maggie Beer, Simon Bryant and Damien Pignolet, is priced from $5940 per person and includes island transfers and return airfares from Adelaide, accommodation at Southern Ocean Lodge, food, drinks and activities. (02) 9918 4355

Adelaide Airport is serviced by all Australian airlines, with Regional Express (Rex) flying up to four times a day to Kingscote, Kangaroo Island, from Adelaide.

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