Wine and dine in Western Australia
Aside from the leaves rustling, the only sound interrupting this peaceful scene was a light aeroplane buzzing somewhere overhead — the classic sound of a lazy summer’s day. Yep, all seemed completely normal for a vineyard. Until, that is, we rounded a corner to find a bright yellow vintage biplane parked in a makeshift hangar, where the wine should have been.
“This is Matilda,” said Mike, the vineyard’s owner, giving the old bird an affectionate tap. “My father flew her over here in 1990, all the way from the UK.”
Originally the winery was a hobby farm. But, as Mike’s family soon realised, the land and climate here are particularly conducive to growing wine; so much so, that nearly 25% of all premium Aussie vino is produced in this part of Western Australia — despite being home to just 3% of the grapes.
In fact, WA is home to all kinds of foodie surprises, including gourmet chocolate and even truffles. Yet most people miss out on all this by heading straight to the hotspots of Sydney, Melbourne and the Great Barrier Reef, leaving the left side of Australia relatively undiscovered.
What this means, for foodies looking to find new flavours, is that you can pretty much come here and help yourself. And over the course of a week-long road trip through southern WA that’s exactly what I intended to do.
Good food in unexpected places became a recurring theme on this trip. After touching down in Perth I hit the open road and headed south, on a loop that would take me around the south-west corner of Australia, ending up in Albany.
My first stop was Yallingup, about three hours’ drive from Perth. Perched on the coast, this sleepy hamlet is home to a series of popular surf spots and spectacular limestone caves. Personally, though, I wasn’t interested in any of that; it was seafood I was after — so fresh that it was still clinging to the rocks when I arrived.
Having booked a session with local guide and bush skills expert Josh Whiteland, I found him waiting for me in the beach car park, armed with nothing more sophisticated than a screwdriver. “All you need is this, and a good pair of eyes,” he declared, as we set off towards the waterfront.
Inhabitants have been living off this land for hundreds, if not thousands of years, heading inland during the greener months when plants are in season, then making their way to the coast to catch fish in the smaller swells.
On the menu for Josh and I was abalone, a large mollusc that clings to the rocks at the water’s edge. This is where Josh’s screwdriver came in handy, the flat head ideal for inserting beneath the shell; a quick flick of the wrist was all it took to prize our lunch off the rocks, and soon we had enough in our bucket to assuage my rumbling tum.
After a quick bit of rock-pooling, where Josh pointed out some small crabs and other marine critters, we headed over to the nearby Ngilgi (pronounced ‘nil-gi’) Cave, in order to cook up our marvellous feast.
Having tenderised and shallow fried the abalone over an open fire (lit by rubbing sticks together, of course), Josh tossed in some crushed local herbs and served it all up on a slab of wood, complete with some salad leaves grown in his garden. In any restaurant this would have been the best part of £16 — which made it all the more delicious.
For dessert, I continued my journey south from Yallingup, following the coast down towards the town of Margaret River. Unkempt bushland gave way to regimented rows of vines as I entered wine country, pulling onto a dirt track that threaded its way between ripening grapes and olive groves, where, strangely, the waft of cocoa hung in the air.
The culprit was Josh Bahen, whom I found tucked away in a small warehouse on the Vasse Virgin estate, making chocolate so tasty it causes your eyes to roll back in their sockets. Or maybe that was just me.
Having spent 10 years making fine wines, Josh turned his attention to chocolate a few years back, after a similar eye-rolling epiphany while working in France. “Someone handed me a piece of chocolate that’d been made using cocoa grown on a single estate (cocoa beans taken from a single source). And it tasted like nothing else I’d ever experienced,” he said, breaking me off a piece of his own creation. “I was instantly hooked.”
While his wife Jacqui wrapped bars by hand, 100-year-old machines whirred away in the background — each shipped from El Salvador. “They work much more slowly so are gentler on the beans,” Josh said, handing me yet another piece to try. In all, the husband-and-wife team creates eight different varieties, including chilli-and-salt, each accompanied by tasting notes. And, of course, because dark chocolate is good for you, this almost counts as healthy eating.
As did the three-course meal I enjoyed later at the Knee Deep Winery & Restaurant, about five minutes’ drive down the road. With so many good wineries in this area, each one tries that little bit harder to lure you in; this was particularly special, with on-site dining that would give London’s finest restaurants a run for their money.
While waiting for my starter of seared scallops, aerated cauliflower, carbonated green raisins, grapes and a whey emulsion, I sat sipping a crisp 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, watching the vines swaying hypnotically in the breeze beyond the glass walls.
This trip was all about tasting the unexpected, so instead of sticking with the a la carte menu I went with the ‘Trust the Chef’ option, leaving head chef Ben Day to create me a bespoke main course of flash-cooked red snapper with frozen peas and green strawberries.
This whole area is littered with fabulous restaurants, from the finer dining of the nearby five-star Pullman Bunker Bay Resort, to the down-home brasserie style of Morries, in Margaret River — the latter serving up comfort food like confit duck and pork hock terrine.
By the time I rocked up at Edwards Wines, I was letting out notches on my belt. Thankfully for my stomach, they don’t serve food here, but their wines were tasty nonetheless. Having introduced me to ‘Matilda’, the bright yellow biplane, Michael led me to the warehouse for an impromptu tasting. Despite trying my best to look like a connoisseur, I couldn’t quite bring myself to spit out any of the 2011 Chardonnay.
Fortunately, this place is not big on wine-tasting convention, as I found out when Michael introduced me to his brother, Christo — the viticulturalist here. From behind a cluster of vines appeared a board-shorts-wearing, baseball-capped surf dude in oversize shades who looked like he’d just stepped off the beach.
In truth, he probably had. While the brothers are deadly serious about making top-notch wines, part of Margaret River’s appeal is the quality of its surf. “When the waves are good it’s generally pretty quiet at the vineyard,” Christo admitted, with a glint in his eye. “Do you fancy getting wet?”
After grabbing his mate ‘Burnsy’, who we found swigging a tinny while tidying the barn, we headed along to a nearby beach for a quick dip — or, in my case, a roll around in the waves before being spat out onto the beach like a drowned rat. It was invigorating, if somewhat embarrassing. Nevertheless it did give me an insight into the local hospitality, and a taste of the friendliness that was to come as I continued eating my way around WA.
On the menu over the next few days were farmed truffles (who knew that WA is the biggest exporter outside of Europe?), swims with dolphins and yet more food. By the time you read this, my waistline should have returned to normal.
Read more in the October 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)