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It’s Western Australia’s time to shine. James Ramsden samples some of the finest food, wine and attractions on offer.
When it comes to food, we’re often like gullible volunteers in some greedy magic show – so busy looking in one place that we don’t notice the real action is happening elsewhere. Say ‘Australian cuisine’ to the average Brit, and it’s the south-east corner – particularly Melbourne and Sydney – that comes to mind.
But over on the west coast, there are rumblings of change. Out past the bushland of silver mulga trees and gold mines of Kalgoorlie, the south-western bulge of Australia is fat with some of the planet’s finest produce. I was lucky enough to spend a week there with Perth-born chef Shane Osborn, eating my way around the region. Until recently, Osborn was head chef at two-Michelin-starred Pied à Terre in London, where his food took its inspiration from the rich, citrus-spiked, earthy cooking of Western Australia (WA) – all textures of beetroot, micro-herbs and menus generous with fish. He’s just the man to guide me around this bountiful state.
As the European truffle season ends, so it begins in WA. We head to Manjimup, HQ of The Wine and Truffle Company, which exports around 2,500kg of black Périgord truffles each year – making it the largest supplier in the southern hemisphere.
The truffle dogs – a kelpie, Sunny, and a beagle called Izzie – trot alongside their trainer, Fran, as we make our way towards the 13,000 young hazel and oak trees. The obedience of the dogs is impressive, but not as impressive as their snouts. When Fran gives the nod, they tear off in the direction of the trees, noses hoovering the earth and tails pin-straight in the air. Sunny is soon pawing the soil at the foot of a hazel, performing a jig that I learn is her ‘I’ve found a truffle’ dance. A liver treat is proffered as a reward.
Fran then kneels down, flicking a couple of errant hazelnuts and autumn leaves aside to reveal a small lump in the loam. ‘Does anyone want to smell this soil?’ she asks. ‘Kneel down and have a good sniff. Get your nose in.’ It smells ancient and fungal. The truffle, when disinterred, is like a small lump of coal: pimpled and jet black.
Truffles aren’t the only luxury ingredient to be found in this region. Right down on the south-west coast in Albany, we spend a morning catching striped tuna from the choppy waters of the King George Sound and guzzling oysters shucked by men with barnacled faces. My attempt to talk to one of the sorters is met with a gruff ‘don’t talk to me, I’m counting’, but the rock oysters are the finest I’ve eaten: petite and unassuming, yet startling in richness and creaminess.
If you wiggle westwards along the coast from Albany, you’ll come to Margaret River, WA’s main wine region. You might call it the Bordeaux of Australia, considering both the elegance of the wines and the fact that the median annual temperature is an identical 23°C. The wine here is world class, too – fresh and vibrant, and full of fruit and citrus. A couple of years ago, an A$32 Shiraz from Margaret River outscored the exalted (and A$550-a-bottle) Penfold’s Grange in the Good Australian Wine Guide. Not too shabby for a region that has only been producing wine since the 1970s.
At one of the first wineries, Vasse Felix, Osborn cooks a dinner for 100 locals and acolytes. It’s amazing how famous he is here, despite his absence of 20 years – one couple has travelled from Melbourne for this dinner. It’s worth the trip. We start with poached kingfish – a meaty and toothsome brute, and one that Osborn serves with an umami-rich oyster mayonnaise, an umami-richer nori jelly and cellophane-thin slices of radish. The winning finish comes in little specks of toasted quinoa that add crunch and earth to the soft, spiky dish. Further wonders flaunt the local ingredients – duck cooked three ways, neck of lamb roasted for 72 hours, and a dessert of ‘lime air, compressed pineapple, coconut foam, roasted banana, and sesame caramel’ that is less pretentious than it sounds; light, floral, and perhaps the best dish of the evening.
Oddly enough, though, it’s the more rustic side to WA’s bounty that most appeals. The foams and jellies are undoubtedly delicious and technically brilliant, but with such special ingredients, less is often more. We sling the tuna caught in Albany into a cool box and take it up to Karma Chalets in Denmark. Osborn and I spend a happy hour filleting and cleaning the beasts. ‘This is the toro – the belly,’ he tells me, with something approaching reverence, before slicing some and dressing it lightly with sesame oil, lime juice, and soy sauce. The other half we cut into chunks and confit in olive oil. It is simple, respectful treatment of such a beautiful ingredient.
Even simpler are the morsels we discover by accident. An idle wander along the Margaret River finds unadorned marvels – the native rosemary is remarkably smoky and has me dreaming of barbecues, while the pigface plant’s fat, pink leaves are plucked off to reveal a nubbin of sweet, salty fruit. An encounter with a witchetty grub somewhat detracts from the overall experience, but I still remain both awed and envious of the produce here.
Despite the magnificent wines and exceptional food, the number-one tourist attraction in WA has nothing to do with either. The Ngilgi caves, near Yallingup, are spectacular: great sprawling caverns of stalactites and stalagmites, shawls that look like rashers of bacon, and helictites that twist and squirm in the most peculiar way.
Equally spectacular, and less claustrophobic, is a day spent with Sean Blocksidge at The Margaret River Discovery Co. Typically Australian – charming, chatty, and interesting – he takes us deep into the bush, through peppermint trees and towering jarrah, to a spot where the local Wardandi tribe lived for centuries. On the Cape To Cape Track, the trees chatter in the wind and, far below, surfers chop through vast waves. ‘People come to this region and think it’s just about food and wine, but there’s so much more to it than that,’ he says.
More, there certainly is – Whale World, forests for biking, stunning guesthouses and coastal treks – but I’d travel all the way back for a dozen oysters and a slurp of Riesling. Apparently, the Saudi minister for oil ordered 700 jars of jarrah honey after visiting the region. I can see why. There’s something addictive about Western Australia.
Emirates flies to Perth from London Gatwick via Dubai.
Pinnacle Tours offers two- to seven-day tours of south-west Australia. Bespoke tours available on request.