Kim Knight takes a gourmet tour of West Australia
The duck's nuts tasted of black cherries, sweet tobacco and dark chocolate. Allegedly. I read those flavours on the cheat sheet and breathed in a hint of pudding because I am very susceptible to suggestion and also a sucker for a good story.
Western Australia is full of good stories.
This one, told around the shiny self-service wine dispenser at Olive Farm Wines, alleges a visit by super-wealthy Americans on a mission to restock their wine cellar. They tasted plenty and asked for more. There was a barrel of something the winemaker was playing with. It was so experimental it didn't have a name but the vineyard knew it was good and, thus, there was a handwritten working label: The Duck's Nuts.
The Americans were mystified. An explanation ("you know, like the bee's knees") didn't help. But they loved the wine and so a legend was born. Specifically, a Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Malbec legend that currently retails for $88 a bottle for the 2017 vintage.
I'm in the Swan Valley, eating cheese and drinking wine and listening to stories. The next day, I'm in Perth city proper, eating cheese (the ricotta ravioli at The Westin's in-house restaurant Garum is sublime), drinking wine and listening to stories.
My Two Feet & A Heartbeat Walking Tour guide spent nine years underground mining, before becoming a boxer and then gaining a degree in urban planning.
"Ego and paranoia," he says cheerfully, launching into the tale of how contemporary Perth came to be (it was 1829 and Captain James Stirling was desperate for his British colony to work before the French won the white man's race to Western Australia).
We walk and talk and trust me when I say that the photograph depicting Mrs Dance who ceremonially axed the first tree that fell in the making of modern Perth is the stuff of nightmares. On the other hand, she's up the stairs in the only Australian Town Hall built by convicts and that's not necessarily a detour I would have known to make on my own.
Check out the ceiling, says my guide, at the top of those stairs by the portrait parade of all-men-but-one lord mayors. He reckons the builders must have known boats better than houses. We are in an upside-down ship. You could literally turn this hall over and float right out of town.
At Yagan Square, the new Perth City Link development that has revitalised the city's food and entertainment offering, I learn Yagan was a Noongar leader and resistance fighter. In 1933, he was shot to death and subsequently beheaded. Not every story in Western Australia is good or happy, but they all make me wonder.
I head to the Margaret River region. At Olio Bello, I'm told about the second-to-most recent owners who thought this land was paradise and planted two of everything edible, including olive trees. Before the apocalypse, we feast? There are now 8000 olive trees (and a handful of glamping tents) on the estate that produces oils, beauty products and more.
The olive grove is near Cowaramup, which the locals call "cow town". They've adorned the streets with giant bovine statues. Back at Swan River, I'd tasted quandong and wattleseed and a Wardandi Bibbulmun woman told me the Wardandi people know this as the "Place of the Cowara", after the purple crowned lorikeet that once inhabited this area. Moral of this story? Things are not always what they seem.
I wonder how a German baker ends up in small town Australia making biodynamic bread. Gotthard Bauer has no website, and only sells in the afternoons. I spread butter on a tangy crust and ask how he got here. "There is a German word for this," says Bauer. "Ubermut. It means curiosity with a spike of risk."
The Halliday Wine Companion Awards named Vanya Cullen the 2019 Winemaker of the Year - validation for Cullen Wines and its commitment to an organic, biodynamic product. We wander the vineyard with a dingo-heeler cross dog called Solstice and Vanya scoops up a handful of soft, silky soil. No acids are added to this wine. There is no filtering or fining. It is very, very vulnerable to disaster, but what Cullen wants to express, she says, "is the heart of the land, not the mind of the winemaker".
And more leaps of faith: At Caves Road Collective, they make insanely delicious beers inspired by Neapolitan icecream (berries, vanilla and chocolate), cold-dripped coffee and lemongrass. Some of their beer is made in wine barrels and the chief brewer has just shot into town to buy a mallet to expedite this process. At Yallingup Cheese Company, I scoop up molten "St Julian", a local take on the French mould-ripened St Marcellin, named for the cheesemaker's husband. Actually, Alana Langworthy makes wine too.
"Nobody here was really doing a regional cheese. My daughter had just turned 1, and I thought 'I'm not sleeping anyway ...'"
Ubermut and stories, everywhere you turn in this south-west corner of Western Australia where my stomach takes me from Cowaramup to Yallingup, Wilyabrup and Gnarabup (because "up" means "place" in this country).
I go to Smiths Beach Resort for dinner, and at Lamont's, local culinary legend Kate Lamont serves pavlova as big as my head. Her Abrolhos Island scallops with nduja and macadamia are a sunset on the half shell. The Torbay asparagus is a year in the making, just harvested this week, a seasonal jewel served with soft curd. Lamont's story starts with family and wine but now its head chef talks produce and the importance of supplier relationships. Lamont is excited about an apple. The brand new Bravo, bred right here in Western Australia. Dark red skin, sweet white flesh, charming acidity.
"It looks like the Snow White apple." Stories, everywhere.
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