Do you know your myrtle from your muntrie? Kim Knight takes a bite of Western Australia ahead of its annual Gourmet Escape festival.
At first, I thought it was the neighbours. A single, twanging note. Someone was playing a one-string ukulele and it was not even in tune.
Slowly, the sound made sense. Frogs. Frogs! Cool, I thought.
At midnight, I was still awake. At 2am, I was awaker still. I signed into the free Wi-Fi at the Pullman Bunker Bay Resort & Spa and clicked through to the Western Australian Museum's herpetology section. Eventually, I found the cause of my misery: The Western Banjo Frog, aka (I am not making this up) the "pobblebonk".
The next morning in nearby Margaret River, I bought wildflower postcards - and a pair of earplugs. In Western Australia, nature is omnipresent. There are whales in the water and kangaroos on the roadside. So much nature, that the southwest corner is a designated biodiversity hotspot, home to 5570 plant species, half of which are found nowhere else in the world - and some of which are bloody delicious.
You can go to Western Australia to see the wildflowers (peak viewing is August-October) but you should also go there to eat at Wildflower (the Perth restaurant) and to, just generally, eat.
From marron to muntries, karri honey to Arkady lamb, the region is a food and wine cornucopia that, in November, will host some of the world's most famous chefs including David Chang, Marco Pierre White and Pierre Koffman.
Western Australia Gourmet Escape (November 8-15) encompasses more than 50 food and wine events centred on Margaret River, Perth, and, for the first time, Swan Valley (a 25-minute drive from the state's capital).
What can a hungry visitor expect? I packed sunscreen, three extra stomachs and a spare liver for my advance taste test. Seven restaurants, five vineyards and a brewery. A cheesemaker, a breadmaker and a "giniversity" lecture. An olive plantation, a honey house and, at Cape Lodge, a hands-on lesson in shucking oysters, filleting fish and breaking down a dead duck. I ate desert lime, finger lime and sunrise lime and drank (nearly) all the wines. Even the octopus (from Geographe Bay) had provenance.
Start a Swan Valley day at Yahava KoffeeWorks. They bring in coffee from around the world, roast fresh daily, and offer visitors a free three-cup tasting. I presumed I'd be "blackgold" (Papua New Guinean and bold), turned out I was "mokha" (Ethiopian and medium) and you should definitely try the iced coffee syrup.
Finish a Margaret River day with a sunset. Walk into Luxury offers a four-day guided hike along the Cape to Cape walk. I did just a 3km board-walked section of this stunning track that hugged the crashing turquoise ocean (next stop: South Africa) and lost count of the whales, dolphins and wildflowers.
From Perth to the Margaret River, the roads were flat and wide. In the food and wine hotspots, you can't go a kilometre without finding something else to eat or drink. It's Marlborough or the Hawke's Bay with kangaroos (if you're not that confident behind the wheel, get yourself a Malcolm - my driver from Perth Luxury Tours was roo-savvy and could name virtually every roadside plant I pointed to).
The original rockstar chef Marco Pierre White has called Gourmet Escape life-changing: "You're being exposed to something that you've never been exposed to before."
If your idea of Australian cuisine stops at a Vegemite sandwich, read on . . .
Geraldton Wax at Wildflower
At Perth restaurant Wildflower, menus are devised according to the six seasons of the indigenous Noongar calendar. Right now it's "djilba", when the wattle is in flower and the emu is delicious. The first plate of a five-course tasting menu was strips of silken kingfish in a Geraldton wax-infused sauce; the last was a Geraldton wax-spiked macadamia, lemon myrtle and yoghurt snow with mango sorbet. This ingredient is not, I discovered, an actual wax. The chef sent a sprig to my table - succulent lime-flavoured needles and a mass of small fuchsia-pink flowers. I nibbled between the dishes that celebrated Australia's wild and ancient produce. Tangy "bush tomato" contains more antioxidants than the blueberry. Marron is a freshwater crayfish, sweeter than our ocean-going kōura. Arkady lamb (fat and rich) was served with saltbush - a plant that was once eaten only by sheep. Two tables down, a pair of glamorously tattooed 20-somethings raised a glass. They were, they told the maitre d', celebrating their first divorces. Their taste in restaurants could not be faulted.
Emu at Yarri Restaurant & Bar
The meat on the menu at Dunsborough's Yarri restaurant is actually a by-product, but the bird that is bred for its oil is so popular, emu is now a permanent fixture. Head chef Aaron Carr serves only Western Australian-grown proteins (their marron comes with xo sauce). "We're no longer looking or waiting for produce. So many people come in with produce and you're encapsulating the seasons. Your food is changing with the tides, the moon, the flowers . . . " Except for that emu. Tartare-raw, with pumpkin seeds for crunch. Waste not, want more.
Verdelho at Sandalford
The white grape from Portugal is huge in Western Australia. I sampled it first in the Swan Valley at Sandalford, where tasting notes describe "upfront orange blossom, with quince paste and guava notes". Sandalford's 2017 Prendiville Reserve Shiraz was as opulent as its $120 price tag suggests, but it was the Verdelho that begged for a barramundi lunch. Sandalford's first vines were planted in 1840. It's currently preparing to host Swan Valley's inaugural "gourmet feast in the valley" - two days of food (with a fire pit focus), music and Marco Pierre White.
Finger lime at Voyager Estate
Remember when molecular gastronomy turned everything into a popping sphere of flavour? The Australian bush was thousands of years ahead of that game. Finger lime is a slim oval fruit that oozes caviar-like pearls of citrus. I had it on everything, including the raw kingfish starter at Margaret River's Voyager Estate where the "discovery menu" takes food and wine pairing into elegantly educative territory. Art postcards graphically depict the flavours you'll find in the glass; additional tasting notes are printed on pocket-sized cards. Voyager (along with Leeuwin Estate and Xanadu Wines) is a mainstay of what the locals call the "Golden Triangle of Chardonnay". Refer to your postcard and speak expertly of oranges, vanilla, pear and wattle. Drink that chardonnay with quail and finish with the chocolate, banana, peanut, miso and brown butter dessert that (spoiler alert) will look very familiar when the MasterChef Australia show that was filmed here screens in November.
Torbay asparagus and Shark Bay scallop at Leeuwin Estate
Leeuwin Estate (site of Gourmet Escape's popular "gourmet village" in the heart of the Margaret River) makes an art of wine and food matching. It starts with actual art, because the estate's best wine gets a bespoke painting on the label. Australian legend Sir Sidney Nolan famously refused ("I am not a graphic artist") but changed his mind after tasting the stellar 1982 Cabernet Sauvignon. View the original paintings in the downstairs gallery but don't miss the superb Art Series Wine and Food Flight cellar door experience. If you're a novice (like me), food makes wine less scary. If you love asparagus (like me) then it's a special kind of joy to discover that charring the stems of a vege that's just come into season, will replicate a little of the oakiness of a wine barrel. That sorcery continues. An Art Series Riesling is too crisp for me. I scoop a Shark Bay scallop and take another sip. The rich shellfish has softened the crunch of the wine. I laugh when I realise the label features frogs, painted by John Olson. Scallops as an ear plug for the palate?
Wagin duck at Cape Lodge
Good restaurants list provenance and if you like duck, look for the word "Wagin" - a Western Australian town and the name of the family poultry business where the mantra is fresh, free-range and local. How fresh? I didn't want to think about how recently the raw meat on my chopping board had been roaming free. Cape Lodge is a tranquil Margaret River resort where lunch is luxe and so are the ingredients I'm preparing at a mini version of its cooking school boot camp. I had already shucked an Albany oyster, filleted a red emperor and now I was breaking down a Wagin duck. "Let the bones talk to you," said executive chef Tony Howell. Later, we picked homegrown romanesco and nasturtium in the rain, and I watched a digger turn over the compost pile (everything but the orange peel because that's saved to infuse with vinegar to create a natural cleaner). The earth was rich; lunch was superb. "When I moved down here 20-something years ago," says Howell, "There were only two or three good restaurants in the whole area. To see what it is today - it makes you feel proud; proud of all the other chefs in the area, of the produce and the farmers."
Quandong at Maalinup Aboriginal Gallery
The quandong was to cool down the pepperberry. The bright red raw fruit was sour but, made into jam, became a sweet salve served in a strawberry gum leaf-enhanced pastry case. This week, I would eat the bush in many fine-dining guises, but at Maalinup Aboriginal Gallery it (mostly) tasted as nature intended. Australia's indigenous people ate this food for thousands of years before colonisation and the introduction of plants and animals less suited to the vast continent's climate. Dale Tilbrook, a Wardandi Bibbulmun woman, manages this gallery and education centre where I try not to drop a dark green emu egg and sniff the nutty caramel scent of wattleseed flour. Muntries are, she says "quite appley". Salty grapes do just what they say on the label. Tilbrook cuts sweet sunrise lime and tart desert lime. The latter, she says, is possibly "the great-great-great grand mummy of all citrus in the world. Everybody thought citrus emanated from China, but all the latest DNA research is saying further south, further south". Tilbrook says Aboriginal people moved across the land with the seasons, picking only what they were going to eat that day. More than 6000 edible plants are believed to grow in Australia. Until recently, officialdom recognised just 14. "It's recently been expanded. I count about 43 now."
Western Australia Gourmet Escape (November 8-17). Full programme: gourmetescape.com.au
Kim Knight flew courtesy of Air New Zealand (direct flights daily from Auckland), stayed at the Westin Perth and Pullman Bunker Bay Resort & Spa and drove with Perth Luxury Tours. For more Western Australia visitor information: westernaustralia.com