25 March 2014 by Tim Tan
Wexas Travel's David Warne discovers delicious delicacies at the Margaret River Gourmet Escape
Western Australia's Margaret River region, just three hours south of Perth, is already well known for its premium wines. Perhaps less well known however, is that it is fast becoming something of a foodie enclave, with boutique producers of delicacies such as truffles, cheeses, olive oils and chocolates springing up between the vineyards. Where better then to host the Margaret River Gourmet Escape, which in 2013 - only its second year - was already being dubbed Australia's premier food and wine festival.
The 2013 event, a whole-weekend affair, attracted a heavyweight line up of celebrity chefs from around the world. Topping the bill were Heston Blumenthal and Rick Stein from the UK, along with Australians Neil Perry and George Calombaris and around 40 other internationally acclaimed chefs. The centerpiece of the event is the Gourmet Village at the iconic Leeuwin Estate winery, near Margaret River township. Anyone who has visited the Taste Festival in London will have an idea of the format; rows of small tented stalls representing restaurants, breweries, wineries and producers of gourmet delicacies vie for your attention, while the main stage hosts talks and demonstrations from top chefs, but here, the gorgeous countryside setting and copious complimentary tastings somehow make the event seem less commercial than other food festivals.
But what really makes the Gourmet Escape special is the range of satellite and fringe events that take place at various locations around the region. Wineries, beaches, restaurants and 'secret' locations are turned into intimate venues offering gourmet experiences, each hosted by a selection of international chefs.
With more than 10 events each day spread across the region - and high demand for tickets - you can't expect to get to more than a handful over the course of the festival. My brief visit only allowed me to visit three, each offering very different but uniquely Australian experiences.
First up was the Farm to Table lunch at Windows Estate, a select gathering at one of the region's smaller, contemporary boutique wineries. A casual outdoor lunch under the trees included a mountain of freshly grilled marron - Western Australia's seasonal freshwater crayfish - and a selection of Windows Estate's award winning wines.
The popular Gourmet Beach BBQ event followed later the same day. Normally held at the beautiful Smith's Beach near Yallingup, the BBQ had to be moved at short notice due to strong winds to the equally pretty but smaller Castle Bay Beach in Meelup Regional Park, where a small tented beach village was set up to cater to the 150 or so guests at this relaxed, sand-between-the-toes event.
A four-course menu was served over a leisurely three hours, and the two main courses - fresh from the BBQ, of course - were created specifically for the event by the evening's headline chefs. Australian MasterChef host George Colambaris devised an unusual marron souvlaki with pickled cucumber and Luke Dale-Roberts from the Test Kitchen in Cape Town produced a truly delicious crispy pork belly with apple and red cabbage slaw. Even if these dishes might not be every-day barbie fare there are few more typically Australian experiences than a good beach BBQ. In between preparing the courses both chefs found time for interviews and casual chats with the guests. Courses were perfectly matched with a choice of local wines including a 2013 Devil's Lair Hidden Cave Chardonnay and a 2009 Pedestal Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot, and a range of bottled beers from the Eagle Bay brewing company.
The following day's Forager lunch, hosted by Jock Zonfrillo from Orana Restaurant in Adelaide and local Wardandi personality Josh Whiteland, was the real highlight of the weekend. Held in a 'secret' location - a converted barn in thick forest - the buffet lunch made use of indigenous ingredients and herbs, with excellent wines from nearby Leeuwin Estate. Although the buffet-style format meant a slight compromise in quality and presentation, the variety of tastes made for an enjoyable experience.
Guest speakers were Sat Bains and Miles Irving, both renowned UK-based foragers. Both seemed genuinely amazed by the sheer range of edible ingredients that could be forged from Australia's seemingly harsh environment. Indeed, the theme of the event was the increasing use of foraged ingredients in high-end restaurants both in the UK and Australia (no place for the phrase 'bush tucker' here). Dismissed unfairly as a culinary 'fad' in some quarters, foraging obviously has a history as long as mankind's own, and nowhere more so than in Australia, where traditional aboriginal custodians of the land have been foraging for over 40,000 years. Whereas the previous day's Beach BBQ was a nod to modern Australian lifestyle, the highlight of the Forager lunch was Josh Whiteland's fascinating personal insight into how the indigenous Wardandi people have lived off the land for thousands of years.
The 2014 Gourmet Escape takes place over the weekend of 21-23 November. At the time of writing the line up has not yet been announced but based on the genuine enthusiasm of the chefs who attended last year, the line up promises to be just as strong in 2014.
Visiting Australia's south-west during the Gourmet Escape is a lovely time to be there - expect warm, clear, Mediterranean-style weather. A weekend at the Gourmet Escape fits easily within a longer itinerary that could include Perth, a few days on beach or even one of the many walks in the region. And if your appetite for fine food and wine remains undiminished, there are all those boutique wineries and artisanal producers to visit.