Ray McVinnie's Western Australian gourmet escape
In my line of work it is important to me that my travel destinations include good food. I had never been to Western Australia before and as the main attraction this trip was the legendary Margaret River Gourmet Escape, I suspected it would turn out to be a memorable food journey.
That food journey began even before I got to Western Australia owing to the expert direction given to Qantas by Australian chef, Neil Perry. His no nonsense approach to airline catering was reflected in the food in the lounge, not to mention that on the plane.
Unlike other airlines that sometimes get a gaggle of chefs to provide ideas for the food, Qantas— in conjunction with Perry — has taken a more down to-earth approach, engaging and encouraging its own produce growers and fishermen and using food that is seasonal and sustainable to deliver an airline culinary experience that reflects the high standards at Perry’s Sydney, restaurant, the Rockpool. One of his dishes even inspired me to create a version of my own for this feature.
First stop in Perth was an excellent walking tour of the inner city with Adie from “Oh Hey WA”. The tour showed Perth is not just a boring modern city (ignore the faceless modern glass towers); amazing heritage buildings pepper the CBD. Many were inexplicably empty, but not all and I ate a great lunch at Petition Kitchen in the refurbished and massive old Treasury Building (below).
Nearby Fremantle (below) proved just as interesting with a well-preserved heritage architectural precinct. After a glitzy opening cocktail party at the new Crown Casino complex we headed for Margaret River in southwest Western Australia and the Gourmet Escape. Margaret River is about three hours drive south from Perth. Thanks to its Mediterranean climate, rich fertile soils and pristine coastline, the southwest has an abundance of fresh produce and a reputation for producing world-class food and wine.
With more than 220 wine producers and 100 cellar doors, it produces about 25 per cent of Australia’s premium wines and is the only wine region in Australia that combines world-class food and wine with pristine beaches, tall-timber forests, renowned surf breaks and ancient caves.
The Margaret River Gourmet Escape which ran from November 18-20 was celebrating its fifth-year anniversary and had an action-packed culinary programme over the three days. More than 50 top international culinary stars, including Rick Stein, Nigella Lawson, Anna Ros and Dominique Crenn —as well as talented locals like Paul Iskov and Aaron Carr — participated in all sorts of the events, many in spectacular locations, making this festival a destination for anyone the least bit interested in food.
This region is one of the world’s 34 biodiversity hotspots with nearly 80 per cent of the plant species found nowhere else. Iskov works closely with the local Aboriginal people learning about native ingredients and runs a series of pop-up restaurants over the region and beyond. There was a question and answer session with Nigella Lawson as part of the evening and another highlight was the brunch at Voyager Estate where international chefs Ana Ros from Hisa Franco in Slovenia’s Soca Valley, Mauro Colagreco from Mirazur in France and Australian chef Peter Gilmore spoke about what makes them tick as chefs, the personal and professional challenges they sometimes face and their philosophies about food — a rare insight into food luminaries.
I was lucky enough to try the amazing Ros’ food at the long lunch she cooked with British-born chef George Cooper, set in one of the region’s beautiful gardens. This was delicious, intelligent food that unpretentiously told a story about the chefs.
The Margaret River Gourmet Escape is a festival of the highest standard which reflects not just the amazing talent both local and imported, but also the imagination and creativity of the organisers. It is one very good reason to visit the region. But there was more! Not only is the region famous for its food and wine and events like the Gourmet Escape, it also is a natural wonderland with many outdoor activities.
As someone from a country like New Zealand which specialises in such activities, I was a little blase about the prospect of sampling these. However a ride on fat-tyred bikes with Cam from Capes to Coast Experience Adventure through the forest down to the Indian ocean, a canoe tour on the Margaret River with Sean from The Margaret River Discovery Co, a not-too-strenuous and interesting trek (the wildflowers and wildlife are fascinating) along the rugged coastline with Walk into Luxury showed me another side to this amazing region.
A surprise helicopter ride over the area was a real bonus. A highlight in this non-food and wine department was a visit to the Ngilgi Cave with Josh Whitehead of Koomal Dreaming. The cave, beneath the limestone ridge that forms Cape Naturaliste, is named for its association with an Aboriginal legend describing the battle betweena good spirit, Ngilgi, and a bad one, Wolgine, and contains amazing natural formations.
Josh is a member of the local Wardandi tribe and he showed us the cave and introduced us to Aboriginal culture. He made fire by rubbing two sticks together — it was so quick! He also showed us his beautiful traditional hunting and gathering tools (real boomerangs and throwing and digging sticks, pictured below), talked about the local indigenous people and played a haunting solo on his didgeridoo.
His vast knowledge of the area and people made me think about Australian aboriginal culture in a completely new way. It was a moving (and I rarely say it), spiritual experience, one I felt lucky to have had. This region of Western Australia, which is only a small part of this huge state, has everything I like for a great holiday — food, wine, good people and interesting country.
As I relaxed, sampling a little more of what Perry had to offer in the Qantas lounge before leaving as the final part of this food journey, I realised the trip was one I won’t forget in a hurry.
I stayed at
I ate at
- Petition Kitchen Perth Excellent food in a relaxed atmosphere with great service here!
- Moore and Moore Cafe, Fremantle
- Brewhouse Margaret River I ate a great dish of Fremantle sardines with pickled red onions on toast with watercress and sampled their great beers.
- White Elephant Beach Café, Gnarabup, Margaret River. Great for brunch, it is almost on the beach by the Gnarabup boat ramp.
- Wills Domain Winery Here I ate a very good lunch, and the dessert gave me the idea for the following dessert recipe.
I would like to thank Qantas and Western Australian Tourism for their assistance with the trip.
Ray has adapted the following recipes from his tour of WA
Chef Neil Perry continues to be a culinary genius. He can even serve up great airline food, which is no mean feat as this culinary genre is one that often doesn’t present well. The entree I ate on the flight over to Australia was a delicious dish of crab rillettes with rocket and toast. I was inspired to do my own version.
As crab is a bit hard for most people to find, I have used smoked fish and prawns. This is a great starter that can be made in advance or can be used simply on toast to go with drinks. Get the recipe
I ate an excellent dish at Petition Kitchen in Perth which was the inspiration for the following. (I was told the chef at Petition Kitchen, Jesse Blake, is a Kiwi.) This salad is a good vegetarian main course or would go well with roasted or barbecued lamb. Get the recipe
On our final day in Margaret River we ate lunch at Wills Domain Winery in Yalling up where the dessert was the inspiration for this recipe. The sorbet will keep in the freezer for a couple of days. The crumbs can be made a few days in advance and stored in an airtight container. The very good New Zealand-made, Pampero brand dulce de leche comes out of a jar. Get the recipe