Taking a bite out of WA’s Great Southern

Sarah McPhee
(Australian Associated Press)

Bumbled into the back of a ute with a 76-year-old asparagus farmer is not how I expected to explore Western Australia’s Great Southern.

But Phillip Marshall’s pride for the region is contagious, so I start to enjoy myself.

“See the road coming up? It’s named after me,” he says, pointing to the dusty Marshall Road sign before we pull into a red field scattered with spears of his prized green vegetable.

“My brother and I were farming both sides of the road and it was an unnamed. I knew the shire representative.”

Phillip and his wife Sheelagh have been producing asparagus alongside a variety of other crops and cattle in Torbay near Albany since they immigrated from England with their three children in the 1970s.

A stop by their shed is inevitable, if just for their daughter-in-law’s prize-winning raspberry jam.

The proud pair plate up their produce every Saturday at the Albany Farmers’ Markets and are gearing up for the region’s Taste Great Southern Festival, from March 23 to April 9 next year.

Spanish-born celebrity chef Miguel Maestre has already been confirmed for the event, but his love for the area’s fresh fare is certainly rivalled by that of converted local Amy Hamilton.

Hamilton heads up Liberte at the London Hotel in Albany, more than 3000 kilometres from her former life working in the kitchens of Australia’s foodie capital, Melbourne, where she moved from her native Perth.

“It was an accident. I was driving back home along the bottom and I wasn’t quite ready to go back to Perth,” she says.

“That was 10 years ago.”

Hamilton insists she can construct a nine-course degustation menu using 30 local producers – including Torbay asparagus and carrots from nearby Bathgate Farm – and still have room for more.

“To have Andrew or Jocelyn Bathgate walk in here at five o’clock to hand-deliver me vegies, after they’ve been picking all day, you have a real appreciation for where that food comes from,” she says.

“From a cost perspective, that food lasts five times longer than something you would get from Perth. It all makes such sense.”

Liberte’s menu moves with the seasons while its wine list features drops from emerging labels such as Denmark-based La Violetta and Brave New Wine – whose owners Yoko and Andries were this year nominated at the Young Gun of Wine Awards.

“We’re edgy and we’ve got amazing produce,” Hamilton says, plating up pork skin noodles matched with La Violetta’s U Levre d’Orange wine.

Although Margaret River is considered the jewel in Western Australia’s winery crown, the Great Southern grows 37 per cent of the state’s grapes and is the largest wine producing region by area in Australia.

Murray Gomm from Oranje Tractor Wines in Marbelup seems content with the less showy, second place, despite hosting Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall at his property during their tour of Albany in 2015.

A mainstay on the Taste Great Southern schedule for many years, Oranje Tractor’s certified organic, natural winery turns out just 1000 cases of wine per year.

“In the scheme of things, we’re growing sand on a beach in the Australian wine industry,” Gomm says.

“If you hunted high and low, you might find a random bottle in Perth.

“We don’t really want to be just another wine in the bottle shop. It’s about what happens here and now.”

The quaint business offers seated tastings matched to local produce as well as harvest parties, where guests forage around its main buildings for mulberries, avocados and Honey Murcott mandarins, among other produce.

Taste Great Southern is set to run for 18 days and across three weekends in 2017.

A Sunday lunch at the much-adored Garrison restaurant, joined by Irish celebrity chef Colin Fassnidge, is already confirmed on the program.

Perched atop Albany Heritage Park, the venue boasts spectacular views of Albany Harbour and King George Sound where 41,000 ANZACs departed for Europe during World War I in late 1914.

But rather than depart, Garrison’s British expat chefs decided to stay.

Father and son duo John Seville-Wright and Leo Wright have worked at the restaurant since its opening for the WWI centenary in 2014, creating a menu that showcases the region’s produce with a touch of home.

Think rock oysters from Emu Point or Denmark marron “delivered alive and kicking”, contrasted with veal scotch eggs, homemade duck prosciutto and the restaurant’s weekly Sunday roast.

For the sweet tooth, there’s a chocolate mousse marquise and cream made with rye whiskey from the local Limeburners distillery, or macerated Albany strawberries drizzled with shiraz vinegar from Mount Barker.

With lunch at Garrison, a BBQ feast at Liberte and a whisky masterclass at Limeburners among almost 50 events in the Taste Great Southern line-up, there’s no question that autumn in the region next year ought to be yum.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE – The northern tip of the Great Southern region, Mount Barker, is a four-hour drive from Perth while the furthest major point, Bremer Bay, sits 500km from the capital. Perth Luxury Tours offers transport packages across the region and Busy Blue Blus operates locally. Rex runs daily flights (1h 15mins) between Perth and Albany.

STAYING THERE – Chimes Spa Retreat is an adults-only getaway of 10 suites and a day spa nestled in Denmark, 56km from Albany. Prices start from $255 for one night with package deals available. For more, visit chimes.com.au. Three- to five-star accommodation in Albany ranges from $89-$375 per night.

PLAYING THERE – See the Taste Great Southern line-up at tastegreatsouthern.com.au. Tickets available through Eventbrite. For tour information and other activities in the region, visit australiassouthwest.com.

* The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism WA.

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