Fabulous Food of the Southern Forests of Western Australia by Sophie Zalokar »

An innovative Pemberton chef takes us on a culinary tour of this Garden of Eden

By Robyn Lewis
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Food of the Southern Forest by Sophie Zalokar

Food of the Southern Forest by Sophie Zalokar

 

Our daughter was only a baby when we took her on a week’s drive around south-west Western Australia, naïve new parents that we were, never thinking that she could get carsick, or bored. She didn’t. She smiled everywhere, obligingly sat through tastings, farm and foodie visits in her pram, slept soundly in forest B&Bs, and loved it. So did we.

Margaret River was fabulous as always, but a real highlight for us was getting ‘off the beaten wine trail’ and diving deeper to the south-east, through the Blackwood River Valley, then into the Southern Forests and beyond to the Great Southern Region.

As the latter two names suggest, these lesser-visited regions are the southern most points of Western Australia, bordering the chilly, rich waters of the Southern Ocean, and extend past Albany, where the ocean meets the Great Australian Bight. They're easy to get to – just drive south along the Vasse Highway from Busselton, or if you’re already in Margs, take the Brockman Highway and head east, through the varied eucalypt woodlands of the Blackwood River Valley that makes south-west WA botanically famous.

A couple of hours later – as the rainfall increases and the forests get taller and more lush – you get to Southern Forests, with Pemberton and Manjimup its twin hearts. (If you eventually continue to their south-east, Walpole on the coast marks the transition into the larger, drier Great Southern region.)

Here we stopped, for several days, although it turned out to be not long enough.

Food of the Southern Forests by Pemberton chef Sophie Zalocar makes me want to go back, as soon as possible. Sophie runs the popular Foragers Field Kitchen and Cooking School in Pemberton, which has attracted a wide audience in the 4+ years since it was established. Had Sophie’s cooking school been there back then, we would have stayed even longer!

Our daughter has grown and I’m thinking that if she came with us now she’d need her iPhone, and maybe a friend for company. It’s probably a tour I’d rather do as a couple or with some foodie friends instead of as a family, partly due to the distances involved, also because she’s not yet old enough to participate in tastings. And she’s not obsessed with cooking... yet.

But we love all things food and the taste of the Southern Forests we enjoyed last time – and revealed in depth in this book – is enough to lure us back across the country. Meeting Sophie at the #RestaurantAustralia regional showcase in 2014 convinced me that here is someone passionate about her region and deeply knowledgeable about its produce. (Sidenote: I also rated the Western Australian stand Number 1, for innovation, taste and just sheer fun and friendliness!)

 

About the author, Sophie Zalokar, and the Southern Forests region

Sophie started her culinary career in the Barossa Valley in South Australia, where she qualified as a chef at the Pheasant Farm Restaurant with Australian food icon Maggie Beer. She then cooked her around the world before heading back to Australia, landing in Fremantle with Swiss-born partner Chris in 1991. In 2005, they moved to a 19 acre property then called Pemberton Breakaway Cottages, with their two children. The area around Pemberton greatly appealed for its unaffected, stunning natural environment, wine, variety of fresh produce and small country community.

Sophie describes the area as “hours and hours of spectacular scenic driving, the best which can be experienced year round off the sealed roads, guided by local knowledge. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful place. The majestic native karri forests, with trees amongst the tallest in the world, scrape abundant skies and edge lush pastures, orchards and vineyards while deep through the valleys serene waterways roll with a primal rhythm and descend towards and ancient and wild coastal rim."

I certainly can’t beat that, except to say that the greenness was a welcome surprise to me after the rather dry expanse along the Brockman en route. It reminded me of vegetable country around Ballarat and in NW Tasmania, but being somewhat warmer, it’s no surprise that many good things grow there, even though agricultural land is just 15% of the total (much of the rest is forests, including national parks and reserves). The whole region is just 7000 km2, so it’s like a small green oasis in one of Australia’s otherwise driest states.

Over the next five years Sophie and Chris built new accommodation, planted a productive kitchen garden, “started a learning curve with farm animals” and crafted a 40 seat dining room with a large commercial kitchen. Foragers relaunched in March 2011, as “a farm-based cooking school and dining room with self-contained accommodation”. Sounds perfect, doesn’t it?

In Food of the Southern Forests – which Sophie dedicates to the region’s primary producers – we meet a range of growers and makers from the tiny population of 10,000 locals who call Southern Forests home: fruit and nut orchardists; vegetable and specialist grain farmers (the cover photo is of the sexiest cauliflower ever!); biscuit, jam and cheese makers; producers of beef, lamb, dairy products, olive oil, honey, fish including trout, and that delicious WA speciality, marrons; and growers of exotica such as betel leaves, finger limes, truffles, saffron and even wild mushroom foragers.

It sounds like a Garden of Eden, and if you’re planning to visit and taste more than a few of the region’s products, and to check out a few of the local restaurants and the farmers’ markets, you may need at least a week. Plenty of Perth residents do just that when they tire of the city and hot weather, and head south for respite. There are plenty of lovely B&Bs tucked away in ferny groves in the forest – including Sophie’s own – but it pays to book well ahead.

And if you’re lucky, or plan ahead with a copy of Food of the Southern Forests, you can get to meet some of the growers and makers, too.  The region is now focussing on ‘farm gate experiences’, taking culinary tourism beyond the restaurant and cellar door, right to where it begins: with
 

The Southern Forest producers

Whoever knew that the famous Pink Lady® apple was first bred in Manjimup over 40 years ago? It’s now registered in more than 70 countries and is grown around the world. You can even visit the original tree at the Manjimup Research Station.

I’m guessing that with Newton Orchards and Valleyview Organics now growing a big share of WA’s total annual apple harvest, cider can’t be too far away either. The Newtons also grow pears, cherries, plums and apricots – 5-10% goes to export, too. It might be a small region, but the producers sure aim high.

There’s an Italian influence, with the Peruch family originally from Venezia growing asparagus, and the Guadagnino family from Sicily specialising in pome and stone fruits: I’m thinking apricot season might be a good time to visit! But they also grow autumn chestnuts, and even prickly pears.

One Ipsen family cultivate a massive 260 ha of avocadoes (in season from November to March) – another (cousins?) produces broccoli, with 15% going to Singapore; Glynn Jones (one of the local firies) runs a pick-your-own blueberry farm (ready at Christmas – perhaps my daughter might like this after all?!) and the Ryans produce those sexy cauliflowers, which are now a year-round crop.

They, like others, attribute the fabulous produce to the region’s clean air, good quality water supply, and fertile soils. With Asian markets on their doorstep, one suspects that it won’t be long before the region regains some of the export market share they lost to the high Australian $ in recent years, and as Asian consumers become more concerned about how their food is grown.

Cool nights give Southern Forests a good diurnal range of temperatures, and the few days over 35°C ensure fabulous flavours develop over longer ripening periods. If you think this sounds like cool-climate wine growing, then you’re right.

The Grozotis family hailed from Macedonia, and now grow cherries. We must have been there too early – with 16 varieties, the cherry season now runs from November into the new year. Rob and Jill Baker are treechangers who retired from physiotherapy and now grow fingerlimes, sought after by leading chefs for their zingy, popping hits of citrus flavour on oysters and fish (there’s a delicious-looking ceviche recipe included – more on those below).

If you haven't worked out by now that Southern Forests is a food nirvana, then European backpackers certainly have – many spend part of their Australian tour working on the garlic farm of David MacDonald and his German-born partner Catrin Iversen, who pay such attention to detail that they plant all garlic bulbs in a certain direction to ensure “bulb shape uniformity”! Clearly, I need more garlic-growing lessons.

Not surprisingly given the high rainfall and warm climate, someone is growing tea. Meet Kathy and Don Dawson, more ‘retirees’ now devoting their lives to producing a niche crop. Their green tea is destined for none other than the finicky Japanese market, although to scale up from their current trial plantings they need a processing plant soon.

Russell Delroy is taking on the New Zealanders with kiwifruits and tamarillos; Mat and his son Rob produce milk, cream and fabulous butter; Lui and Lina Bazzani and son David produce olive oil and a nursery that specialises in fruit trees. A daughter grows roses and olives, and another is the head chef at the nearby Wine and Truffle Company.

The list of wonderful producers and people doing great things with food goes on. Rather than a roll call of this Garden of Eden, let’s look at some of the enticing recipes they have also inspired or contributed, along with Sophie’s, morphing their produce into some innovative and delicious creations.


The Southern Forests' food and recipes

If you are lucky to have plenty of asparagus in spring, turn some into a soup: Asparagus and Potato Soup with Crème Fraiche, Chervil and Hazelnut Crumbs. Or try making summer in a bowl: Tomato Water, Tomato Confit, Preserved Lemon, Avocado, Basil Oil and Nigella. The photo is enough to make you swoon.

There’s a vegetarian retro-style entrée based on the good old prawn cocktail, given a multicultural Australian touch: Avocado with Lime, Pickled Ginger, Cinnamon, Pine Nuts and Purple Basil, and an unusual salad of Watercress Leaves and Emulsion, Flaked Hot-smoked Trout, Yoghurt and Mustard-seed Biscuits, with the latter based on a shortbread recipe, which Sophie says gives a lovely soft buttery crunch.

Other salads include Avocado, Orange, Fennel, Radish, Nasturtium and Wild Olive; Iceberg Wedges with Salad Cream, Lovage and Sunflower Seeds, and a Crispy Kale Caesar-style Salad.

For a salad-as-meal you can’t go past the Smoked Duck, Fresh Fig, Ricotta, Pickled Walnuts, Fat Hen and Radicchio Salad, or if you can get it, Marron, Roasted Walnut, Avocado and Bartlett Pear Salad with a Candied Garlic Verjuice Dressing.

Vegetable dishes are plentiful, including a surprising Wilted Iceberg and Baby Spinach with Lemon, Garlic, Cumin Seed and Sumac side dish; Spiced Broccoli with Leek, Mustard Seeds, Macadamia Nuts, Kaffir Lime Leaves and Chilli; and Bagna Cauda with Baby Spring Vegetables. Cauliflower Cheese gets a makeover with Caraway Seeds, presented whole to be cut into wedges at the table. My daughter would love that!

Vegetarians will also enjoy the Buckwheat, Potato and Kale Galette with Fresh Cheese, Sage and Garlic, and the Roasted Cherry Tomatoes, Smoked Paprika, Ashed Goats’ Cheese on Grilled Sourdough Bread.

Truffles – for which the region is also famous – are paired with Roasted Jerusalem Artichokes, Hazelnuts, Labna and Sage, with a sherry to match.

Meat lovers will enjoy Beef Cheek, Field Mushroom and Pickled Walnut Pie; Roast Rib Eye with Smoked Tomatoes and Kale Pesto. Lamb features heavily: one of my faves is Braised Lamb Neck with Artichokes, Mint and Chickpea Panisses (like polenta fingers); there’s also Crumbed Breast of Lamb with Cardoons, Mustard Greens and Anchovy Mayonnaise, and you can also cook Lamb Shanks with Cumin, Sherry, Muscatels, Pine Nuts and Celeriac Purée.

And those pretty pink fingerlimes? They feature in a seafood recipe: Marron and Avocado Ceviche with Lime, Fingerlime and Garlic Chives – and if you can’t get marron, try crayfish or king prawns.

There’s also a Danish-inspired Smørrebrød of Marron, Black Bread, Carrot, Dill and Caraway Pickle with Sour Cream. Those lucky enough to source this expensive gem of the sea can try Stir-fried Abalone with Cucumber, Horseradish Cream and Dill Oil, or substitute squid or baby octopus is you can’t.

Sophie bakes freshwater fish in a salt crust to season it and keep it moist in Rosemary Salt-baked Redfin Perch with Almond Skordalia. (This method also works well for trout, and gets rid of any muddiness).

For desserts, the Food of the Southern Forests list is long. Be prepared to lose control with Pear and Caramel Marzipan Cake with Lapsang Souchong Caramel Cream, made with the Newton’s fruit (or your own), or the Yoghurt Pistachio Cheesecake with Apricots in Orange Blossom Water, Mace and Bay Leaf Syrup, which you can make with frozen apricots if you have stocked up at a farmers’ market. (Sophie tells us that mace goes well with apricots).

Her Grilled Peaches with Hazelnut Icecream, Peach Leaf Ice Cream and Vin Santo is summer simplicity itself, and another of my faves is the Cherry, Almond and Kirsch Clafoutis, which you can also make year-round with some frozen cherries. My daughter loved the Honey and Bay Leaf Custard, Honey Jelly and Honey Madeleines (ok, I cheated, I didn’t do the madeleines), and we all enjoyed the Greek Lime and Coconut Custard Tart, which is easy to make with filo pastry.

Not a Kiwi? Don’t know what to do with feijoas? Peel, slice and set them in a Feijoa and Apple Cider Jelly with Toasted Almonds and Clove-infused Cream. Ditto tamarillos? Try them in Sophie’s Tamarillo and Kiwifruit Salad with Burnt Meringue, Oat Crumble, Lime and Gin Syrup. You’ll soon be converted to both.

Chef Luke Burgess inspired the Camomile Cream with Rhubarb Jelly and Ginger Thin Crumbs (he originally made it with smoky lapsang souchong tea), and Dinah Brocksopp (wife of the legendary WA viticulturalist John Brocksopp) the Dried Persimmons, Blue Cheese, Walnut Spelt Bread and Witlof, which she matches with viognier. It’s visually stunning as well as delicious.

As if more temptation was needed, kids will love the Spelt and Spiced Pumpkin Donuts with Cinnamon Sugar – they won’t even know they’re healthier made with wholemeal spelt flour.

 

All the recipes, makers and growers are illustrated with evocative photos by Craig Kinder, and this beautiful book was supported by the Southern Forests Food Council, which represents local producers, and culinary and agri-tourism operators in WA’s premier food bowl. Their aim is to ultimately establish Southern Forests as an internationally recognised destination for outstanding produce and exceptional culinary tourism experiences, and meanwhile strengthen the local economy, create employment and might I add much-deserved regional pride.

You could spend a year cooking from Food of the Southern Forests and bringing restaurant-standard meals to your home – or you can go to Foragers Field Kitchen and Cooking School, learn a few dishes first hand from Sophie, and spend the rest of the time eating her delicious creations. In between, tour the Pemberton-Manjimup surrounds, meet some of Great Southern’s producers and connect with the source of some of Australia’s best fresh food.

I’m already thinking that next time we need to allow at least a fortnight!
 

Food of the Southern Forests by Sophie Zalokar is published by the University of Western Australia Press (Crawley, WA, 2014; hc, 373 pp) and retails in Australia for RRP A$59.99

It can be purchased online from Booko.com.au here »

Regions

  • Manjimup (WA)
  • Pemberton (WA)
  • South West WA (WA)

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June 05th, 2015
 
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