One of the joys of travelling is experiencing a destination through its food so I decided to write about one of my favourite pockets on the planet, Margaret River. What is a typical dish in the south west of Western Australia?
The Margaret River region is blessed with some of the cleanest oceans, pristine pastures and some of the least-polluted air on the planet. After all, there’s not much between here and Antarctica. It’s because of the clean environment and Mediterranean-like climate, a wide variety of fruits and vegetables grow well in the region and farmers raise healthy livestock for pork, beef, lamb, venison and more, plus there’s access to an abundance of seafood.
Of the region’s best chefs that I chatted with, they all agree that if they had to choose just one quintessential ingredient that best showcases Western Australia’s South West, it would be marron. The small freshwater crayfish is endemic and indigenous to the region and revered by diners and chefs the world over.
Busselton local and chef Paul Iskov from pop-up restaurant Fervor, says that marron has featured on his menu since day one, six and a half years ago.
“A marron dish that we do, which would be one of our signature dishes, has just three elements on the plate, a lemon myrtle emulsion, ocean salt that we make ourselves and marron that we cook in paperbark so it’s steamed, then we torch it to give it a smokey flavour. It’s designed to be eaten with your hands – you open up the paperbark, sprinkle salt and drag the marron through emulsion. The dish is there to just highlight the marron, we keep it as simple as possible,” Paul says.
Having eaten Paul’s marron on more than one occasion, I can agree with Marco Pierre White who said it was the best marron he’d ever eaten when he was in Albany for Taste Great Southern a couple of years ago.
“When I was doing my apprenticeship at the local wineries here, they all had marron on the menu. It works just as well as at a casual café style eatery as it does at a high end winery restaurant,” Paul says.
Cape Lodge consultant executive chef Tony Howell agrees with marron and says that it’s a great example of a Margaret River showcase dish.
“Butter poached marron topped with freshly shaved truffle during truffle season, you can’t beat it,” Tony says.
“But it’s impossible to choose just one dish or one ingredient that showcases the south west – in spring it’s Torbay asparagus which is just sensational, winter you’re talking Manjimup truffles and then there’s venison, pastured eggs, local honey, great dairy, fresh crayfish, Rottnest scallops when you can get them, blue swimmer crabs, octopus, and I love blue scampi caviar, one of my favourites, it’s expensive but worth it. We’re so lucky that we have so much on offer here.
“What’s even better though, is that the majority of the restaurants in the region use local produce that’s in season, which is great.”
Yarri partner and executive chef Aaron Carr shares Tony’s sentiments.
“What’s a south west dish? Everything on the Yarri menu!” Aaron quips.
“Marron is probably the most famous, but also lamb, pork, beef, black truffles, seafood – it’s all produced in the region and the quality is first class. Then there’s all the line caught seafood like bar cod, blue eyed trevalla and hapuku which is a beautiful deep-water fish from Windy Harbour. It’s impossible to define the south west in one dish or choose just one ingredient.”
The chefs are right, it’s hard to define the south west in one dish or with one ingredient.
The best place to start to get a culinary understanding of the region is the Margaret River Farmers’ Markets held every Saturday morning at the Education Campus. Winner of Australia’s Best Farmers’ Market in last year’s delicious. Magazine Awards, there are stringent guidelines for stall holders: they must make or grow the produce themselves, no second hand goods and no on-selling. The farmers who grow the produce are there so you can talk to them directly, ask questions and gain a better insight into the fresh produce before you.
After you try marron (best in summer when in season), my recommendation is to ask staff whereever you may be what’s in season and what’s local. Whether you self-cater or go out for a pub meal, a lingering lunch or a degustation dinner, by eating local produce that’s in season, it’s hard to go wrong.
Add this to calendar: the Margaret River Gourmet Escape is a celebration of all things Margaret River with lots of tastings of food and wine available at the Gourmet Village at Leeuwin Estate and plenty of fancy pants dinners with super star chefs making the most of the stunning local produce. It’s held 15-17 November 2019 – for more visit www.gourmetescape.com.au
*A version of this story was submitted to Your Margaret River Region Magazine for publication