On the Rustic Trail
A fresh food odyssey through the heart of WA’s growing country.
Blurry white lines flash through the windscreen. On either side of the car, bucolic pastures wrap around tall hills, and clumps of white rock and roaming cattle dot the valleys. Occasionally, a river flowing heavy with the residual rain of winter cut beneath the highway. My girlfriend, dog and I are travelling a country road just outside of Bunbury. This surrounding turf is South West WA’s food bowl, home to some of the freshest produce in the entire country.
The Department of Agriculture estimates the region’s agricultural sector is worth almost a billion dollars. Bunbury is the regional capital, and much of that produce moves through its port, the beating economic heart of the region. What doesn’t end up elsewhere stays here, on Victoria Street.
At the southern-most end of the main strip is one of the newest bakeries on the block. The Bread and Butter bakery was developed with the knowledge of Yallingup Woodfired Bread baker Gotthard Bauer, and operate on the sensible philosophy that simple is best. The bread is made from nothing but flour, water, salt, and yeast, using organic and locally sourced ingredients.
This interior is simple, spacious, and delightfully vintage. Soft, golden festoon lights hang low from the ceiling. A door offers a portal to a neighbouring restaurant. At Café 140, it’s Friday night and service is in full swing.
The restaurant and bakery are under the same ownership and the chefs and bakers work together. The bakery services the restaurant with fresh bread and pizza bases, the chefs concoct the French patisserie custards and jam fillings for the donuts next door.
I’ve always been a sucker for Italian delis. The masses of post WWII Italian migrants have brought with them an inimitable passion for fresh produce, and it’s here, in these delis, that vigour is tangible and enticing as the products themselves.
In the early post war years, many Italian migrants worked the dairy and cattle farms around Bunbury, like the Piacentinis. Kelly Piacentini grew up the daughter of an Italian dairy worker, and as per Italian custom, she learned to appreciate fresh food from an early age. She recalls days of her childhood spent making tomato sauce and pasta by hand, and gathered around the table with small armies of extended family.
Today, Kelly is bequeathing the gifts of her childhood to the Bunbury community. She’s been the sole operator of Rusticana for the past 15 years, since she began aged 23. She operates the only whole and bulk food store in town, meaning customers can select 100g or 25kg of a particular product from an array of aisled tubs in her store, and she caters to society’s shifting consciousness of what constitutes food.
“There is certainly a huge revolution happening at the moment,” Kelly says.
“People are becoming more aware of nutrition and the fuel they are putting in to their bodies. When you buy something from here, you can see what you’re buying – it’s not in the packet – and you can guarantee its freshness,” she says.
“There really is no substitute for fresh food. You can disguise it with preservatives and added sugar and salt, but you just cannot replace the taste of freshness.”
Out through the flat plains, past the old colonial brick architecture and the rolling hills, across the Collie River and out to Roelands Village. This was once an Aboriginal mission, run by the church. It housed forcibly removed children from the stolen generation. Les Wallam was one of those children. Today, Les manages the facilities and helps to run cultural education and TAFE programs for local youth.
He also hires a commercial kitchen to local businesses, and when we arrive, a sharp, mysterious tang wafts from the kitchen. Max’s Black gourmet foods are making sauce from native fruits. There are candied quandong, pickled quandongs, and a delicate candied Geraldton wax.
To Max’s Black proprietor, Tahn Donovan, food isn’t just about eating. It’s an experience, she says, that brings us closer to one another, and is woven into the fabric of our very being.
“It’s about bringing people together,” she says.
“Sitting around the table, catching up, having a feed. It brings us all closer together. These native foods are a great way to represent Aboriginal Australia, and to recreate that experience for everyone.
On the South West Highway, most passing motorists can't help but cut a glance at the horny cow outside Robert and Penny’s HaVe cheese factory. Robert bought this property when it was a derelict marron and deer farm. He’s invested everything into renovating and restoring the place, mostly on the back of his own labour.
Like most business people, Robert restored this place using his unique logic and available materials. Some might call it rustic or boutique, but if you asked the owners, they’d probably just call it sensible.
Robert has been making cheese for eighteen years now. Eight months ago, he expanded into butter, and his garlic and chive blend has taken out gold medals in every competition he’s entered it in. He says cheese-making is a fine art that takes years to perfect.
“It took me five years to get the blue cheese right. When I started, I knew nothing. It’s a very delicate process. All cheese is a living, breathing organism. It needs to be treated as one,” he says.
Today’s common logic dictates that products require a certified organic tick of approval to be considered healthy. But Kathy and Ashley Keefe, of Green Door Wines in the Ferguson Valley, don’t ascribe to that misguided view.
Almost all of the grapes are grown here, fermented here in oak barrels and Spanish clay amphora pots, and often consumed here. There are no chemicals used in the process, but out here, things don’t require supercilious certification to approve it as such. Life is organic by nature, and the flavour of the place speaks for itself, says Kathy.
“We looked at going for organic certification, but we didn’t think it was really that necessary. People that come out here just have to take a look around,” she says, gazing through a window in the rammed earth walls at the roaming sheep ‘mowing her grass’.
During numerous trips overseas, Ashley and Kathy developed a natural affinity with Spain, and they’ve incorporated elements of their predilection into an intimate restaurant and winery. A green embroidered Moroccan door from the ancient medinas of Fez, leads to a jarrah deck, where the view on a clear day extends beyond 100 acres of sloping vineyard, past the Capel salt mine, and on a clear day, all the way to the flashing beacon of Cape Naturaliste lighthouse.
The night sky; grains of fine castor sugar spilled across a sheet of black velvet. The sky heaves and surges with the weight of the stars. We’re staying at the Koombana Bay Discovery Caravan Park, one of few pet-friendly accommodation sites in Bunbury. Park Manager, Richard, says he was driven towards filling the void of pet-friendly accommodation after numerous trips away with his wife and two dogs.
“When we go away, we have to look for somewhere that allows pets and is accepting of them, and we know how difficult it is. Our pets are a part of our family. We like to treat our guests the same way.”
Bunbury’s two Discovery Caravan Parks are part of a larger national chain, which features 65 parks around Australia. All camping sites and two dedicated cabins at the Koombana Bay park are pet friendly. It’s also a site of great colonial history - the front reception marks the approximate position of Bunbury’s first colonial settlement, and numerous wrecks are located within 50-60m of the park.
The traffic moves about Bunbury’s streets with the sleepiness of a Sunday morning; but even the bleary eyed can’t miss the Bunbury Farmer’s Market, just off the Forrest Highway.
The Bunbury Farmers Market occupies its own classification in the grand scheme of market places. Too super for a farmer’s market, too alacritous for a supermarket, this shopping complex is redefining the way we approach our food.
There are no aisles in the Farmers Market. Instead, a path winds a meandering course through the fruits, then vegetables, meats, cheeses, breads, antipasto. There are grill stations and tasting samples along the way, and it’s an approach general manager Leith Johnson says is designed to reconnect customers with their food.
“It’s not just about the food. It’s also about education. Sampling the product, and having someone there to serve it, it helps customers to build a relationship with the people their buying the produce from, and get the right advice in different ways to cook the product and the right flavours to match it with. It’s something really important that has been lost in today’s world,” he says.
Heading inland, over the Darling Scarp, down into the valley country below and back up into the rolling hills around Donnybrook. Off the main drag, a gravel road cuts through second growth forest, and out to Smallwater Estate.
John Smalls once built a marron pond out the back of his Perth garage. John grew up on the outskirts of Nelson, on the South Island of New Zealand. During the rural days of his youth, he fished the rivers for trout and freshwater crayfish, and tended to the next door neighbours sheep on school holidays.
The idyll of John’s youth remain indelibly etched into his fascinations, and so when he found a blank corner out the back of his Perth panel-beating garage, he put a marron pond in, of course.
“It was just to look at,” he says.
“I put koi fish and marron in there, and after a hard day of work, I would just go and sit out there and watch them.”
These days, at John’s Smallwater Estate, he looks out over 20 underwater acres of terraced marron ponds. He runs a half-tonne of marron per year through his restaurant – a converted transportable home he bought from a bloke up the road.
Endemic to south west Western Australia, marron are a local delicacy. John’s variety are as fresh as you can get, sourced straight from the pond before they end up on the plate; oh, and John also makes one of the best Cabernets in the country too.
Sunday afternoon, and the lazy shadows grow tall in the valleys. Out through Donnybrook town, Australia’s ‘apple capital’, and a small bridge leads over the narrow upper Capel River, and onto Spring Valley Orchard.
Diana Robb is 66, with bright cheeks, a set of glittering blue eyes, and a brilliant smile. Of her four vegetable gardens, the main strip is a sight to behold. Rows upon rows of vegetables, at least two tennis courts long blooming with flowering artichokes and leeks and kale and wild parsley. Every weekend, Diana travels to the Subiaco and Kalamunda Farmers Market in a truck laden with her produce.
“People at the Farmers Market, they love it – they can look straight over the stall and we tell them what the food was grown in, when it was picked, who picked it, what it’s had added to it. What it hasn’t had added to it. It really is important, I believe, to develop a relationship with the people you buy your food from. Food is not a product. It’s produce.”
At most times throughout the year, Diana opens the orchard for visitors to come and pick their own fruit. She also opens up her farm to volunteers, who help her run the orchard in exchange for food and lodgings.
“It really is a reciprocal exchange,” she says.
“They help us with work on the farm, and the experience they have out here really can't be taught; the value of fresh foods, of knowing where things come from, and knowing the people who produce them. It’s one of the many fruits of life. It’s such a joy to be able to share that experience with people.”