16 March, 2021 By: Julie Hosking
Coleen Roberts and her husband Charlie take the quality of the pastured eggs coming from their farm, CharCol Springs, very seriously.
As dozens of eggs roll off a machine, Coleen is carefully inspecting them for cracks with an infra-red light, which makes the flaws in the shell easier to see.
The chooks are moved around the property in their purpose-built trailers, going from one green pasture to the next, to keep them healthy.
“It’s why we have such a good quality egg,” Charlie says. And why they’d never risk selling one with even a hairline crack that most of us would struggle to see.
A Southern Forests feast
It’s the final day of the Matters of Taste food tour of the Southern Forests, and for some of the 16 guests, it’s the second or third Matters of Taste tour they have done with owners Tracey and Anthony Cotterell.
The Cotterells fell in love with this corner of Western Australia many years ago.
Chef Tracey has been helping West Australians master the kitchen at the Matters of Taste Cooking School in Perth for 24 years, but always wanted to do more than teach people how to cook.
“I wanted to take people to the communities that produce our food, so they can deepen their relationship with it,” she says, explaining the move into food tourism 10 years ago.
“Even before the pandemic, there was growing interest in where our food comes from, so our tours take people behind the scenes. It’s not just about eating well, though there is, of course, lots of that!”
The Cotterells have led similar foraging trips further afield, including to Tasmania and New Zealand, but there is no denying the affinity they have for the Southern Forests.
In May, they will run their seventh bespoke tour to the region, with spots filling up almost quicker than they can plan the next one.
“This is such a beautiful place and I really don’t think many West Australians know enough about the region, let alone how well it feeds us,” Tracey says.
“We wanted to show not just the quality of the food but to build connections between consumers and the people who grow it.”
The tours are focused in and around the Manjimup shire but the couple vary the itinerary to suit the seasons and the availability of producers, as well as to give the food curious many different experiences.
And you don’t have to plan a thing. From the moment you set off from Perth in the private bus, everything is taken care of. The biggest decision you’ll have to make for the duration is what to choose from a menu.
Something for every palate
The mornings start like all good mornings should, with excellent coffee.
Southern Roasting Co, where regulars pop in for their caffeine fix or to pick up a packet of specialty roasted beans, is one of the relative newcomers to Manjimup that is helping elevate the region’s tourism status.
Often overlooked in favour of its shinier neighbour, the Southern Forests has been enjoying some well-deserved time in the sun, with significant investment in the town, including the Manjimup Heritage Park, and a growing reputation as a premium food bowl.
It is one of the few parts of Australia capable of growing truffles that make chefs weep with joy. Under the shade of the oak and hazelnut trees, the ‘black diamonds’ flourish underground.
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Manjimup Truffles manager Steve Walsh shares some of the local industry’s short but lucrative history.
“Most of our truffles go to France,” Steve says, as wife Denise encourages Maisy, their truffle-sniffing labrador, to find more buried treasures.
This premium export is akin to selling whisky to Scotland, but with the short truffle season at different times on either side of the world, Manjimup’s finest fill the culinary gap in French restaurants nicely.
People have been coming to mine these soils for riches for generations, people like Vic Peos, whose family first arrived from Macedonia in 1926 and have grown everything from tobacco to avocados. Now Peos Estate makes award-winning wines.
Vic says the conditions are even better in this part of the Southern Forests than the famed earth of Wilyabrup, because the soils are deeper, the climate is cooler and they sit 320m above sea level. The experts seem to like the results, with critic James Halliday recently awarding five of Peos’s premium Four Aces wine range 95 points in his wine industry bible.
“To get five wines at 95, from cabernet, to pinot to chardonnay, out of one vineyard really says something about the area,” Vic says.
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The super soils were also what drew Tony Fontanini’s family in the early 1900s, reasoning that the land with the tallest karri trees would yield the best results.
More than a century later it’s evident the decision was a smart one, as Tony leads tour guests around Fontanini Nut and Tree Farm in a tractor towing a large trailer fitted with bench seats. It’s a fun way to explore rows of chestnuts, apples, fejioas, avocados and myriad other morsels at various stages of development.
At his vast family property, A. Guadagnino & Co, Ray Guadagnino grows a plethora of fruit and vegetables, including avocados, apples, pears, apricots and much sought-after Manjimup cherries. The canopy of blossoms is stunning.
“Be careful of the bees,” Ray warns as guests jump out to take photos, pointing out the colourful hive boxes.
“Bees are our number one priority, we need them.”
His concern for the environment is reflected over at Three Ryans where Jake Ryan, the third generation of farmers on the 160ha property, balances dad Gary’s traditional know-how with his bent for regenerative methods.
The Ryans produce tonnes of broccoli, cauliflower, kale and cabbage, cutting back on waste with a sideline in cauliflower rice. Raw vegies never tasted so good.
Adapting to the conditions
One thing’s for sure, you won’t go hungry on this tour. At Apple Tech, three generations of Markovskis are waiting, as is a huge array of lemony treats made from their citrus trees. Originally an apple orchard, the family pulled out the 40-year-old trees when the bottom fell out of the market and moved into lemons, limes, passionfruit and pomegranates.
Farming is all about tough decisions and hard yakka. At 88, dad Tom still turns up for work every day, an example that has clearly rubbed off on his grandsons.
“With the restaurants and clubs all closing [during COVID-19 restrictions], the lemons hit the wall and we had zero sales,” Nick says. “So the boys set out on the road, selling at farmers markets in Perth for 28 weekends straight.”
The labours of all these farmers can be enjoyed again at Tall Timbers restaurant in Manjimup, where, as part of the tour, the chef will work some magic with boxes of goodies from the properties visited.
Just across the road there are beers to taste at Tall Timbers Brewing Co. which has a fine selection of ales and lagers in a revitalised old pub.
If beer’s not your thing, head back across the road to the restaurant, which boasts a self-serve wine station with a huge selection of local grapes to try before you buy. This bustling venue hums with the sounds of happy diners, a mix of locals and tourists.
While tourists can visit some of the places on the Matters of Taste tour independently, including the beautiful Hidden River Estate where owner/ chef Ardal Nigg works wonders with local produce, the Cotterells have built the kind of relationships that afford some rather exclusive experiences. Experiences such as dinner in an enormous barn at Batista Estate where owner/winemaker Bob Peruch prepares a feast of antipasti, homemade pizzas and fresh marron.
Batista is another small winery with a big reputation, with connoisseurs paying a premium for the highly regarded pinot noir in particular.
Bearing his trademark Italian beret, Bob is clearly as at home entertaining as he is making wine. When he breaks into song — Italian, naturally — it somehow encapsulates the unexpected delights of the Southern Forests.
Matters of Taste tours
Find out when you can join the next Matters of Taste tour of the Southern Forests.
Need a place to stay during your Southern Forests foodie adventure?
RAC members save up to 20%* on accommodation at RAC Karri Valley Resort.
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Banner image credit: Tourism Western Australia