Thursday, 2 April 2009

The Unpublished 5: Indulgences of Margaret River

The wine, chocolate and cheese of Australia's Margaret River region - how could that combo fail? But an inflight magazine decided this piece wasn't quite their cup of tea, despite it answering the brief. Judge its pleasures for yourself...

Wine. Chocolate. Cheese. For centuries, these have been indulgences that make life worth living.

Wine predates ancient Egypt. Long before the Pharaohs thought of building their famous pyramids, their Neolithic forebears were fermenting wine in pottery jars. Over the millennia, wine helped build communities. It had a role in religion, trade and social events. Above all it, was a social lubricant and a source of pleasure.

Across the oceans, the Aztecs of South America were brewing up a drink from the beans of the cacao tree. “Chocolatl” was a bitter, frothy beverage that could be spiced up by the addition of wine, vanilla, or even chillis. For the invading Spaniards it was an acquired taste, but innovators back home hit upon the idea of adding sugar and heating. Chocolate was soon to conquer the world.

Cheese has a humbler story. Its origins are lost in the mists of time, but it surely started when an ancient herdsman discovered that milk curdled if left too long in the sun. Soon, the spirit of experimentation discovered various methods for producing this dairy product. Popular in ancient Greece and Rome, cheese reached its pinnacle when taken up by the crowned heads of France. Today, over 500 varieties are made in that country.

Even the thought of these indulgences sets the taste buds tingling. What would we do without them?

Luckily, the traveller to the Margaret River region of Western Australia has each of them within easy reach. Famous as a wine centre, the south-west town has embraced other culinary delights, all made in the region.

For a region that’s cornered a sizeable portion of the premium wine market, Margaret River’s wine-growing history is surprisingly brief. The first commercial vineyards were established in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, including names now famous in the world of wine: Vasse Felix, Moss Wood, Cape Mentelle and Cullen.

Less well known is Rivendell, a family-owned concern in the northern part of the wine region. Situated near Yallingup, the vineyard takes advantage of its sheltered position on the Leeuwin-Naturaliste ridge which parallels the nearby coast. Like most Margaret River wineries, Rivendell is noted for its white wines, including semillon and sauvignon blanc.

“It’s hard to say which is our most successful wine,” says manager Wendy Standish. “The verdelho has always been popular, along with our semi sweet white wine called Honeysuckle. In the reds, the blend known as The Cabernets is the most successful.”

What makes Rivendell stand out as a tourist destination, however, is its graceful garden trailing down the slope from its restaurant and tasting room. Factor in the homemade preserves and the bush accommodation, and the indulgence factor is high.

“We make wines which we enjoy,” says Standish. “The same goes for the preserves and restaurant meals. We’re also focused on making it a child-friendly place, which are becoming few and far between.”

In bushland north of the township stands the Margaret River Chocolate Factory. There’s nothing humble about this business: they describe their product as the “food of the gods”. But let’s face it, a lot of people think of chocolate that way.

Creating quality chocolate is not as easy as you think. Though the raw materials are imported from Europe, they must then be blended and tempered to bring out flavour and texture. It’s not unlike the art of coffee blending and roasting, and requires the services of a skilled chocolatier.

The beautiful native bushland, with its gum trees and birdsong, provides a distinct contrast with the skilled European tradition practised within. Large bowls hold pellets of dark and milk chocolate for visitors to sample, while glass cases are lined with the finished product. Through a window, the process of chocolate-making can be viewed in action. Approaching Easter, the busiest time of the year, chocolate rabbits rotate at the end of steel rods, cooling down after being formed.

On the nearby Bussell Highway, more gleaming equipment is churning away. There’s no chocolate here, however. The location is Fonti Farm, home of the Margaret River Dairy Company, and the product is cheese.

Margaret River’s dairy industry is a legacy of the group settlement scheme of the 1920s, which aimed to lure migrants to new farming areas. Although now overshadowed by the thriving wine industry, it still has a presence around the small town of Cowaramup.

As in the Chocolate Factory, visitors can watch the experts at work. This is where Western Australia’s only locally produced bries and camemberts are made, along with a range of hard cheeses flavoured with chilli, pepper, chives, onion, garlic and parsley.

Oscar Wilde once said “I can resist everything except temptation.” Wilde would approve of modern-day Margaret River. From a struggling settlement in the Western Australian bush, it’s become the indulgence centre of the south-west.

Wine. Chocolate. Cheese. What else is there?

Note: As this article is based on personal experience from some years ago, the author takes no responsibility for readers' reliance on the information within. Always check on the current wine/chocolate/cheese situation before travelling to Margaret River.

The Unpublished is a random series of my never-published travel articles. For previous instalments, click on the The Unpublished Topic tag below, then scroll down.

(Photo © Western Australian Tourism Commission)