In the mid 1900s, many Macedonian and Italian farmers planted their hopes in the rich soil of Manjimup and Pemberton in southern Western Australia. Kami Ramini experiences this close connection to the land and the renowned produce that have put this region on the culinary map.
By
Kami Ramini

26 Aug 2012 - 5:27 PM  UPDATED 30 Mar 2021 - 7:36 PM

Welcome to the Southern Forests. As you pass the sign, rolling green hills dotted with haystacks suddenly give way to tall, proud Karri trees that are so high, you can’t see the top of them. What a welcome indeed.

Visitors have long been attracted to Manjimup and Pemberton for these very trees, and despite traditionally being known for its timber industry, today, international gourmands are talking about this beautiful stretch of inland Western Australia for entirely different reasons. From award-winning wines and world-renowned truffles to farms overflowing with chestnuts, apples, cherries, potatoes and avocados, the region has it all.

Rich, fertile soils combined with a temperate Mediterranean climate and a history of European migration have brought a cultural diversity that is so ingrained in everyday life that you can taste it, and many a family story has been built on the promise of the land.

From Macedonia to Manjimup

Few families have as fruitful or as long a history in Manjimup as the Peos family. From humble beginnings, the Peos family today has a mini empire of sorts, led by third-generation brothers John, Con, Vic and Chris. There is Peos Estate – their boutique premium winery – plus the family also produces potatoes, avocados, beef and marron. They also own the local Manjimup Hotel and nearby bottle-shop, and another hotel in Fremantle.

Grandfather PY Peos was among the first Macedonians to the region in the 1920s. A subsistence farmer in his hometown of Mala (in what is now northern Greece), he came to WA in the wake of World War I in search of new beginnings for his family. 'Grandpop came over from the old country in 1926; Manjimup was only founded in 1910," says Vic Peos, the self-taught viticulturist of the family. After landing in Fremantle, PY went to Bridgetown where he worked on a dairy farm and later opened a guest house. His move to Manjimup came in the 1940s, as a result of the booming tobacco business; an industry which attracted hundreds of Macedonians to the region in its golden years of the 1940s to 1960s. By 1951, having bought a tobacco farm in nearby Yanmah, PY was able to bring the whole family over to Manjimup, including grandsons he was yet to meet, John and Con, then aged five and one.

Today, the family tenements stretch over 566 hectares, but Vic says his family came full circle when he and his brothers decided to plant the vineyard in 1996 as a legacy to their forefathers. Growing a selection of international grapes including chardonnay, shiraz and pinot noir, Vic respects the traditions of his ancestors by 'keeping things simple" – using no chemical pesticides, only estate-grown fruit and minimal intervention in the winemaking process. 'We believe the vine will know how much fruit it can carry successfully without us pumping in water or giving it growth stimulants. We work with what the season gives us," says Vic.

Concentrating on quality rather than quantity has won the brothers many accolades including gold, silver and bronze medals at the 2011 Timber Towns Regional Wine Show for the Four Aces Chardonnay, Peos Estate Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc respectively. Without a cellar door as such, most sales are done online, but Vic is more than happy to open his cellar by appointment.

Family photos of pioneer ancestors line the walls, their faded images telling tales of Macedonia and early days in Manjimup. A favourite is a framed black-and-white shot of Vic’s mother, Tinka, and his eldest brother John on their old farm in Mala holding goblets of homegrown wine. 'Macedonians are connected to the land. It’s in our blood to grow grapes and produce wine that’s worth remembering," Vic says with a smile.

Spirit of Italy

It wasn’t only the Macedonians who saw an opportunity for prosperity in the region. Many Italians also came to the area in the early-to-mid 1900s choosing its green pastures and Mediterranean climate over the goldfields of Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie.

Tony Fontanini, third-generation owner of Fontanini’s Fruit and Nut Farm says his grandfather, Giovanni, chose the South West because of the trees: 'He said wherever the biggest trees were, that’s where the best soil was."

The farm has been in the family since Giovanni and his brother Archimede bought adjoining properties in 1906, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that Tony’s father, Neil Fontanini, realised the potential of growing nuts for the local European population. 'We were big apple farmers as we are today, and I don’t know why, but Dad planted just one chestnut tree," recalls Tony. 'It was a big old tree and come the season, all the Europeans would want to pick chestnuts."

Over the years, as an apple tree died, Tony’s father would replace it with a chestnut or walnut tree. The result was that the orchard grew as a mixed bag of fruit and nuts, an arrangement that lends itself well to their version of an open-door policy, where visitors can pick their own selection. 'People come from all over," says Tony. 'They may get some apples and pears, and a mix of walnuts and chestnuts. We supply them with buckets and gloves, and they just wander around and pick whatever they like."

There are 15,000 apple trees in one area of the farm, 5000 avocados in the other and about 1000 chestnuts and walnuts dotted with a few pears and persimmons in the middle. In chestnut season (February to June), Tony always keeps a big fire going for visitors. 'People come down, pick their own nuts and stay on to roast them on the fires. That smell is something really amazing," he says.

Boutique smoke house and cafe Holy Smoke, in the centre of Pemberton, is one of the more recent Italian-run businesses to the area. Owner Anthony Batticci, originally from a small town near Milan and brought up in Melbourne, never thought of owning a smoke house. He had only come to Pemberton to join his sister and still can’t explain his decision to open Holy Smoke in 2001. 'I have no idea where it came from," he says with a laugh. 'Was it a grace? I just had this conviction. We had to smoke trout."

With the help of his friend and fellow Italian Gary Bendotti who offered him his old apple juicing plant to convert into a smoke house, Anthony looked up how to smoke fish on the internet, bought all the right machinery and simply started smoking. 'I couldn’t for the life of me get the fish on spikes like on the internet. In fact, I smoke our fish on racks," he says.

Spikes or no spikes, Holy Smoke produces a delicious and diverse range of preservative-free smoked products, including trout, salmon, duck, free-range chicken and pork and a selection of pâtés. The range is sold throughout the South West and Perth in supermarkets and independent outlets, as well as Anthony’s central Pemberton store. He’s looking to open up distribution through independent stores in the eastern states in the near future, too.

Black diamonds

While Manjimup has long been home to a thriving horticulture industry, what is arguably its most prized product is a fairly recent addition to the table.

Back in 1997, a group of investors established The Wine and Truffle Co’s truffière (truffle farm). Former CSIRO forestry scientist and world-renowned fungi expert Dr Nick Malajczuk was responsible for the establishment and cultivation of the truffière. 'He was convinced Manjimup was the area to produce truffles," says WTC CEO, Sake van Wheeghal. Fifteen years later, with the WTC comfortably sitting as the largest single producer of the French black Périgord truffle in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s safe to say Dr Malajczuk was right.

This season (June to September), WTC’s highly trained team of truffle-hunting dogs are expected to sniff out in the region of 2.4 tonnes; a massive increase from the 2011 harvest of 1600 kilograms. The highly sought-after truffles are then shipped to restaurants all over Australia and internationally, as well as taking centrestage in WTC’s gourmet truffle products, such as truffle oil, hazelnuts in truffle honey, and truffle-infused mustard.

However, where exactly they will find these truffles is less predictable. The nickname 'black diamond’ is not only due to its incredible monetary value (up to $2500 per kilo), but also its elusive nature. Truffle growers are in control up to a point, but when and exactly where the truffle will grow is something of a mystery.

For Sake and the team at WTC, this mystery is a large part of what makes truffles so magical. During truffle season, they run 'truffle hunts’, so visitors can experience it for themselves. Sake says he’ll never forget his first hunt. 'It was about 7am, we were walking in the mist among the rows of trees, the dogs were raring to go and we could smell it. We could smell truffle everywhere, but we didn’t know where it was."

Originally from Holland, Sake emigrated to WA in 2007 'in search of adventure" and says the lure of the truffle brought him to Manjimup. Previously in finance, food and wine had always been a passion of Sake’s, but he’d never thought it would become his day job. 'I was attracted by the truffle. I had done a whole spectrum of things, but I’d never done anything with agriculture," he explains. 'I got an interview here and they told me about the whole thing: the truffles, wine, developing gourmet products"¦ I was just blown away," he says.

Starting as finance administration manager in November 2009, less than a year later, Sake took over his present role as CEO. Now here for over two years, he wouldn’t be anywhere else. 'The Southern Forests is WA’s fresh, green beating heart. You can do a truffle hunt, go pick some apples, see how avocados are processed, catch some marron and then go into the forest to explore the trees. When you’re here, you breathe it and you feel it and it is just captivating," he says.

Slow food

This pride in local produce and commitment to protecting and sustaining local food traditions and producers is endemic to the Southern Forests. Sophie Zalokar is the chef at Foragers, a farm-based cooking school, restaurant and accommodation, which she co-owns with her husband Chris. Sophie is supremely passionate about local, seasonal products and food awareness. 'Food is a reflection of place and it is a reflection of people," she says.

A member of Slow Food since 1996, Sophie started the Slow Food Southern Forests convivium in 2009 after attending a conference, Terra Madre (Mother Earth), in Italy that she says blew her mind. 'It was an epiphany – a cultural food epiphany," she says with a laugh.

With a small band of four volunteers on the committee and 25 members to date, Slow Food Southern Forests organises a host of events from dinners and cooking classes to farmers’ market stalls, to help promote the region and its producers. 'We have all the right ingredients here and, of course, Slow Food is what Foragers is all about," she says.

Mary Borshoff, a local farm owner, joined the committee last year. 'It’s very much in keeping with what I’ve been doing all my life: seasonal food, growing your own; the traditional ways of living," explains Mary.

Her parents emigrated from Macedonia in the 1940s, when conditions back home were worsening as a result of World War II, and started farming in nearby Bridgetown. 'There was no work back home," explains Mary. 'This area was a magnet for farmers from Europe. Growing things is dear to our hearts." It’s a sentiment she is passionate about passing on to her grandchildren. 'I hope to further their interest in good food and hopefully generate discussions at their school, which in turn triggers interest, and would therefore fulfil one of my reasons for joining the Slow Food movement," she says.

Meals at the Borshoff household are generally homegrown and Macedonian, with anything from bop (white bean soup, which is traditionally eaten on Fridays); piperki (the popular sweet peppers, which are eaten in a variety of ways including grilled, stuffed and barbecued); zelnik (savoury pastries made with homemade filo pastry); mandza (meat stews) or potpechen oris (roasted rice with chicken).

As to whose the recipes were originally, Mary doesn’t know and it doesn’t seem to matter; they’re a part of the Macedonian community. 'The recipes are everybody’s. Whatever house you go to, they’ll be making them."

As a farmer, Mary didn’t have time to pursue her passion for cooking in a professional capacity, but now, cooking alongside other committee members for the Slow Food Southern Forests stall at the farmers’ markets, she has found her outlet. 'When I cook, I make sure I satisfy my tongue more than my eyes. It’s simple food but it’s full of flavour. That’s because it’s local and it’s fresh."

The simple beauty of re-introducing people to the benefits of tasting food in season, meeting the producer and understanding how what we eat is grown, is what this region is about. Leaving the Southern Forests behind me, the trees climbing high overhead once again, I see another sign on the side of the road. This time it reads 'avocados $1 each' and as I pull in for one last farm-gate visit, it all makes sense. It shouldn’t be any other way.

The hit list

Eat

Field Kitchen
Foragers’ on-site dining room opens for set-menu, four-course seasonal dinners every Saturday night. Friday night wood-fired dinners are also offered during holiday seasons. Chef/owner Sophie Zalokar’s menus depend on what’s growing in her field garden or available from local producers. Check out one of Sophie’s cookery classes, too. 1 Roberts Rd, Pemberton, (09) 9776 1580.

Pemberton Millhouse Cafe
This roadside cafe on Pemberton’s main strip is more than meets the eye. The inexpensive lunch menu comes to life with a selection of local seafood-focused dishes. Think marron with a crisp side salad or local smoked salmon and sweet maple bacon salad with sun-dried tomatoes. Open for breakfast and lunch. 14 Brockman St, Pemberton, (08) 9776 1122.

Shop

If fresh local produce is your thing, then you can shop to your heart’s content. The Manjimup Farmers’ Market (Manjin Park, Mottram St) is every third Saturday of the month. Try the preservative-free bread at Manjimup Bakery (59 Giblett St, Manjimup, (08) 9771 1151), which they’ve been making for almost 50 years. Fontanini’s Fruit and Nut Farm (Seven Day Rd, Manjimup, (08) 9771 2887) offers a unique nut-picking experience. Check out the smoked trout pâté at Holy Smoke (Pembee Court, Brockman St, Pemberton, (08) 9776 0712), and don’t miss Peos Estate’s (Graphite Rd, Manjimup, (08) 9772 1378) award-winning Four Aces Chardonnay with crisp citrus flavours.

Stay

Foragers (1 Roberts Rd, Pemberton, (08) 9776 1580, foragers.com.au) is an idyllic farm-stay with chalets and cottages designed to sleep two to seven people. Silkwood Wines (Channybearup Rd, Pemberton, (08) 9776 1535) is a romantic retreat with four self-catering chalets, each designed to sleep two. Visit the cellar door (Fri-Sun 10am–4pm) for award-winning wines and a light meal.

Photography by Jackson Eaton.