Moving to the Margaret River region to indulge his two loves of cooking and surfing, chef Tony Howell landed at Cape Lodge, collecting many accolades during his 15-year tenure. At his new post as executive chef at Aravina Estate, Tony continues his hunt for exceptional local produce. Here, along with tips for hunting the best waves, Tony shares a few of his favourite finds.
By
Tony Howell, Kami Ramini

13 Oct 2014 - 10:16 PM  UPDATED 13 Oct 2014 - 10:16 PM

I always do the same thing – check the surf. It doesn’t matter if I only have an hour, or even how early it is, if there’s a chance of a wave and my family is busy, I’m in. It sets me up for the day and reminds me how lucky I am to be living in the Margaret River region.

When I first moved from Perth around 16 years ago, I went straight to Yallingup, because I’d heard people talk about it – it’s one of the best surf spots in the world. But the fun starts when you search out your own secret places. These days, I jump in the water nearer to home at Guillotines, Umbies, Cobblestones, and Huzzas (Huzzawouie). My mates and I also dive and spear-fish around Gracetown, straight out from the bay in about a seven-kilometre zone. That’s about as much as I can say – it’s not worth my friendships (or my life) with my dive buddies if I divulge any more. But there’s always somewhere new to find; you just have to keep an eye out.

That’s the thing about this place, everything is right here: beautiful wineries and farmland, award-winning restaurants, boutique retreats, white sand beaches, massive surf and calm bays, great diving, fishing, winding roads… the list is endless.

And then there’s the food. Of course, we’re famous for our wineries and boutique retreats, but so many great cafes and restaurants have opened up in town over the past few years, too. Coffees are a must for me during the week and I always stop into Blue Ginger, the Margaret River Bakery or Morries Anytime (you have to try the breaky burger!), with my wife, Sarah. They’re pretty central to Margaret River town and are an easy stop for me before heading to work.

Back in 2000, when I started cheffing at Cape Lodge, I spent days driving around tasting the local produce and getting to know the places where different things are grown and raised, and the people behind it all. I then sourced everything for the restaurant straight from these producers. The meats, poultry, seafood, fruit, vegetables, cheeses, oil, chocolate – everything was farm-sourced, the majority of produce coming from within mere kilometres of the restaurant door, if not from our own kitchen garden.

Now that I’ve started working at Aravina Estate, I’ll be doing the same. It’s only been a matter of weeks since I began my new job as executive chef here, but my new team and I have already built an amazing vegetable patch and orchard, as well as a chicken and duck run, so we’ll always have just-picked organic produce at hand.

Locally grown produce arrives at the kitchen every day, after which my chefs and I spend the next few hours prepping for the restaurant and café’s seasonal menus. It’s a fantastic way to work, because we use the best ingredients and we never get bored of the menu.

Access to ultra-fresh food in the Margaret River region is not just a benefit chefs can enjoy; everything I source is available either at the Margaret River Farmers’ Market every Saturday morning, or straight from the farm gate or shopfront. I’ve come to know the local produce, the inspiring people who tend to it, and the stories behind it, too.

Josh Bahen is a relative newcomer to the area, but he is rapidly building a name for himself and his chocolate company, Bahen & Co., making beautiful dark chocolate from just two ingredients – cacao and raw organic sugar. The result is worlds away from the stuff made by commercial brands.

At Cape Lodge, we started using the chocolate in our Viennese biscuits served as petit fours after dinner – they flew out the door. Instead of one, guests were requesting two or three biscuits with their coffees. One of my favourite recipes is a rich chocolate tart served with chocolate ice-cream. It’s a chocoholic’s dream; and once you know the story behind the chocolate, you don’t feel guilty about enjoying it.

Everything Josh and his wife, Jacq, do with their chocolate, from sourcing the cacao beans to the production process, takes the art of chocolate-making back to the basics. Before he was a chocolate-maker, Josh spent 10 vintages as a winemaker at the local Moss Wood winery, an experience he now brings to his chocolate-making. Josh believes that, just as great wine needs the best grapes, the best chocolate requires the best beans. And the best are the heirloom varieties, which currently only make up a very small percentage of the world’s cacao and are often located in the most remote regions along the equatorial belt. Josh works with growers from Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Indonesia, who provide him with beans grown, harvested and fermented in the old-fashioned way. “The traditional methods are slower and more labour intensive than the modern shortcuts, but the difference in the results are immense,” Josh explains. “When we have growers sample chocolate made from their beans, they can taste that difference. It’s often the first time they actually taste their own chocolate.”

At the factory, Josh follows pre-industrialist processes, using vintage and antique machines he’s collected and painstakingly restored over the years. It’s all about adding only a little sweetness, then teasing out the natural flavour of the beans.

Another producer that I couldn’t do without is David Hohnen, owner of The Farm House, where I source my pork and lamb. David has farmed livestock since 2004 and specialises in Arkady lamb,

Big Red pork, sausages and smallgoods, as well as locally sourced free-range chicken. The lamb and pork is butchered in-house with a real nose-to-tail mentality. I started taking the heads to make pork terrines and, at Cape Lodge, we served it with pickled walnuts and mustard fruits – it was out of this world. Nothing goes to waste and that’s very much the way it should be.

“I’ve been a hunter-gatherer my whole life,” David says. “I’m no crusader by any means, but I do have some very strong views on animal welfare. When you buy cheap, somebody is paying. In Australia, it’s the farming community and it’s the animals. I don’t think it’s right and it doesn’t result in good meat.”

David puts his views into practice. All of his animals live as close to “the wild life” as possible and feed mostly off the grass, shrubs and grubs of the farm. The quality of the meat speaks for itself.

David’s respect for both the animals and the meat they produce is shared by his stockman and partner in the pig herd, Nigel Lovejoy, who lives on the McHenry Hohnen family property.

Nigel takes this same grassroots approach and applies it to how he rears the pigs on the farm. He heads up to the pigpens at the same time every day to supplement the pigs’ diet with a mix of freshly ground legumes and grains, and he even knows them all by name and family tree. He can tell you the lineage of each pig and also a little story about them; he’s very proud of their good breeding. But when the time comes, it’s all about the meat.

“We tell them they’re ‘going shopping’ when it’s time for the slaughterhouse,” explains Nigel. “It’s an hour’s drive to Bunbury and I make sure I select family members to go together so they don’t stress out. It makes all the difference to their experience, and to the meat.”

When it comes to certified organic fresh fruit and vegetables, especially heritage varieties, my first port of call is Mike Thompson of Garlic-n-Roses. Mike grows the best Australian garlic I’ve ever tasted and has been doing so for about 15 years. Following traditional methods, he plants in the autumn and harvests in the summer.

Once the garlic is picked, the leafy tops are plaited and the bulbs are hung up to dry for three to four weeks. The result is beautiful, fresh, fragrant, healthy and long-lasting garlic.

Just over a year ago, Mike announced he was planning to retire. I was devastated. But then he met his partner, Lee Jeffress. They went into partnership, bought a NASAA-certified organic farm in Margaret River, and formed Greenman Produce, combining Garlic-n-Roses and the olive business, Zephyr Olives, they inherited with the property.

To my joy and that of a lot of other chefs, Mike has planted 42,000 garlic bulbs during this past year and has no plans of stopping. But he goes far beyond growing garlic. His ethos is that everything in his garden must be edible, including the various flowers, which make up the ‘roses’ part of the business. This year, alongside his garlic and roses, Mike is growing about 12 varieties of tomatoes, beetroots, shallots, Spanish and Mexican peppers, a whole host of orchard fruit, as well as nurturing beehives, olives, olive oil and more. The sky’s the limit – or, as he puts it: “I’ll grow anything my curiosity wishes!”

Like nearly all of the local producers around here, Mike holds a stall at the local farmers’ market, but he’s also planning to start up a farm gate stall this year, and there might even be a cooking class on the horizon. Knowing Mike, he’ll do it all and more.

On my way home from Mike’s is Olio Bello. It’s a lot smaller than many of the big olive groves down here, as it has just 10,000 trees. However, manager Brett Gaskin tells me that this means they can do things “the old-fashioned way.”

Brett has worked at Olio Bello for five years and takes great pride in his job. The land is certified organic and the olives are all hand-picked. “We decide when to pick according to the right date for the fruit, and we get every last olive off the trees,” he explains. All of Olio Bello’s oil is extra virgin, meaning the olives are pressed only once for the best integrity of flavour. And every oil is pressed, bottled and labelled onsite.

What I find stands out at Olio Bello are the pressed flavoured olive oils. Unlike infused oils, which are made by adding aromatics post-pressing, ‘pressed’ flavoured oils means the whole fruit or fresh root is added into the press with the olives, bringing an intensity to the oil. They’re also great fun to experiment with in the kitchen.

While Olio Bello does have a small wholesale business, its cafe and shop are its major focus. Customers can walk among the groves, taste the oils and then buy their favourites. This is where the work is done, and this is where you buy it. There’s something special about that.

That mantra is very much what we Margaret River locals live by. We support each other. We eat local, we shop local and we buy local. With life – and surf – this good, why would we go anywhere else?

 

The hit list

Eat
The region is overflowing with great wineries for lunch, and the town’s main street also has plenty of top eateries.

Morries Anytime
Morries is a favourite of mine for brekkie, but it really comes to life in the evenings with its informal bar-style dining. 2/149 Bussell Hwy, Margaret River, (08) 9758 8280.

Margaret River Bakery
This bakery is a whole other experience. Quirky and never the same twice, it makes some of the best pies, quiches and cakes around. 89 Bussell Hwy, Margaret River, (08) 9757 2755.

Aravina Estate
Of course, there is Aravina’s restaurant and cafe, making the very best of ingredients from within the Margaret River region – from freshly procured seafood and meat to just-picked vegetables and crafted cheeses. I hold the occasional cooking class, too. 61 Thornton Rd, Yallingup, (08) 9750 1111.

 

Drink

Wineries
There are so many great wineries it’s impossible to pick just one or two. Guided tours come highly recommended as you can select four or five wineries to drop into, including one for lunch, and not have to worry about driving! Personal favourites for lunch are Vasse Felix and Leeuwin Estate. Many hotels work with great tour guides in the region, including Neil McLeod, toursmargaretriver.com.au, and Nola Gaebler, lifestylemargaretriver.com.au.

Eagle Bay Brewing Co
Well worth a visit for beer fans. Try the Cacao Stout made from a cacao husk by-product from chocolate makers, Bahen & Co. Eagle Bay Rd, Eagle Bay, (08) 9755 3554.

 

Stay

Cape Lodge
Cape Lodge offers five-star boutique accommodation set within its own vineyard. Enjoy dinner overlooking the lake with a wine from its extensive cellar. 3341 Caves Rd, Yallingup, (08) 9755 6311.

 

 

Photography Frances Andrijich

 

As seen in Feast magazine, March 2014, Issue 29. For more recipes and articles, pick up a copy of this month's Feast magazine or check out our great subscriptions offers here.