“Do you need a break?” the waiter asks, emerging at my elbow, “or should I bring the venison?” Three courses into Tony Howell’s fantastically abundant chef’s tasting menu at Cape Lodge and I’m feeling grateful for this choice. Because, frankly, I do need a short hiatus from the procession of dishes that have been coming from Howell’s kitchen over the past 90 minutes or so. Not because they aren’t finely judged and utterly delicious, but because there is just so much of them to take in.
We started with scallops, lightly seared and served with beef carpaccio, making a very happy marriage of what I would say, if pushed, are my two favourite starters. We then moved on to king prawns, grilled and served with a yellow curry broth that was perfectly pitched in the spice stakes, giving a mouth-filling warmth rather than a grab-the-water sting. The Savarino poured to accompany it felt like it summed it up: this is a Spanish varietal grown in Australia, an old world raw ingredient given a modern Aussie update.
This is what Howell excels at. He takes already exquisite local produce and plays around with it just enough, layering just enough different flavours on top of it to render it truly spectacular. Take the venison, (which, eventually, we did), it comes from a local Margaret River farmer and is full of flavour in its natural state. So Howell roasts it rare, retaining all of its juicy texture and gamey taste, but serves it with chermoula vegetables and spiced aubergine, adding a subtle spicy kick and making a traditional ingredient feel contemporary.
There is something very Australian about this. There are no pretentions here, no weight of culinary history dragging chefs down into lazy, ‘traditional’ cooking. In an Australian kitchen anything goes—except, that is, for poor produce.
Fortunately this is not something Howell need worry about. His restaurant is in the heart of Margaret River, Western Australia’s world-class food and wine region. This is an area blessed with a Mediterranean climate, rich fertile soils and, consequently, an abundance of high quality local produce.
“The reason I use local produce is simple”, Howell says, “we are very lucky in Margaret River to have some very dedicated farmers working in a pristine environment. If I can’t grow it at Cape Lodge, I want to be able to speak to the farmers that work the land and get their produce to my back door as quickly as possible. As fresh as possible.”
This emphasis on fresh produce can be seen in dining rooms across the region, from the loftiest of restaurants to the simplest of cafes. After spending the night in one of Cape Lodge’s large, luxurious suites, we move on to brunch at Bunkers Beach Cafe, an airy, modern café on the sands at the eponymous beach. Here we feast on Yallingup sourdough, made just along the road, fish that has been selected straight from the fishing boats, and slow-braised goat reared in the local town of Cowaramup. And all while looking out over the sandy beach to the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean.
Later we will take to the waves ourselves but this afternoon is all about Margaret River’s most famous export—wine. Margaret River may be a relatively new wine region—the first significant vine planting took place here in the late 1960s—but it has quickly established itself as one of the foremost wine-growing names in Australia. Margaret River has become a byword for quality, its vineyards producing not the mass market tipples of the Hunter or Barossa valleys, but a more subtle and altogether higher quality product that is well-regarded by wine connoisseurs and by chefs the world over.
As I travel around the vineyards, I am proudly informed of their wines’ inclusion on the lists of such leading restaurants as the Fat Duck (Xanadu, Fraser Gallop) and Petrus (Leeuwin Estate). There are more than 200 wine producers in the Margaret River region (which extends from the coast for 27km inland to the Gladstone line), but you won’t have heard of many of them. The big names include Cape Mentelle, Leeuwin, Cullen and Voyager, but the real joy is in discovering the boutique producers, who make their wines in relatively small quantities and sell it from the cellar door.
Eschewing the big names, we discover great chardonnay at Fermoy Estate and a cracking SBS (Sauvignon Blanc Semillon) at Lenton Brae, as well as excellent cabernet sauvignon at Hay Shed Hill. These are the grape varieties the area is known for, a range recognisable as Bordeaux classics. Margaret River’s cool, maritime climate with plenty of summer sunshine and very little rain during the grapes’ ripening season would be the ideal conditions for a great year in Bordeaux, but here such conditions are almost guaranteed—and this is what makes it such a bankable region.
And, of course, these weather conditions aren’t just good for grape ripening. The climate is perfect for getting outdoors and exploring this pristine coastline. We walk at Cape Leeuwin, Australia’s most southwesterly point, spotting the puffs of migrating humpback whales in the waters just offshore. We get out into those same waters, clad in wetsuits and thrusting surfboards ahead of us to ride the waves crashing into the limestone hulk of the coastline. We discover the effects of years of water erosion on that limestone at the caves along Caves Road, seeing the longest straw stalactites in any tourist cave worldwide at Jewel Cave, and wondering at the permanent water feature in Lake Cave. Each evening we retreat to Cape Lodge, where we discuss our day’s activities over the hotel’s own wines with the friendly staff in the main lodge or relax on our vast balcony or in our spa bath overlooking the lake.
There is so much to see and do in Margaret River that we could be tempted to rush up and down Caves Road incessantly, forever cramming in just one more winery. But to do this would be to miss out on the essence of the place, the slow pace of life here that allows farmers, chefs and winemakers to take their time over their products. And so instead we settle in at Watershed Wines for a tasting, followed by lunch.
Winemaker Conrad Tritt takes us through the range. Margaret River’s bankable grape varieties take centre stage again here, with the Awakening Chardonnay 2010 and Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 both standing out as complex, quality wines. Tritt tells us: “We haven’t had a bad vintage since 2006,” and this year is shaping up to be no different from the last seven.
As we walk through to the restaurant for lunch, wine glasses in hand, the sun is shining on the vines as it does every day, ripening the grapes that will soon be harvested for the 2014 vintage. We sit surrounded by views of them and feast on scallops, fresh fish and beef tenderloin.
As it so often does in Margaret River, lunch extends right through the afternoon, high noon sliding into near dusk as we enjoy this bountiful region’s perfect produce. The only question now is, do we need a break before dinner?
Perth Airport is the nearest international airport to Margaret River. Margaret River is a three hour drive south of Perth.
Bunkers Beach Cafe
© Cape lodge; Tourism Western Australia