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Epicurean adventures: Margaret River Gourmet Escape

The woman’s howl is as visceral as anything heard in an episode of Game of Thrones. “Noooo!” she wails, as celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal tells a group assembled on the terrace of the elegant mansion of the Fraser Gallop Estate in the rolling vine-striped hills of the Margaret River region that you should never put cream in a carbonara sauce. 

There are clearly some concepts that are just too confronting for the mortal mind to accept, even in the most idyllic of settings. But when you’re exploring one of the most delicious regions of Western Australia over the three-day Margaret River Gourmet Escape in the company of such men as molecular gastronomist Blumenthal, seafood tsar Rick Stein and charismatic Brazilian chef Alex Atala, then simply nothing can be taken for granted.

Bacon-flavoured ice cream? Salt cod fritters? Fried lemongrass ants? Along with the regular fine food and drink of the area, they’re now all the stars of this annual event in one of Australia’s most successful wine-growing regions, three hours south of Perth, and home to more than 150 cellar doors. It’s a meeting of great produce with some of the country’s most stunning scenery that has made this such a stellar success. 

While the final touches for this year’s program for November 21-23 are still being made, to give you a flavour, the 2013 event kicked off with an evening beach barbecue on the white sands of Castle Bay Beach in Cape Naturaliste, the northernmost part of the region, near the town of Dunsborough. As the sun slipped below the water in a glorious purple haze, everyone grazed on gourmet twists on barbie standards from venison pies to prawns, tiny chunks of whiting in batter, and freshly shucked and garlic-grilled scallops.

Other special events included a pop-up Rockpool Bar & Grill restaurant in a cavernous tin shed transformed for the night into a beautiful restaurant, long tables set among the vines, talks and dinners in picturesque wineries, masterclasses and, the regular centrepiece of the whole shebang, the Gourmet Village held in the grounds of the Leeuwin Estate just outside the Margaret River township itself.  

The vibe here is country-fete-meets-rock-festival with nearly 12,000 foodies wandering (increasingly) blissfully from wine-tasting to food-sampling, drink glasses dangling from straps around their necks. Occasionally they swarm the outdoor stage, with its massive rock concert TV screen projecting top-down views of the demonstration kitchen, to watch one of the much-worshipped gastronomic gurus concoct an exotic dish from a bag of frozen peas, half an onion and some herbs. If Jesus ever does come back, this is where he’ll reprise the trick with the loaves and the fishes.

This is all played out midst a sea of the fruits of local labour, be it wine, cheese, olives, meat, fruit, ice cream, artisan bread, chutneys and – as if there wasn’t already enough to drink – locally-brewed beers and ciders.

For everywhere you go in Margaret River, there’s never any shortage of great food and wonderful wine to wash it down against a background of glorious emerald hills rolling with vines, pristine beaches, spectacular surf, sun-dappled forests and landscapes sprinkled with wildflowers. There’s the pretty town of Busselton with its aquamarine waters and historic pier, the favourite surf spot of Yallingup, Cape Leeuwin where the Southern and Indian Oceans meet, and the Margaret River township itself, with its artists, cafes, restaurants and fudge factory.

The Gourmet Escape is three days of concentrated grazing, while for us travel and food writers at last year’s event, it was a kind of Masterchef mystery tour.

It’s a delightful way of sampling the best food and wine from the region, while also touring; a feast for the senses in all ways. “I think it’s an absolutely wonderful event,” says Blumenthal, the UK chief who owns its best restaurant, the legendary The Fat Duck. “The standard of produce here in Margaret River is exemplary. It’s a joy to be here.”

Alex Atala, who runs the restaurant voted the fourth best in the world, D.O.M. in Sao Paulo, is similarly impressed. “Yesterday, I got up in the morning, and went out with the local people fishing for crayfish and abalone,” he says. “Then I went back to my kitchen and prepared them to eat. This feels like the very best backyard anyone in the world could ever have. It is unbelievable.”

It certainly can be. For those less into hunting and foraging for their own supper, there’s a mountain of good food on offer at a slew of great restaurants. There’s the Butterfield beef fillet on bacon and potato cake with Shiraz jus at Flutes Restaurant and the tender duck on coriander pancakes of Voyager Estate, all the way to the parsley-crusted venison rack at the Other Side of the Moon at the Pullman Resort Bunker Bay. Then there’s more informal fare, like the gastro pub classics of the Eagle Bay Brewing Company; wood-fired pizza, steak and gourmet burgers, all served with herbs and salad picked fresh from its organic gardens.

 And then, of course, there’s always Blumenthal’s cream-free carbonara.. with a side of Atala’s Brazilian ants…

 Feast in the forest

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