“I sometimes bite off more than I can chew,” says Jesse Blake, laughing, with no small amount of exaggeration.
Blake, the reserved, softly spoken chef of Petition Kitchen, and I are shooting the breeze at Nannup Brook Farm, a verdant, postcard-perfect slice of Western Australia deep in the Southern Forests.
Greenery is everywhere. Karri trees wrap around us like ’80s sunglasses. A flourishing vegetable patch (supersized sails of kale; the last of summer’s pumpkins; runaway daikon that’s taking over the garden one sprawling tap root at a time) stirs my inner Don Burke. For a few precious hours, we’re seeing life through the eyes of Simon and Sarah Green, owners of both the property and Southern Forests Honey, a Nannup-based apiary that sets up hives around the state and collects raw, unpasteurised honey. As we savour raw white gum honey fresh from the hive, it’s hard not to be a little envious of the Greens’ agrarian lifestyle.
Shadowing Blake for the morning is a fascinating exercise. Despite his bulging diary, the New Zealand-born chef has made the time to drive from Perth to the south-west (and back) for a day to check in with growers in the region. Why? He doesn’t want to let them or any of the guests at his Winter’s Night Truffle Kerfuffle dinner down. In an age when so many chefs at “special events” are happy to email recipes and leave the heavy lifting to others, Blake is going all-out for his dinner and really – and we mean really – taking a close look at what’s available in the south-west.
A collaborative truffle-infused cheese. Beef aged in peated whisky. Bread fine-tuned with local baker, Cakes by Tasty Edibles. These are just some of the things guests can expect to taste at Blake’s Saturday night event. The sensitive new age chef is even making his own crockery for the dinner (cue: Righteous Brothers music).
While our man is downplaying his efforts as simply being “well-organised”, his approach is admirable and hugely inspiring. During our visit with the Greens, Blake discovers the husband-and-wife team has a small plot of mature lemon myrtle trees on the property. We talk about the plant’s anti-bacterial properties and effectiveness as a mosquito repellent before tasting its intensely powerful flowers. And just like that, Blake has found a key element (and a supplier) for the sorbet he’ll be serving at dinner. Later that day, an afternoon spent with Nic Giblett – one of the patriarchs of Newton Brothers and something of an apple know-it-all – helps Blake settle on a blend of pink lady and Granny Smith for the same sorbet. (Other things we learned that day: many apples improve with time in cold store, although varieties such as royal gala taste best straight off the tree during its season between February and August).
Blake isn’t the only chef taking a magnifying glass to the region. Amy Hamilton, chef-owner of Albany’s endlessly brilliant Liberte, is being similarly introspective with the menu for her Saturday Southern Forests Barbeque Feast lunch. Among the things you might find in Hamilton’s Southern Forests-only shopping basket: a local grower’s entire crop of fresh betel leaves, a fresh pork sausage made with a Manjimup-reared pig raised primarily on walnuts, and local heritage spuds to be turned into potato sourdough. It’s thrilling stuff, although for a chef cooking in a remote corner of the world, this level of resourcefulness is par for the course.
“That sort of restriction and isolation breeds a creativity, which I’ve really enjoyed,” says Hamilton. A case in point: there’s no Southern Forests butter producer, so she’s making her own using (plenty of) double cream from local dairy and event sponsor Bannister Downs.
“You just have to make it work with what you’ve got. You have to rely on your skill set and trust yourself and the results can be really awesome.”
Tickets to A Winter’s Night with Jesse Blake and the Southern Forests Barbeque Feast with Amy Hamilton are available online. Blake will also be appearing at other festival events including a cooking class at Chef’s Cabin.
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