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Down Under with marron and mead

  • Local cuisine and farm visits are giving rise to a new kind of tourism in Western Australia
  • Also known as food tourism, this format has tourists trying to understand where their food and wine comes from

Artisanal dining options (above) and local delicacies offer visitors to Western Australia an immersive culinary experience
Artisanal dining options (above) and local delicacies offer visitors to Western Australia an immersive culinary experience

India has two other armies apart from its main Armed Forces: the Swami Army and Bharat Army. Inspired by the Barmy Army (British fans travelling with the English cricket team and rooting lustily for their side), these two groupie gangs are peripatetic, vocal Indian cricket fanatics. In their wake lies one collateral benefit: tourism dollars. The recently concluded Australia series has seen a spike in Indian tourism spending, encouraging different states Down Under to push the envelope, promote different varieties of tourism. Enter Western Australia and agritourism.

Also known as food tourism, this format has tourists trying to understand where their food and wine comes from, how it is grown and processed. The experience includes appraising the entire value chain and savouring the end product. In the global competition for the additional tourist dollar, many regions have been trying to use agritourism as a key ingredient in constructing a tourism strategy.

Increasingly, breaks from work have become experiential and an essential part of the holiday experience is learning how others live and eat, or even grow their food. The Indian middle class has developed an appetite for gastronomy, whetted by international cookery shows like MasterChef and books by celebrity chefs.

Western Australia (WA) is a recent entrant to the world of agritourism; the region is off the beaten track for most Indian tourists, who usually restrict their sojourns to Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane. This is despite the state being geographically closest to India, thus requiring shorter flight times. WA and its capital Perth provide a combination of urban pleasures, forests, vineyards, fruit orchards, beaches, rivers and farms. WA is the country’s largest state, occupying close to one-third of the country’s land mass. But that anodyne data point conceals the fact that it is also among the world’s most diverse biological regions, yielding a profusion of local produce—from exorbitant truffles to premium wines, from luscious marine products to crunchy fruits.

WA’s food journeys include walks among fruit orchards; visits to vineyards with wine tasting and food experiences; stopovers at packhouses and processing facilities for a behind-the-scenes understanding of how fruits are grown, picked and packed; walks in forests with towering jarrah and karri (eucalyptus variants) trees; meetings and conversations with local farmers; plus, a truffle session (prices for WA black gold truffle usually fluctuate between $2,000-3,000—around 1.4-2 lakh—a kilogram).

These tours offer visitors an opportunity to sample local specialities. For example, there is marron, a local variety of freshwater crayfish that is native to WA. This crustacean, the third largest crayfish variety in the world, figures prominently in WA’s home-grown cuisine. The other indigenous freshwater species is barramundi. Then there is mead, wine of the gods. The southern forests are abundant in tree species, including eucalyptus, and yield over 4,000 tonnes of honey every year. This natural bounty has found its way into the brewing of mead, a drink that demands a separate category for itself. Mead—basically honey fermented with water, with some preferring to flavour it with either fruits or spices—has found renewed patronage in the US, Europe, and, now, WA.

Food-focused journeys use Perth as the focal point, with trips radiating out mostly towards the south. Perth is a city with a small-town heart. Lying along the pretty Swan river, it has lots of nice little quirks, interesting dining and drinking options; the city’s architecture is a delightful mishmash of styles, reflecting its historical conversion from a sleepy town on the west coast to a gold rush centre, from the free-form modernism of the 1950s to a cookie-cutter downtown business district, interspersed with Gothic churches or administrative buildings in the Federation Free Classical style. A good example of Perth’s architectural diversity is the unique design of its new cricket stadium, inspired by the state’s “sporting, cultural and Aboriginal heritage". The city’s nonconformist attitude is reflected in its reluctance to open shops on weekends.

But then the city is just a starting point. About 300-odd kilometres to the south lies Southern Forests, home to a cornucopia of fruits, vegetables, nuts, marine products, wine, cream, eggs, lamb, beef and honey, among other farm products. The region has a unique combination of weather, soil and rain that allows for year-round crops: WA harvests 11 varieties of apples alone, 10 varieties of cherries, each one at different times of the year. Consequently, the four major centres in the area—Manjimup, Pemberton, Northcliffe and Walpole—organize a number of food-themed festivals through the year. December sees the Cherry Harmony Festival, April has Unearthed in Pemberton, April-May and June is time for Truffle Kerfuffle. The soil and climatic conditions also help produce some fine Bordeaux-style wines: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot, Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon. Interestingly, the wineries do not offer only tasting opportunities; the Sandalford winery regularly hosts music concerts on its undulating grounds, with Sting, Steely Dan, Neil Diamond, Leonard Cohen and Carlos Santana having performed there in the past.

One of the main driving forces behind the region’s agritourism is an organization called Southern Forests Food Council, founded in 2010 by local growers and initially funded with a $5 million grant from the WA state. The council organizes food and wine tours, with the package including accommodation, transport in the region, all meals (made from local produce) and visits to farms and packhouses.

Part of the council’s role includes curating the brand “Genuinely" which is displayed on the region’s produce headed for supermarket shelves. The “Genuinely Southern Forests" stamp on vegetable cartons and fruit boxes not only provides product identification but promises safe and quality products. The brand can be displayed by local farms that adhere to certain quality standards. For example, apple packhouses—which use automated processes for cleaning and sorting apples (depending on their quality and colour) as well as packing the fruit—insist on protective shoe and head coverings for visitors to minimize transmission of pests or diseases. Even the state’s cafés and restaurants can display the logo on the condition that a majority of ingredients in at least one “signature" dish must include items grown locally.

Indian tourists—especially the well-heeled and well-travelled—are in WA’s cross-hairs. Not surprising, since India is among the fastest growing outbound travel markets, with around 24 million departures from the country in 2017; the UN World Tourism Organisation estimates this will double to 50 million by 2020. Australia received 335,000 Indians during 2017, an increase of 25% over the previous year. However, WA received only 28,000 Indian tourists.

WA has been negotiating with the Indian government for a direct flight from either Mumbai or Delhi to Perth. Once that happens, the well-seasoned agri-trail of the southern forests should open up for food-loving itinerant Indians.

(The writer was in Western Australia at the invitation of the Australian government).

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