Anytime is a great time to visit Western Australia’s Margaret River region, but during the Margaret River Gourmet Escape, Dianne Bortoletto explains how the place buzzes with a different kind of exciting energy.
Heston Blumenthal, Nigella Lawson, Marco Pierre White, Rene Redzepi, Rick Stein and Antonio Carluccio are just some of the culinary superstars who have featured in the lineup of the Margaret River Gourmet Escape. Western Australia’s southwest has been home to one of Australia’s best food and wine festivals for the past five years, and I’ve been lucky enough to attend each one.

Margaret River is ranked among the world’s most famous wine regions, home to 217 vineyards and 187 wineries. Margaret River produces just three per cent of Australia’s overall wine production, but over 20 per cent of Australia’s premium wine. In short, that means the wine produced in Margaret River is top quality; the region is particularly well suited to cabernet and chardonnay. Where there’s good wine, there’s good food, and both are celebrated in style during the Margaret River Gourmet Escape, held each November.

The three-day culinary extravaganza brings over 40 of the world’s leading food and wine personalities and celebrities to celebrate the diversity of wine and food in Western Australia and in particular the Margaret River region with special events set in extraordinary locations including dinners at vineyards, in the forest, at the beach, in an ancient cave and at sea.

The epicentre of the Gourmet Escape is the Gourmet Village held on the grounds of the Leeuwin Estate winery that’s open on both Saturday and Sunday. Leeuwin Estate’s expansive lush lawn gently slopes towards the permanent stage, which also hosts numerous concerts and events throughout the year. Behind the stage is a backdrop forest of tall-timber eucalypt trees, making for a beautiful Australian setting. During the Gourmet Escape, the grounds are transformed into the ultimate foodie playground with over 100 stallholders and exhibitors, speciality pavilions, theatres and workshop spaces.

On the main stage, there are back-to-back cooking demonstrations from celebrity chefs. There are also master classes and chefs' talks in other pavilions, appliance explanations, cooking demonstrations, food trend conversations, food tastings and a massive offering of things to eat and drink. Small plates of food prepared by some of the region’s restaurants are available to purchase (using the event’s currency, known as GEMS – a plastic card you pre-load with cash), wine tastings from the region’s producers, every single kitchen gadget you can think of, book signings, beer tents, spirit samples, olive oil tastings, wine education classes and artisans selling everything from biltong to organic turmeric lattes. If that all gets too much, there are picnic areas and hay bales in the shade to chill out and live music for those looking to party. There are even food photography workshops run by professional photographers that’ll make any Instagram feed stand out.

It pays to go to the Gourmet Escape Village prepared. I studied the programme, making a note of which chefs I wanted to see, which workshops and talks I wanted to go and which restaurant dishes I wanted to try because I didn’t want to miss anything important to me. The choice of activities is overwhelming and by having an idea of what I wanted to do, I could either reserve my place at workshops with limited capacity or buy a ticket as soon as I arrived, and then spend the rest of my day wandering, relaxing and tasting around those appointments.

Some of my favourite workshops have included a white wine and cheese matching workshop, a talk by renowned Brazilian chef Alex Atala of DOM who is hugely passionate about regional indigenous food, and the Canon food photography workshop.

The special long-table lunch held at Cullen Winery was another favourite.

While the Gourmet Village caters to the masses, there are many exclusive experiences that form the Margaret River Gourmet Escape including special lunches and dinners as well as satellite events. The event program boasts 45 events in 20 extraordinary locations. Choosing where to spend your time and money is the hardest part.

I went to the Audi Beach Barbeque at the picturesque Castle Rock Beach. As a ticketed option, we took the provided coach from Margaret River town, which was perfect because nobody had to think about being a ‘skipper’. A huge semi-circle of open tepees was set up on the sand, beautiful festoon lighting draping between them and the barbeques placed front and centre with the headline chef on the tools. We were able to chat with television’s MasterChef George Calombaris while he tended the barbeque, which gave some punters quite a thrill.

The special long-table lunch held at Cullen Winery was another favourite. It was one of the first wineries established in the Margaret River region in the early 1970s and is regarded as one of the region’s best. Chef Joan Roca from the world's number two best restaurant El Celler de Can in Spain according to the San Pellegrino Awards joined forces with Australian top chef Peter Gilmore from Quay restaurant at Sydney Harbour. Under the shade of garden umbrellas with views of the undulating hills and rows of vines, the setting was spectacular, like a modern-day real-life Monet painting. Nigella Lawson who was one of the Gourmet Escape’s big stars was also there and I heard on the media grapevine that she’s specifically asked to attend. This made me feel extra blessed to be at such a stunning event. The six-course sumptuous lunch had the table chatting and socialising as we all shared a common but magnificent sensory experience. The addition of matched Cullen wines with each course lifted it to a sublime level.

Margaret River is just three hours drive south of Perth and one of Western Australia’s most strikingly diverse holiday destinations.

The region has everything from internationally-recognised wines and amazing local produce to some of the most diverse and beautiful physical locations boasting beautiful beaches, spectacular tall tree forests, ancient cave systems, world-class surfing, whale watching and wildflowers – it is the ideal destination to visit for lovers of food, wine and natural beauty.

The region’s local produce includes grass-fed beef and lamb, line-caught fish and fresh seafood daily (including abalone), venison, marron, native bush foods, pasture-raised free-range poultry and eggs, olives and olive oils, wood-fired bread, artisan cheeses, chocolates, coffee, ice cream and dairy produce. Margaret River also is the fastest-growing micro-brewery region in Australia producing quality craft ales, so beer lovers needn’t miss out.

There are few food festivals in the world that attract the same quantity and quality of global culinary personalities and influencers. Their attendance is a testament to the credibility of the Margaret River region as a world-class food and wine-producing region.

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