Seeing the forest for the trees

04 Jul 2017

Meet Sophie Zalokar, author, food educator, highly regarded chef and champion of local food produced in the Southern Forests region of WA.

WORDS: Jessica Zoiti; IMAGES: Peggy Sass

The foraging concept is far from new. Before man invented tools to hunt, he relied on his gathering nouse, scavenging through bush and scrub for edible weeds and shrubs.

In more recent times, culinary superstars such as Rene Redzepi from Copenhagen’s award-winning Noma restaurant have revived the practice. He’s a passionate miner of wild foods and has even launched a website and app – Vild Mad (or Wild Food in Danish) – designed to teach laymans (that’s you and I) how to forage for food.

So, while recently in Western Australia’s Southern Forest region on a local food-finding field trip, where better to lay my head than at Pemberton’s own Foragers – a luxury farm-style retreat and paddock-to-plate cooking school run by Sophie and Chris Zalokar.

For Sophie, foraging is less literal and more about seeking out, and promoting, local produce. Born in the Barossa, she’s a country girl at heart who earned her cooking stripes under the tutelage of Maggie Beer. So when the desire to step back into the kitchen struck after years spent raising young children in Perth, it seemed only natural she’d look to Western Australia’s Southern Forests, a proverbial veggie crisper with farm gates galore to explore.

“I’m born and bred country,” she begins. “All my training and focus on food has always been very produce-driven and very close to producers.

“I really wanted to give the kids a country childhood like mine (Louis and Anya are now aged 22 and 19 respectively), and Chris and I wanted to have a property that we could both work on and develop. I had an idea to create some kind of culinary tourism business, but hadn’t quite clarified at that point what that would be – I knew that we had to have a diversification of income, living in regional WA.”

Purchasing what was the old Pemberton Breakaway Cottages in 2005, the couple set out to create a unique operation offering luxury accommodation alongside a cooking school-come-restaurant with Chris using his considerable carpentry skills to construct the boutique collection of chalets, studios and a cosy farmhouse, plus the custom-designed kitchen and communal dining room. An heirloom kitchen garden and fruit orchard was also lovingly cultivated. Finally, in 2011, Foragers was launched.

“What you see here now is not what we bought. Chris has built everything – all the chalets, this building (the restaurant). He has built it all from scratch,” Sophie says proudly, adding that in doing so, Chris was inspired to creatively source local materials.

Motioning to the vast floor-to-ceiling windows behind us in the dining room she explains: “Those were from the old IGA supermarket in town. These light fittings (large, bulbous, industrial pendants that overhang the long tables) were old bowling green enamel light fittings, which our electrician retro-fitted and Chris cleaned up. And these tables are made from workbenches from Ikea, which Chris split and re-glued back together. They’re solid oak.”

They even ‘foraged’ materials for the commercial kitchen, the grill and gas stove salvaged from the old Forest Fresh Marron Shed.

Today, Foragers has built an enviable reputation as perhaps the region’s best restaurant. On Saturday nights diners gather along communal tables to feast on a seasonally-inspired set-menu created and executed by Sophie using hand-picked local ingredients.

“The dinners have really taken off,” Sophie says. “We get a lot of locals here, so when you come as a visitor, you could find yourself sitting next to a potato farmer, or next to an avocado farmer.

“That’s what makes the long tables so wonderful – you just don’t know who you’re going to sit next to, and often that creates really interesting conversations with local people. You get an inside view of the region.”

Stay at Foragers for the weekend and you can also find further food inspiration during one of Sophie’s cooking demonstrations, held on Friday nights once a month (an events calendar can be found here). Relaxed and interactive, the demonstrations cater to intimate groups of no more than 25 people.

“They’re usually thematic, so one month we could explore spring produce. Another it could be herbs and spices, or it could be soups. Whatever the theme (the demonstrations) always exploring produce grown in the Southern Forests region,” explains Sophie.

By appointment, Sophie also runs full-day hands-on workshops that aim to develop guests’ food production skills.

“Over the years I’ve done bread-making workshops, we’ve held butchering workshops with our own meat, and a local butcher who’s come in for the day to teach guests how to break down a whole pig. If guests want to commission me to do a specific workshop, I’ll certainly explore that,” she says.

Finishing our chat in the dining room, the sun is setting fast and a fine winter mist is beginning to fill the valley at the bottom of the property. A log fire and bottle of Pemberton pinot is waiting in the studio, and I’m keen to cosy in for the evening. But before I do, Sophie leaves me with one last thought.

“This area has so much to offer from a food perspective, but it’s agriculturally driven, not tourism driven. There needs to be greater awareness of the food side of this region.”

If my brief stay at Foragers is any indication, Sophie and Chris are certainly doing their part.

 

GET IN TOUCH:

For bookings and more information on Foragers visit foragers.com.au. Sophie has published two cookbooks – Picnic: Outdoor Feasts in the Australian Landscape (2002) and Food of the Southern Forests (2014). Alternatively, keep up to date with Sophie and her projects at sophiezalokar.com.  The property is currently on the market but for now, it’s business as usual.

 

BUY SOUTHERN FORESTS

Looking to buy Southern Forests foods locally? At The Black Truffle we stock a range of goodies from the region including fresh black Manjimup truffles (until early September), and products from Holy Smoke, Wine & Truffle Co (condiments and oil), Chestnut Grove (verjuice and EVOO) and The Great Southern Truffle Company (honey).