One place in the Margaret River region where the onset of winter is relished more than most is Arimia, an almost entirely self-sufficient vineyard, working farm, and restaurant set in the charming back blocks of Wilyabrup.
Winter rains are life-blood to Arimia. They nourish plenty of winter produce; a few hundred olive and fruit trees and one-acre vegetable garden. Any run off trickles into a winter creek line from which Arimia farm their own trout. Of course, the rain also supplies their livestock, and restaurant clients and staff, with enough drinking water for the year.
‘Sustainable’ and ‘local’ might be buzzwords, but Arimia is one place you’ll find genuine commitment to the practice of growing and serving food from their own backyard.
It’s an easy choice, says owner Ann Spencer and her business partner and head chef, Evan Hayter. In establishing Arimia as a bastion of sustainability in the south west, Ann and Evan also hope to restore some of what has been lost to the industry and the wider community’s appetite for convenience.
“We want to protect and promote this way of life, and to raise the consciousness of people that come and eat here,” says Ann. “People are ready for it. People want to know where their food comes from. It hurts us when people are misinformed by false marketing.”
“People are starting to make that connection to sustainable foods, real foods, whole foods, and we want to help grow that in them. This isn’t just about food, it’s about us making the difference that we can.”
“It’s not just a restaurant, a vineyard, a farm,” adds Evan. “It’s a philosophy, and a way of life.”
Arimia has gone through a natural evolution since Ann became a custodian of this 56-hectare property in 1997. Its previous life as a sheep and cattle farm had left the earth razed and barren in patches. Through years of toil, Ann and a small team have rehabilitated the land, building living soils and using holistic biological methods to care for their animals.
“We were lucky because there was a lot of land still in its original state, but certain parts did require significant rehabilitation,” Ann says. “A lot of things just happened from one thing leading to another, and we’ve discovered that almost everything has more than one purpose and works in conjunction with others.”
“We got some pigs to clear the weeds, and now we’ve got twenty-six of them. We use them for everything: they eat through all the weeds, turn over the soil, and Evan uses them in the kitchen as he needs.”
Almost half of Arimia’s produce comes from their one-acre patch behind the restaurant, which is thriving with the first winter rains. Right now it’s a forest of winter greens, brassicas, snow peas, legumes, daikon radishes, and even late-season eggplants. The list goes on.
Anything Arimia don’t grow or rear themselves they source from a few small local growers and farmers. These interpersonal relationships are critical to good produce, says head chef Evan Hayter.
“Those relationships are undoubtedly critical to good produce,” says Evan. “Food is a produce, not a product. I think it’s really important, not just for us as a restaurant, but for everyone, to cultivate those relationships with the people who grow our food. Knowing who grows it, what they grow it in, what they add to it, what they don’t add to it. Buying local and in season produce is the best thing, food wise, that people can do.”
Evan shares insight to some of his favourite winter produce, which he and Ann grow at Arimia, and how you can best enjoy them at home.
Green Olive Oil
Olive trees thrive in Margaret River’s mediterranean climate, and their biennial harvest begins in the early months of winter. Arimia pickle 400kg of olives from their trees, and press and extract the oil from a few tonne every couple of years.
In the first month after pressing the olive oil is at its greenest, freshest, and most delicious, says Evan, and it’s a rare product that only lasts a month at most.
“Green olive tends to be cloudy, but have a really green colouration to it. As it settles, the olive oil becomes more golden,” he says. “It’s pretty rare stuff. We get a month out of it maybe. When its at its greenest, the flavour of olive is way fruiter and grassier.”
Trout thrive in the cooler winter months. As the cold temperatures and rainfall restore the oxygen levels in the water, they become more active and begin to spawn. They grow rapidly throughout the winter, and in the earlier months are best served as small, whole fish, says Evan.
“We often do a little shallow frying, a little dusting of flour, a bit of seasoning, marinade, something like that. As they get bigger we cure them with Geraldton wax and citrus and things like that, or smoke them or preserve them,” says Evan. “We cure them in a sweet salt brine, a liquid brine or a dry brine. It changes all the time. We utilise the entire animal, and create fish emulsions for the vineyard with everything that doesn’t get used in the kitchen.”
“As they get bigger their livers get bigger, and we use them for parfaits, and we make oils and fish pastes and that out of them as well.”
Arimia farm their own trout, which are also available at local markets, and in inland rivers and creeks for keen freshwater fishers.
Slippery Jack Mushrooms
Mushrooms are one of the rare foods that can grow in darkness, as their energy comes not from the sun but from their growing medium. In the case of the slippery jack mushroom, this is decomposing pine leaf litter.
Evan forages for these in the pine forests around the region, and while he prefers to dehydrate mushrooms for a greater concentration of flavour, he says they are also excellent grilled or crumbed and deep-fried.
“I like to dehydrate them and use them in a soup or a seasoning. We’re also going to give them a crack in a tea or a kombucha,” he says. “Dehydrating them makes the flavour a lot more concentrated. They hold up very well, and we can use it through things to really lift other dishes. Mushrooms go really well in soups, pastas and risottos.”
Oyster, pearl, and shiitake mushrooms are some other popular varieties available in the region.
Broccoli is one of the brassica family – which include cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussel Sprouts, and is a versatile plant that serves a variety of purposes throughout the winter, says Evan.
In the earlier months, when the plants are still small the leaves can be steamed, grilled, or used in salads, and the flowers used as garnish. As the heads start to develop, the the classic broccoli that many know and love begins to appear.
“You can use the whole plant, its delicious,” says Evan. “We sometimes grill the leaves, or blanch and refresh and use as a snack, or grill the leaves and make them savoury and serve them as a main. The flowers are used as a garnish in salads and entrees, the little yellow flowers are really pretty and also edible.”
“The heads can be cooked as a main dish, or as a side on the menu. I’m thinking about doing a pasta dish that incorporates broccoli on the menu. It’s such a versatile plant that can be used in so many different ways.”
Image Credits: Tim Campbell Photography