Bowled Over

Last Updated: 25 Jun 2014
Jade Just

From bananas to mangoes to crabs and more... Scoop travels to Carnarvon and is floored by the quality and variety of produce on offer in "WA's food bowl."

I was once told that you should put as much thought into the wrapping of a present as the present itself, because it shows you take pride in what you are giving someone. Watching Doris Morel of Morel's Orchard in Carnarvon as she gently wraps papayas brings this to mind; she handles them like a tender mother holds a newborn, swaddling them in pink covers and placing them carefully into their cradles – or, in this case, enfolding them in tissue paper before packing them into boxes destined for Perth.

"Papayas are the pride of all our produce," says Doris. "We have great enjoyment and satisfaction in packaging them and presenting them to the customers. The comments we get back make us feel very proud."

In fact, all Carnarvon's local growers are incredibly proud of their produce, and the growing reputation of their town as WA's 'food bowl'. I'm here to meet some of them, and indulge my epicurean side while I sample everything from mangos to locally caught juicy prawns. In a nutshell, my sole purpose is to eat
a lot of food, and I'm excited.

Before I get started, I take a drive to get a feel for the town. Carnarvon was gazetted in 1883, but it wasn't until 1928 that local Jack Buzolic planted the first banana suckers. The region has been bananas for the fruit ever since, and now has more than 70 plantations dedicated to the crop. The top-notch growing conditions are due to the balmy climate, fertile soil, and the nearby Gascoyne River, a bountiful source of irrigation. All up, Carnarvon is home to 176 plantations that produce more than 30,000 tonnes of fruit and vegetables every year.

Carnarvon's main street runs for 5km along the river, leading to the town centre at the river mouth. There are plantations everywhere – I pass mango trees sagging with ripe fruit, and signs beckoning me to turn down driveways to farmgates selling fresh bananas, paw paws, preserves and – a personal favourite – mango smoothies. Salivating, I sympathise with Eve and her sticky fingers in the Garden of Eden.

Further west is suburban housing and the airport, conveniently close to the main settlement. Carnarvon's centre features older buildings such as the refurbished Port Hotel, a mix of cafes and a couple of supermarkets.

At the end of the road lies the fascine, a popular setting for picnics and sunsets, with a walkway that meanders along the water past palm trees and grassy surrounds. I head over to Babbage Island and One Mile Jetty. Built in 1897, the jetty was the first port in Australia regularly used for commercial livestock transportation. Today it's a heritage icon and visitors can either walk along the structure or take a tram.

By the end of my jaunt along the jetty, I've built up an appetite and it's time to visit my first port of call – the Sweeter Banana packing shed. When I arrive, business manager Doriana Mangili hands me a loaf of banana bread (for later), and a banana, which I greedily scoff on the spot. Her produce lives up to its name – it's incredibly sweet. "Curtin University conducted a blind taste survey of our Sweeter Bananas versus the Tropical North Queensland Bananas, and eight out of ten participants preferred ours," Doriana says enthusiastically.

I sense a healthy rivalry between the banana benders and sand gropers, and not unlike Jack and his giant, Sweeter Bananas has had to find ways to outsmart its larger opponent.

"Our bananas are sweeter and smaller than Queensland bananas because we need to grow them closer together due to the harsh heat in summer, the winds, and the cooler temperatures in winter," says Doriana. "Supermarkets told us small bananas weren't as popular with shoppers, so we successfully rebranded them as 'Lunchbox Bananas'. We also had a lot of wastage because of marking – the bananas on the outside of the bunch are marked by banana leaves tickling their skins. They're perfect on the inside, but we decided to package these as 'Smoothie Bananas', sold at a cheaper price to throw in a blender."

After the packing shed I'm off to Bumbak's, a family-run plantation that began in 1956 and where you'll find Bumbak's Preserves and Ice Creams. I wander into what I can only describe as a foodie paradise. Before me are freezers with all kinds of ice-creams, jars of sauces and toppings, leathered fruit and rocky road chocolate. Owner Jo Bumbak makes me a delicious mango smoothie that I demolish in minutes.

Plantations often bin their damaged produce but Jo's 'no waste' policy means that everything is used. "I have 110 preserves in the full portfolio, although some are seasonal," she says. "What I love most is turning nothing into something. And when people come in and get excited over the range."

Next, I'm off to meet Eddie Smith. At his Calypso Plantation, six different varieties of mango are grown, with 18,000 mango trays produced per year. But surprisingly, until nine years ago, all Eddie had done was eat them.

When I ask about his motivation for leaving a career in aviation fuels to become a mango grower, his reply is simple: "To be honest, I just love them," he says. "And I think you need to love something to grow it successfully." I nod eagerly, empathising. If it were possible for me to fall for a fruit, I'm sure it would be a mango, too.

Next door is the bio-organic Westut Plantation, run by Wes and Ketut Bassett. They don't use fertilisers, pesticides or insecticides, just good ol' Mother Nature, and I'm wowed by how completely different it is from the other plantations. Instead of neat little rows of trees with no weeds in sight, it's like a jungle. The banana plants form a thick canopy, and tall grasses surround them. "We have 320 trees," says Wes. "We grow custard apples, black sapote, macadamias, citrus fruits, five different varieties of avocado, mangos... the list goes on and on."

Ketut shows me the Balinese way of cutting mangos (longways into slivers with a sharp knife, rather than cubes) and I finish off my visit with yet another mango smoothie. I'm quietly thankful that I've opted for loose clothing; anything tighter would have showed off my rapidly growing food baby.

I take a break from fruit and head to Abacus Fisheries to meet head honcho Peter Jecks. I instantly warm to Jecksey, and his salt-of-the-earth attitude as he animatedly explains his blue swimmer crab business to me. Like most of Carnarvon's food industry, Abacus Fisheries was hit hard by the devastating 2010-11 cyclones. Half the town was underwater and a marine heatwave caused so much disruption to crab numbers that there was a voluntary no-take policy for over a year. Luckily Jecksey is a pretty resourceful guy – for every 1kg of crab he produces 1.2kg of useable crab product including crab meat, crab stock, chitin (a powder from the shells), and crab cakes. "Nothing gets wasted, and in the future I'd like to see total utilisation of everything," he tells me.

His neighbours at Pickles Point Seafood & Boat Yard stock the crab cakes, as well as their own haul of fresh seafood – everything from oysters and scallops to red emperor and pink snapper. It's outside of opening hours, and as I sit under the verandah with Gayle Dewar, who runs the business, a steady stream of cars cruise past with disappointed-looking passengers. It seems everyone is well aware of the place to go to get the freshest seafood.

My trip has come to an end but Carnarvon's passion for food has left a lasting impression. At the departures desk, I'm informed that my luggage is overweight. I win the stare-off with the lady at the counter, and board triumphantly with half of Jo Bumbak's shop, banana bread, bananas and a papaya. Unfortunately, I didn't adopt Doris's careful packing technique and at home I find soggy pink tissue paper and a papaya that's squashed to smithereens in my bag. Undeterred, I adopt the 'no wastage' policy and happily start slurping away.

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