Photography Sophie Raynor

Small wonders

Last Updated: 15 Dec 2015
Sophie Raynor

‘Organic’, ‘grass-fed’ and ‘niche’ aren’t just buzzwords in the tranquil Chittering Valley, where hardworking locals grow exceptional produce against the odds.

A 40-minute drive beyond the packed cellar doors and tourist buses of the Swan Valley is a food and wine trail with a genuine difference. If you're after endless wine choices and share plates, you're going to want to turn off the Great Northern Highway long before you hit Bindoon. But if you drive on, you'll find a stunning pocket of undulating pastures where you can pick your own fruit, drink wine at the grape grower's table, snap up fresh produce from the roadside, and yarn with colourful locals.

"A lot of people are trying things out on a small scale."

One such local, Peter, says the soil at the bottom of his garden is so fertile, and the climate so much better than Australia's other asparagus-growing region (Victoria) that he's banking on getting 2000 crowns in the ground next year to produce a commercial yield of 200 kilos – all ready for sale six weeks before anyone else hits the market. It won't effect year-round demand for the vegetable (2000 crowns won't make a dent in the 40,000 yielded by nearby Swan Valley farm Edgecombe Brothers), but Peter has no desire to sell at farmers' markets. For him, it's all about supplying produce locally – in a roadside stall, or direct to local restaurants.

"Bindoon red-chocolate soil is good enough to eat," he proclaims with a grin. "Almost any plant will grow well, and you can't beat fresh produce. It's to die for." Peter and his wife, Colleen, have lived on a farm outside Bindoon – a tiny town an hour north of Perth – for four years. They grow their own fruit and vegetables, raise lambs, and make their own yoghurt and cheese – all for the love of it.

Decades ago, the Chittering Valley, which includes Bindoon, produced more dried fruit than any other WA region. Currant vines have since been replaced with citrus trees, grapevines and vegies, as salinity tempered production and forced producers to innovate. It's a challenge for growers, Colleen explains, because the Chittering Valley isn't a tourism region. Yet tourists in the know continue to come.

Rocco and his wife, Connie (I quickly realise no one uses surnames here) have devised various schemes to attract visitors to their citrus farm, Golden Grove Orchard. There's the retro diner-style tearoom, where we sit on the day of my visit; a function hall for lamb spit-roast bookings; and orchard tours for fruit pickers. But in the end, quality produce is the drawcard.

"When we take our mandarins to market, ours are always the first to go," says Rocco. "We don't use fertiliser, we don't use chemicals, we don't spray our fruit – it's just the flavour of the fruit."

But locals fear large-scale production elsewhere will one day squeeze them out of the market. "We're losing the best location to grow citrus forever," says Rocco.

"Bindoon red-chocolate soil is good enough to eat."

"In the 50s and 60s, 50 acres of citrus was a huge orchard, and now it's just a backyard. Unless you have a niche market, you can't survive." Rita and Craig, who own Bindoon Fresh Meats in the centre of town, moved from Perth a year ago, seeking a tree change. The couple use local suppliers to create their award-winning produce, and it seems locals can't get enough of their innovative snags, with fillings including chicken and blueberry, and coconut and lemongrass.

Tracie, who owns Bindoon's blueberry farm with her husband, Troy, took the leap to plant the salt-shy berries a few years ago, after a chance meeting with a plant breeder who had developed a variety to withstand Bindoon conditions. They planted their first crop five years ago, and last year hand-picked 50,000 punnets. "There are a lot of people trying things out on a small scale," Tracie says.

They don't come much smaller than Glenowen Farm, a vineyard that
takes tastings by appointment only. Owners Gail and Dan explain that their wine grapes were planted 80 years ago – comprising just two acres of the farm's 100, almost an afterthought during Bindoon's dried-fruit boom. The currant vines have long since been pulled up, but the grapes are thriving. The couple says produce from their tiny plot supplied Evans & Tate in 1998, when the wine giant won a world shiraz title in Paris. And Glenowen grapes were also behind a rosé listed among Australia's top ten in 2011 – but an unnamed winemaker left the farm's name off the label, and, as a result, no one knows.

"We don't use fertiliser, we don't use chemicals, we don't spray our fruit – it's just the flavour of the fruit."

Dan says that because of Glenowen's rootstock, his wines lack the distinct pepperiness that shiraz is known for. "Australian shiraz vines are bastardised from the Europeans," he explains. "But ours are original rootstock from Iran, where shiraz originated."

Another point of difference is the variety between Glenowen's vintages, because they don't blend the wines to get consistent flavour profiles from year to year. "That's rare!" he says with a laugh. "We rely totally on what God gives us: sunshine, rain – we don't fertilise or irrigate, so the quantity is set by nature."

On my way back to Perth, I pass the Swan Valley with its slick, well-supported, tourist-track infrastructure and its well-marked trails. Already, I find myself missing the more undulating, lush and easy-to-get-lost-in feel of Chittering. Less a tourist destination than a lifestyle choice, this little-known pocket outside Perth offers something more intimate and smaller in scale than its better known neighbour – with no less appeal.

Where to drink

Heritage Persian shiraz vines, free
from sprays and hand-picked by the owners: this wine is the real deal. Your friends will be begging to know the source. (08) 9576 1041

A tiny setup at the owners' home, you'll feel more guest than customer while sampling excellent whites. 0429 442 542

Lovely reds and whites are on offer at this family-friendly vineyard, which has an art gallery and plenty of picnic spots under huge gum trees. (08) 9575 1211

Try oak-aged shiraz and other reds at this vineyard, and don't leave without sampling their homemade olive oil and home-grown olives. (08) 9271 4431

Where to stay

Enjoy tidy self-contained chalets at this lakeside accommodation. (08) 9576 2888

This homestay accommodation has sweeping valley views, and its private entrance is welcoming without being intrusive. (08) 9571 8750

Luxe cottages on prime vineyard, perfect for a romantic getaway. (08) 9571 8880

The friendly farm pets and lush lawns make these chalets a great pick for a trip with kids. (08) 9576 1136

Where to eat

Seriously tasty pastries, good coffee, and a beautiful interior has this place pumping with locals and visitors alike. (08) 9576 0069

Home-style food elevated above your mum's cooking by wholesome local produce and chef David's creative touch. (08) 9571 8069

Hand-picked oranges and samples of fresh juice will have you feeling virtuous, even after sampling the cream-piled scones at the tea rooms. Bring a picnic lunch! (08) 9571 8074

Don't leave town without stocking up on the wacky snags – or, for the more conservative, the range of traditional flavours packs a punch. (08) 9576 0060

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