When he visited Kangaroo Island for his series Dishing Up Australia, Al Brown discovered it was more like "Treasure Island".
The episode, which screened on TV One last night, saw Brown make a whistlestop tour around Adelaide and wine region McLaren Vale, before taking the 45-minute ferry across the Southern Ocean to the rugged, isolated island surrounded by some of "the clearest water" Brown said he had ever seen.
Kangaroo Island is Australia's third largest island, 150 kilometres long by 90km wide with a human population of about 4500 and an animal population far, far larger. One third of the island is protected national parks, so wildlife thrives. More than 260 recorded species of birds, koalas, Australian sea lions, New Zealand fur seals and, of course, the ubiquitous kangaroos are just some of the creatures found in abundance, making it a popular tourist destination which some describe as Australia's answer to the Galapagos Islands.
But, as Brown found, Kangaroo Island also boasts some incredible local produce, making it a sought-after gourmet destination, too.
Spending time at luxury clifftop resort Southern Ocean Lodge, Brown met executive chef Tim Bourke to get his insider's take on the top-quality ingredients available on the island. They didn't have to go far to find it - just down the road from the lodge is the South West River where Bourke frequently casts his pots to catch marron, a native West Australian species of crayfish.
"The freshwater marron are just beautiful," Bourke tells me, on a recent visit to the idyllic lodge. "They're pretty hard to find elsewhere in Australia. They're native to WA but you don't see them on the east coast that much."
Bourke has been at the award-winning Southern Ocean Lodge since it opened in 2008, moving there from his previous role at Capella on Lord Howe Island, another luxury property in the portfolio of John and Hayley Baillie. He arrived at Southern Ocean Lodge six months before opening and was instrumental in establishing the wilderness resort's food philosophy - using fresh, local, seasonal ingredients for a "produce to plate" approach. Bourke relished the opportunity to show Brown just what fantastic produce is available on the island.
"I had a great couple of days with him. Great fun," Bourke says. "It's good to show someone who's never been here before my side of Kangaroo Island, the food and wine side of things, and especially the things you might not see on the maps, the wild foods and more boutique growers. It was great. I think he had a great time as well.
"We share a lot of the same philosophies, I think. As soon as we met, we hit it off straight away. Just good, simple food - basically, food that tastes like food."
Bourke is spoilt for choice when it comes to what he can put on the daily-changing menu at Southern Ocean Lodge. Each day he presents guests with a new three-course lunch and four-course dinner menu and loves the challenge of coming up with new creations, depending on what's in season and accessible to the lodge's remote location. With the island's main town, Kingscote, a 200km-round trip from the lodge, it's not as simple as just popping out to the shops when the kitchen is running low on a particular ingredient.
"We're pretty relaxed about what's available," Bourke says, "We're not going to put it on the menu until we can actually get hold of it. The good thing about changing our menu every day is that we can work out what we've got, what we can get, what's close by . . . we go from there."
There's plenty to choose from. The island has the last surviving colony of genetically pure Ligurian bees, originally imported from Italy in the 19th century - their honey is one of the region's star ingredients. Then there's the sheep's milk cheese and yoghurt, abalone, oysters, extra virgin olive oil and Bourke believes the island produces the best lamb of anywhere in the world.
"We've got access to such good produce it makes life in the kitchen pretty easy . . . Everything we find is just incredible."
In his Dishing Up Australia episode, Brown said he could quite happily stay on Kangaroo Island forever, a sentiment Bourke can empathise with. After a couple of years working at the lodge he took a break from island life, working as head chef at Sydney's popular Jasper's restaurant. But after living so remotely, surrounded by such a bountiful supply of everything a chef could possibly need, Bourke soon realised city living was no longer for him.
"I missed that connection with the growers and producers and the fact you can just grab a whole lamb, butcher it yourself and put it on the menu that day or the next night. It's an amazing experience. I wouldn't ever move back to Sydney again. It's all right for holidays but, when you have access to all this beautiful stuff. I wouldn't be anywhere else."
Stephanie Holmes travelled to Kangaroo Island courtesy of Tourism Australia. southernoceanlodge.com.au
Dishing Up Australia with Al Brown screens on Saturdays, 8pm, TV One.
- Sunday Star Times
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