PEMBERTON, AUSTRALIA – A fluffy bathrobe is not my normal attire for a forest stroll on a chilly winter’s evening, but there is a reason for this. Climbing leaf-strewn steps past misty trees, I find the hidden forest bathtub and, casting off the robe, I sink into the steaming water.
A canopy of marri and native peppermint trees shroud a darkening sky, and lichens drape from tree trunks like spider webs. Closing my eyes, I hear twittering honeyeaters, guffawing kookaburras, and black cockatoos, screeching.
There is an aroma of damp forest floor, reminding me of the earthy truffles I have been devouring for days. Soon, I will be at a long-table dinner, tucking into them again. But for now, I sink a little lower, lingering in this delicious nature immersion.
Immersion has been a recurring theme this week. I am on a five-day retreat in Pemberton, a four-hour drive south of Perth. The retreat is one of several offerings from a new company, Earn Your Vino. Married duo Cassandra Charlick and Stepan Libricky run seasonal experiences, exploring hyperlocal aspects of south-western Australia’s food and wine scene.
Ms Charlick explains that slow travel and active relaxation are at the heart of their company’s ethos.
“In a nutshell, it’s about encouraging people to dive deeper, to build a real connection with a place,” she says.
This retreat is called Beneath The Surface and focuses on the premium products grown around Pemberton. During the week, I have gorged on more black truffles than I have seen in my lifetime. These are complemented by freshwater crayfish called marron, rainbow trout, lamb, beef, potatoes, apples and cool-climate wines, especially Pinot Noir.
Earn Your Vino mostly operates retreats in the adjacent Margaret River region, but this experience provides unrivalled access to Pemberton, where tourism is still developing.
“It’s a region that can be difficult for people to just drive through and figure out for themselves,” says Ms Charlick.
Our group consists of seven guests, our two hosts and our live-in chef, Ms Mel Kokoti. Formerly head chef of Xanadu Wines, she elevates local produce into sublime creations with each of her two-course lunches and three-course dinners.
Our exclusive-use residence for the week is the luxurious Stonebarn Lodge, which is right in the heart of a black truffle farm. The elegant manor is built from local stone and timber and my generous bedroom features soaring ceilings, a timber four-poster bed and a balcony that overlooks Stonebarn’s lake, complete with wild ducks.
Mr Dion Range is the owner of Stonebarn Truffiere and Lodge and, on our first morning, we brave drizzling rain to join him on a truffle hunt. Mr Range explains he planted these 2,000 trees, various species of European oak, 18 years ago.
Before planting, the trees have their roots inoculated – they are dipped in a special fungi solution. These fungi spread tendrils of mycelium throughout the soil, helping their host tree roots to unlock micronutrients. The fruiting body of the fungi, the black Perigord truffle, is the most prized cultivated truffle in the world.
Locating the buried treasure is the job of Hazel, the chocolate labrador. Hazel sniffs out the ripe truffles, gently pawing the ground when she finds one. Mr Range rewards her with a treat and praise, and it is clear she is in love with her boss.
Having access to Mr Range and Hazel is a luxury exclusively available to Earn Your Vino guests. It is a fascinating chat, and we learn that he also has a nursery to grow the oak trees, which he inoculates and sells. He developed his own seaweed-based liquid fertiliser, and a microbe booster to promote healthy soil.
The soil appears very healthy, as evidenced by the massive bowl of truffles being delivered to Ms Kokoti in the kitchen. She uses them liberally, frequently brandishing an earthy brown orb and shaving it generously onto everything, including scrambled eggs, pickled ocean trout, Italian bean soup and slow-cooked beef cheek.
The aromas unleashed are intoxicating – a mix of gourmet mushroom, earthy soil and forest understorey – and I am astonished that truffles can be used in a honeycomb cheesecake.
When we are not eating, we are exploring in our minibus. One morning, we visit Pemberley, a vineyard and working farm owned by third-geneneration farmer Dave Radomiljac.
Seated in their tasting room, Mr Radomiljac and his daughter-in-law Lisa tell us about their 200ha vineyard, and we taste our way through Pemberley Prosecco, Rose, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
In the centre of the table are several steamed marron, caught that morning on the property. We sample the delicacy on fresh buttered sourdough, along with Pemberley’s farm fresh Ruby Lou potatoes, with lashings of local olive oil and truffle sea salt.
Back at Stonebarn, our two new Radomiljac friends are coming over for dinner. Our aperitif consists of a local vodka made from Pemberley potatoes and our meal features their marron with truffle tortellini.
Like all good dinner guests, they show up with wine – two of their favourite Pemberley Pinot vintages, the 2010 and 2012 – and as we dine, we chat about optimal cellaring.
Over dessert, Mr Libricky proffers a special Chardonnay Botrytis made by winemakers LS Merchants, with Pemberley’s grapes. Mr Radomiljac says he had abandoned the grapes as rotten, and given them away. He admits sheepishly he underestimated the harvest, and although we love the wine, it is the story and the laughter that are priceless.
The week also serves as a masterclass in Pinot Noir with Ms Charlick, who is also a professional wine reviewer, engaging us in the varietal. One evening, we compare wines from other truffle-growing regions in Italy and Germany.
For another tasting, we are joined by Leeuwin Estate sommelier Cam Haskell, who guides us through a comparative sampling of Italy’s Piedmont and Pemberton’s Pinots.
The “Earn” component of Earn Your Vino sees us actively experiencing Pemberton’s nature. On a misty morning, we meet adventure guide Dianne James for a fortifying hike around impressive Beedelup Falls. Crossing the river on a pedestrian bridge, we find the “Walk Thru Karri” tree, a mighty trunk with a tunnel cut right through.
At the end of the trail, I am surprised to see Mr Libricky, who has magically created the ultimate forest picnic. He enthusiastically hands me a restorative glass of Picardy Merlimont and seats me before a plate of Ms Kokoti’s lamb stew, which my group and I savour under towering karri trees and purple-flowering tree hovea.
Another excursion sees us spirited away to Mr Mikey Cernotta’s farm, the home of Pemberton Honey. Here we are treated to a fascinating talk on the life of a beekeeper. We get hands on, using the extractor to separate the pure honey from the honeycomb, and later we use beeswax to make our own (slightly wonky) souvenir candles.
On the final afternoon, we are clustered around the Stonebarn kitchen bench with former MasterChef Australia contestant Samira Damirova. It is not merely a cooking demonstration and, before I know it, my knuckles are deep in buttery dough. I am laughing with Ms Damirova, while trying to emulate her lamb-filled Turkish bread.
The result is a mess. But like so many things we have done this week, it is meeting the locals and being immersed in the experience, that makes it truly memorable.
Earn Your Vino (earnyourvino.com) offers various seasonal luxury food and wine retreats in Margaret River and Pemberton.
Beneath the Surface: Truffles, Pinot n’ Produce Pemberton operates during truffle season, with three departures in July and August 2023 priced at A$4,925 (S$4,500) a person on a twin-share basis. The price includes accommodation, gourmet meals, beverages and transport from your time of arrival. Prices for other retreats vary. Go to earnyourvino.com
Accommodation for my retreat is at Stonebarn Truffiere and Lodge (stonebarn.com.au), which is not open to independent travellers.
- The writer was hosted by Earn Your Vino and Tourism Western Australia.
- Formerly based in Singapore, Carolyn Beasley is an Australian freelance travel and environment writer specialising in sustainable travel and nature stories.