Food of the Southern Forests is the brand new book by Sophie Zalokar. Sophie is a South Australian born chef who got her start working in the kitchens of Barossa food icon, Maggie Beer. From there she traveled the world pursuing her love of cooking, before returning to Australia and setting up with her partner Chris in Fremantle. In 2005, Sophie and Chris started Foragers – a farm-based cooking school and dining room with self-contained accommodation located in the Southern Forests in the lower south-west of Western Australia.
The Southern Forests are a developing specialty agricultural area known for a wide range of excellent produce including beef, cherries, apples and truffles. I received a free advance copy of Food of the Southern Forests and found it to be a beautiful recipe and food memoir that celebrates the diversity of Sophie’s cooking abilities as well as the wealth of terrific produce available in the region. The photos and recipes in this book are at once inspiring and mouth-watering, and I am determined to make my way over to this part of the world sooner rather than later.
There are a number of stunning, seasonal recipes that will be at home in any kitchen, including the kale and ricotta wraps, the salted caramel butter and a delicious riff on cauliflower cheese. I was lucky enough to catch up with Sophie to find out more about her book, Foragers and her magnificent veggie garden.
Where did your love of food and cooking come from?
I know our educated Western social code permits this admission, but I love to eat, which is a fairly strong motivator, but mostly there’s a creative force behind my love of food and cooking. I’m also fascinated by how food culturally relates to people and place.
Was it something you’ve always known you wanted to do or did it come later in life?
I started a cooking apprenticeship when I was 17, so it started early, but my first career preference at the time was textile design. Once I realised that food could also be a creative medium similar to working with fibre and clay, I was happy with becoming a chef.
Tell me about Foragers. How did that come about? And how would you describe what people will find there?
We moved to Pemberton at the beginning of 2005 with the idea that we could develop a culinary tourism business. Aside from a house and 2 sheds, our property had 4 old timber cottages that traded as a budget chalet accommodation business. At the time we weren’t sure how we were going to develop things, but after thinking about our most memorable food experiences on our travels and working out what was going to work from a business and logistical perspective, we decided to build 3 more chalets, upgrade the existing cottages and build a commercial kitchen/dining room that doubled as a small restaurant / cooking school. My husband Chris is a cabinetmaker / builder and has built our entire infrastructure, which has been a herculean task! The name Foragers seemed very apt given our location in the Southern Forests region of WA, where there is so much cultivated & yet to be discovered wild food to be foraged for.
So our property is 19 acres surrounded by the Brockman State Forest, the Gloucester National Park and our neighbour’s avocado orchard. We have a beautiful kitchen garden, lots of chickens & a duck (the fox recently came for the rest…) and Wessex Saddleback pigs. The chalets are in a row, which sit on a ridge that slopes to the south-west, so the views from the chalet balconies take in the fields and the forest. We have a 25 year old oak tree next to The Field Kitchen building, which is where we have our Reception office for the chalets and the dining room & kitchen that also has a massive wood fired oven. It’s serene, peaceful and except for 2 – 3 months of the year, impossibly green.
How would you describe your style of cooking?
Rustic contemporary country food. Dishes that are not dominated by modern technical tools and prowess but driven by flavour and connection to place.
You also run cooking classes, tell me about what someone might do in one of your classes.
We offer demonstration and hands on classes with specific skill based workshops as well. I will run a thematic demonstration class generally once a month and the bread making and butchering workshops once a year. The hands-on day classes are now generally groups that will book privately. I have a group of 8 ladies tomorrow who are a walking group that have come down to our area to combine their love of walking in the bush and food.
Your farm sounds magnificent, tell me a bit about what it’s like there.
I like to think of it as more of a smallholding as Chris & I are definitely not farmers. We learnt pretty quickly how hard that was. For quite some time we had Wiltshire Horn sheep, a Jersey cow, Wessex Saddleback pigs, Aylesbury ducks and rare breed chickens but now we just have the pigs, ducks & chooks. They’re a great joy to have as each animal contributes to the cycle of things here. Garden scraps are returned to us through the eggs and beautiful meat they provide. We also have a large orchard, which over a few years I’ve filled with heritage varieties of different fruits.
You farm rare breed animals, grow heirloom vegetables and herbs and have an orchard filled with rare fruit trees. I’m sensing a theme here. Why have you taken this approach? Is there something about growing rare and unusual produce that appeals to you?
Given we’re so small and focussed more on the eating experience, it seemed important to me to focus on rare breeds and heritage varieties. It makes for interesting eating and interesting conversations around current commercial food production viability & how that translates to what the majority of people have access to in the supermarkets as opposed to farmers markets, for example.
You’ve just released your second book, Food of the Southern Forests, which is filled with gorgeous seasonal recipes and some of the best photos I have seen. Tell me a bit about your book and why you’ve taken the approach you have with it.
There are always wonderful stories around food, whether it’s the place where it’s grown, the people who grow it or the product itself and how it’s best prepared. I wanted to write about and show all those wonderful attributes of the food that’s grown here in the Southern Forests. By taking this approach, the authenticity and provenance of the produce is clearly and beautifully shown. It was important to me to include the rich community of growers and their stunning products alongside my recipes, as one cannot be without the other.
Did you always plan to write a second book, or was it a natural progression of Foragers?
It was a timing thing. The formation of the Southern Forests Food Council that was backed by our state’s Royalties for Regions funding scheme, made it possible for me to apply for support that enabled me to work with the wonderful photographer Craig Kinder of f22photography. At the same time, these images were shared with the council who were also in the process of developing our regional ‘Genuinely Southern Forests’ brand. Foragers has always been a very strong advocate for creating an identity through food for this region, so yes it was a natural fit.
You sound incredibly busy – restaurant, cooking classes, accommodation and now a new book, do you have downtime? What does a day off typically look like for you?
As with any small business there really is very little downtime, but we do try and take a short break during winter and also a week in January. My days are typically a combination of inside and outside work that towards the end of the week are focussed on preparing for our Seasonal Dinner that we offer every Saturday night.
Finally, if you could invite four people to a dinner party, who would they be and why?
They would be 4 of my closest friends who unfortunately all live a long way away. The conversation and the fun of being together would be the focus and the food, albeit delicious, would be complimentary to enjoying those very special people.
Food of the Southern Forests is available now via UWA Publishing.
I received a free advanced copy of the book from the publisher.
I have one copy of the book to give away to a lucky reader.
To enter, simply leave a comment below telling me who you would like to invite to a dinner party and why. It might be a loved one, perhaps some famous – it could be anyone, living or departed…
Winner will be chosen at random on 29th October.
Australian residents only, sorry.