Extravaganza like no other
It is dusk and women in skirts totter on their heels over a freshly mown paddock. Four-wheel drives with country number plates arrive and Perth people in sedans tow caravans behind them.
The Taste Master, Rich Keam - an enthusiastic UK blogger touring WA for good tucker stories - drives his hired camper van to a spot on the edge of the paddock.
The sheep are long gone from the Nenke family property, in Kukerin, but a peak inside the shearing shed reveals a hint of what is to come.
Silverware, candelabras, pioneer ornaments and dried flowers are arranged above large round tables with a grand piano in the centre.
There is a sense of anticipation - the Cambinata Yabby Extravaganza is about to start.
Waiters walk from family homesteads down the farm track towards the shed. They are all volunteers and include the six children of Mary and Michael Nenke, many of whom have driven from other parts of WA for the big annual event, a celebration of all things yabby and an example of a successful, decade-long marketing campaign.
Yes, it is a dinner. But the dinner promotes the yabbies and the conference and catering facilities of the farm. It is also a sensible approach to country hospitality. Kukerin may not have the population to support a local restaurant and, most of the time, the Nenkes are busy processing yabbies and putting in a crop, but once a year the family caters on a large scale.
There are not many West Australians who have not heard of Mary and her husband, Michael. The week before, I tell my city mates I am headed to Kukerin for a dinner in the bush.
"Ehh?" they say.
"You know, the yabby lady, " I reply.
"Oh, of course. We've heard about that, it sounds great. Maybe we'll do it next year."
The event's consistency in terms of both regularity and quality is important. Not only do guests return year after year, it keeps the Nenke family's products - yabbies, either live or brined in flavoured vinegar - on the radar.
The dinner has evolved into a huge friendly advertisement for the bush crustaceans, as well as the other food products such as Michael's Honey (produced on the farm), olive oil and home-made dukkah. All are supplied to customers in Australia and Asia.
Mrs Nenke said the idea for the first dinner, in 2003, came from a Curtin University professor.
"He suggested we have a silver service dinner under the stars and invite the prime minister, " she said.
"We decided it was too cold under the stars but we had a big unused shearing shed. We removed the sheep yards, covered the grates and decorated the walls with hessian and material drapes, paintings and photographs."
Back to the night. At the door, before we are ushered to our seats by the couple's eldest son, Paul Nenke, I chat to other guests - a mother and her daughter from Perth. The tickets were pricey, the drive was long and we all face a night without our usual bed. Would it be worth it?
Well, it was. The seven-course menu prepared by French chef Xavier Poupel was impressive.
Mr Poupel, who runs Terroir & Table, a mobile catering service from Denmark, has a history of culinary feats. The chef has served royalty and celebrities including the Aga Khan, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Robert Redford.
Now, I am not a copywriter for Mr Poupel, but it should be reported that his food, prepared with a small team including his wife Janette Judge-Poupel, was not just OK. It was superb. There were sandalwood nut crumbles, miso jus, wattleseed desserts, yabby cebiches and poached beef fillets.
Then there was the top-class entertainment. Perth pianist Cameron Evans played for his supper. Apparently, Mr Evans enjoys it so much, he returns year after year, while folk/ballad singer Minky G, also of Perth, sung beautifully.
Pat O'Neil, of Tarin Rock, made most laugh with his bush poetry and stories of city blokes visiting the country.
But what did the punters say? At brekky the next day, the same mother and daughter reported they loved it. A further canvass around over bacon and eggs revealed a lot of smiling, happy faces, most of whom also enjoyed a tour of the yabby tanks and facilities afterwards.
But it is not always enough just having the customers enjoy it. Mrs Nenke is also an expert marketer. Apart from sending out press releases far and wide, she personally invited a young reporter from Great Southern Herald, based in Katanning, and secured the attendance of a Mr Keam, the Taste Master, who also went home happy.
His glowing blog ended with, "what lovely people", while his video on the event and the Kulin Bush Races was a cracker.
A final memory of a remarkable weekend, was driving towards Perth and seeing high-profile guest Dr Graham Jacobs, Member for Eyre, and his wife Kathryn on their morning jog along an empty bush highway. Unforgettable.
Cate Rocchi is related to Mary Nenke.
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