The Margaret River region of south west Western Australia is famed for its production of delicious specialty foods. There are 35 wineries as well as breweries, chocolate factories, dairies and gourmet shops. All are open to the public and offer tastings of their superb produce.
For a less calorific but equally tempting experience a visit to Silk Road, Australia’s first commercial silk farm is a must-see on any Margaret River itinerary. Walk through the door and you enter a luxurious world of rainbow coloured creations and industry in miniature, where thousands of silk worms are hard at work.
Amanda Tagliaferri and Rob Sheahan are the farmers of these tiny creatures. Amanda explains the life cycle of the silk worms to curious visitors and says: “The worms are encouraged to produce silk all year round. The eggs need to experience winter temperatures before they germinate, so we keep them in the refrigerator.” Then an artificial springtime is created in the incubator and the eggs hatch. In this way, the farm produces between 35,000 and 50,000 cocoons every year.
Silk worms might be small but they will increase their body weight by 10,000 times in their short lives, so a constant food source is a necessity. The favourite food of silk worms is the leaves of the mulberry tree and, in order to have enough to feed the worms as they grow, both black and white mulberry trees are grown in a custom built hothouse. This keeps the trees in leaf all year round and ensures that the silk worms will continue to produce their silken cocoons.
Once the cocoons are harvested and processed, they are sent to Cambodia where the silk is spun and woven into fabric. Silk Road works in partnership with a Cambodian co-operative, where Cambodian farmers blend the Australian silk with their own silk, spin and weave it and create luxury items such as scarves, men’s and women’s clothing and small purses. Silk Road then buys these beautiful pieces from the farmers and sells them in their Margaret River shop. This philanthropic partnership between the Australians and the Cambodians has enabled disadvantaged people to make a living with the guidance of humanitarian aid groups. “We have a wonderful relationship with the Cambodian farmers and we know it’s having a positive impact in their communities,” says Amanda proudly.
As well as beautiful silk garments in exquisite colours, there are some tasty by-products of silk worm farming. The mulberry trees fruit every year and the shop sells mulberry jams, vinegars and sauces. These delicious treats can also be enjoyed at the café – freshly baked scones with cream and mulberry jam are popular.
On this farm nothing is wasted. Even the worms’ saliva, which has to be removed from the raw silk yarn, is put to good use. The saliva is actually a protein called sericin, known for its skin nourishing properties. Amanda explains that the sericin is washed out of the silk yarn using a mildly caustic shampoo in boiling water. The subsequent solution is then used to make soaps and other indulgent bath products which are also sold in the shop.
After seeing the silk worms in production and the mulberry trees in the hothouse, enjoying fresh scones and hot coffee in the café and choosing a silk scarf or two it will be time to move on to the next stop on the Margaret River gourmet trail. The workers will probably be just as busy but they won’t be quite so small!