Entwined in the Valley: Meet the Producer Marlene Katich

Published on October 9, 2017
Categories - Blog, Read About, The Foodies

It’s time to reacquaint yourself with the Swan Valley at the annual Entwined in the Valley festival, running from 12-15 October. This year Entwined welcomes four ambassadors on board: James Talijancich (The Winemaker), Jude Taylor (The Artist), Michael Hartnell (The Chef) as well as one of our favourite residents Marlene Katich (The Producer). Marlene Katich is a proud and passionate supporter of the region. Her family business Kato’s at 3000 is characterised not just by the quality of fresh local produce that they sell, but also the warm and friendly service that you receive. One visit and you’ll be a fan for life!

Marlene at Kato’s, check out those grapes!

Marlene’s relationship with the Swan Valley begins in 1928, long before she was born, in fact her parents had not yet met. That year, Marlene’s Yugoslav father boarded a boat out of Naples and arrived in Australia as an illegal immigrant. By 1933 he was able to buy into the Swan Valley in partnership, as one of many migrants “seeking viability to their lives that wasn’t available in a war torn country back home,” explains Marlene. But he’d promised himself not to seek marriage until he’d set up a life here. By 1955 that time had come so, as was done, he sent a letter back to Yugoslavia asking his family to find him a wife.

“He sent a letter back to the mother country saying they had to find somebody for him,” she relates. “My mother had been through war scenarios and had nothing left. Women had no ownership of land, and her mother had passed. So she took on this gentleman.” She came out to Australia with a three month VISA, with three months to decide whether this was a path she’d like to take. She decided she would.

“I grew up in a Croatian enclave, my school – Caversham Primary School – was full of ‘ics’!” says Marlene. It was a community of hard working families, an ethos she and her husband have proudly passed onto their children. “What we were brought up with was true grit,” she says. “I tell my children that there is no way you can fail because genetically you have all the tools to succeed.”

On her sixth birthday Marlene was told she was in charge and given the house keys. At the age of 10 she’d be dropped off at the supermarket once a week and given an hour to gather supplies. By age 11 she was serving customers at the family business – so it’s no surprise that it still comes naturally to her.

It seemed a natural progression for Marlene to train as a home economics teacher, but after marrying she returned to work in the family business, before she and her husband established Kato’s at 3000 in 2010. “It was hard going to build the business,” she recalls. “You have to do so much to get them to your door. I had an advantage though as I’d dealt with customers since such a young age, it was the most natural thing to me.”

“People were welcomed and I felt so humbled that they would come to our business so I had to make sure that they would come again.” Each year Marlene would add another product to their list of offerings: preserved lemons one year, cordial the next, vinegars and so on. A more recent addition is her ice cream – and this is where she sees herself growing, in her role as ice cream mixologist.

The ice cream first launched 4 seasons ago. Marlene’s nephew has learning difficulties and he was looking for a summertime job. She decided that selling ice cream would give him something to do that would help him use eye contact and concentration. This was a huge success, for herself, her nephew and the community at large who responded so well to their products. Marlene’s nephew later obtained a landscaping apprenticeship but the three months that he worked with Marlene had a huge effect.

Nowadays Marlene’s shop is known for its unique flavours, which are largely reliant on what is being grown on the family property and in the region at any given time. “Take sweet potatoes,” laughs Marlene, “you put that as an element into ice cream and people say ‘Really?’ but then the try it and say ‘Okay, this is fantastic.’”

She is always inspired by her surroundings, primarily using Swan Valley fruit and vegetables to create unique combinations. The beetroot she uses is grown by one of her neighbours, an 83 year old woman by the name of Peggy. And look closely at the ingredients list, you’ll see ‘Peggy’s beetroot’ proudly named. Then a kid comes in and gives an idea for a flavour, that becomes ‘Abel’s favourite’ – it’s just all part of the community feeling that Marlene and her family have created.

Grapes, of course, are in abundance in the Swan Valley and Marlene loves to challenge herself to present grape flavours in new and interesting ways, one weekend presenting 4 different grape flavours at once! Inspiration comes from the world: “Every cuisine offers something. It’s exciting and I’m not done yet, in fact I’ve barely touched the surface.”

Marlene is the first to admit that she has had some major disasters creating flavours, but she is so passionate about it that she keeps experimenting to find the perfect balance. Are there any fruits or vegetables that she won’t use? “I have said no to the durian!” she exclaims.

Kato’s opens from November until April each year, and Marlene loves the excitement that comes with customers returning at the beginning of each new season. “People take a personal interest in the building of your business in the Swan Valley; they feel personally invested in everything you do and that is the most unbelievable feeling. A customer might bring in his new girlfriend, then the next season they are married, down the track they come in with their children and you go through that whole process with them. You can’t buy that feeling, it’s such an honour.” That community spirit is not just unique to Kato’s, Marlene feels it’s endemic to the Swan Valley where “everyone supports each other.”

You’re invited to be part of the community too, with a raft of events taking place from Thursday to Sunday this week all over the Swan Valley. Taste wine, meet producers, learn a new skill, paint the picturesque landscape at an art class, listen to some live jazz: it’s all in the Entwined in the Valley program. And you can keep up to date with Kato’s on their Facebook page or Instagram. Be sure to drop in on Marlene – tell her we sent you.

Claire Trolio.

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