So I had this wild plan. Do a Victorian country roadtrip taking in five restaurants in four days. Some said it wasn’t possible. Others said I was crazy to attempt such a thing. My gut felt otherwise and so after weeks of training to lose weight, eat healthily and maintaining a discipline of regimented exercise I was ready to commit my gut and the rest of me, to the trip.
I was keen to see firsthand why the restaurants I had chosen to visit were not just surviving in their rural and in some cases, remote locations, but they were positively thriving. Of course it helps that the people behind each enterprise are committed, passionate and highly skilled, their reputations preceding them however as many people know, it takes more than this to be successful in food and this is distilled further when you throw a rural locale into the mix. It even made the Australian on what must've been a slow news day.
Wanting to concentrate on the west and north, leaving the east for another time, I whittled my list down to five establishments. This was based purely on the opening times of the venues and the time I could afford to be away from the café.
Many country restaurants, it could be argued, do the bulk of their trade from Thursday to Sunday. In fact many I researched are only open these days so that pruned a few off my list straight away. Also I had to take into consideration the travel time between towns and the rests I’d need along the way to keep fatigue at bay.
The restaurants that made the itinerary were: Loam in Drysdale, The Royal Mail in Dunkeld, Sunnybrae in Birregurra, The Lake House in Daylesford and The Provenance in Beechworth.
And so through my bookings the shape of my driving map began to materialize. It went like this: Sunday, Melbourne to Drysdale on the Bellarine Peninsula for lunch, then off to Dunkeld in the Western district on the edge of the Grampians for dinner. Monday, drive to Warrnambool, on to Camperdown and through Colac before dropping in for lunch at Birregurra then it was off to Geelong, for the night. Early Tuesday, I set forth for Ballarat and onto Daylesford where my lunch reservation awaited. That day I explored the region and visited nearby Hepburn for a casual dinner. Finally Wednesday dawned and the longest stretch of driving lay before me. After a hearty breakfast I set out stopping at Trentham to taste some incredible wood fired sourdough at the Red Beard Bakery and Kyneton to view the restaurant precinct of Piper Street. Then onto the monotony of the Hume from Seymour, turned off to the Alpine road, through Oxley and Milawa before stopping at Myrtleford for a taste of the freshest and most delicious butter I have ever tasted. My final destination for dinner was in Beechworth, a mere twenty minutes away and upon arrival I cruised its broad streets and majestic avenues of Plane trees in the low afternoon sun to get a feel for the town.
On the journey it was amazing to see the landscape change around me. I was expecting to see an aridity of a remembered western district but I hurtled through some of the most verdant paddocks of the trip much to my surprise. What also struck me were the numerous cattle breeds that reflected the pastures on which they sustained themselves and their intended ultimate purpose, flicking from dairy to beef and back again numerous times. Sheep of course were omnipresent throughout the whole road trip and though I assume I ventured near some piggeries, none were obvious. There were a few chicken and egg producers along the way but they tended to be bit publicity shy save for one remarkable example between Geelong and Ballarat.
I also noticed a few signs of farms selling organic and conventional vegetables though I didn’t see as many roadside stalls as one does here in Tassie? All of the restaurants I visited engage with growers in their area and some even have their own gardens supplying much or part of what they use on their menus. Anyone who has ever tried to live off what they grow will tell you that it is a very difficult, time consuming and logistically challenging undertaking and even more so if you are doing it commercially for a restaurant. I suspect that much of the impetus for embarking on a kitchen garden would be to access fresh vegetables, herbs and fruit that one cannot easily procure when remotely located and the freedom of growing exactly what you require and to the size that you want.
My road trip confirmed for me that an encounter with excellence is an experience that people will travel for and where the oft quoted line which has become a cliché ‘Build it and they will come’ from the movie ‘Field of Dreams’- rings so true.
Perhaps travellers are seeking a re-connection to the plants, animals and country in which we all get our sustenance and are looking beyond the confines of the cities to achieve this? To me, there is a palpable difference between eating in the context of the built environment and that of the rural surrounds. The former must embellish and embroider the provenance of its food currency in order to attract custom above the white noise of competition whereas the latter doesn’t need to scramble for the same sort of traction, as it resonates from within like the hum of the bush in spring, validated by being in situ.
gate to Loam
a Warnambool institution
from the road
images of Daylesford
images from Daylesford
inside Frangos + Frangos
Breakfast and Beer
Trenthams Famous bakery
John tending the Scotch oven
Trenthams du Fermier
a name from the past in Kyneton
So to the food.
This is not a 'critque' of the work of other chefs but merely my observations and thoughts on some wonderful meals. Sorry no Photos of the Lake House-goy caught in engaging conversation and forgot to snap!
The multi course degustation menu is to chefs what the concept album is for prog-rockers of the 70’s, think Mike Oldfield, Emerson Lake & Palmer and of course Pink Floyd. It’s cerebral, thoughtful, introspective and very personal. It also highlights for me the fragility that exists between diner and chef, a foot wrong and both are in disappointment-land. I love this high-wire act of technical bravura and kitchen wizardry however I tend to get a bit restless after a couple of hours at the table so I was a bit pensive as I was seated near the window which afforded the most glorious view overlooking the expansive olive grove at Loam. I was also dealing with some pangs of guilt, as I was about to consume more food in the next few days that millions of people eat in a month and wrestling with the notion that this whole folly was a first-world indulgence of the highest calibre. I reasoned though that it was my hard earned money that I had decided to spend and spend it in businesses with a similar if superior standing than my own in the country. Jobs, producers and a wider rural economy were relying on gastronomes like myself to keep the tills flush with coinage.
So steadying my nerves I strolled in.
There’s no ‘menu’ as such here but rather a procession of seasonal, local and foraged items, expertly cooked and presented with the restrained hand of a ‘less is more’ disciple. You choose either the five course or seven course offers. I made an effort to take a shot of eat dish with my i-phone and documented what I ate also, this helped me pass the time in my own company as well as chatting to the amiable and enthusiastic staff.
Some dishes resonated with me more than others and perhaps if I were the kind of person who looked for a literal manifestation of what was described, I might be disappointed however the sum of the menu was balanced and not leaving me bloated and uncomfortable. The diner is presented with their menu at the end of the meal and I crosschecked my own scribbling’s with it as one would a golf scorecard!
When the time capsule is prized open in a hundred years from now it will contains menus from our restaurants of the day and highlight their love affair with minimalist language. Written in point form, devoid of any hint of technique, any clue of how it might arrive and delivered as one would read the contents of an Ikea flat packed table: nuts, bolts, wooden table top, wooden legs etc. in that cool, detached clichéd way we associate with the Scandinavians. I find it curious that the obvious love that they have for produce, is not reflected in the words of the menu. I don’t mean overly floral adjectives but this type of menu relies heavily on the sophistication of the diner to ‘get it’ and to ‘trust’ the cooking. Does this limit the appeal of a place? Perhaps but then again if people are seeking it out then what does it matter?
There were some unusual pairings like beef fat and squid which if I’m honest, didn’t appeal at first when it was explained to me but upon eating I was convinced. Though these components were but two of the five listed, they were the ones that stood out as the more challenging.
Loam has a reputation for its inventive and curious ice cream concoctions, amongst other things and I was asked my opinion on what flavour I thought the scoop was. To me it tasted like malted barley or wort to the home brewer but when it was revealed to me that it was in fact caramelised onion, it made sense immediately. I finished the meal with some exquisite and dainty petit fours: a lemon tart and some Lilliput scones and jam. My tastes and perception and I’ll admit, my rusted-on prejudices were tested today. Did I enjoy the experience? Unequivocally yes, was it was I was expecting? No. I pondered this over the bill. I sat there observing my experience in the third person and I suppose by my unusually reserved reaction I was left a bit un-moved? Maybe I’m simply too old, to out of the loop or too jaded. Either way, I’m sure it was me, not you, if you catch my drift.
The team in the kitchen looked weary when I popped my head to say g’day and I was flabbergasted to see only Aaron the chef and another chef in the kitchen. The work they must have done to produce that lunch was bewildering, made me exhausted just thinking about it and also made me re-calibrate up another notch on my respect-o-meter.
So after consulting my map, thanking the staff I was out the screen door, into the afternoon sun and a long drive to the Royal Mail.
the Royal Mail
I arrived at The RM a half hour before my dinner reservation so I had time to freshen up in the very well appointed rooms. I took an effort not to lie back on the huge bed and snooze but I knew I wouldn’t get up if I did.
The RM plays its roles as local pub and one of the great dining experiences in the country with a considered ease and sure-footedness. There are not too many establishments that can pull this off in my opinion, as the tendency is to blur the offering to cater for the middle ground. Not so here, there’s delineation in the dining room not unlike the DMZ on the Berlin wall, minus the guards and I suppose the Eastern Bloc queues. There might be a divide between the bistro and the dining room but the attention to detail I saw exiting the kitchen gave no hint of a gear-change-down-in-quality type offering here.
So before me was an eleven course Dego (see how I’ve familiarized it now I’m a veteran!) which was different from Loams in the way it had a lyrical almost Pam Ayers quality about the wording that I half expected it to rhyme.
‘Marron and globe artichoke, gem lettuce and rose’ and ‘pigeon and beetroot, rhubarb and charred radicchio’ for instance.
The flavours here seemed pronounced and profound. I was intrigued by many of the mergers and noticed like at Loam, the tradition of serving food on plates was going the way of the dinosaurs with rocks, boards, slate and glass being used.
My favourite flavour combination though was from the humble parsnip. It had been cooked in syrup, de-hydrated, scorched and paired with cream fraiche, blueberries, apple and fennel. The parsnip / cream taste reminded me very much of cornflakes and milk which I associate with happy memories as a kid getting my very own small box of them for brekkie whilst staying at a motel. Not sure if that was the intended response but for me it was still a very satisfying one.
I was also beginning to notice an absence of any kind of starch in the meals. Spuds, rice, pasta etc. were clearly absent. Perhaps this is a way to negotiate the possibility of Tanking whilst eating your way through so many courses?
I was very impressed that here we were, three and a half hours give or take from Melbourne on a Sunday evening and the place was full to the brim with guests.
I was lucky to chat to Dan the chef and thanked him and his team for what was an exceptional meal before I made my way wearily to my room and the crisp comfort of fresh linen and glorious sleep.
Next morn after a simple buffet breakfast and a few coffees I hit the road for the venerable Sunnybrae restaurant and cooking school. I had to swing by Warrnambool for a nostalgic hamburger at Kermonds, a business from another era still doing a roaring trade, immune to fashion and spin, doesn’t rely on its so-kitsch-its-hip fit-out and lets the magnificence of its simply prepared burgers do the talking. Good.
I arrived at sleepy Birregurra the day after the Fair had been on and it seemed everyone was having a kip so I relied on signage to point me in the right direction. Finally I spot the gates and I’m up a snaking driveway, past rows and rows of edible vegetation, fruit and nut trees, the diatrus of a busy working garden and toward the rambling homestead and the gravitas of finally meeting George with whom I have corresponded online for a few years begins to settle on me.
I arrived at Sunnybrae just as one of the cooking classes were coming to an end and my trepidation vanished as George immediately put me at ease with his warm greeting and genuine hospitality. Pretty soon we were chinwagging and swapping stories as the students prepared the rest of the meal, the long table awaited us, an air of civility and grace permeated every nook of the house and I felt totally in my element. Lunch consisted of fresh home grown asparagus and artichokes with a Seville orange Hollandaise, smoked free-range turkey thigh from the wood-oven with a peppery remoulade and finished with a perfect soufflé and two types of freshly churned ice cream. Sitting there in the room with conversation bubbling around me I soaked it all in, drifting in and out of the delirium of feeling fully satiated. George noticed my contentment and gave me a cheeky wink. If I were to use a literary metaphor I would say he managed to get his message across with the minimum of fuss, his parsimonious usage of the language of food belied the generosity of the three courses.
I got the impression that he feels if you can’t say what you mean concisely then no amount of meandering and ponderous paragraphs will do it for you either, but that’s just me guessing.
I gave George and Di a gift from Cygnet as I left and he gave me some flour he had grown and milled, before I headed for the big smoke of Melbourne. As I drove, the paddocks and dairy cows flashed by giving way to industrial parks, suburbs and white noise the thought of that simple and delicious meal kept me sustained.
After a night in Melbs I was away early toward Daylesford through Ballarat.
the Lake House
The Lakehouse is Daylesford is the Lakehouse and vice versa. They are synonymous with each other, forged over three decades on the anvil of a growing interest in regional food, tourism and the tree/sea changers for whom this town was one of the first to attract city people to live here. It is a big business. It employs many people. It has remained at the top of its game for so many years that now that it is regarded by many me included, as the benchmark venue for a successful regional restaurant and deluxe accommodation model.
The restaurant is plush, the views are postcard and the attention to detail is obvious.
The menu, though in a conventional format, has a few nods to some of the techniques a la mode but is too canny to be conned into some sort of faddy Emperors new clothes territory-this Wolf has the street-smarts to know the real sheep from the clothing.
The wolf in question is Alla Wolf –Tasker and sadly she is not on site the day I eat lunch but you know what? I know it’s going to be smashing. It is.
The service here is top notch and I am treated royally. I enjoy an entrée, a main and a dessert. The kitchen sends me out their signature entrée of smoked eel and bacon, sour cream and beetroots, for which I was grateful. The menu says exactly what gets put down in front of me. The cooking is precise, polished and exactly what I would expect of a place of this calibre. I loved the rabbit loin, cotechino and cassoulet, my kind of food. It was a delicious well-rounded meal and one that I could identify with, having come through kitchens with a similar approach to cooking over the years.
It’s clear why the Lakehouse looms large as a Titan in the Australian country restaurant scene-it delivers the goods.
I spent the night in Daylesford and ate in the very hip looking Darmagi and from the simple but well executed food, I reckon its one to watch.
Salumi alla Darmagi
The next day I had brekkie at the quirky Breakfast and Beer, a café that shared a similar aesthetic, which I loved, to my own café.
The Istra bacon and free-range eggs were packed full of flavour!
inside Breakfast + Beer
It took me all day to get to Beechworth and I arrived in the late afternoon as the shadows began to stretch and the magnificent avenues of russet coloured plane trees were dappling a golden hue through their foliage. What a pretty town.
The Provenance looks imposing from the outside but it’s anything but when you are greeted by the affable Michael and Jeanette. This year the Good Food Guide awarded, ‘Chef of the year’ to Michael Ryan and I was very excited by the prospect of dining here. I unpacked in my deluxe room, which was finished with all the accoutrements of luxury. Every time I enter one of these lavishly appointed rooms a mini clock appears in my conscience and counts down the time until I have to reluctantly vacate it and go back to the real world. So after dressing for dinner, which I think is a sadly overlooked custom these days, I made my way to the dining room.
Here you are presented with a menu but I simply put myself at the mercy of Michael and asked to be fed until I was replete. What followed was a unique juxtaposition of a Japanophile chef with feet firmly planted in his region with some Italian heritage lapping at the edges. This could explain a menu, which combines Tofu, kimchee daikon, ginger and prawn cracker with chestnut pasta, Grana padano, bottarga, clams and chorizo. In less assured hands this could be a mish mash of cherry picked cuisines assembled from a menu-by-committee but in Michaels hands it all makes perfect sense. A dish that really stood out for me was the grilled lettuce, surf clams, chorizo and bottarga. The crumbed short rib, daikon puree and kimchee, was a showstopper.
The meal ended with a citrus flourish, lemon curd and ginger breadcrumbs. I got to talk to Michael at length about the issues he faces as a restaurateur in a regional area and was not surprised to hear we share similar concerns. It was a meal worthy of being my last stop in my gastronomical tour, the jewel in its crown perhaps. The next day I hit the road and ruminated over the quality and diversity of restaurant experiences on offer in Regional Victoria. I wish Tassie could have similar regional beacons dotted throughout the state however I think that will be a long time coming.