The foodie’s guide to Gippsland, Victoria
A delicious exploration of Victoria’s Gippsland region.
“Do you want some thyme? I’ll pick it for you.” Farmer Peter ‘Macca’ McDonnell bends down to a verdant herb patch and starts snipping.
We’re on his farm – Macca’s Farm, of course – in Glen Forbes, 110km south-east of Melbourne. An hour-and-a-bit from the city, this is one of the gateways to Gippsland, the underloved region of Victoria that is finally being romanced by more tourists.
The welcoming sign at Macca's farm.
McDonnell’s farm, which he runs with his wife Angelika Christensen, is one of the reasons the area is starting to flourish. Open to the public five days a week, Macca’s is charming; an unvarnished slice of country life. Pigs and chickens graze together under the watchful eye of friendly farm dogs, a big shed grows hydroponic vegetables, and rows of waist-high planters are dotted with strawberries that visitors can pick in season.
Friendly local faces in Gippsland's rolling hills.
There’s an on-site store and cafe too, both fuelled by farm produce. It’s deliciously wonderful to sit in the unpretentious dining room chomping on a house-baked bread roll stuffed with farm eggs and bacon and slathered with relish made from tomatoes grown just over yonder.
“This is typical Gippsland,” Christensen says as she weighs parsnips and potatoes for a local customer. “The food is real, proper local produce from farmland run by farmers rather than big enterprises.” Christensen has been in the region for 15 years and, while it’s getting busier, she sees untapped potential.
“It’s still largely unexplored,” she says. “Gippsland offers beautiful beaches, great surfing, wide open spaces, lots of walks and bike riding tracks. It’s the perfect area for family activities and touring.”
Gippsland is a vast region, extending from Melbourne’s fringes eastwards for 500km, to where the Victorian coastline runs into New South Wales. It’s the land of the Indigenous Gunaikurnai people and, even today, the Princes Highway, the region’s spine, follows ancient trails and trading routes filled with natural resources. The area has long been an important food bowl for Melbourne, prized particularly for its dairy, and peaceful black-and-white Holstein cows are a common sight across Gippsland.
The region is home to exceptionally beautiful farmland.
At the southern tip of the region – and, indeed, mainland Australia – is Wilsons Promontory National Park, three hours from Melbourne. Fondly known as The Prom, it’s the region’s most prized natural attraction, a national park with spectacular beaches, hiking, camping and wildlife spotting. The wildlife spots humans too: experienced Prom campers know to store food in their cars, safe from marauding wombats.
Further east, past the fishing hub of Lakes Entrance, the population becomes sparser and the coastline wilder, with bush camping, remote hiking trails and far-flung towns. Throughout the region, heritage and innovation are happy bedfellows: Gippsland’s historic charms are nurtured and showcased in new ventures and dining experiences that make it a brilliant place for tasty touring.
Wilsons Promontory National Park.
Melbourne chef Alejandro Saravia loves Gippsland so much he’s creating a three-level city restaurant in homage to the region. Farmer’s Daughters will open in 2020 in the heart of the city but Saravia wants it to feel like a wander through the forests and hills of Gippsland.
“There are a lot of hidden gems in the region,” he says. He loves Fish Creek – an artists’ hub nestled in gentle hills with a pretty main street – and reckons a beer in local pub, Fish Creek Hotel is compulsory. “It’s iconic, like going to France and visiting the Eiffel Tower.”
The deco exterior of Fish Creek Hotel.
Nearby Meeniyan, a quiet town with a vibrant music scene, is another favourite. The Meeniyan Store makes great coffee, sells local produce and has two cute bunnies waiting to say hello from their hutches in the sprawling garden. The Great Southern Rail Trail zips by over the back fence, so you’ll often see lycra-wearing cyclists refuelling here for the next stage.
A few bunny hops down the main street, Meeniyan Pantry & Cellar curates an excellent selection of local wines. Great Gippsland drops such as the Dirty Three pinot noir can be bought in-store and consumed – if thirst strikes – on the front verandah.
Korumburra is one of Gippsland’s larger hubs but there’s a calm and spacious haven in its centre. The Borough Dept Store brings a cafe, cake shop and wine store under one roof, all showcasing the region with warm hospitality. Step inside and you’ll see people swooning over baker Tamsin Carvan’s cakes, while others rhapsodise about the potato toastie before stepping across to the wine store.
Breweries abound too. Not far from The Borough, there’s the friendly Burra Brewing Co, where you can sip lager and eat pizza in the lee of the brewing tanks. Sailors Grave beers star on many local lists – they’re brewed in Orbost in East Gippsland and sold with pride throughout the region.
The slick interiors of Burra Brewing Co.
Dominating the gorgeous streetscape of South Gippsland’s tiny Loch is a grand old red-brick former bank that’s now Loch Brewery & Distillery. Stop by for tastings of small-batch gin, whisky and ale. Closer to Melbourne, in little Lang Lang, Howler Brewing Company is a fine pit stop for craft beer paddles and pub grub.
In the coastal town of Paynesville in East Gippsland, chef Mark Briggs has swapped fine dining city life for seafood-focused Gippsland cuisine at his restaurant Sardine. “It’s an amazing part of the world,” he says. “When I was a chef in Melbourne we used a lot of produce from Gippsland, especially seafood caught out of Lakes Entrance. To be close to the source is incredible. My fish supplier sends me a message every morning about the catch: maybe red mullet, sardines, even a video of flounder still flapping.”
Sardine eatery head chef and co-owner, Mark Briggs (supplied).
Sardine’s food bowl also includes Forge Creek Free Range eggs, where “the chickens are so happy in their field, they come running over to say hello”, Briggs says; the salad bowl town of Lindenow, which ships lettuce and cabbage all over Australia; and cherished locals who drop in with bags of native finger limes or lemons.
“Our customers are great,” Briggs says. “It’s a strong community.” A short skip from the restaurant is a ferry port, shuttling across to Raymond Island, one of Victoria’s best sites for wild koala-spotting.
There are no koalas to be seen, but goannas and wallabies aplenty, at Cape Conran, further into East Gippsland and five hours from Melbourne. I camp at this rugged coastal park every summer, setting up a tent village with a gaggle of families and spending the days leaping in the waves, diving for abalone to cook over our camp fire, and splish-splashing through nearby tidal flats to net prawns.
It’s a magical spot, layered with Indigenous sites, busy with wildlife and birdsong, relaxingly remote yet easily accessible, and, like all of Gippsland, it feels like a treasure waiting to be discovered.
Words by Dani Valent; Imagery by Peter Tarasiuk