Country Connoisseurs

Out in the green grazing country along the banks of the Barwon River sits what looks like an old farmhouse by a fork in the road.

This is Brae, one of the hottest dining destinations in the state. It was, for many years, the home and restaurant of food doyen and chef George Biron. “When we bought the property, we had this great orchard and garden to work with,” says head chef and owner Dan Hunter of Biron’s legacy. “We’ve continued the tradition and planted another 140 fruit trees and expanded the kitchen garden.”

Hunter - former head chef at the Royal Mail Hotel at Dunkeld and Mugaritz in Spain’s Basque Country (considered to be one of the world’s best restaurants) - opened the doors to Brae in December 2013. He was following in the strong tradition of country fine-dining that has seen Australians jump in their car, or even a plane, and travel long distances to hunt down great food and wine. Brae was greeted with a series of awards and had the small country town of Birregurra, some 130 kilometres south-west of Melbourne, buzzing with food lovers and even wealthy diners arriving for lunch by helicopter.

This scene is being repeated around the state, with food pilgrims happy to trek to far-flung places as long as there is an excellent meal, wine list and wait staff at the final destination. They’re not the only ones to benefit: their gastro-tourist dollar also supports wineries, accommodation and local jobs.

Brae’s renovated farmhouse has a warm and relaxed interior, with white walls, dark furnishings and glimpses of the trees outside through the mullioned windows.

It’s very comfortable and needs to be as dining at Brae involves a lengthy degustation of Hunter’s wonderfully understated food. He never lets his ego get in the way of truly remarkable produce whether it be the ripest tomatoes, locally grown pistachios or the freshest seafood and meat. There might be Wessex Saddleback pork, crisp and delicious, sitting next to pieces of onion made sour with house-made whey and cauliflower.

Further west, at the base of the saw-toothed peaks of the Grampians Mountains, is the Royal Mail Hotel. Located in an old bluestone pub in the main street of Dunkeld, about 3 hours’ drive from Melbourne, it had a makeover in the late 1990s and became a fine-dining destination under Hunter’s rein. British-born chef Robin Wickens took on the mantle in 2013, creating award-winning food with a real sense of place.

The Royal Mail team start the day harvesting in the garden that supplies the kitchen. “I have a self-imposed rule,” says Wickens. “If we can’t grow it, we don’t use it.” Garden produce is complemented by deliveries from local companies such as Great Ocean Ducks, Mt Zero Olives and Grampians Pure Sheep Dairy.

The dining room looks out to a native garden bordered with local stone. Beyond is the dramatic summit of Mt Sturgeon. It’s a blend of à la carte and fixed-menu dining on weekends. Lunch could be a casual meal of three courses, including perhaps a succulent piece of confit duck with cabbage, walnut and beetroot, or a dessert of zucchini cake with cream cheese and cinnamon. A weekend meal will be either five or eight courses, with a good show of fresh fish and Wagyu beef.

Many guests opt to stay in one of the modern and well-appointed on-site suites. There’s plenty to do over a weekend, with a network of walking trails leading into the river red gum forest, bushland and nearby Mt Sturgeon, which has views across the picturesque countryside.

Up in the High Country, set in a grand old bank in the gold-rush town of Beechworth, 290 kilometres north-east of Melbourne, is Provenance. Popular with critics, foodies and local winemakers, it’s set in a historic precinct alongside the courthouse and gaol where Ned Kelly had his first brushes with the lawThe stately building sits in a serene garden shaded by elms, with the old stables out back converted into comfortable ryokan-style accommodation. Chef and owner Michael Ryan is a former scientist, and uses local produce and modern European and traditional Japanese techniques to create a cuisine that goes beyond fusion. Your meal may start with a house-made silken tofu with prawns, crab, soy and Ryan’s pickled ginger, then take a right-hand turn with a plate of his finely sliced pork salami. Main could be a delicious chunk of Berkshire pork neck with fermented pumpkin slathered with a reduced soy-milk sauce and burnt garlic oil. With a polished front-of-house team and a cellar stacked with outstanding wines from the region, dining with Ryan in this glorious Victorian town is one of life’s small joys.

At Inverleigh, about 100 kilometres west of Melbourne, is Gladioli. Inverleigh is a small historic village with a few grand houses, a tight-knit community - and a great eatery. At Gladioli, chef/owner Matt Dempsey works side-by-side with local farmers, such as Western Plains Pork, to get great produce onto the plate in his understated but intense style. Dempsey hasaccumulated a string of awards, from the Electrolux Appetite for Excellence National Young Chef of the Year to, more recently, gaining two Chef’s Hats from The Age Good Food Guide. Of his food, Dempsey says, “I really like to work with juxtaposing textures.”

The action takes place in a series of intimate dining rooms in a converted weatherboard home in Inverleigh’s main street, with views into the shaded courtyard and large formal garden which is just a stone’s throw from the banks of the Leigh River.

A restaurant associated with another, albeit grander river, is Stefano’s on the Murray River at Mildura. After turning his attention away from the kitchen to concentrate on his craft brewery, celebrity, raconteur, philosopher and  chef Stefano de Pieri is back behind the pans at his famous Stefano’s Restaurant.

“I am back cooking the food I love,” de Pieri says. “I am at the stage where I just want to cook the beautiful Italian food that pleases me and those who come to dine with me.”

The fixed-menu meal might kick off with a yabby starter, followed by a pasta dish then Mallee lamb with bitter greens, Murray cod or slices of a crisp-skinned roast pork.

De Pieri often joins his guests after the meal and encourages them to take part in one of Mildura’s arts and music festivals. A champion of the land and environment, he also talks about exploring the riverscapes and wetlands of the region. He is a keen forager himself, taking time to walk the forest paths picking wild asparagus and whatever seasonal ingredients he comes across.

The seasons also dominate Annie Smithers’ life and the menu at her cafe, Du Fermier. “My garden dictates what I am going to be cooking in the kitchen each week,” says the chef, who trained under the famous Stephanie Alexander.

Smithers has half a hectare of kitchen garden by her home in Malmsbury, where she grows most of the produce for her cafe located in nearby Trentham. Surrounded by forest, and with its own waterfall, this hamlet is a collection of old shops, pubs and a working wood-fired scotch oven bakery.

Du Fermier is French for ‘from the farmhouse’, and while the food here is local, the decor and feel of the place is very French regional rustic. Just over an hour from Melbourne, people flock here for the well-priced $66 three-course meal, which may start with a cold cucumber soup flavoured with dill and then move on to a juicy piece of grilled rump steak with béarnaise sauce, finishing with a delicious quince dessert made with her own fruit. “People are appreciating more and more eating where their food is grown,” says Smithers.

Smithers enjoys the down-to-earth nature of growing a meal from scratch, something that is impossible in the city. “There’s nothing better than the feel of rich earth between your fingers,” she says. Brae’s Hunter loves the country life, too. “Look at this,” he says referring to his very bountiful orchard and garden. “It’s such a beautiful way to live and work.” 

In the town of Bright, about three hours north of Melbourne, not far from this sub-alpine town’s summer swimming hole on the Ovens River, is Bright Chocolate. In an old factory, husband and wife team Simeon and Shannon Crawley roast, crack and winnow single-origin cacao beans sourced from Ecuador, Madagascar and Trinidad. These are then conched, tempered and moulded into delicious chocolates with tropical fruit and cherry aromas. Go for free tastings and sales. On the Mornington Peninsula, in a little factory surrounded by stringy-bark forest, Trevor Brandon and his son Burke make their award-wining goat- and sheep-milk cheese under the Red Hill label. Buy a tasting plate of their ripe soft, white-mould, washed-rind and blue cheeses. They have teamed up with neighbouring winery, Main Ridge Estate, which sells wine that matches the cheeses perfectly. Out in the rich farmland at Musk near Daylesford is a small artisan factory where the Jurcan family, originally from Croatia, make quality smallgoods (think ham and salami) using traditional techniques under the banner Istra Smallgoods. Buy straight from the maker and perhaps pick up some pickles and bread for a picnic in the Wombat State Forest about half an hour away. In the depths of winter, in the highlands north of Ballarat, Black Cat Cottage & Truffles is a hive of activity, with dogs out among the oak trees sniffing out ripe truffles. Come here to buy the black delicacy from owners Andres and Lynette. On weekends they conduct truffle cooking classes.

Words by Richard Cornish - Published in Voyeur June 2015
Quick Facts 
Population Approx 3.73 million
Area 2,254 km2
Time Zone GMT +10
Languages English (official)
Currency Australian dollar (AUD)
Electricity 220 – 240v 50Hz
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