There’s not much the producer of this gold-country region can’t grow or make with a little love.
It’s springtime in Central Victoria and the road to Tooborac is lined with red gums and a carpet of African daisies. The town, an hour’s drive due north of Melbourne, is tiny so it’s easy to spot Belinda Hagan in her apron, waiting out front at McIvor Farm.
She has set tables on the sunny verandah for lunch, complete with cut garden roses in milk-bottle vases. The rolling pastures behind us nourish the Hagans’ herd of 800 Berkshire pigs that, in turn, are about to nourish us. The leg ham, Veneto salami, dry-cured capocollo and Spanish-style lomo all come from this 220-hectare farm. There’s a gooey, luscious Camembert made by Sue and Bruce McGorlick at their Locheilan farm – some 100 kilometres north of here – Belinda’s zucchini pickle, olives from Saluté Oliva in Boort and cheese-and-chive scones baked by Belinda and her mum that morning. This feast of earthly delights is served with Syrahmi’s flowery Garden of Earthly Delights Riesling made by chef-turned-winemaker Adam Foster from grapes grown down the road.
Since Europeans flocked here for the 1850s gold rush, Central Victoria has been big on producing its own food. The old bluestone flour mills and butter factories that stud the landscape like stately piles are proof of that. But a new breed of producers – and fresh ideas about farming – is taking root in the region.
Belinda and her husband, Jason, are typical of the new wave. United by a love of pigs, they returned to his third-generation family farm in 2008 to transform it into a model of sustainability and ethical animal practices. Their choice marbled pork has proved so popular, they’re in the process of doubling the herd to meet demand.
There are similar stories of success and inspiration at the Bendigo Community Farmers Market, held on the second Saturday of the month beneath the GPO clock tower. At the Yapunyah Meadow Grazed Chickens (03 5794 9279) stall, Mandy and Ian McClaren are Joel Salatin acolytes who have adopted and adapted the influential American farmer’s biological techniques on their 170-hectare property beside Heathcote-Graytown National Park.
Look out, too, for Jason Hagan and the cheesemaking McGorlicks among the stallholders, and Swiss-born farmers Marlies and Peter Eicher with their Saluté Oliva certified organic cold-pressed extra virgin olive oils. The Eichers hail from Boort; not strictly within the Central Victorian remit but home to Australia’s largest – and some say finest – olive plantations.
The market is the first stop on bimonthly From Market to Paddock to Plate tours started by young restaurateur Sonia Anthony last March. She and husband Nick own Bendigo’s only hatted restaurant, Masons of Bendigo, and her tours embrace some of their favourite food-makers. “Our passion and focus is our local producers,” explains Sonia. “We are at a great place at a very good time, with really interesting stuff coming from within 100 kilometres.”
She proves the point with a visit to B&B Basil on the outskirts of town, where former duck farmers George and Jan Bobin and their daughter, Susie Young, ship 30,000 micro herbs and 3000 punnets of edible flowers each week to restaurants and markets. The 42 varieties of tiny greens range from purslane to savory, harvested by a multicultural group that includes members of Bendigo’s 1000-strong community of Karen Burmese.
After lunch we drop by Adam Foster’s stunning Tooborac home, set among soft green hills strewn with giant granite boulders, for the “world premiere” of his 2015 Foster e Rocco Riserva Rosé. Textured and rich, the chilled sangiovese goes beautifully with summer sunshine and a plate of his homemade salami.
Fellow winemakers Liam Anderson (Wild Duck Creek Estate) and Simon Osicka (Paul Osicka Wines) have brought their latest vintages along, too, and together we taste the fruits of the new vanguard of Heathcote viticulture. Their low-intervention approach to winemaking, best summed up by Foster, is: “Let the grapes do the work. Let that piece of dirt speak for itself.”
First, find a place to stay
Base yourself in Bendigo (less than two hours’ drive north of Melbourne) at The Schaller Studio, a funky, affordable 120-room hotel in the grounds of the old hospital. Or opt for opulence at Castlemaine’s Empyre hotel. Just 90 minutes from Melbourne, this gold-rush pub has been extravagantly restored and opened as a six-suite hotel with a dazzling array of chandeliers.
Take your pick of morning fuel stops
Breakfast is big in Bendigo. Follow the locals to new sensations such as Edwards Providore, a café-greengrocer-pantry in suburban Kennington, where owners Greg and Mandy Edwards serve coffee roasted in Castlemaine, sourdough bread from CBD bakery The Good Loaf and “single origin” juices of Harcourt Pink Lady apples or Mildura oranges.
At the cool, quirky and solar-powered Spring Gully General Store (03 5442 2358), ingredients come straight from the flourishing garden tended by owner and chef
Adam Nicoletti. The menu is plant and pick – whatever’s in the backyard goes on the card. “If there’s space, I’ll plant something,” says Nicoletti. “I like green things. I like growing things.” Despite having 200 seats and serving breakfast until 3pm, you’ll still need a booking at weekends.
Snacks, drinks and a spot of lunch
From The Schaller it’s a pleasant stroll to View Street and Harvest, a combined rotisserie, pâtisserie and wine bar located opposite the old Temperance Hall. Winemaker Lincoln Riley and his pastry-chef partner, Marsha Busse, an alumnus of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, moved back to Bendigo after an 18-year absence to do what they love. Which, in Martha’s case, is pure butter croissants that take two days to make but sell out in a flash. For Riley it’s the rotisserie – “it’s a beautiful way to cook very simply” – and the chance to showcase provincial wines, including his own. Sip his North Run Shiraz with a housemade milk roll, perhaps filled with roast beef and smoked eggplant, and you’ll appreciate the delicious potential of the area.
When the sun goes down
In the evening, raise a glass at the Wine Bank on View. The 1876 ANZ Bank building with fluted Corinthian columns is now a stylish enoteca with a 1000-label cellar.
Then head to Masons of Bendigo to savour regional produce on a plate – perhaps George’s zucchini flowers (from B&B Basil) with Locheilan fetta or roasted Yapunyah chicken with Mandurang morels. Nick Anthony even does a playful take on Bendigo’s most famous gift to gastronomy, the Chiko Roll. His version is more sophisticated but stays true to its spring-roll origins with a filling of Inglewood aged beef, duck fat, black pearl barley and carrot, plus his smoked tomato ketchup on the side.
Hit the road on day two
The drive to Castlemaine takes half an hour if you go direct but much longer if you detour via, for example, The Little Red Apple at Barkers Creek. Owner Simon Frost makes the purest apple juice possible – it’s just local fruit, squeezed and bottled – and a growing range of apple and pear ciders and vinegars. “The process is really simple. We just squeeze the apples and make the juice, with no concentrates or anything,” says production manager and assistant cider-maker Glenn Weeks. “It makes our product unique and very special.”
Harcourt has a reputation these days for complex cool-climate shiraz but the first vines were sown just 40 years ago at Harcourt Valley Vineyards. Visit the picturesque cellar door to taste their much-medalled wines, especially the 2015 Provençal-style grenacherosé. Brothers Kye and Quinn Livingstone have also launched a range of ginger beers that now outsells their wine.
Head for flavour central
On arrival in Castlemaine, take a right at Johnny Baker, a drive-in pie and pastry shop where the pain aux raisins and the pork-and-sour-cherry pie set a new benchmark for country bakeries.
Around the corner, the 19th-century woollen mills have been reborn as a thriving colony of food and drink purveyors. Sheep farmers Phil McConachy and Ronnie Moule bought The Mill after it closed in 2013. Today the site is home to roasters Coffee Basics and Das Kaffeehaus café, a baker, a cake-maker, steel and wood workers and Icecream Social, where Craig MacDonald and Helen Addison-Smith blend Jersey milk with seasonal ingredients to create small-batch ice-creams such as Gold Digger – a chocolate, honeycomb and edible gold-dust tribute to the town’s rich history.
Above: The Mill
In 2015, the winemakers’ cooperative Boomtown moved in. And last April the Castlemaine Brewing Company opened a barn-like taproom with live music, pizza and local ales. Co-owner Jacqueline Brodie-Hanns will happily acquaint outsiders with their 10 beers on tap, from the pale Frailty American Pale Ale to classic pilsner-style Castlemaine Lager. “It’s all made here – and made with love,” she says.
They should put that on a T-shirt and make it the motto for the producers of Central Victoria. ￼