There’s something I’ve learned about travelling to wine regions – they’re home to some of the best food in the world. And nowhere is this truer than in the wine growing regions around Melbourne, in the state of Victoria.
Creativity, passion and respect for produce – these are the common qualities you’ll find in the chefs that grace Victoria’s kitchens. And the state has temptation in abundance for food lovers, from hatted gourmet restaurants to cellar door eateries and cool cafés.
With the airline calling in renowned Australian chef Neil Perry as culinary consultant – serving dishes inspired by his famous Rockpool restaurants in economy and premium economy, and menus prepared exclusively for business and first-class passengers – even our in-flight meals were in safe hands.
Inspired to taste more of Perry’s dishes, I made one of my first stops Rockpool Melbourne. The restaurant at the luxurious Crown Complex, was inspired by the great steakhouses of the US, and serves all manner of steaks from fillets to 24-day aged wagyu rib-eyes.
Perry once said:
The cornerstone of good cooking is to source the finest produce,” and it’s a sentiment that other chefs in Victoria clearly concur with.
“The tomatoes are freshly picked from our garden,” explained a waitress at Port Fairy’s Merrijig Inn as she helped us decide from a menu printed on recycled paper. “We print our menus each day because we change them daily depending on what are the best ingredients and what’s in season,” she continued.
In one of the most rural areas of the state, the small town of Dunkeld is blessed with one of the finest restaurants for miles around. The Royal Mail Hotel may be small, with just 30 rooms and six cottages but it is home to the largest organic kitchen garden in Australia. It employs companion gardening – grouping certain plants together so they help each other to grow better – and even has resident ducks to keep the bug population under control so they don’t eat the produce.
The hotel also has a huge cellar with 26,000 bottles of wine from Victoria and the rest of the world, including some I sampled on my flight to Melbourne.
But its inspired approach to food in its restaurant, which is also open to the local community, is what has won it two Age Good Food Guide Chef’s Hats for the past two years.
“Robin, our head chef doesn’t like to use any ingredients that you wouldn’t get around here. So for example we don’t even have bananas for breakfast, as we don’t grow them in Victoria.
All the fish we serve is cold water – it’s a very genuine Victorian food experience.
Again tomatoes were a prominent feature in the five course tasting menu, the Royal Mail’s bright, ripe red, orange, and brick-coloured selections proving their versatility in a delightful selection of dishes from refreshing, palate-cleansing cold drinks to salads and even a sweet. A red and green tomato, cardamom, rocket custard, and mascarpone dish was a very creative pre-dessert, utilising that glut of tomatoes from the garden. But there were also tasty local lamb and duck dishes.
Further through Victoria’s countryside in Daylesford, we came across the Lake House Hotel where I discovered more of the inventive work of Victoria’s chefs.
Just an hour and a half from Melbourne, the hotel is producing food, the quality of which gives urban chefs serious competition.
But that should come as little surprise – the Lake House was founded by Alla Wolf-Tasker – one of leading lights in the country’s food revolution. She’s a regular guest on Australian Masterchef and serves on a plethora of food industry boards and committees.
Menus change at the restaurant with the availability of seasonal produce and with a policy of reducing food miles and developing personal relationships with suppliers – much of the produce is local.
Some of the food is organic – but is mostly the result of great care and passion on the part of small growers for whom biodiversity and sustainable agricultural practices are firmly on the agenda.
But it’s also excitingly creative. Let’s jump right in with dessert, my favourite dish being The Apple. Before succumbing to the temptations of the dessert menu though, I enjoyed a fantastic starter of carpaccio of kingfish with spanner crab, jalapeño, and green gazpacho and a main of crisp pork belly croustillant with scampi, squid ‘noodles’, and enoki mushrooms.
Don’t think for a moment however that Melbourne and Victoria’s food is all about unusual ingredients and expensive (though worth-every-penny) eats.
In the former gold town of Ballarat I unearthed another nugget. Mitchell Harris is a wine bar serving drinkable, but exciting sauvignon fumes, shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and more.
A small producer, it was founded in 2008 by John Harris and his in-laws the Mitchells who harvest grapes from the slopes of Victoria’s Pyrenees.
But they also produce delicious eats. We lunched on haloumi salad (with more tomatoes) but also plenty of green veg like rocket, pickled fennel, and asparagus, married with beansprouts, basil and sauce gribiche. Then there were pork belly sliders with a fantastic slaw, and the bowl dish of the day – a braised lamb shoulder with kohlrabi puree, smoky eggplant tofu parcels and charred beansprout salad with tamarind dressing.
We try the best to source food in the region and look for something others aren’t doing in town. We’re a wine bar first, and our dishes compliment a glass of wine very well.
I think its important that you can’t get certain foods all year round and the menu reflects seasonal produce. Luckily with our cooler climate here in this part of Victoria, it doesn’t just benefit our wines but fruit and vegetables tend to grow slower and have more flavour.
It’s not only the food and wine where there’s a focus on flavour in Victoria though. Many people look for coffee to round off a meal, and good coffee has become a huge part of Melbourne life. So much so, it is even demanded on Qantas flights, with the airline bringing barista style coffee to its lounges, and the skies.
From the flat white to cappuccino and espresso Melbourne is fueled by coffee, and is fortunate to have Laneways full of excellent coffee houses. This quality brewing has naturally spilled out into the regions surrounding the city, so you will never struggle to find a good cup.