Yea Peppercorn Hotel

Something is going on in Yea – something good. In this little ‘on-the-way’ town, we stumbled upon a couple of gems. Among them is the 1860s-built Yea Peppercorn Hotel. It sits a little off the main street, bathed in sun or fog, depending on the season. Both are spectacular, though the former is better for making use of the shade of the spectacular peppercorn tree in the rear garden.

There are a couple of noteworthy things at this pub, apart from the fact that it’s just over an hour from Melbourne, and has a closed-circuit TV that displays your food as it’s prepared. Most notably, the menu is good honest pub food. Good steaks, generous serves and a beverage list featuring local highlights. You’d expect good steaks from a pub in the heart of cattle country, and it doesn’t disappoint. The notable surprise for a place in that country is the seafood platter. These guys have managed to get fresh seafood up the highway, and deliver it cooked and laid out to feed a horde.

Keep in touch with the social media channels of the Peppercorn for info about their regular foodie events and live music.

For those staying around, the accommodation is spacious, comfortable and quiet.

Oh, I nearly forgot another notable. The limo out front is available for tours. It’s a 1987 stretched Jaguar with its own special charm, and you’ll feel like some kind of rock-star as you’re driven about.

Alexandra Hotel

The Alex Hotel is one of those iconic country pubs that you pass on a trip as you slow to 50kph through a small town, and wonder ‘Should I have stopped there for lunch?’

Yes, you should have.

The hotel is a grand old white building which has established a bit of a reputation under successive owners – fun in the evenings if you’re staying nearby, and a solid option for breakfast or lunch if you’re passing. The new owners have introduced a clever take on old-fashioned pub dishes like fish and chips, with the welcome addition of crispy capers and a twist on the choice of  fish.

The owners have pedigree in running hospitality businesses, and it shows. They’ve been quick to step the menu and wine list up a notch, and the range of their own farm-gate produce on sale looks inviting.

Worth the stopover.

Deirdre’s

All good destination food venues have something unique. It could be the view, the remote location, or the proximity to something else amazing. All have one thing in common. Someone had the audacity to stick an unmissable culinary experience in a location that’s off the beaten track.  Deirdre’s is the definition of all of that. Literally in the middle of an olive grove, up a track, somewhere in the wilds outside of Horsham at the base of one of those stunning rock escarpments. It’s also unmissable.

Everywhere we went in Horsham, people asked us if we were going to Deirdre’s, and how much time we’d allowed. Deirdre defines hospitality in the true sense of the word, not as an industry. Food comes when she’s cooked it. She brings it out to you. It’s bloody fantastic. So are the wines, the majority of which are local. You don’t come here for a quick bite to eat – and why would you. The location is enough to slow your world right down. Drink a few vinos, munch on the bread with the property’s own olive oil, and just chill.

Deirdre’s food is simple, full of flavour, and beautifully executed. She uses great produce, and just lets it do the talking. Confit duck and cauliflower puree is just that, and sublime. Vegans are well catered for with a dish of lentils and many garden veg, pickles, and herbs. This accidental chef knows how to turn up the natural flavours. (Deirdre says she kind of fell into it, because she liked to cook a bit.)

Deirdre’s, the quirky shed in the middle of an olive plantation, is well worth the detour. Just book, and allow some time to relax and go with the flow.

Baa 3400

Horsham has some compelling reasons to stay and eat— Baa 3400 is one of the best. Located in the light-filled space at the front of the Horsham Regional Art Gallery, Baa 3400 is filled by a large shared table (though not the only seating option), and promises ‘memorable dining experiences’. Memorable is the right word, in the best of ways.

Hugh and Nicole Goldson say they never really intended to stay on in Horsham after a stint managing the restaurant at a well-known Horsham hotel, but the opportunity ‘just kind of presented itself’. It’s a good thing that it did – the food is killer. The right balance of hearty and fresh, the menu is tight and focused. There are small bar plates, larger meal plates, and some in between. It’s all designed for sharing, though there’s no shame in keeping all that sticky lamb shoulder to yourself, or polishing off all the scallops before anyone else gets a look-in.

Where possible, everything is sourced locally. Hugh reminded us that even the ocean is not really that far away, if you point the car at Port Fairy.

One unique concept was the bold statement made by their putting on just the one beer. It’s brewed especially for Baa 3400, and is rather good. The wine list is a nice mix from around the Grampians and further afield. Be sure to book – it can get busy, especially when the gallery has a show on.

Nourish’d Eatery

Nourish’d is the kind of place that we go searching for in the hippest parts of Melbourne when we’re on that health kick, but still need really tasty food. It’s terrific to find that a place so far from the health-conscious restaurants of inner Melbourne is walking the walk.

The Sensory Lab coffee here is great, and the daily selection of treats to go with it are the kind of palette pleasers you’d expect at a good Melbourne cafe. At Nourish’d though, there is a reason for everything. The menu is loaded with items that have a purpose in supporting your daily dietary health. Smoothies are a blend of goodies to refresh you, detox you, or give you energy for the day ahead.

Breakfast plates are a balance of ingredients designed to sustain you through the day. The days of the big fry-up breakfast are gone, as we search out options to sustain us as well as make a positive impact on our health. But carnivores need not despair – if you want pork at breakfast time, then the pulled-pork with egg  and superfood toast will delight. It is no surprise, given their proximity to the grain- and pulse-growing centre of Australia, that lentils and quinoa feature on the menu. The gluten-free porridge with turmeric poached pear is pretty damned tasty.

Other local producers feature prominently. Nice to know that the farms you drive past on the way are the sources of your breakfast and lunch.

La Bonta

La Bonta is a classic Italian-style dining experience in the middle of Kyneton’s Piper St hot-spot. Everything from the Sambuca to the food and the hospitality bring the things we love about Italian food culture. It’s warm, generous, honest and delicious. At La Bonta all the produce is local and fresh, and robust flavours are delivered with a finesse that top chef and owner Tim Austin seems to pass off with ease.

La Bonta runs a yearly foodies trip to Italy – this year it’s in Tuscany, and sadly, all booked out. It’s easy to imagine this food in that place, with the flavours and presentations a true modern interpretation of that origin. The wine list is an almost 50-50 mix of Italian and local. Imported favourites from the likes of Montepulciano sit comfortably with Heathcote’s finest. Along with being a highly credentialed chef, Tim is also a sommelier of no small skill. It shows on this list, which rated on Gourmet Traveller Wine’s 2017 Best Wine List.

Watch La Bonta’s social media and email newsletter for upcoming events. The calendar reads like a wish-list of to-do’s for the next six months, with a truffle dinner, long wine lunches, a masterclass in sparkling wine and Christmas food and, of course, that trip to Italy.

Wine by Sam

Visiting Seymour in years gone by honestly didn’t hold much promise for those on the food hunt. It was, to be frank, a bit of a foodies’ black hole. Wine by Sam is part of a small, savvy group of operators representing a changing of the guard. They’ve just taken up residence in the old Seymour dye works building, which they’ve expertly fitted out.

Sam Plunkett is passionate about the potential for stellar wines in the Strathbogie Ranges. It gets cold up there, so you can expect quite different flavours from the nearby Heathcote vignerons. There’s a beguiling fine quality about cold climate shiraz, and Sam plays with it masterfully.

The kitchen is serving simple charcuterie, cheese and locally made goodness. The coffee is excellent too.

The Winery Kitchen

Here’s a great excuse to get off the Hume on your way up to the snow or Sydney or wherever you’re going. The quirky octagon that houses The Winery Kitchen is serving up simple, truly tasty dishes in a generous Italian family style. With amazing produce right on the property, grown by Somerset Heritage Produce, you can expect fresh, true flavours.

The menu sounds simple, and it is, but that old adage in cooking that simplicity requires skill is true here. These are simple dishes, well executed, and served honestly and with generosity. The wood-fired oven isn’t a gimmick at The Winery Kitchen, it’s just the best way to cook pizzas.

Yea Emporium and MannaFest Cafe

Yea has had a few good little providores and cafes over the years, and the Emporium is a delightful continuation of the trend. True to the name, there are all manner of goods stocking the shelves – local produce, organic foods and cosmetics, bric-a-brac, and of course, food from the MannaFest Cafe.

The menu is homely and dishes like vegetable curries and soups are welcomed on cold days. Most of the produce is grown in the substantial garden on the property. There are local wines from the likes of Philip Lobley and Sedona Estate, as well as beers from Napoleone and Hargreaves Hill.

Of course, by committing to growing most of their food, they are also committing to changing menus regularly. There’s loads of preserves, pickles, and ferments too, ensuring there’s always something delicious from the garden.

Coffee is from the always excellent roastery of Mansfield Coffee Merchant, an OHO fave from the region.

The Duck Inn

Marysville hadn’t had a pub for a while when Ashraf and Christine decided that they would answer the call of the community and build one. It has been a ground-up build of a brand new business from the former owners of the famous Marysville Patisserie.

The heart of any good local pub are the locals who frequent it. Head here to have a fun dinner out with the folks of Marysville. Stand around the fire or at the bar and share a drink or two –  there are regional beers on tap and wines from nearby on the list. The menu is classic pub, handled with precision by the international chef. With her passion for pastry, desserts made by Christine are worth travelling for. Be warned though, it’s worth booking your table ahead if you’re coming up on a weekend.

Ashraf and Christine describe The Duck Inn as their gift to the community that stood behind them and supported their business for so long. It’s certainly a well-appreciated one among tourists and locals alike. Music nights are a hoot, with some great bands on the bill. Stay tuned to the Facebook page for information about these.