Mitchell Harris Wines

The Mitchell and Harris families grew up in the Ballarat region. You could argue that they were early instigators of the food revolution off the main drag (Sturt St) in town. The last few years have seen the likes of Catfish, Meigas and the Mitchell Harris cellar door/bar open up and make Ballarat a foodie destination.

The Mitchell Harris style is of relaxed industrial and historic chic, and is at once familiar and fun. It’s a place you can spend a whole Friday night getting lost in a detailed exploration of your friend’s holiday recommendations over several bottles of whatever it takes to make that sound interesting.  It’s a place for meeting up with your best friend to laugh about that time you couldn’t remember that thing you did together, and order the Sabre sparkling, complete with the actual sabring of the bottle. All the Mitchell Harris wines are of course made in the company’s own winery. They’re good. Really good. There are some fabulously sessional wines in there, perfect for the formerly referred-to Friday evening.

If you’re not content with just drinking the wine someone else made for you, you could enrol in the Curious Winemaker workshop. Over the course of several visits through the season, make your own wine: from grapevine to bottle. Don’t worry, you’re not left to your own devices. You’ll be under the expert guidance of winemaker John Harris, and with him make all the critical decisions along the way to produce a decent drop you can call your own.

Mitchell and Harris is also a place to eat. A bloody good one. The food is comfortable and brings on all the requisite ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhhhs’.

Harvest Halls Gap

You know on a road-trip, you see all these other sub-50’s non-grey road-trippers and you think “Where the hell are all these other people like me getting their coffee and decent food??”

In Halls Gap it’s at Harvest. Simple delicious food from locally sourced produce. Their little providore section is filled with local stuff too.

We had breakfast here, having stayed the night in the accommodation attached to the restaurant. Friday nights go off (best to book!), and the vibe during the annual music festival (also run by the owners) is epic.

Sonny

Inverleigh is not quite a “blink and you’ll miss it” town – its wide street and small collection of shops are enough to slow you down for a look. But take this as a reason to stop – Sonny.

Shaun and Amy started Sonny a couple of years ago, and OHO always promised to go back after stumbling inside on what turned out to be his opening day. Well, the years have gone by quickly and Sonny is now firmly a part of the Moorabool Valley food scene –thanks in no small part to the owner’s dedication to keeping it fresh, local and seasonal.

Coffee is from the ever-reliable Market Lane, and made well. This should possibly be the headline for a cafe on a roadtrip route like Sonny – but in fact, the food is the best excuse to stop and take a lunch break in Inverleigh.

There’s a lot of love from local producers when it comes to the food at Sonny. Veggies are literally delivered to the kitchen by a tractor from the farm over the back, beef comes from Sage Farm down the road and wines are from the Moorabool Valley.

In keeping with the commitment to local, fresh produce, Sonny hosts a swap-meet for growers of fruits and vegetables on the weekends. If you happen upon this, don’t be shy! Just because you’ve come empty-handed doesn’t mean you have to leave that way.

Bannockburn Station

Railway Stations are generally fairly functional spaces, not usually described as ‘pretty’. Bannockburn is blessed with a beautiful stone cottage built in 1862 as a railway station, and now that trains don’t operate, it serves as a stunning venue for food and wine.

Cakes are something of a specialty at Bannockburn Station. In fact, in a way it’s the cakes that are responsible for Fiona starting the cafe in the first place. She was already turning out cakes for others from her own kitchen, and it seemed logical to give them their own cafe!

The menu is simple and generous – local produce cooked with care, nothing pretentious, no molecular gastronomy. It’s the kind of place that becomes a regular stop if you’re driving the Geelong to Ballarat route. You’d happily make time in your plans to stop for breakfast in the morning or lunch if you leave a little later.

Shepparton Brewery

For a place that hasn’t been open long, the Shepparton Brewery sure feels like a part of the furniture already. Maybe it’s the relaxed architectural design, the familiar and comfortable food, or the family-owned vibe. There’s a “Hey, this place is cool!” moment as soon as you walk in, followed by a sense of ease when it comes to ordering beers and food, and just having a bloody good time.

If a couple of items on the menu sound familiar, it might be because some of Anaya’s greatest hits have migrated from that perennial Shepparton fave with Chef Karan ‘Dave’ Bisht – like the eggplant chips (OMG). They sit comfortably on the list with wood-fired pizzas, house-made pickles, and slow-cooked ribs.

If some of the faces seem familiar too, it might be because owners Daina Winch and Matt Milsome have brought their vast experience from running The Teller Collective and Fryers Street Food Store to this new venture.

While there’s a deal of comfort and familiarity, don’t mistake it for cliches. The small-batch nature of the brewery means they can push the boundaries while still catering to beer newcomers.  There are some cheeky references to Shepparton culture, too. Look for the mid-strength beer, and ask about the name for a good story and a trip down memory lane.

Chateau Tahbilk

The area around Tahbilk, just outside Nagambie in Central Victoria, is a unique little pocket of land almost surrounded by the Goulburn River and eight kilometres of permanent backwaters and creeks. The Purbrick family first planted vines here in 1860, and some of those vines are still producing fruit for their ‘1860’ shiraz today.  The location adjacent to so much water has enough impact on the climate that the grape-growing creates flavours unique to the region. The French would name this little area for its own ‘appellation’, as a result.

Tahbilk’s historic winery and cellar door is an experience in itself. The ancient oak fermenters in the cellar door are not just for show. This is a working winery, using equipment that in some cases is over a hundred years old.

The restaurant on site is modern by comparison, and the food equally so. It’s a menu of sure-fire winners and crowd pleasers. Who can say no to the perfect pork belly or luscious little lumps of slow-cooked beef, pulled, pressed, crumbed and deep-fried. Ooh la la. A 2014 shiraz from the Estate was a sublime pairing with the beef.

Definitely take the short detour off the highway near Nagambie, and drop in for lunch and a lesson in the history of winemaking. Don’t forget to spend some time walking around the pristine wetlands at Tahbilk. There’s eight kilometres of waterfront, and a boat tour that’s totally worth the time. Tahbilk has a commitment to sustainability and carbon neutrality that is leading the way for the wine industry.

Savvy Organic Pizza

The Dandenongs have been a bed-and-breakfast destination from Melbourne since someone realised they were there, and worthy of a stay. There have been tea rooms and little places to stay since forever. While staying at the perfect weekend bolt-hole, the great dilemma has always been ‘Where do I get something awesome to eat- in, so I can watch a DVD and drink this bottle of wine?’

Pizza is the obvious answer to that question, and Savvy Organic Pizza in Belgrave is a perfect place to get it. The bonus of house-made ice creams makes it a no-brainer. The menu is all unique, with Savvy’s own interpretations of classics like margherita delivering a fresh simple punch of good tomato, basil and garlic.

The Mexicans have a gift for mixing the deliciousness of chocolate with the heat of chilli. Savvy has accepted the gift and made an ice cream out of it. There are other amazing flavours to try, but this one is an OMG, When Harry Met Sally, leave-me-alone-with-the-ice cream moment.

Oh, there’s some other stuff nearby – some kind of steam train, a short trip to an animal thing, and a winery or two; but really, your weekend away is about staying indoors and eating bloody good pizza and ice cream.

Billson’s

In 1865, George Billson purchased the old Ovens Brewery with the aim to fulfil his ambition to be a brewer (after spending time as a publican). Outgrowing that premises, and in response to the vast requirements of a burgeoning settlement during the gold rush, George built a brew tower at the current site in Beechworth. George went on to brew beer here until the 1950s, after which it became a site for the production of cordials by Murray Breweries.

In 2017 the site was bought by Nathan and Felicity Cowan and carefully renovated to house a modern small-batch brewery and distillery alongside the continuation of cordial production.

Today they are brewing a growing range of quality beers, a (proper!) ginger ale, a cider, and with a clever addition to the brewery, are also distilling gin. All are excellent, and there’s something for every taste. It would be remiss of us at this point to neglect to mention the basement Speakeasy bar. It’s spectacular and reminiscent of the hidden bars of the temperance days.

Speaking of taste, cordials are a nostalgic thing. The classic flavour of raspberry cordial will transport you back to your childhood while the raspberry vinegar cordial is so resplendent with ripe raspberry flavour, it’s like a time-machine back to the “please mum, can I have a cordial” days.

There is a cafe on-site serving good coffee and a short but delicious food menu. Take a good look at that coffee machine too – it reflects the Billson’s way with its hand-operated lever pump, and is a thing of great beauty.

Also on-site and worthy of a visit is the Carriage Museum. It houses horse-drawn carriages of various kinds still in their original condition.

Nillumbik Estate

Between Eltham and the Yarra Valley floor, there’s a gateway of roads winding through rugged bush country called Christmas Hills, Smiths Gully, and Kangaroo Ground. You could be forgiven for thinking that there’s nothing here but uncompromising rocky soil, scrubby tree cover, and kangaroos.

Pay attention, though, and you’ll spot a little sign that offers wine, pizza and views.  At the end of a typical country driveway, you’ll find a modest but stylish building, almost right on top of a vineyard, overlooking a close valley that opens out into the view beyond.

Nillumbik winery has been on this site for two and a half decades. It’s a family business, with the friendly owner John making the kinds of wine he loves to drink – those best enjoyed with food. The restaurant is a tucked-away secret, renowned for its pizzas. With that view and a bottle of John’s wine, you’ll lose an afternoon here just taking it all in. It’s a simple recipe for success, really: make pizza, make wine, serve it on a deck that overlooks the garden and beyond. Not much to argue with there.

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.