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’.
Spain calls like the voice of a food-obsessed friend. ‘Hey, we should do a tapas bar crawl!’ The friend makes a valid argument. When in Ballarat, the tapas begins at Meigas.
The idea of tapas is that you can put together an entire meal by eating a collection of small tasty things. The menu at Meigas fits that bill perfectly. The hung cured meats in a specialist fridge over the top of the bar, the Spanish beers, the details on the walls – it all adds to the Spanish vibe. It’s part of the niche food scene in Ballarat that’s exploded in the last few years. It’s like an off-Sturt St revolution. Meigas greets the revolution with a little bit of Spanish rock and roll: a proper bodega bar with its relaxed style, live music, and flamenco dancing. You can drop in late if you want to, and just do small plates and drinks. The latter includes a long list of Spanish beers, wines, and spirits, and when you imagine you’re in Spain, you must drink as you imagine the Spanish do.
It’s not clear what the people of Shepparton did for their smoky cuban sandwiches before Phil Barca and Tina Love opened their little cafe/bar. How they lived without 15-hour smoked brisket rolls, cubanos, or bourbon baby back ribs is a mystery. Life must have been dreary before the powerhouse kitchen team let their buttermilk chicken loose on the unsuspecting people of Shepparton. Where did they get layers of flavours upon bold flavours in sticky southern-style comfort food?
Barca Love is part of a food-led renaissance that seems to be happening in Shep right now. There’s a bunch of fun and interesting places to hang out and eat which have all popped up in recent times. It would do them all a disservice to say, ‘Just like what you get in Melbourne’, because places like Barca Love have got their own Shepparton flavour about them. It’s a killer combination of easy-going, unpretentious and bloody good food.
Oh, if that’s not enough to get you in the door, maybe the thought of a secret BBQ sauce will tip you over the edge. It’s an inherited recipe which is guarded like the nuclear codes.
If you’re an apple grower, and you see the premium paid for cider apples and the further value-add from making cider, it’s really a no-brainer to have a bit of a look at selling your own stuff. Cheeky Grog have nailed the concept of grower-turns-brewer with their roadside cider house. With orchards everywhere in the surrounding fields, it’s both no surprise and an absolute delight to find that someone is taking the fruit and turning it into the makings of a fab Friday night.
The list of ciders on taste is long, and there’s something for everyone’s palate. Some medal-winning drops are on taste too, and of course available for you to take home.
For anyone after adventurous flavours, they’re doing some funky things with brettanomyces (“brett”), much as beer brewers are doing. It’s not for everyone, but it’s interesting and a bit of fun.
The outdoor lounge area is fantastically created from old fruit bins, with sprawling timber lounge chairs and tables for group tastings, or for enjoying a few slow cold ones and something to eat. The kitchen has a short simple menu, which on the weekends includes wood-fired pizzas. Regular live music happens out there on the lawn too.
Of course, you can just pull in to the roadside stall and, old-school honesty-box style, pick up a bag of apples or pears.
Just out of Shepparton is a tree-lined highway hamlet called Maroopna. It’s home to Bill & Beats, and to possibly the most unexpected delightful surprise, Yiche. The moment you enter Yiche, you’ll be reminded of every 1980s Chinese restaurant you ever dropped into for take-away, from the white tables to the vinyl chairs. The similarities to those old days are superficial though. The food from chef Brian comes out on one-off ceramics (which he hand-makes himself), and is presented so beautifully that all vestiges of suburban restaurants from a bygone era pass into irrelevance.
Stunning is a word too small for both the surprise and the beauty of what Brian is putting on the table. Little gel soy balls gleam like caviar atop the salmon. Mulberries are something you’ll never see on other menus because they are so expensive and so time-consuming to prepare. But when it grows in your backyard, it’s relatively easy, and the result is breathtaking in a granita.
The ‘Surprise Me’ menu is a perfect way to eat. You get 12-13 dishes put together by the chef, so you won’t go hungry. You’ll get a bit of everything, all seasonal, and all from the great produce Brian gets in every day. He says, ‘I get a good ingredient, and I just cook it.’ Doesn’t get much more beautifully simple than that.
Yiche has a couple of Chinese meanings: ‘Together’, ‘Number One’, and ‘Keep going up’, according to Brian’s mum Evelyn. Brian says, ‘I’m just continually trying to get better.’ How perfectly apt.
Rutherglen is part of a little cluster of towns right near the NSW border. Within ten minutes’ reach you have Rutherglen, Wahgunyah and, just over the border, Corowa. So many producers of quality food are in the surrounding area that really, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to find Pickled Sisters doing such fine fare, nor that they’ve been doing it for so long.
It’s fair to call the restaurant a shed – that’s what it is. There’s nothing wrong with that in OHO’s reckoning. Sheds are where some of the best stuff gets made. In this particular shed, chef Stuart is quietly turning out some stunning-looking and beautiful-tasting food. The approach is simple – take good produce, respect it, and serve it with local wines.
Although Pickled Sisters shares the shed with Cofield Wines, the wine list is not limited to that one label. It’s a real showcase of the region’s best. In fact, it wouldn’t be unusual to spot a local winemaker like Mandy Jones dropping off another case.
If you have a tendency to get pickled yourself, you could plan ahead and book one or two of the ‘glamping’ tents situated at the very edge of the vineyard. These are tents in the literal sense, if not the traditional. Yes, there’s canvas and a fire. But when was the last time your tent was fully carpeted, had a queen-size bed, air conditioning and a fully stocked wine fridge?
It’s worth keeping in touch with the Sisters event schedule. The cooking classes would make for a fab fun weekend in a shed.
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.
You know those little places on a road trip that linger like a question mark in the map of where you’ve been? The tiny little one-horse towns that flash past as you wrangle with Google to make sure you’re on the right track? Summerfield wines is the argument for stopping to check out these tiny towns.
Perched on the edge of Moonambel is a winery with a little cellar door and a large lawn. Summerfield is the labour of love of a farming family. Wines are named for the children, with artwork on labels that depict the child’s personality. They are powerful wines with beguiling cold-climate characters. Bold and interesting would be another way to describe them. It’s also an apt description of owner Mark Summerfield. He’s passionate about the place, the grapes he farms and the wines he makes.
Remember the lawn mentioned in the beginning? That’s where you’ll lose a little of your road-trip time with a selection of the goodies available in the tiny delicatessen at Summerfield to accompany a bottle or two of their wines. Mark is also passionate about the rare-breed pigs he farms, and the resulting incredible pork products fill the little deli alongside garlic grown by his children.
Slow down, people, and don’t blink as you pass though lest you miss opportunities like Summerfield. Pin your eyes open and stop!
Christopher and Jayne are both ex-photographers, although one is never really an ex-photographer. One merely becomes preoccupied with other things. The ‘other thing’ that fills their time is a slice of a stunning country town in the form of Talbot Provedore and Eatery.
Christopher was once the chef at the Avoca Hotel and part of a team that won numerous industry accolades. His commitment to excellent food from sustainable, local produce continues at his own venture here in Talbot.
The town plays host to one of the biggest farmers markets in country Victoria every 3rd Sunday of the month, when thousands of people descend on the streets looking for produce straight from the people who grow it. The Provedore and Eatery is designed to be a showcase of the best of the farmers market and other producers from the region. It’s situated right next to a community garden, where the chefs regularly gather whatever is growing and include it in the menu. Fresh produce from the farmers around the district comes in daily, and the menu reflects this. The wine and beer list contains mostly local heroes, all worthy of the best lists, and all doing something interesting.
Christopher and Jayne are not loud or brash entrepreneur types. They are enterprising, no doubt. But they exude a quiet and passionate commitment to their craft. Saturday nights are a real stretching of the legs for the chefs. It’s a simple degustation of three carefully crafted and exquisitely prepared dishes for pretty short money. Talbot is lucky to have the Provedore and Eatery. Get out there for a weekend, do the Saturday night and the market next day. Good times.
At One Hour Out we are all about the ‘pleasant surprise’. The pretty little town which is an oasis at the end (or middle) of a trip, or the pub that puts up ridiculously good-looking dishes. The nice thing about the Avoca Hotel is that you get all that with an added bonus of the aforementioned ridiculously good-looking dishes actually living up to their pretty visage.
The owners of the pub inherited a renovators’ dream about nine years ago, and essentially gutted the place. It’s not a stuffy gastro-pub fit-out though – it’s still definitely a friendly local. Beers are a mix of old friends and local heroes. The presence of an almost life-sized carved red duck on a beer is good for a laugh as it bobs back and forth like a novelty desktop toy.
The dishes are spectacular to look at and follow through with taste to match. Hay-smoked venison fillet is treated with care and respect, and tastes amazing. There’s some serious talent in the kitchen producing beautiful food like this. True flavours and respect for the integrity of the produce is also apparent in the radish top gazpacho.
There’s plenty to see and do in the region, and the Avoca Hotel definitely makes an overnight stay in the area worthwhile for the travelling food lover.