Meigas

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.

Barca Love

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.

Pickled Sisters

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.

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.