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.

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.

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.

Mitchelton Wines

When you make your way up the long driveway into Mitchelton Wines, it only takes moments to be struck by the large tower that looks out across the vineyards. The driveway cuts through the coincidentally named vineyard, Airstrip, which echoes the airport control-tower aesthetic of the property’s iconic building. It’s a coincidence that makes you smile.

Students of architecture will spend the whole day smiling out here, not just because of the wines and the stunning food, but because of the great Robin Boyd’s recognisable building design. Sadly, Boyd passed away before the completion of the project, but Ted Ashton finished the build and the tower to complete Boyd’s vision.

Wines from this region of Central Victoria are typically powerful and full bodied. Expect lush fruit flavour for days, to go with your architectural smiles and your lunch of seasonal Goulburn River Valley produce from Muse Restaurant.

If a lighter option or cheeky breakfast is your preference, the Ministry of Chocolate Cafe is worth a visit in its own right. Speaking of chocolate, where’s the emoji for drooling? Some of the finest Belgian couverture chocolate is crafted into all kinds of things you’ll want to take home, but will probably just eat on the way.

Bank Street Wood Fired Pizza & Garden

Sometimes a room just feels right. The worn timbers hugging your group at Bank Street Pizza are the remnants of the 19th century Avenel bank before it was converted in 2011 by hospitality old hands Callum and Janelle.

It seems every ingredient has a story here. The ‘Jill’ in ‘Jill’s pork and veal terrine’ was a work colleague from Callum’s Melbourne days. The rocket underneath is sourced from Yellow Box Growers in nearby Seymour. And Michelle Wilkinson drops off boxes of farm-grown mushrooms for the eponymous Michelle’s Magic Mushrooms pizza, laced with truffle oil.

‘The Faz’ pizza (tomato, fetta, charred peppers and pancetta, topped with pesto and mozzarella) is named in honour of wood fire oven expert Tony Fazio, who helped Callum get the oven up and running in the early days.

Being roughly halfway between Melbourne and Wodonga, it’s the perfect place to pull off the Hume for a quick, casual lunch. The extensive back garden is verging on magical and a great spot to stretch little legs.

Merricks General Wine Store

It’s been a while since the last visit to Merricks General Wine Store. I had fond memories of a great long lunches with a bunch of day-tripping friends. We’d seen a few wineries, walked on a wintery beach at Shoreham, and sat around a long table swapping dishes, tasting everything and sharing some great wines. The ownership has changed since then, but my memories are accurate. This place is just a perfect pause in the middle of a long weekend or just a long day out.

French chef Patrice Repellin’s food is seasonal, from local produce. We’d been to a farm-gate store where they were growing mushrooms earlier in our day out, and it was fantastic to then eat the king brown mushrooms in a dish a few hours later.

Wines are mostly local, showcasing in particular the wines of the Baillieu vineyards and other “friends of the wine store.”

Don’t miss the art gallery next door. It has a regularly changing exhibition. Also, if you’re on an early run and just want a coffee, they have a hole-in-the-wall style cafe too.

Sandra Bardas Gallery

We could tell you the facts about the Sandra Bardas Gallery – the opening times, the address, the fact that there is the most amazing collection of indigenous Australian artwork from both well known artists and up-coming students from Worowa Aboriginal College. We could say that it’s only five minutes out of Healesville, that the view to the nearby ranges is stunning, and that the people are amazingly friendly, knowledgable, and helpful. We could say it is named for Sandra Bardas OAM, who worked with the College founder in the establishment of Victoria’s only Aboriginal school.

We could write all these things, and we’d only be touching on the full story. It’s not just the fact that we’d have failed to describe the astonishing food experience we had, nor the amazing learning experience we had courtesy of staff and students from Worowa College. We’d have failed to convey the significance of this place.

We were welcomed on to the land that was part of the Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve, honouring the ancestors and all who have walked the land.

We were told the story of this place. It is Coranderrk. It is home to peoples of the Kulin nation, who sought a safe place to live when European colonisation threatened to end their civilisations. It was where governments herded groups of indigenous people from all over central Victoria. It was the home of Simon Wonga, who was the ngurunggaeta of his clan, a title which passed to his cousin William Barak. That huge face rendered in wobbly stripes on the side of the building on the old CUB site in the city – that’s William Barak. You need to come here, to be part of this place, to begin to understand why he’s on that building, why he’s so important.

Come here to see part of the story of the people of this land, to immerse yourself in the experience of the land, culture, art, and food, learn from the people of this land, and begin to understand.

Book a group and make a day of it.

Trofeo Estate

The word “Amphora” conjures up images of the Romans to me. It turns out that’s exactly what Trofeo Estate have here – ancient-looking clay jars used to ferment wines without imparting flavours from wood (such as with oak barrels) whilst still letting in that crucial slow leak of oxygen which ages and softens the wine (unlike stainless steel.)

Winemaker Richard Darby says that the huge clay pots allow the truest of fruit flavours to shine. We did a head-to-head of the same Syrah as fermented in clay vs. fermented in oak. We could see his point. Beautifully focussed and delicate fruit flavours.

The estate is also a restaurant, set in a former passionfruit cannery from the 1930’s. The food is local where possible, always seasonal, and matched nicely to the wines as you’d expect.

Join the mailing list and follow this place on social media. The music nights are epic, and there are plans to host movie nights and more.