Like most amazing simple things, once you’ve tried the real thing, you’ll never look at another imported pumpkin seed again. “Pepitas” as they’re sold in health-food shops, are mostly a cheap imported product, often made from the wrong pumpkin. Owners of the Australian Pumpkin Seed Company, Jay and Sharan, have set themselves a huge task of educating an oblivious market. We were fortunate to step on to their property with them, and see first hand what it takes to grow a simple product to a level of excellence like this.
For starters, this is not an eating pumpkin. It’s awful. It really is grown for its seeds. And there are thousands of them in perfect rows in front of us at harvest time! Then there’s the processing. Obviously, most of the pumpkin is not the seed! And without the help of an established industry, these guys have had to build or import (but mostly the former) the gear required.
The result is worth it. Honestly, the crunch and flavour of such a simple little thing is one of life’s joys – like the perfect apple or the best peach.
You can visit the farmgate store and sample their various seeds, from plain to flavours of all kinds, as well as other products like the oils. There are health benefits which are best explained by the proprietors, but the flavour is king. Jay is an ex-chef who knows a thing or two about flavour, and it shows.
Your breakfast cereal toppings will never be the same again.
Something is happening in the tiny community of Pomonal. Pep, owner of Pomonal Estate, points to the neighbours in various directions and tells OHO, ‘The carpenter lives over there, the builder just there, the beekeeper over that way, and the guy who grows the salad greens, just there.” Almost on cue, the guy who grows the salad greens walks in the door with today’s box of salad greens. He talks about the horseradish-peppery flavour of the curly red lettuce.
The owners’ enthusiasm for all things local is infectious. The build is brand-new, and made by locals. The accommodation they’ve just opened on site is set right in the middle of the place they love. The Grampians are right there, changing all the time with the changes in light, and you can stay in a brand-new luxury home with picture windows to all the views.
What you’ve really come here to read about, though, is one or more of the following burning questions:
1. Can I get a good coffee? Yes.
2. Is there good food? Yes. Local, simple and fresh.
3. Is there a view? Yes. A damn good one.
4. Is the wine good? Yes it is.
5. Is the beer good? Yes it is, and it’s truly small-batch, made on site.
6. Is it far? No, not if you stay over. Otherwise, expect a 3-hour drive and a mix-tape.
If you love your food and you eat meat, you should know where it comes from. It’s a tenet preached by celebrity chefs and foodies alike. We wish all our beef and lamb came from Sage Farm. The animals live such a charmed life, and the quality of the product shows it. We started a day in the Moorabool Valley with a visit to Sage Farm, and spent some time with Chris and his family taking a tour of the property and meeting his happy livestock. It’s something you can do on a Saturday tour, too. The on-farm store stocks meat products from the farm as well as other local produce. The farm has a butchery on site, and has regular workshops. It also has accommodation in the house on site, with a view of the Moorabool Valley that has to be seen to be believed.
Having started our day at Sage, we finished at Gladioli, where Chris’s beef had come full circle and ended up on our plate in a spectacular dish. It’s the perfect way to understand the provenance of our food.
Andrew and Jenny are the kind of family hosts you expect from a little cellar door on a private property. They love what they do, though like most growers and makers, they question their own sanity. We didn’t have any further questions after sampling the wines, though. They’re all a perfect education in terroir – that fancy French word for the intangible combination of place, climate, season, and ‘vibe’ that makes wines taste the way they do. Regular music gigs held at the venue make it worth signing up to the newsletter.
These little places are why we leave the city for a long weekend.
One of the reasons you take a trip into regional areas is that warm fuzzy feeling you get from seeing where your food comes from. It’s a particularly warm and fuzzy feeling to buy it from the farm and cook it for yourself. Benton Rise Farm has a service from their website where you can order their box of veg or make up your own for your weekend away, pick it up from the farm on your way down, and have all you need to cook delicious food in wherever your self-contained accommodation is.
If I can push the “fuzzy” link a little further, the mushrooms grown at Benton Rise are a highlight. We were lucky enough to try them in a dish on the menu at Merricks General Wine Store. Flavour country right there.
The Saturday morning farmers markets at the property are awesome, and staged from a “Red Rattler” train carriage.
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.
For those who remember what they were drinking in the Melbourne restaurant scene a decade or so ago, Sally’s Paddock was a prominent feature at the premium end of the wine lists in some of the top eateries in town. Now, with the emergence of the next generation in the family, Sasha Fair is making sure that the wines from the Redbank winery are true to the reputation earned by her family – a reputation which includes the classification ‘Distinguished Winery’ from Langton’s.
The building that was put up to serve as the winery in the 70s now does duty as cellar door. Its remarkable timber shingle roof is a feature that takes your eye as soon as you come in. The cellar door is a great place to sit at a long table with a bunch of friends and kill a few hours with local produce platters and the truly amazing wines that Sasha is making.
In case you’re wondering about that gorgeous little mudbrick house as you come up the long drive to the winery, the answer is yes – it is available for rent for up to three couples at a time.
Sally’s Paddock is a stalwart of the Pyrenees wine industry, and plays host to local events (such as the Ballarat Winter Festival) when they pop up on the regional event calendar. It’s a spectacular spot, and events on the property are relaxed and fun.
The perfect olive is the ideal accompaniment to a long afternoon on the deck – still a little salty from the brining, still a little firm from just the right amount of time in the brine, kept in fresh extra-virgin oil. It’s one of life’s simple pleasures.
Manzanillo Grove started as a gardening project for Renate and Len – something to do in their retirement. It grew rapidly into a business processing well over 100 tonnes of fruit each year. The little shed which once served as a processing facility now houses their farm-gate store. There’s a range of other local produce amongst the infused oils and Manzanillo Grove oil products, but it’s the pure flavour of a simple table olive or a new season cold-pressed oil on bread that carries the day. If you’re planning a Bellarine picnic, start here.
Or, if you’re planning a quiet weekend away, stop at the farm-gate store at the end of the day and grab a big jar of olives and a bottle of oil. Be sure to bring the best sourdough and a couple of bottles of your favourite wine. Then you can sit out on the deck of your accomodation at Manzanillo Grove whiling away the evening. Len and Renate have recently built stylish, self-contained studio apartments right in the middle of the grove overlooking the large dam.
What’s the next best thing to fresh mussels taken from the boat and served hot with just the right amount of your favourite flavours, and maybe a lager or two? How about sitting in a sweet little garden next to the shed where those mussels arrive just minutes after they come off the boat, doing exactly the same? Sounds just about perfect, doesn’t it.
The Little Mussel Cafe is a cute little shed and garden right next to the processing shed of Advance Mussel Supply in Portarlington. They cook mussels just right – so they are the soft little balls of perfection that they should be. Advance Mussel Supply are mussel and oyster farmers. You can get the latter from them too, when the timing is right; they’re also as they should be.
If you have in your group someone who struggles with shellfish, the menu has them covered. There are also ways for you to bring them around to the goodness of these ocean-found molluscs of joy. Purists always wince at the thought of any kind of cooking or overpowering flavours, but beginners will love the introduction. It’s only one or two steps away from getting into the heaven that is au naturel.
Those who are lucky enough to have grown up with family food traditions that include sausage making, preserving and so on can understand the simple pleasure of making foods that have become commoditised and sanitised by commercial production. There is enormous satisfaction in taking the best produce, like organically farmed pig, and turning it into succulent, delicious sausages.
James is certainly passionate about his pigs. There’s genuine appreciation for the life of the animal, and a sampling of products made from pigs that have had variations in feed is a revelation. He’s also experienced with other livestock, but pigs are a particular interest. He and his wife Cathy run workshops in making sausages for people looking to turn their hand to the art of this simple staple.
Classes run regularly, and the best way to stay in touch with the schedule or any new classes is at themeatroom.com.au. James says the return of the salami classes have been hotly anticipated.