The Criterion Hotel

It takes fortitude of a wardrobe-changing kind to take on a crumbling old building destined for demolition, and turn it into a hub for the community. That’s exactly what Ferg and Andrew have given the people of Sale in Central Gippsland – a pub to be proud of. It came as the result of a passion for heritage; ably guided by Heritage Victoria, they have turned a wreck that had barely survived since it was built in 1865 into the kind of local establishment where you’ll want to spend hours with your mates.

The hospitality side of things is looked after by Ferg Horan, a former chef at places like the Tinamba Hotel, amongst others. His team is turning Gippsland produce info the kind of pub food that brings a smile to your face. Nothing too wanky, just beautiful flavourful dishes that actually make you smile when they arrive. Yes, there’s a parma for those who are on that quest for the perfect one, but the steak is amazing too. It should be – Gippsland is beef country.

The hotel has some stunning accommodation as well, for those on the way somewhere.

All pubs should be a collection point, a place for people to meet, unwind, and put aside the cares of the day over a pint of the finest. The fact that the kitchen turns out some damn fine food is the best of bonuses.

Oakridge

You might know Oakridge for its deserved reputation as a producer of some of the best wines in Australia. The best wine writers consistently score Oakridge’s sacred drop over 95 points, and for good reason. The cellar door and restaurant, set in the middle of the vineyards at Coldstream, is a beautiful architectural work of minimalist art, and is the perfect place to try all the latest as well as some selected museum releases. Winemaker David Bicknell is one of the greats, described by James Halliday as ‘an extremely gifted winemaker’, so the opportunity to sample the wines with knowledgeable staff is one you should consider seriously as a life goal.

Another life goal should be to eat the food of Oakridge’s dynamic duo, Matt Stone and Jo Barrett. Both might appear familiar to you from cameo appearances on TV shows, including MasterChef. The ethos of local and seasonal is taken seriously, with an array of just-picked produce coming straight out of the large garden behind the winery. Matt handles the savoury flavours delicately and with such finesse that you’ll be hard-pressed to resist the instagram urge before devouring. Go slowly, because you’ll want to remember every bite. The same is true of Jo’s exquisite desserts.

One of the things we all look for when we go out to dine is flavour that we won’t experience at home. Jo and Matt both pair flavours with such bold confidence, you’re guaranteed a unique taste experience that you won’t get anywhere else, much less at home. Some flavours seem so unusual, ethereal and beautiful that they’re impossible to put a finger on. Who’d have thought that the lime-like acidity in a dish might come from the unexpectedly delicious addition of green ants?

 

Six Acres

The name could not be any more literal. Six Acres is truly six acres of vineyard producing estate-grown (vegan-friendly) wines in small batches on site. The Zuccaro family has tended this plot lovingly, subscribing to the adage that all good winemakers say: ‘Good wine is grown in the vineyard.’ It’s a prime little patch of Yarra Ranges dirt near Silvan in the Upper Yarra region of the Valley. Here the soils are deep and volcanic, and the fruit yields wines of density and structure. Some of the greatest wines of the Yarra Valley come from up this way; we’re not far from Seville Estate, Hoddles Creek, Thousand Candles, and vineyards growing fruit for Giant Steps, De Bortoli and Oakridge. So the area has some kudos.

Six Acres is a smaller affair, located in a modest (cute) shed with a great view. However, don’t let size fool you. The Zuccaros are focused on quality in their pinot noir, merlot and cabernet. They pride themselves on minimal intervention wines, using none of the usual animal products (like eggs, which are traditionally used for fining). The cellar door is a fun and super-personal experience with a passionate family sharing some stonking wines. You’ll need to allow a budget for take-home wines, but nothing is super-expensive, so don’t be shy!

Warragul Farmers Market

It’s hard to believe that this vibrant market in Warragul has only just turned five years old. It has the feeling of a long-established tradition of growers and makers who gather once a month to present the fruits of their labour. People come from all over to get their produce, enjoy street-food or a great coffee, and meet up with the people who grow the produce and make wares locally. It’s definitely dog-friendly, and OHO dog Rosie the kelpie had as much fun making new friends as your intrepid OHO adventurers did. Available produce will vary seasonally of course, but with over 60 stallholders listed as regulars, there really is something for everyone, even Rosie, who took home some delicious liver treats.

There are so many stalls, it’s going to take a few visits to get into the swing of the market (every third Saturday of the month) and establish some long-term favourites, but here are some early highlights.

Hope Farm Sourdough The way it should be.
Lime & Co.  Delicious Mexican food, made right there.
Wild Dog  Great wines and a spectacular pair of gins.
Craig’s Hut Coffee  Literally a replica of the famous hut, and great coffee.
The Bunyip Beekeeper  Because proper honey is better in every way.
Cambodian Street BBQ  Fills the whole place with delicious smells!

Better come hungry, because you’re going to want to eat it all.

Georgie Bass

Georgie Bass is like TV show Frasier – a spin-off series of your favourite show that actually works. All the charm and good humour of the older more established Flinders Hotel, but with some down-to-earth sophistication — provided in the case of the TV Show by English-girl-turned-love-interest Daphne. In the case of Georgie Bass, the interest comes from a produce-driven health conscious menu, a cooking school, and some epic secret dinners.

The produce is grown by the gardeners just down the road on the owner’s property, where perfect rows of beautiful brassicas were pushing up, along with radishes and other winter goodies. Come spring I can only imagine the spectacular display.

Dining is casual and fun. On sunny days, bean bags and outdoor tables among the kitchen herb garden are fun. The inside space is warm and has shelves of stuff made locally and by the team at the restaurant.

The cooking school is fortnightly at the moment, but the mailing list will let you know what’s coming up. Similarly for the epic secret dinners. We’ve not been to one yet – they sell out quickly, so keeping an eye on the social media is key to get in. Chef Michael Cole runs these at the drop of a hat when he finds something exciting in the ocean or his garden.

 

Australian Pumpkin Seed Company

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.

Bendigo Wholefoods and Kitchen

Sometimes the quest for awesome simple food leads you to an unexpected destination. A combination of plant nursery, wholefoods store and a cafe actually makes sense, if you think about it in an eclectic ‘why not?’ kind of way. Bendigo Wholefoods and Kitchen does nothing the expected way, but it all makes sense. Of course you’re going to open a kitchen if you’ve got amazing produce available from your store. Of course you’re going to open a nursery if people start asking, ‘How can I grow this at home?’

So, from right to left as you approach the sprawling store from the street, let’s take a look at what Bendigo Wholefoods and Kitchen is doing to spread the love of awesomeness.

The nursery is a love affair with all things growable and edible. It’s literally a plant nursery dedicated to things you can grow to eat. Amazing!

The wholefoods store is a really good organic and ethical food supermarket. It has its own lines of sauces and preserves, and local seasonal produce is plentiful. The honesty of labelling is laudable – if it’s not organic, but produced ethically by a small local producer, the ticket says so.

The cafe is a gem in Bendigo. You can get a quick healthy lunch from produce available in the store, prepared fresh, with a menu that changes as the produce comes in season. The servings are generous, the dishes simple and delicious. Look out soon for the ‘good to go’ take-home meals, and the pre-order lunch and picnic boxes.

Swell

Jan Juc is off the highway, just a stones throw from Torquay. It’s a tiny hamlet, a reprieve from the summer madness that Torquay generates. Swell is in its second incarnation now, and after 12 years it’s almost fair to call it an institution.

The front of the cafe has local makers and producers on display and for sale, and there’s summer seating down the side on a neat little deck. The stool-high communal table is perfect for the one-person escapees who’ve just ducked out for some sanity on a busy day.

Dave the chef showed us the generosity of the dishes here – large servings of quality produce turned into simple and delicious dishes. He turns a few cheffy tricks with some of his presentation, but it’s really all about those simple flavours.

Oh – best juices and smoothies on the Great Ocean Road, for sure. Not just milk and fruit, these are the real deal.

The Independent

We’d heard whisperings about The Independent since it opened. Carnivore friends had raved about the meat offerings. They were right, as it turned out, but what they failed to mention was the extraordinary vegan menu. We found this completely by accident after a particularly meat-heavy week. We were treated to one of the most extraordinary slow-cooked corn dishes we’ve ever tasted. It was slow cooked, but still had crunch. Chef Mauro Callegari is Argentinian, and proudly brings those flavours to his menu. The corn dish was a revelation in spices and flavours. Now, you’d never accuse us of being vegan, but that’s a menu I’d happily order from again.

Until the meat came out.

The lamb shoulder was generous to say the least. It was most of a lamb from the shoulder back, and came with some amazing carrots  that had Mauro’s Argentinian flare for spice. Broccoli, chilli, walnuts, and tahini dressing made for a stunning salad. Desserts were the kind you’d travel across the state for. It’s only an hour away though, so there’s no excuse not to get a little Independent love.

Benton Rise Farm

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.