Although my gnocchi looks more like a plate of deformed thumbs than "little pillows of heaven" I couldn't be more proud, as I roll, cut and pinch the potato-dough we'd made earlier. "You must be gentle with gnocchi," says food guru Katrina Pizzini, easing my hand into a more relaxed grip. "You can treat pasta rough, but never gnocchi."
Katrina should know, having learned from Nonna Rosetta, the family matriarch who purportedly smuggled bulbs of garlic in her girdle when she emigrated from Italy more than 50 years ago. "Every year since the fattest bulb from the season's crop is replanted for the following year," says Katrina, smashing and peeling a pungent prodigy from Nonna's original stash.
We are mid-way through a pasta, gnocchi and risotto-making class at the family-run Pizzini Wines, high in Victoria's King Valley. The aroma of onions and garlic frying fills the air as we pound pistachios into pesto, learn to make chicken stock from scratch and turn out Rapunzel-like locks of golden fettuccine.
While our small group of 10 concentrates on making the perfect pasta, my husband, together with a handful of other less-than-interested partners, skips off with Katrina's husband Alfredo Pizzini "to check on the vines" – winemaker talk for – "have a few drinks in the barrel room".
It is such casualness I'm looking for. I'd love to say I'm here to improve my wine knowledge, but really, I just want to over-indulge in good food, and spend lazy mornings in bed and afternoons drinking prosecco, that celebratory Italian sparkling wine known for "la dolce vita" – "the sweet life".
Here in the King Valley, home to an Italian community of prosecco pioneers, life is very sweet. Following the Second World War the new arrivals, who found the region reminisce of northern Italy, started growing grapes among the eucalypt-clad mountain ranges. They soon added prosciutto, pasta, sausage and salami to the regional cuisine, along with their passion for simple, seasonal produce and their love of sharing food with family and friends.
Free time is perhaps the sweetest indulgence of all, so on this trip we've allowed four days to travel just 50 kilometres (you could do it in under an hour) tootling along "Prosecco Road", a country trail that wends its way beside the King River from Cheshunt to Milawa. Unlike other sprawling wine regions "Prosecco Road" is comprised of just five wineries – Brown Brothers, Sam Miranda, Dal Zotto, Pizzini and Chrismont – that have banded together to produce a food and wine trail celebrating the Italian way of life.
To take the slow food ideology further we are travelling by motorhome, an Apollo "Euro slider" with an expanding mid-section that glides out at the press of a button extending the living and sleeping quarters, the first of its kind on the Australian rental market. While it comfortably sleeps four we find it perfect for a couple with a long list of standard inclusions – private bedroom, separate toilet and shower, TV, iPod docking station, air-conditioning, linen, pillows and towels – elevating the experience to a near-luxury level.
After the cooking class we gather outside at the family-style table to enjoy our bounty – chicken and zucchini risotto, meatballs with tomato sauce, gnocchi with pistachio pesto – all washed down with Pizzini wines and followed by a Rocky Prosecco Road dessert. "We believe in high-quality, seasonal food, thoughtfully produced and prepared with care," says Katrina. "The key is to take the time to enjoy it."
From Pizzini's it's a three-kilometre drive to our campsite at the Valley View caravan park, where our grassy spot overlooks a field of fat-as-butter cows, the High Country hills looming in the distance. Although it is summer school holidays the park is quiet, just a handful of vans and a few domed tents belonging to mountain bikers.
It's a short walk across the road to Dal Zotto Wines, where a game of bocce is well under way. Inspired by a childhood growing up in the town of Valdobbiadene, the birthplace of prosecco, family patriarch Otto Dal Zotto planted the first prosecco vines in the King Valley in 1999. Known for its vibrant, fruit-driven flavours prosecco pairs beautifully with a variety of foods, which is one of the reasons it has a growing, cult-like following. Dal Zotto also produces pinot grigio, arneis, sangiovese, barbera and other Italian varietals, all of which can be sampled at the cellar door or Trattoria.
We've pre-ordered the takeaway option, a Yogi Bear-sized picnic basket filled with plump olives, spicy salamis and pickled vegetables, all house-made, seasonal and regional. "Family, home and hospitality is at the heart of everything we do," says Otto's son Christian Dal Zotto, adding a chilled bottle of prosecco, homemade gnocchi, bolognaise sauce and bread to the basket.
Back at our motorhome we toast the setting sun, drinking in the valley views while feasting on the Pandora of all picnic boxes, falling asleep to a chorus of cicadas, content in the knowledge that tomorrow we get to do it all again.
We've travelled this way before – across Australia, Europe and New Zealand – early converts to the freedom and flexibility (and no packing and unpacking) a motorhome provides. But the advantages are greater than the sum of the parts; it's finding that perfect riverside spot where you can while the afternoon away with a swim and a barbecue (and a snooze), it's having everything on hand when you change your mind or take a detour, and the sense of anticipation of "where to next?".
The next day we explore more of the King River, heading to William Hovel Dam for a hike before driving back to the King Valley Dairy, deemed by many leading chefs to produce Australia's best naturally cultured butter. After much sampling we stock up on native thyme for our sourdough and rich chocolate for our morning pancakes, once again thankful for our large fridge. On a tip from owner Naomi Ingleton, who has recently relocated her business from Myrtleford to the historic butter factory at Moyhu, we spend the remainder of the afternoon at a "secret" swimming hole across the road from her property.
The following morning we pick up complimentary Peddle to Produce bikes from Brown Brothers winery and hit the Milawa Gourmet Food Trail, pedalling past vineyards, pausing at providores, and piling our baskets with enough goodies to do any tourism brochure proud – smelly cheeses, handmade mustards, regional condiments, even the obligatory bread stick sticking out at a jaunty angle.
Back at Brown Brothers we chill the wine and cheese in our "larder on wheels", have an on-board wash and costume change before heading to Sam Miranda and its state-of-the-art cellar door. Designed by renowned Sydney architect Alex Popov the tall, weather-stained timber tower stands like an exclamation mark above the surrounding countryside, with entry via a subterranean passage.
While the restaurant serves a selection of Italian-inspired dishes head chef Michael White convinces me (with little arm twisting) that a platter of house-made desserts – cannelloni, Nutella tiramisu, violet crumble, raspberry sorbet and poached pear – is an acceptable midday snack. As I'm discovering, Italians are masters at enjoying life and turning indulgences into essentials.
Another winery taking food, wine and design to an elevated level is Chrismont, our final stop. Here we meet owners Arnie Pizzini (cousin to Fred) and his wife Jo at their newly opened cellar door, restaurant and larder, a contemporary structure that seems to float above the vineyards. "We are still a young wine region," Arnie explains, pouring a La Zona Arneis 2015, with its crisp apple and pear flavours. "Ripe for alternative plantings of grapes that have never been grown locally."
The restaurant, with its open space and sweeping views, pays homage to Jo's Sicilian background. Garlic prawns and a Sicilian green olive salad are followed by slow-cooked lamb shoulder and local spitchcock stuffed with rice and roasted vegetables. A well-stocked larder of house-made Italian goodies such as biscotti, pickled zucchini and sesame torrone are available as takeaway.
We take our desserts to the balcony, where Arnie joins us for a final glass of prosecco. "The simplicity of prosecco is the beauty of prosecco," he says, raising a glass, a statement that could stand easily for the region, or holidays in general.
A Tavola! Cooking School at Pizzini Wines runs four-hour classes in pasta, gnocchi and risotto making for $145, see pizzini.com.au
The King Valley is a three-hour drive north-east of Melbourne, or 7.5 hours from Sydney. Motorhomes and campervans can be hired through Apollo Motorhome Holidays in every state. The Apollo Euro Slider costs from $160 a day, see apollocamper.com
Valley View Caravan Park offers powered sites in the Upper King Valley at Whitfield from $30. valleyviewcaravanpark.com.au
Kerry van der Jagt travelled as a guest of Apollo Motorhomes, Tourism North East and Visit Victoria
FIVE MORE VALLEY CHOICES
Patricia's Table is a hatted restaurant at Brown Brothers in Milawa specialising in local produce served with matching wines.
The Mountain View gastro-pub in Whitfield overlooks Jessie's Creek and 90-year-old gardens.
A round of bocce at Dal Zotto is a traditional pastime best improved with a glass of prosecco.
Take a dip in one of the multitude of swimming holes along the King River.
The cow and goat cheeses at Milawa Cheese Company have been inspired by European methods; pick up a platter, dine in the restaurant or grab a coffee.