The great ocean whey

Brigid Delaney savours offerings of gourmet food producers among the lush farmlands of the famed 12 Apostles route.

Sometimes the most surprising discoveries are made in your own backyard.

I grew up in Warrnambool, south-west Victoria, and left thinking "beautiful farmland, greener than county Kerry, and the handsomest cows in Australia - but not much in the way gourmet produce".

In the 10 years since I lived in the south-west, the dairy industry around Warrnambool has gone from strength to strength, with the local cheese and butter factory supplying about 25 per cent of Australia's dairy needs.

But something else has happened. Husband-and-wife teams are moving away from dairy farming and becoming micro-producers. Together with my old school friend Natasha and local tour operator Bob Scarborough, I spent the day travelling around a region known as the Great Ocean Road gourmet trail.

The trail is a 50-kilometre loop that takes in the Apostles at the far south-western end of the Great Ocean Road and the dairy farming hinterland around Timboon and Port Campbell. It takes a full day to do the complete trail.

Our first stop is Berry World, in Timboon. With a population of 800, the town is becoming a hub for micro-producers.

Berry World owners Joy and Alan Kerr have been farming the same land for 43 years and opened their patch to tourists to pick and pay for strawberries since 1977. It's a basic operation. There is no slick salesperson selling you cream or ice-cream with your strawberries. Alan shrugs and says "they taste really good on their own".

These strawberries are unlike anything I have tasted. Sweet and warmed by the mid-morning sun - to put cream with them would be sacrilege.

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"Visitors are shown how to pick and where to pick, and what varieties may suit their palate," Alan says.

From Berry Farm, it's a short trip up to the Timboon whisky distillery and ice-creamery.

This is a slick, modern operation, where you can taste the products and have lunch by the gum trees and the refurbished rail trail.

On a wall of the distillery, there is a blown-up photograph of my great-great uncle Tom Delaney circa 1894. He is being arrested after being tracked down by "Australia's own Sherlock Holmes, Detective John Christie". Christie used many disguises, including dressing up as the local tinker, in order to catch Delaney, who was brewing whisky in illegal stills. The Mountain Dew he produced was so strong "it could kill a mosquito at the opposite end of a football field".

I grew up listening to my father tell the story of the "whisky Delaneys", who were so brazen they stamped the whisky with a Crown seal in order to evade detection.

Whisky maker Tim Marwood, owner of the Timboon Railway Shed Distillery and maker of single malt whisky, vodka and a fruit liqueur, is proud of the region's wild outlaw reputation - but his whisky is legal, and probably nowhere near as rough as Uncle Tom's.

It's only 11am but Natasha, Bob and I gamely line up for shots of whisky at the bar. It is smooth, warming and faintly spicy.

The whisky was awarded 93/100 in Jim Murray's Whisky Bible 2012, which says "this whisky is strictly first class".

Tim also makes award-winning ice-cream. His wife, Caroline, gives us some blackberry sorbet to try. It's delicious. The blackberries were collected by children from the local farms, who found them growing by the side of the road and brought them in to be turned into sorbet.

"This morning I went to the dairy and got 400 litres of fresh milk," Tim says. "It was still warm when we picked it up. That's the trick - freshness. And a good level of fat and sweetness. Too much fat coats the palate. I'm a tester. You have to feel sorry for me - I have to drink whisky and eat ice-cream all week.

"Timboon is so rich in produce we have a burgeoning amount of micro-producers," he adds, citing an eel farm up the road, some organic garlic producers, and a trout farm and smokehouse.

Our next stop sounds intriguing. We are going to visit a young French couple who are making cheese in the back blocks of Timboon.

In an area more Irish than a spud farm, the idea that there might be French cuisine here seems impossibly exotic.

Matthieu Megard's L'Artisan Cheese operates out of a farm and shop called the Mouse Trap. The tasting area is housed at the back of some beautiful gardens and the smell of cheese hits us straight away.

Matthieu, from Annecy in the French Alps, was a cheesemaker in France for 10 years before settling with his young family in Australia. "I'm a creative cheesemaker. We make French-style cheeses. It's all hand-made; we do cheeses that are not normally available, cheeses with a bit of character. They are basically French-inspired cheeses," he says.

The first cheese we try, the Mountain Man, looks like a battered frisbee and is mild, gooey, creamy and sensational.

"It's from the French Alps," Matthieu says. "It's a washed rind but it doesn't exist in Australia. There's a lot of moisture in it - there's no acidity."

All of the cheese manufacturing is done on the premises, including pasteurising the milk, pressing the cheese, hand-salting it, and ripening. The cows who provide the milk wander in the paddock behind the cheese room.

Matthieu supplies cheese to Melbourne's poshest French restaurants, including Jacque Reymond, France Soir and Vue de Monde - and his cheese can be purchased at Simon Johnson.

The next stop is Port Campbell, then it's past the 12 Apostles and a battalion of tourist coaches, before we cut inland towards GORGE (Great Ocean Road Gourmet Experience) chocolates.

Once again, the local cows play a starring role in this produce. Run by Melanie Pollack and Jason Spaull, GORGE makes chocolates on the premises using a Belgian base and local milk and cream. Of particular note is their salted chocolate and raspberry liquorice in white chocolate.

"We wanted to do something with the property. We knew we didn't want to milk cows, but we wanted to be productive," Melanie says. "Plus we love chocolate."

Our tour guide, Bob, tells me Jason is one of the district's finest dairy technicians. Prior to taking over GORGE, Melanie was a cheesemaker at our next stop, Apostle Whey Cheese.

The cheese-tasting room overlooks the patchwork of Dianne and Julian Bensons' beautiful, emerald-green dairy farm.

Dianne and Julian have been farming in the area for 31 years but have spent the past 6½ as cheesemakers. They are famed for their Grotto cheese, which won silver in the 2007 Royal Melbourne Show. "We use our own cow milk. It's all made here," Dianne says.

They have 250 cows - Jerseys and Friesians - and through the glass in the tasting room, it's possible for visitors to see the cheese being made. Julian emerges in cheesemaking garb. "There's a romance to making cheeses," he says. "There are times in your life when you just have to create something."

Our final stop on the 12 Apostles Gourmet Trail is Newtons Ridge Winery. It is stunning. We drive down a ridge and into a valley of vines, protected by the harsh winds that barrel in off the nearby Southern Ocean. Again it is a two-person operation: David and Dot Newton, former dairy farmers who wanted to try something different.

"We were dairy farmers for most of our lives and we have looked after the vines similarly," David says. "We're still growing things, but I much prefer the knock-off 4 o'clock chardonnay to a glass of milk."

Dot and David opened their cellar door in 2003 and say other industries have sprung up since.

It's time for us to take off. We so are stuffed with cheese, wine, whisky, chocolate and ice-cream I can hardly walk. Never again will I think of my home town as a culinary black hole.

Brigid Delaney travelled with the assistance of Visit 12 Apostles.

FAST FACTS

Getting there Trains to Warrnambool leave Southern Cross Station in Melbourne three times a day. It takes three hours and fares start at $31 one way, full fare, off-peak; see vline.com.au.

Touring there For the Great Ocean Road Gourmet Trail, tour operator Bob Scarborough takes groups of up to 22 guests around the trail in a comfortable bus. Allow a full day. Phone 0447 738 527; see southwestexplorer.com.au.

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