Bon vivants on bikes

Susan Gough Henly takes the slow roads for a guilt-free foodie holiday.

On a glorious afternoon with the sun streaming through floor-to-ceiling windows, I am sitting with friends sharing antipasto and charcuterie plates in the sleek Alex Popov-designed cellar door of Sam Miranda Wines in Oxley. Rows of wine bottles line the tasting area bar, a gleaming espresso machine is off to one side, oak barrels frame one wall and a black Vespa has pride of place in front of the fireplace. The setting could be a groovy bar in Milan but for the river red gums outside.

We have spent the morning biking around Milawa and Oxley, stopping at farm stands and wineries to sample remarkable and remarkably diverse offerings from Australia's first designated gourmet region, just an hour's drive south of Albury.

Since we are obliged to carbo load to provide our own fuel (it's a tough job), we tuck into house-made gnocchi with burnt butter, sage and lemon sauce and linguine with cured ocean trout, Milawa chevre and roasted garlic while sampling Sam Miranda's fascinating vinous line up, such as refreshing white northern Italian varietals arneis and albarino, a smooth sangiovese-barbera blend, a gutsy durif and even a Russian wine called saperavi. After an espresso we are ready to get in the saddle again to seek out more tidbits and tipples. It's at moments like this I am thankful not to be driving.

With all the headlines these days about getting exercise, eating healthier and reducing our carbon footprint, North East Valleys Food & Wine and Murray to Mountains cycling have come up with a fascinating new foodie adventure called Pedal to Produce, which links gourmet food producers and wineries with seven bucolic cycle touring routes.

Now you no longer have to go to Europe for the perfect guilt-free foodies' holiday. It certainly helps that this part of Victoria, which stretches from Rutherglen to Mount Beauty, has some mighty fine food and wine and interesting producers to meet, not to mention rail trails and quiet country roads to bike. Better yet, you can buy a voucher booklet and get some great discounts as well.

The six of us this balmy early autumn weekend have decided to concentrate on Milawa and Oxley, basing ourselves at the Lindenwarrah country house smack-bang in the middle of Milawa gourmet region, right next door to the Brown Brothers winery. Arriving on Friday night, we enjoy a delectable dinner at the hotel's restaurant Merlot, which features local specialties such as Milawa free-range chicken and Blue Ox berries, overlooking the hotel's own merlot vines. Afterwards we enjoy coffee in the comfortable lounge with its eclectic collection of tapestries, a hand-painted Berber door and Chinese vases.

After a hearty breakfast the next morning, we rent bikes at Lindenwarrah and pick up bike baskets to hold the goodies we plan to collect along the way.

First stop is Brown Brothers, where four generations of the Brown family have been growing grapes since John Francis Brown planted the region's first vines in 1885. Of particular interest are their limited releases of new varietals and experimental batches such as dolcetto, moscato and tarrango from their cellar door in addition to their mainstream wines.

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We then meander down Factory Road to its intersection with the Snow Road. Known locally as The Crossroads, this is really the culinary crossroads of Milawa, with the pioneering Brown Brothers at one end of Factory Road and the Milawa Cheese Company, one of Australia's oldest farmhouse cheese makers, at the other. The Crossroads is also home to Milawa Mustards and The Olive Shop.

Anna and David Bienvenu have been hand-making seeded mustards since 1982 using ingredients grown on their farm. The Milawa Mustards shop, located at the historic Old Emu Inn which was once a rest stop for miners on the way to the goldfields now offers 18 different mustards. We sample mild tarragon mustard all the way to flaming hot chilli mustard, as well as home-made pastes, jellies, jams, chutneys, marmalades and salad dressings.

Next door, The Olive Shop sells a wide range of local and Australian olive products, extra-virgin olive oils, table olives, tapenade, dukkahs and olive soaps.

Further down Factory Road is the iconic Milawa Cheese Factory, founded more than 20 years ago in the historic Milawa butter factory by Australian cheese-making pioneers David Brown and Richard Thomas, whose ambition was to hand-make in the European style semi-soft and hard, blue and white mould and washed rind cheeses from cow's and goat's milk.

We taste specialities like Milawa Gold (the first commercially produced washed rind cheese in Australia and still one of the best), Milawa Blue, ashed chevre, brie, camembert, tomme and a hard goat's cheese called Milawa Capricornia.

There is an entire cottage industry here, beyond their fabulous cheeses. A terrific bakery makes traditional Italian and French breads (using a 16-year-old sourdough culture) in a stone oven. We sample their renowned hazelnut and fig bread, which is absolutely delicious. Next door, Milawa Chocolates make Belgian-style chocolates and it is impossible to resist buying some champagne, Grand Marnier and lime truffles for the road. The Ageing Frog Bistrot also offers great country fare, including delicious hand-made pizzas.

On the way back to the Snow Road, we stop at Ciccone Wines cellar door located in a heritage-listed butcher shop. Winemaker Pat Ciccone is a whiz at the espresso machine so we indulge in an excellent cappuccino, in addition to sampling his wines, before continuing on our trusty steeds.

Whitehead's Walkabout Apiaries and Meadery is located a little way along the bike path that parallels the Snow Road and we stop for a tasting of distinctive honeys from different eucalyptus trees, as well as trying old-fashioned mead, an alcoholic beverage made from honey. From here it is a straight shot, past Milawa's iconic 1860s four-storey steam-driven brick flour mill, to Sam Miranda Wines and our aforementioned lunch.

Heading back to Lindenwarrah later that afternoon for a much-anticipated swim and massage in the spa, we can't resist taking a small detour to Blue Ox Berry Farm on Evans Lane where Helen Taylor gives us samples of delicious marmalades and jams. My favourite is the peach and passionfruit but there is blueberry, blackberry, pear and ginger, not to mention tomato relishes, pickles and chutneys that glisten red and green like Christmas in a jar. In early summer, stop here to pick your own raspberries.

Just down the road, Ciavarella Wines at Oxley Estate has a pretty cellar door down the end of a vine-rimmed laneway. Here we meet winemaker Tony Ciavarella, who pours some fascinating wines for us to taste: an earthy graciano and durif, a sweet red dolcino and a late harvest semillon-aucerot, in addition to the more traditional chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon.

That evening we dine on marvellous local produce and wines at the laid-back King River Cafe in Oxley. Next morning we are full of resolve to burn off all those calories by taking the longer recommended bike loop around Milawa. We cycle 16 kilometres along quiet shady roads to Wangaratta, returning to Milawa via the rail trail to Everton Station.

On the way back into Milawa we stop at EVOlives where we not only taste delicious olives, tapenade and olive oils, including an agrumato oil blended with lime and lemon, but also learn about which olive tree varieties make the best oils and table fruit.

Before returning to reality, we relax under massive shade trees at the Brown Brothers Epicurean Centre and enjoy dishes paired with Brown Brothers wines, such as a sangiovese with a rustica tart of nicola potatoes, bull boar sausage with aioli, walnut tapenades and a full-bodied barbera with rabbit in almond sauce roasted with red peppers and bitter leaves.

If only all gourmet weekend getaways could be this virtuous.

The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism Victoria.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Fly to Albury Airport, hire a vehicle, head south on the Hume Freeway and turn off at the Milawa exit. Milawa is about one hour from Albury.

TOURING THERE

There are seven Pedal to Produce trails. Pick up a voucher (discount) booklet for $25 at information centres in Beechworth, Myrtleford, Wangaratta, Bright, Rutherglen or Mount Beauty or at Lindenwarrah Country House Hotel. It is worth $500 and is valid for a year. You can also get baskets for a $50 refundable deposit or buy them for $65. Bring your own bike or stay at Lindenwarrah where you can rentbikes.

STAYING THERE

Lindenwarrah, Milawa-Bobinawarrah Road, Milawa, phone (03) 5720 5777, see www.lindenwarrah.com.au.

WHEN TO GO

September and October offer spring blossoms, December is a wonderful time to find berries, while March to May is great forproduce, autumn colours and balmyweather.

FURTHER INFORMATION

See www.pedaltoproduce.com.au.

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