Bountiful harvest

A drive around this river-bound region reveals tasty pockets of produce and history, writes Sandy Guy.

Stretching from Seymour to Echuca on the Murray River, and encompassing regional centres including Benalla, Kilmore, Kyabram and Shepparton, the Goulburn Valley has long been synonymous with agriculture, from dairy farms to orchards that produce masses of apples, pears and stone fruits.

A drive around the valley reveals all sorts of cultural and culinary surprises such as boutique wineries, country pubs, farm-gate produce and relics of the region's rich history.

History

The Goulburn River winds its way through beautiful countryside around Shepparton, where, from the 1850s, gold-hungry prospectors crossed the river as they moved from the central Victorian goldfields to the state's north-east. Paddle steamers stopped here, too, in the 1880s, on their way to the Murray River.

For a glimpse of old Shepparton, the city's historical precinct has an Aboriginal canoe tree and the remains of a paddle steamer wharf from the 1880s. The Shepparton Heritage Centre Museum features displays relating to the city's history.

Many towns in the area prospered during the gold rush, including Rushworth, 47 kilometres south-west of Shepparton. Hectic with prospectors in the 1850s, the town now boasts a National Trust-listed main street that features a string of colonial buildings.

The lonely Whroo cemetery, seven kilometres south of Rushworth, is the resting place of hundreds of people who lived in the region during the gold rush. Once a thriving town with 140 buildings, now an old gold mine, a puddling machine - a horse-drawn device used to break up gold-bearing gravel and clay - and the cemetery are all that mark this ghost town, part of the 500-hectare Whroo Historic Reserve.

Days Mill, regarded as one of the state's best-preserved flour mills, is another find. Situated five kilometres south of Murchison on Day Road, off the Murchison-Goulburn Weir Road, the circa-1865 mill, manager's residence and farm outbuildings seem frozen in time.

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Tatura's Irrigation & Wartime Camps Museum provides an interesting insight into the seven prisoner of war and internment camps in the area during World War II, which housed thousands of people.

German officers captured in the Middle East were detained at Dhurringile Mansion, a circa-1877 pile on the Murchison-Tatura Road. You can't visit the mansion today and you wouldn't want to - it's a minimum-security prison - but you can see it from the road.

Eating there

Tatura Hot Bread (130 Hogan Street, 5824 1267, taturahotbread.com.au), the two-time grand champion (professional section) of Ouyen's Great Australian Vanilla Slice Triumph - the brainchild of former premier Jeff Kennett to uncover the nation's best vanilla slice - is a must-visit.

Locals line up for these quintessential Aussie pastries as well as crusty bread, pies and splendid buns (the bakery also just scooped the Baking Industry Association of Victoria's award for Australia's best hot cross buns).

West Heidelberg bakery Sweet by Nature took the gong for last year's Vanilla Slice Triumph and this year's showdown will be in Ouyen in September. "They'd better watch out; we'll be back with a vengeance," says the co-owner and baker at Tatura Hot Bread, Jeff Alexander.

Murchison's bakery (39 Stevenson Street, 5826 2336), dating from the 1870s, had been the heart and soul of the town - aside from the pub - for more than a century. But calamity struck in 2003 when the historical shop front, as well as the supermarket next door, burnt down.

Owners Janene and Trevor Burt were quick to get back to work - the bakehouse at the back survived the blaze.

"Community rejoices" shouted the headlines of the local newspaper several weeks later, when the aroma of freshly baked bread (as well as pies and a wide selection of cakes) again wafted across Murchison's main street, which fronts a particularly picturesque section of the Goulburn River.

At Murchison's Caledonian Hotel (47 Stevenson Street, 5826 2450, caledonianhotelmurch ison.com), fresh barramundi farmed in nearby Kyabram is on the menu, along with kangaroo fillets and big local steaks.

Two years ago, the Caledonian was on the market and Murchison faced the ignominy of becoming a town with no pub. Alex Black was 22 when he bought the town's only watering hole and, with his parents Dianne and Brian, began transforming the 1880s hotel into one of the region's favourite diners. Wednesday steak nights ($15) and two courses for $19.90 on Sundays attract good patronage.

Added gourmet fare arrived in Murchison recently when Wagner Bros Fine Food Store (1/45 Stevenson Street, 0438 588 276) opened its doors. Wagner stocks quality produce, from Nagambie olive oil and Holy Goat Cheese to local honey and home-made pasta, as well as an eclectic array of homewares, and serves coffee and cakes.

Many orchards across the Goulburn Valley have farm gates where you can buy crisp new-season apples, pears and peaches.

Some traditional orchardists and dairy farmers are also turning their hands to handcrafted produce, including Vera Fleming, whose Chocolate Apple Factory (95 School Road, 5829 2353, spiritofthevalley.com.au), situated on the family orchard in Shepparton East, is a magnet for local children - Vera's crisp apples are coated with caramel and chocolate. Locals also call in for fresh apple and pear juice and fruit liquors.

Other delicious pit stops include Locheilan Farmhouse Cheese (754 Central Mundoona Road, Wunghnu, 5826 9581, locheilan.com.au), where Bruce and Sue McGorlick craft Stilton-style blue, cheshire, camembert and sensational triple-cream brie, made with milk from cows grazing in the paddocks of the farm they have run for 30 years.

At Greendale Grove (7230 Goulburn Valley Highway, Kialla West, 5823 2785, greendalegrove .com.au), 4000 olive trees thrive in the Goulburn Valley's Mediterranean-like climes. Stock up on olives and olive oils, local produce and wines in the spacious shop-cum-restaurant and dine on regional produce on the wide verandahs overlooking the olive grove.

Although Shepparton has many franchise diners, there are some home-grown gems in town including Friars Cafe (127 Fryers Street, 5822 2181) in a 100-year-old church in the centre of town. Popular with locals, Friars serves big city-style breakfasts and ever-changing luncheon dishes, which may include seared scallop, apple and rocket salad.

Wine

Vineyards were first planted in the Goulburn Valley in 1860, including 151-year-old Tahbilk Estate (254 O'Neils Road, Tabilk via Nagambie, 5794 2555, tahbilk.com.au), one of the nation's oldest wineries.

You can taste the many wine varieties produced in the region at 15 cellar doors.

One with a difference is Thieves and Duffers (255 Macisaac Road, Ardmona, 5829 0015, thievesandduffers.com.au), where Sally Plunkett crafts ambrosian fruit wines including apple and passionfruit or pear and honey, as well as smooth ports made from mulberries or apricots. Thieves and Duffers' cellar door is inside the Plunkett Orchards packing shed, where you can see apples being graded for market.

River gums fringing the Goulburn River at Murchison make a tranquil backdrop at Longleat Estate (105 Old Weir Road, 5826 2294, murchisonwines.com.au), where Sandra and Guido Vazzoler have been making wine for about seven years.

Great flocks of cockatoos fly across the gorgeous vineyard as we sip a full-bodied shiraz and nibble antipasti on the deck of Longleat's cellar door. A delicious addition is Sandra's handcrafted cheese - fetta, cheddar and zesty blue, along with that especial flavour that comes only from home-grown tomatoes.

At Katunga, 80-year-old Italian-born winemaker Carlo Monichino works in the vineyard he planted from 1962 onwards. At Monichino's eponymous winery (70 Berrys Road, 5864 6452, monichino.com.au), the cellar door has shelves laden with the vintages that have won Monichino wine a string of awards, including best Australian vintage fortified red (vintage port) at the 2008 Rutherglen Wine Show.

Where to stay

There are many traditional country pubs across the Goulburn Valley. We stayed at the Tatura Family Pub, where a family room (sleeps four) costs $110 a night, doubles $69. Rooms are old-style at this welcoming pub - bathrooms are down the hall - but comfortable and the bistro serves pub favourites such as corned silverside with all the trimmings for less than $20. Phone 5824 1600, see thefamilypub.com.au.

Shepparton's Quest apartments, near the Goulburn River and historical precinct, have spacious living areas, kitchens, comfortable beds, balconies and big televisions. Studio apartments cost from $140 a double a night.

Phone 5814 4800, see questapartments.com.au.

Locheilan Farmhouse Cheese at Wunghnu has a pet-friendly bed and breakfast. Guests can see cows, milking and cheesemaking. A cooked breakfast is included in the rate of $140 a double, children $40 a night extra.

Phone 5826 9581, see locheilan.com.au.

Getting there

Shepparton is 179 kilometres (about a two-hour drive) north of Melbourne via the Hume Highway and the Goulburn Valley Highway. For more information, see goulburnrivervalley.com.au.

Sandy Guy was a guest of Goulburn River Valley Tourism

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