Prosecco, pasta, sangiovese and salami: Belinda Jackson swaps the bathroom scales for kitchen scales as she hits three Italian cooking schools in Victoria's high country.
Lush bolognaise, little bundles of fabulous duck, ravioli and three types of gnocchi are placed on the table in front of us. Reader, I cooked it myself.
I may have had a helping hand from King Valley food doyenne, Katrina Pizzini, who runs her cooking school high up in the village of Whitfield. And there is wine. Well, we are eating in Pizzini's cellar door. Katrina's husband Fred Pizzini is okker in English and magnifico as he rattles off Pizzini's Italian grape varietals: fruiliano, prosecco and at least three types of sangiovese.
"We just bottled this caniolo yesterday," he enthuses. "Here, try it!" If I wasn't already treading the path, this man could easily talk me down the slippery road to lushness. I stumble on a few unfamiliar names: verduzzo, Coronamento Nebbiolo, Per gli Angeli.
"I just pretend I'm in The Godfather," says non-Italian cellar-hand Bluzhal, on pronunciation techniques. She's thinking de Niro, I'm channelling a slurring Brando in a wheelchair with a crochet blanket on his knees.
I'm already in an Italianate mood after a night at Casolare B&B at Politini Wines in Cheshunt, the next village four kilometres up the road. The Politinis are Italian to their marrow, with black-and-white photos of the family accordion players on the walls of the polished B&B and a shed down the back where Salvatore and Josie Politini run their sell-out winter salami-making workshops, which start with the whole pig.
Ignore the terribly English village names, we're on Prosecco Road, which runs from Milawa to Cheshunt. I could continue my own, private Bacchanalia doing the road, where five King Valley winemakers have bonded over their love of bubbles, Italian style. Let's tick those winemakers off on our fingers: there's Pizzini, of course, Brown Brothers, Sam Miranda, Christmont and Dal Zotto, which recently completed its 10th vintage of the beautiful grape – a good excuse for a party. Otto Dal Zotto was born in Veneto, the heartland of Italy's prosecco region. So it's only fitting he planted the first prosecco grape back in 1999, and we Aussies have taken to the Italian sparkling wine like ducks to water, with Australian prosecco sales now outstripping those of French rival champagne.
"It's a nice wine as an aperetif, with some local olives or salumi," says Otto's son Michael. "Or you can go right down the traditional path with rockmelon and proscuitto. But the most important thing is that proseccco can be enjoyed at any time."
"In the morning?" I ask, not entirely tongue-in-cheek.
"Yeah yeah, sure!" he agrees enthusiastically. "We just had some people in for breakfast!" I thank Michael for the licence to drink before midday, but I'm going to leave the winemaking to the families: the cheese I can do myself.
However, to make cheese, I'm going to need another Pizzini. Actually, Anna-Kate Pizzini is married in, but her gentle fanaticism for making cheese at home must have ensured an easy fit into the family of gastronomes. At the Milawa Cheese Factory, four of us don aprons, remove our jewellery and scrub up to make Normandy camembert from whole milk, then ricotta from the whey that separated from the milk.
"Cheesemaking's a little bit science, a little bit art," says Anna-Kate. "You're working with temperature and time."
In between bringing the milk to the right temperature and waiting for curds to form, we bandy about such words as "floculate" (where curds clump together) and compare the best restaurants in the district, the Thirteen Steps in Bright featuring prominently.
Our camembert is now ready to be tipped into moulds and left in the quiet darkness of my garage for six weeks to mature from babies to downy fuzzed adolescents ready to be married to a water cracker and a bottle of Chrismont barbera.
That night, I stoke up the fire against the cold at my chi-chi B&B, GGs by the River. A B&B for bon vivants, it's fully kitted for full-scale entertaining with a table for eight, gleaming kitchen appliances, glassware and garden deck. If your kids are bored of patting the ponies, alpacas, sheep and Passionfruit, the swankiest little poodle this side of the border, they could whip up something fabulous in their own, well-appointed toy kitchen.
Emptying the contents of my shopping bag after a brief pit-stop at Myrtleford Butter factory yields lightly-salted cultured butter, a bottle of buttermilk, some Beechworth sparkling honey drink, a block of championship Mossvale Blue cheese by Berry Creek and Bron's cheesy snaps. I send up thanks that I'm not lactose intolerant, and get ready to rug up for tomorrow's brisk autumn morning start.
Let me set the scene: it's 10am and we're hunting saffron-coloured pine mushrooms and narrow-headed slippery jacks in a pine forest outside Bright, Victoria's most fabulous mountain village.
"You've got to look like a girl," Anthony tells me. Um, Anthony, it's a given, mate.
"No, no, what I mean is: girls tend to be better hunters than boys," says he as he dives into the forest with a bared knife.
Even though it's at the tail end of the season, an hour's hunting yields three Goldilocks-shaped wicker baskets of fungi, which in Melbourne's chic Prahran markets earn up to $40 a kilogram. In fact, three of us on this morning's forage-and-feast expedition have found so many pine mushrooms, we're tossing anything less than perfection. "Ha!" I exclaim, drop-kicking a $10 mushroom into the woods with carefree abandon.
"Pine mushrooms are the best in the world," says Anthony, who is the chef son of Bright's queen of the kitchens, the Umbrian-born Patrizia Simone. "I love them more than porcini. We'll make some parpadelle with these ones, toss 'em with parmesan…" Stop it, I'm salivating.
True to his word, back in the Simones' warm commercial kitchen, which is built on to the back of their private house, we clean the little beauties and spend the next three hours creating surprisingly simple, divine dishes: parpadelle of wild mushrooms, duck saltimbocca, tiramisu.
The menu is a showcase of local produce: duck from a local farmer, butter from Myrtleford Butter Factory, of course, mushrooms from the forest. And the pasta? I'm rolling up my sleeves…
Long ago, when the world was young, I swore I would never buy a pasta machine. Just one more bit of useless junk cluttering already overflowing kitchen cupboards. And in a carb-free Aitkins world, it was not my friend. However, after a weekend in Victoria's high country, me and pasta are reunited, thanks to the passionate and surprisingly prolific Italian families up here. Under Anthony's supervision, I'm rolling like a demon: my little machine churns out long sheets of fairy-fine pasta that we'll cut into fat strands to make parpadelle. "I love the way it hugs the sauces," says Anthony. What he doesn't love is when I forget to cut cross-ways, so my parpadelle is about a metre long.
The morning's cooking culminates in lunch, done the Italian way, with a bottle of Orvieto Classico. Thanks to a group cancellation, our tiny class gets to invite our other halves, who reap the benefits of our foraging. We toast our expertise and the kitchen hand (who's actually one of the chefs in Bright's signature restaurant, the one-hat Simone's, run by Patrizia and her husband George since 1986).
Back in the B&B that night, I contemplate rustling up something magnificent for dinner. A little handmade pasta, perhaps? A savoury custard? Dammit, let's do a souffle. But then, after three cooking schools in three days, it's the simplicity of more cheese, more crackers and yes, more prosecco. Bacchus would approve.
Watch the MasterChef Australia contestants tackle a High Country Victoria challenge, cooking for the Pizzini and Dal Zotto families. Wednesday, June 10 at 7.30pm on TEN.
GETTING THERE Whitfield, in the King Valley, is three hours from Melbourne. Bright is 3¾ hours' drive from Melbourne on the Hume Highway. It's 110 kilometres between the two via Oxley on the Snow Road and the Great Alpine Road.
STAYING THERE GGs by the River, Eurobin, from $295/double a night, 0407 242 789, ggsbytheriver.com.au. Casolare at Politini Wines, Cheshunt, from $175/double a night, 0427 567 377, politiniwines.com.au. Both include lavish breakfast provisions.
COOKING THERE A Tavola! Cooking School at Pizzini Wines, from $130, 175 King Valley Road, Whitfield (03) 5729 8278, pizzini.com.au. Anna-Kate Pizzini's cheesemaking classes at Milawa Cheese Factory, $160 a class or $450 for three classes, (03) 5727 3589, milawacheese.com.au. Patrizia Simone's Country Cooking School, $185, Bright, (03) 5755 2266, simonesbright.com.au.
EAT & DRINK Myrtleford Butter Factory, 15 Myrtle Street, Myrtleford, (03) 5752 2300. Dal Zotto Wines Trattoria, Wangaratta-Whitfield Road, Whitfield, (03) 5729 8321, dalzotto.com.au. Brown Brothers, 239 Milawa-Bobinawarrah Road, Milawa, (03) 5720 5547, brownbrothers.com.au. Sam Miranda, Snow Road, Oxley, (03) 5727 3888, sammiranda.com.au. Christmont, Upper King River Road, Cheshunt VIC 3678, (03) 5729 8220 chrismont.com.au.
Belinda Jackson was a guest of Tourism North East.
Five other High Country hotspots
• The name on everyone's lips and hips is the Myrtleford Butter Factory, which churns out some of the country's best cultured butter. Drop in for a tasting of butter infused with WA truffles, local Beechworth honey and native lemon myrtle. The pure butter is heaven, thebutterfactory.com.au.
• Sleep amid the vines with the Maui Winery Havens experience. Overnight in a Maui motorhome at Dal Zotto or Brown Brothers' wineries, with a gourmet hamper and bottle of wine, $140 a night, maui.com.au.
• Thirteen Steps is a super-smart, subterranean bistro in the centre of Bright. Co-owner Roy's patter is as smooth as chef-owner David Danks' menu. Order the cellar board and explore the wines by glass (there is a kids' menu, too!), thirteensteps.com.au.
• Hedonistic Hiking & Dal Zotto Wines run summertime half-day Prosecco Road Walks, $165, visitkingvalley.com.au/attractions/king-valley-prosecco-road-walks.
• The Mountain View Hotel is a hatted gastro-pub home to Lana wines in Whitfield, made by yet another Pizzini, Joel. The bar staff rate his Il Nostro Vallo 2010 one of the best steak wines they've quaffed. Let the hatted kitchen talk you into trying it with their thick-cut Angus porterhouse steak, mvhotel.com.au.