Impatient traffic from Melbourne is often zipping through Myrtleford's main roundabout to yet another sporting event in Bright or Falls Creek. This really bothers some Myrtleford people. Even back in goldrush days the town was the underdog of the Victorian High Country and, more recently, has struggled to reinvent itself after the tobacco industry fizzled out. Though, gradually, Myrtleford is realising that what makes it special has always been there.
I first visit the place on a sunny autumn morning. The eucalypt bushland flanking the Great Alpine Highway gives way to brilliant poplars and oak trees. Eye-catching corrugated barns, which turn out to be old tobacco kilns, stand tall in a neat line in a green paddock. In the distance is the distinctive elevated plateau of Mount Buffalo.
Along the recently streetscaped main drag is an eclectic range of cafes and a town square, Myrtleford Piazza.
There's Bastoni, the newest pizzeria, baking Napoletana-style pizzas hot and fast on a rotating plate in a wood-fired oven. At the roundabout, a sign leaning against a Vespa points towards one of the town's many second-hand shops.
At Delizie Cafe Deli former tobacco grower Roberto Parolin greets me in Italian and calls me "il mio tesoro" – my treasure. Owner and guide of Cook-Cycle-Feast, Claire Stock, is already there mingling with the handful of other people taking her half-day tour. Nobody is in Lycra. In the cafe's kitchen, Roberto teaches us to mix, roll and cut gnocchi before we get on our bikes and ride.
Myrtleford stands on the traditional land of the Yaithmathang people whose lives, by the mid-1800s, had, at best, been severely disrupted and, at worst, destroyed. In the 1850s, a waterway the newcomers renamed Myrtle Creek had to be crossed by any gold digger rushing to the Buckland Valley. They came from China, England, France, India, Italy, Poland, Scotland, the US. A township developed at the place they forded.
Around a century ago, Italian immigrants brought tobacco-growing to Myrtleford and the town's main event eventually became a festival called Tobacco, Hops and Timber. By 2006, however, growers had little choice but to accept an exit package from British American Tobacco and the federal government. Around 500 families in a town of about 3000 people were left with financial compensation – and the big question: "What now?"
Claire leads us to a sealed cycle path that is well removed from the main road and, like almost everything in Myrtleford, on the flat. We pedal past houses on huge blocks, paddocks of shiny black cows grazing in the sunshine and more tobacco kilns – rusted and crumpling or artfully repurposed. The raised-bed kitchen garden of Lupo's Kiln Cafe, where three generations of family handmake their gnocchi, is bursting with herbs and vegetables.
We stop off at Pepo Farms, on the edge of the neighbouring town of Ovens, where farmer Sharan Rivett has channelled the experiences of her rural Queensland upbringing and the knowledge of her Slovenian ancestors into creating "the only pumpkin growing business in Australia". Pepo's old-style mill also extracts oil from the nuts and fruits of other growers in the region. We taste pepitas, chew chocolate turmeric walnuts, slurp almond and walnut oil by the tablespoonful and I leave with some of all of the above.
By now it's wine o'clock so we hit a trail that takes us on a scenic route to the opposite end of Myrtleford. Two local mosaic-bombers have lately been "vandalising" the park's trees and rocks so artistically they've been given council approval. We spot decorative birds, ants, human figures and fish. A rock wombat sits under a bridge spanning the Ovens River right where real ones dig in the dust, given the tell-tale scattering of square poo.
While we cycle side-by-side, Claire tells me she's lived in Myrtleford for more than a decade. She appreciates being part of this community but also loves how easily you can have the world to yourself. Sometimes, when she and her young family are going for a bushwalk or looking for a place on the river to swim, "we don't go there if there are more than two other cars".
After crossing the swing bridge Claire guides us out of the park to Michelini Wines. The cellar door is in a freestanding building made using recycled timbers from the old railway and bricks salvaged from tobacco kilns. The Michelini family emigrated here from the north of Italy more than 150 years ago. A local teacher strums and sings in a corner while I'm introduced to an Australian red wine made from an Italian red grape, teroldego, and look forward to being back in a few hours for the opening of Myrtleford's Italian cultural festival.
La Fiera is held every autumn. This year, Myrtleford's fungi expert and farmers' market co-ordinator Franca Norris has introduced a traditional Italian preservation class to the program. As always there will be live music, human chess, traditional grape squashing, hot chestnuts for sale. Palm Island born Indigenous artist Billy Doolan, with his exquisite collection of Sicily-inspired paintings, will be the VIP that evening.
Back at Delizie, Roberto has cooked our gnocchi and smothered bowlfuls of it in pesto or bolognaise sauce. Over the food and vino we discuss salami-making and passata weekends and how, in Myrtleford, you don't need a drop of Italian blood to be hardcore into either or both. When it's time to disperse, everyone embraces as though we've toured Tuscany together.
FIVE THINGS TO DO NEAR MYRTLEFORD
BUY FARM FRESH
Find your way to Mount Buffalo Olives in Porepunkah, Homestead Estate in Happy Valley, Nut Groves Valley Walnut Farm in Gapsted as well as Nightingale Bros Produce Store and Wandiful Produce in Wandiligong. See wandifulproduce.com.au
SHUFFLE OFF TO BUFFALO
The mountaintop is only an hour's drive from Myrtleford. Depending on the season you can cross-country ski, hike, fish, swim, canoe, rock climb or picnic hanging off a cliff. See parkweb.vic.gov.au; brightadventurecompany.com.au
VISIT A WINERY
Try one of Feathertop's wine and food experiences such as Vino Cucina, Feathertop Feast, Pedal & Picnic in the Vines, Behind the Vines & Wines discovery tour. Gapsted Winery is also worth a visit. See feathertopwinery.com.au
SLEEP IN A KILN
Just outside Myrtleford, on a cattle farm in the Ovens Valley, are the architecturally designed self-contained Kilnhouses with views of Mount Buffalo and Mount Feathertop. See kilnhouse.com.au
Hire a bike and pack a picnic in Myrtleford then ride Buffalo River Road to Lake Buffalo (40 kilometres return) or cycle the Murray to the Mountains rail trail to Murmungee (18 kilometres return). See myrtlefordcycle.com
Elspeth Callender travelled as a guest of Tourism North East.
From Melbourne (or Melbourne Airport) it's an easy three-hour drive via the Hume Freeway or fly QantasLink into Albury Airport and drive only 45 minutes to Myrtleford. See qantas.com.au
Panoramia Villas are one- and two-bedroom self-contained apartments only a few minutes' drive from the centre of Myrtleford. See panoramiavillas.com.au
Cook-Cycle-Feast tours include rolling gnocchi, Moroccan tagines & tea, Coffee bean roast 'n' ride, yoga rides and can be customised for groups. See myrtlefordcycle.com/tours