Long known for its folk festival, Port Fairy is increasingly celebrated for its food scene.
There's a chance you missed the biggest news ever to hit the tiny Victorian town of Port Fairy. In 2012 the seaside village, with its whalers' cottages, red-doored lighthouse and jaunty little fishing fleet, was voted the Most Liveable Town (population under 20,000) in the world. Yes, the world. There's a sign declaring it as you drive into this hamlet at the end of the Great Ocean Road, also known for its folk festival and, more recently, its food.
Having holidayed there for more than a decade, I can attest that the peak of its liveability comes in October through to April, when the winds whip far less frigidly up from the Antarctic. The months when, armed with a fishing licence purchased from the local newsagent, you can take a rubber dinghy out to nearby bays and inlets and pluck black-lip abalone from the rocks. Through extensive trial and error, we've learnt that the best way to cook them is to slice them into slimy slivers and throw them onto a smoking barbecue.
For a less hands-on but even more divine way to eat them, head to Fen. With two hats in the just-released 2018 Good Food Guide, the restaurant is run by Ryan and Kirstyn Sessions out of a 19th-century sandstone pub in the centre of Port Fairy.
From a miniature kitchen, Ryan Sessions produces one of this country's great abalone dishes: shaved slices of the meat, flecked with roasted sea lettuce and fanned out over smoked eel and shiitake. With a focus on native produce, Fen is an exemplar of the trend that some of the most exciting eating in Australia right now is happening in regional areas. It's done a lot to plant a flag for Port Fairy as a food-lover's destination over the past five years.
Last year, well-credentialled chef Matthew Dempsey – who owns the one-hatted Tulip in Geelong – opened Conlan's Wine Store in a former Port Fairy solicitor's office. He pours local wines alongside snacks like saganaki, watermelon and pine nuts, and mussels with corn, coriander and red onion.
Families should head straight to Coffin Sally, where big-city cocktails get shaken at a candlelit bar while pizzas are slung in a barnyard-style dining room strewn with animal skulls. Pizzas, like the Buffalo Sally with cherry tomato and basil, are made using Shaw River mozzarella from a buffalo farm in the neighbouring town of Yambuk.
We know when our favourite coffee place is open because the old-school yellow bike is parked out the front of its hidden laneway location. The Farmer's Wife brews an excellent flat white and bakes an even better oozing chocolate brownie to go with it.
Saturdays for us mean an early trip to the weekly market to load up on local produce like garlic and spuds (this is an Irish-settled region with rich, volcanic soil perfect for potato growing). But if you're staying at the town's award-winning boutique lodgings, Drift House, you'll probably opt instead to lie in. If you've snared an upstairs room, you'll be able to admire views to the Moyne River through the town's trademark, heritage-listed Norfolk Island pines.
Drift House is a kid-free zone, so families are better off renting one of the many bluestone cottages with their rambling gardens and memories of the whalers and seal hunters who settled here 180 years ago.
Ardyn Bernoth is national Good Food Editor.
ROAD TRIP: PORT FAIRY
All-new Mercedes-Benz E-Class Coupé and Cabriolet. Two doors. Dual 12.3-inch widescreen cockpit. Cutting-edge driver assistance systems. AMG styling package.
Taking on the Great Ocean Road with the Mercedes E-Class. Photo: Supplied
Drift House (03) 5568 3309; from $395 per night
The food and wine
Fen (03) 5568 3229
Conlan's Wine Store (03) 5568 2582
Coffin Sally (03) 5568 2618
The Farmer's Wife (03) 5568 2843
Fen’s famous abalone dish. Photo: Supplied
Ardyn Bernoth travelled to Port Fairy in a car loaned by Mercedes-Benz.