The eureka moments come fast for Anthony Dennis as he discovers a treasury of food, wine and historic buildings in the Goldfields of Victoria
It had never occurred to me that our dear neighbours south of the border were one-pot screamers. But here I am in the middle of the Goldfields region, one of those pieces of Victoria (every one of which you're meant to love), at a rustically chic place called Cellar & Store.We're about to be served lunch in a bucolic courtyard bathed in the last vestiges of warm sunshine before the onset of winter.
By "one pot" I mean, of course, the menu, or lack of it. Lunch, you see, at Cellar & Store, consists of just a single dish. Like it or lump it. As it eventuates I like it a great deal - a delicious beef provencal accompanied by the freshest local leaf salad and a fine local Heathcote cab sav. Eleanor Dempster, who with husband Adrian (both local graziers), is co-owner of Cellar&Store, says that some people leave when they discover there's no menu.
But I'm staying put, reckoning it's a small sign of our growing culinary maturity when guests are willing to sit back and trust their host. I've come to the Goldfields, which some consider to be the cradle of Australian democracy - it was here that the Eureka uprising (a sort of olden-days minerals tax revolt that occurred in 1854) - for a three-day food, wine and art ramble.
The Goldfields is homenot just to terrific food and wine but also to surely regional Australia's finest collection of heritage architecture, built during and after the 1850s goldrush, with Ballarat, Bendigo and Castlemaine each competing for building bragging rights.
My visit to the Goldfields reminds methat it's not just Melbourne, the so- called Bleak City, which has in recent times been embarrassingly outshining Sydney - it's the whole damned state of Victoria that's showing us up.On the whole, Victoria has better and more accessible towns thanNSW, a greater collective civic pride, a superior regional restaurant scene and second-to- none wineries.
So, herewe are in Heathcote, an easy drive from Tullamarine. Heathcote is home to the intriguingly named annual Snag, Beer and Bubble Festival, featuring microbrewers, winemakers and artisan butchers, and Cellar& Store, the main building of which is a former saddlery. It began four years ago as a shared cellar door for local wineries but now it stocks local cheeses, meats, locally roasted coffee, ale and cider, and, of course, those simple and delicious one-pot lunches.
"Our life here is about living and eating well," Eleanor says. "We've been blessed with fabulous soil right across this region that creates great wine and grazing animals, such as beef and sheep, that deliver beautiful produce."
I could loll in the courtyard of Cellar &Store over a red all afternoon, at least until the moment when the shadows lengthen to drive us away. But we must move on aswe plan to visit Bendigo Regional Art Gallery, billed as the biggest, and most important, in Australia outside of the capital cities. Its drawcard this winter is the retrospective McCubbin: Last Impressions 1907-17.
The exhibition, featuring more than 70 works drawn from leading galleries and private collections, focuses on the last decade in the life of the Australian impressionist, which included a belated, and revelatory, sabbatical to Europe, aged 52, including visits to Paris and London.One ofmy favourite works from the exhibition is the simplest and smallest, a painting, which depicts a turbulent sea as seen from the porthole of McCubbin's ship cabin, on the way to Europe.
Elsewhere in the Goldfields, Ballarat is home to the oldest regional art gallery in the land, housed in a heritage building. Aside from its eclectic art and sculpture collection, the centrepiece of the gallery remains the original Eureka flag, featuring a white southern cross against a navy background. It's fascinating to examine the torn and souvenired fabric of this relic at close quarters and marvel how it survived the Eureka Stockade, which led to a bloody battle over miners' rights in the early morning of Sunday, December 3, 1854. Nowadays theGoldfields locals tend to ferment wine, not foment rebellion.
Central Victoria's climate is Mediterranean-like, with spring rains (when they choose to arrive) and abundant sunshine in summer - ideal conditions for shiraz and cabernet sauvignon with the region renowned for its rich, ripe and flavourful drops. Certainly, the proximity to Melbourne has made it eminently viable for vintners and producers, the Goldfields region being between an hour and two hours' drive fromthe capital.
The next day, after a cosy dinner in Bendigo at The Dispensary Enoteca, with its fine "contemporary European" dishes, one of Victoria's best and most stylish regional restaurants, we adjourn for breakfast at the Green Olive Cafe and Deli, across the road from the ultra-modern headquarters of the Bendigo Bank.
This being Victoria, where they mean business with beans, the coffee is seriously good and strong.
Next, the one-pot screamer syndrome continues at a winery called Bress, atHarcourt, a short drive from Bendigo. The theme at Bress, named after the French region that is home to the eponymous white leghorn chicken breed, poulet de bresse, is chooks, cider and wine. The food is cooked in either a wood-fired oven or on a sizeable spit, creating no-fuss Sicilian-style lamb and chicken dishes and thin-crust pizzas. Themed lunches are regularly held at Bress with the most popular being the monthly Festival of the Spit, in which different meats are cooked over a different timber, and Cider and Swine Day, where suckling pig is cooked over apple prunings.
During our visit,we tuck into a one pot lunch of chicken cacciatore, cooked by Lynne Jensen, wife of Bress's winemaker, AdamMarks. The meal is accompanied, of course, by the exceptional Bress wines and ciders.
Bress is the model of the modern winery, being more than just a vineyard with its own biodynamic kitchen and market gardens.
Aside from its acclaimed wines, Bress is knownfor its outstanding ciders (increasingly popular in these parts) made in the methode champenoise style, the ingredients for which are sourced from nine varieties of cider apples grown on the property. The couple plans to sell fresh fruit and vegetables grown in their seasonal market garden from their cellar door.
Every Australian town, and city for that matter, should have a good restaurant, a good winery (like Bress, if the climatic conditions are right) and at least one outstanding accommodation option, such as the Empyre Boutique Hotel in Castlemaine, one of Australia's most captivatingly preserved towns.
Built inside the former 1860 Albion Hotel, The Empyre, wherewe check in later in the day, has six near-perfectly decorated and perfectly comfortable rooms filled with lavish antique French provincial furnishings. I score the Empyre Room, with a marvellous baronial king bed, marble fireplace and a vast balcony that's a tad too chilly to venture out on to. The hotel, which also has a cafe that converts to a restaurant by night, was created by John Ganci, a former Melbourne ad man whose attention to detail and good taste is evident throughout.
Castlemaine's wealth of grand heritage architecture, mostly derived from the wealth created in the 1850s from the world's richest alluvial goldfield, is staggering.
Around the corner from the Empyre is the Theatre Royal, the oldest continuously operating theatre and cinema in the nation, and the all- Australian Castlemaine Art Gallery, housed in a 1931 art deco building.
Elsewhere is the eccentric Buda Historic Home and Garden. Built in 1861, it was the home of the Hungarian-born Ernest Leviny, who was a noted silversmith with equally creative descendents. The steeped gardens and grounds at Buda are regarded as among the most important in Victoria.
The newest restaurant in town is The Good Table, whose talented young chef, former Castlemaine boy Alexander Perry, used to cook at Melbourne's much-loved MoVida, perhaps the best Spanish restaurant in the country. Castlemaine is proving popular with tree-changers from Melbourne, including, most recently, Perry himself.
The Good Table is housed inside a sensitively restored tumble down pub on Barker Street, with polished floorboards, bentwood chairs and exposed timber tables.
On the final night of our Goldfields tour,we order from an impressive menubig on free-range, organic and sustainable produce, which strongly encourages sharing, though those who are territorially inclined are equally welcome.
We opt to share, our meal featuring battered sardines with cauliflower and caramelised onion, ravioli filled with gorgonzola, confit pear and butter sauce and rolled pork loin, fennel seeds and baby carrot.
At the end of the night, with the temperature dropping to lowsingle figures, we stroll back to the Empyre, with the elegant country streets of Castlemaine utterly deserted. One-pot- screamers indeed.
The writer was a guest of Tourism Victoria and Goldfields Tourism.
Getting there - Qantas (13 13 13; qantas.com), Jetstar (13 15 38; jetstar.com), Virgin Blue (13 67 89; virginblue.com.au) and Tiger Airways (03 9335 3033; tigerairways.com) all fly regularly to Melbourne Airport at Tullamarine, fromwhere you can easily launch into the Goldfields region. Rental cars can be hired at the airport. Alternatively V-Line (vline.com.au) fast trains operate from Melbourne's Southern Cross Station to Ballarat, Bendigo and Castlemaine.
Staying there - The Empyre Boutique Hotel, 68 Mostyn Street, Castlemaine, surrounded by shops, restaurants, cafes and galleries, is the perfect, central base for a Goldfields trip; rooms from $210 a night; (03) 5472 5166; empyre.com.au. - The West in Melbourne; 205 Collins Street, is a posh, well-located place to stay if you fancy a day or two in the Victorian capital before heading up country; rooms from $250 a night; (03) 9635 2222; westin.com.au.
Dining there - Cellar & Store, 105 High Street, Heathcote, is the place to tuck in and stock up, on the way from Melbourne to the Goldfields region; (03) 5433 2204; cellarandstore.com.au.
- The Dispensary Enoteca, 9 Chancery Lane, Bendigo, is just what you need to relieve the pangs of hunger after a day's touring. Built in an old pharmacy, it's open for breakfast as well as dinner; thedispensaryenoteca.com.
- The Good Table, 233 Barker Street, Castlemaine, is the newest restaurant in town inside an elegant room in an old corner pub; (03) 5472 4400; thegoodtable.com.au.
- BressWine, Cider & Produce, 3892 Calder Highway, Harcourt, is more than a winery and a great way to gain a hands-on sense of the importance of quality produce in the Goldfields region; (03) 5474 2262; bress.com.au.
- Eclectic Tastes Cafe, 2 Burnbank Street, Ballarat, which has menus wrapped in Little Golden Books and a globally-minded menu, is opposite a cemetery, but the living wouldn't be seen dead anywhere else; (03) 5339 9252.
- See + do - Bendigo Art Gallery, 42 View Street, Bendigo; aside from the art inside, across the street is a row of antique shops and cafes; (03) 5434 6088; www.bendigoartgallery.com.au.
- Art Gallery of Ballarat, 40 Lydiard Street, Ballarat; (03) 5320 5858; artgalleryballarat.com.au.
- Buda Historic Home & Garden, 42 Hunter Street, Castlemaine; (03) 5472 1032; budacastlemaine.org. Further information visitvictoria.com.
THREE (OTHER) THINGS TO DO
1 At Australia's oldest pottery collective, Bendigo Pottery, founded in 1858, you can buy the pottery and stroll through the interpretive museum, built around old brick kilns. And you can create your own clay pot at the fun "wheel-throwing" lessons. It's just down the road from central Bendigo. 146 Midland Highway, Epsom; (03) 5448 4404; www.bendigopottery.com.au.
2 Sovereign Hill is deservedly Ballarat's most famous attraction, drawing 450,000 visitors a year. An outstanding outdoor museum since 1970, it has been faithfully presenting the story of Australia's greatest gold rush. A new Night at the Museum package allows visitors to stay at accommodation overlooking Sovereign Hill's Main Street and attend a dinner hosted by one of the park's costumed characters. 41 Magpie Street, Ballarat, (03) 5337 1100; sovereignhill.com.au.
3 Take at least a drive through the delightful, snap-frozen historic town of Maldon, about 15 minutes from Castlemaine. Established in 1853 after the discovery of gold, Maldon received an award from the National Trust in 2006 for retaining the "most intact heritage streetscape". Children will enjoy the Victorian Goldfields Railway steamtrain, which runs between Castlemaine and Maldon on Sundays, Wednesdays and on Saturdays for special events. See vgr.com.au.