Lara local Angel Cardoso was a Spanish born jamon maker who had been safely making naturally cured smallgoods for 30 years when he was shut down by meat health authorities just before Christmas in 2007 - despite never having a product recalled. He died last year. This year he is being remembered with the inaugural Hamster of Lara trophy - celebrating naturally made hams - to be announced at the Lara Food and Wine Festival this month. The festival sprawls around the lawns of the historic Pirra homestead, with bands, competing chefs and more than 80 food, wine and beer exhibitors giving away and selling their products. Chefs Rosa Mitchell and Frank Camorra, who grew up just down Geelong Road, will be demonstrating some of their best known dishes.
March 23, 10am-4pm, Pirra Homestead, Windermere Road, Lara. Entry $5, larafoodandwinefestival.com.au.
Prior to settlement the country around what would become Pirra Homestead was a volcanic plain that in wet years was cut with creeks and dotted with wetlands. Serendip Sanctuary is former farmland, revegetated and partially flooded to recreate the pre-European landscape of Western Victoria. It is home to Australian bustards, magpie geese, wallabies, kangaroos, lizards, owls and quolls. Kilometres of paths meander around Serendip's wetlands, through enclosures and up to breeding pens, so you come face to face, literally, with rare birds such as brolgas. Views across the grasslands capture emus grazing alongside Cape Barren geese and plovers that make you wonder if this is what it was like when Matthew Flinders came to climb the You Yangs in 1802.
Windermere Rd, Lara, daily 10am-4pm, Free entry, parkweb.vic.gov.au.
The granite mounds of the You Yangs rise 364 metres from the wooded plain, forming a dramatic backdrop to the north of Lara. Although one of the driest parts of Victoria south of the Great Divide, it was an important reservoir for the Wathaurong indigenous people, who harvested rainwater on exposed granite slopes and captured water in natural hollows in the rocks. Follow in Flinders' footsteps and walk to the summit or bring the mountain bike and take on bike tracks dotted by great granite tors. Contemplate the horizon from the summit or burn some energy in the bush, just 55 kms from the CBD.
The unkind say there's not much in the township of Lara. The enlightened rejoice at the rustic colonial bluestone churches or the intact Reg Mombassa-esque pastel-painted weather boards. Then there is Lara Quality Meats - an old-fashioned butcher where you can still buy lamb's fry and home-made bacon. Butcher Andrew Gunther smokes his own bacon, makes his own kabana and stocks really good grass-fed beef and Western District lamb. His Cumberland sausages are full flavoured with marjoram, sage, freshly ground black pepper and a nice whack of mace.
Lara Quality Meats, 46 The Centreway, Lara, Mon-Fri 6am-6pm, Sat 6am-2pm, 5282 1471
There is something thrilling about watching what appears to be a normal road car hurtling around a dirt track at 150km/h. The Avalon Raceway was built in a paddock almost 40 years ago by the Drew family and is now part of the national circuit for drivers racing modified sedans, sprint cars and dirt cars. It's good, loud, fast fun and a perfect place to unleash your own upper middle bogan.
210 Old Melbourne Rd, Lara, from $10 children and $20 adults, 5229 8778, avalonraceway.com
It may be on the wrong side of the railway tracks next to a carwash, but Lara Indian Restaurant is the real deal. Chef Ashwani Nautiyal proudly recalls cooking at the Taj Palace Intercontinental, New Delhi. He's a deft hand with fresh spice, blending black cardamom, mace and nutmeg into dishes such as a rich goat masala. The juicy chicken and lamb from the tandoor sees people heading down the freeway from Melbourne to eat with Nautiyal and his team.
33 McClelland Ave, Lara, 5pm-10.30pm, 5282 6592. V Line trains stop at Lara station more than 25 times a day.