Slow down, food about

Take your time on the scenic route between Sydney and Melbourne and you'll be rewarded with gourmet delights, writes Ben Hall.

AFTER two days of averaging 100 kilometres an hour, it's annoying to be forcibly slowed by more than half that as a tractor in front grinds uphill around a narrow bend. There's no way around and, really, there's no point being frustrated. It's easier and far more pleasant to take the opportunity to enjoy the lush grazing country and rolling hills of the NSW far south coast. Even when much of the country struggles with drought, this region looks as if it was ripped from rural Britain and dropped on our landscape.

The day's priority is to reach Tilba by lunch to sample the area's famous food, most notably the cheeses that have made this hamlet a household name. The tractor driver finally pulls into a farm and within minutes (at 70km/h), a local driving a battered ute takes his place in front.

The right arm resting on the ute's window indicates he's in no great rush, either.

The ute escorts us into Tilba and pulls in at the Dromedary Hotel while we head for the ABC Cheese Factory, an institution since 1891 and one of the attractions of a village protected by the National Trust because of its history and architecture.

As for the cheeses themselves, all eight offered for tasting are unique, ranging from the classic Tilba Gold to the bitey Tilba Club Cracked Pepper. While cheeses are the specialty, foodies also flock here for the jams and preserves, honey, ice-cream and the only non-local product - freshly brewed Byron Bay coffee.

Most people who do the Melbourne-Sydney drive, or vice versa, focus on the landscapes and beaches, which are memorable. However, the culinary trail is also a star of the scenic route.

Tilba is one of those impossibly quaint towns with a main street of two or three blocks and is easy to explore. We're told to head across the road to Bates Emporium to try Mrs Jamieson's Tilba Fudge. Mrs J has been hand-making fudge for 15 years and, with 117 varieties, it's impossible to try them all but as an all-natural product you can fool yourself into thinking this is healthy eating. The Tilba Sweet Spot, an old-school lolly shop, makes no such claim but it does offer a trip down memory lane with its range of liquorice allsorts, musk sticks, jaffas and classic boiled sweets.

It's a dangerous place, Tilba, especially for those with a sweet tooth, and it's just one of many diversions along the Princes Highway. Our trip starts in the Mornington Peninsula, just outside the Victorian capital, simply because it has more than 50 wineries. The area also has waterfront cafes and restaurants but these will have to wait for another time as the town of Koonwarra is the first stop for lunch.

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As with Tilba, Koonwarra is emerging as a foodie village. Just off the South Gippsland Highway, it's an easy day trip for Melburnians seeking lunch in one of two excellent cafe-restaurants that also stock local organic produce.

The Koonwarra Store is renowned for its quality food, regional wines and mind-zapping espresso. It also sells local jams, relishes, wines and olive oils but when you offer a menu of dishes such as free-range chicken breast stuffed with zucchini, basil pesto and Berry's Creek brie, drizzled with Grassy Spur olive oil, served with scalloped Leongatha North potatoes and green beans, you're obviously diversifying into a serious food joint. We tell the store staff our plan is to hit Lakes Entrance, a further 250 kilometres or so to the east, before nightfall, so one of them writes a recommendation for a restaurant.

The winding road into Lakes Entrance reveals a town tailor-made for fishing, with lagoons, lakes and rivers offering protection from the Pacific Ocean. Seafood is the local specialty and the One@One Restaurant at the Esplanade Resort and Spa lives up to its reputation as one of the best in the area.

From Lakes Entrance we drive to the NSW border and into Eden and, from here on, it's a slew of pretty beach towns, each of which has its own personality.

The award-winning French restaurant, Elizans, at the Ulladulla Guest House, specialises in local produce and prides itself on its Milton beef dishes and regional cheeses. Restaurant owner Andrew Nowosad sings the praises of the local wine industry, too, which he says has made massive strides in the past decade.

On his recommendation we call into the Coolangatta Estate Winery just outside Nowra, a last stop before hot-footing it to Sydney. Built on an original convict settlement that has been beautifully restored, Coolangatta is a cellar door and vineyard set on 10 of the 130 hectares it occupies. It's one of the most successful Shoalhaven wineries and its semillons have helped it win scores of medals.

You could spend a month travelling the Princes Highway sampling culinary possibilities and still just scratch the surface of what's on offer.

Even on a four-day drive, however, the combination of great food and stunning landscapes makes this one of Australia's great journeys.

The writer was a guest of Sydney-Melbourne Touring.

Trip notes

Where to eat

Koonwarra Store, South Gippsland Highway, Koonwarra, Victoria. (03) 5664 2285, koonwarra.vic.au. Open seven days a week, 9am-5pm.

One@One Restaurant, Esplanade Resort & Spa, Lakes Entrance, Victoria. 1800 557 759, esplanaderesort.com.au. Open seven days from 7am, lunch noon-2pm, dinner 6-9pm.

Coolangatta Estate Winery, 1335 Bolong Road, Shoalhaven Heads, NSW. (02) 4448 7131, coolangattaestate.com.au. Open seven days, 10am-5pm.

Where to stay

Bellevue on the Lakes, 201 Esplanade, Lakes Entrance, Victoria. (03) 5155 3055, bellevuelakes.com.

Robyn's Nest, 188 Merimbula Drive, Merimbula. (02) 6495 4956, www.robynsnest.com.au.

Ulladulla Guesthouse & Elizans Restaurant, 39 Burrill Street, Ulladulla. (02) 4455 1796, www.guesthouse.com.au.

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