Central Victoria's Goldfields is Ron Barassi's home turf and after a recent holiday in the region he reveals why.
Ronald Dale Barassi was born in Castlemaine and spent his early years in nearby Guildford.
"My family lived in Guildford until dad went to play for Melbourne Football Club," he says. "Later, during World War II, I lived there with my grandfather and aunt. I attended the local tech school. When I'm in the area I always visit my grandfather's old homestead in Shicer Gully Road, although there's not much there now."
Each time Ron returns to the region it's an opportunity to revisit childhood places, unearth hidden gems and enjoy great wining, dining and shopping.
"My dad's father, Guiseppe, came over from Northern Italy in search of gold in the 1850s," Ron says. "Finding only 'fool's gold' he turned to farming. I've only just discovered that the name 'shicer' is a goldfields term; used by miners about a claim that produced no gold.
"It's thought diggers who were not finding gold would drink a toast, 'To our last bloody schicer', in the hope that their next dig would be successful."
"The Goldfields region is in great shape. Most of the streetscapes have been preserved and are well maintained. And many of the old pubs have been transformed into first-rate restaurants, bistros and cafes. Even an old fire station lives on in Castlemaine as a food and wine bar called re-public (re-public.com.au). Restaurant and pub owners and operators seem to have a true commitment to supporting local food and wine producers and it's reflected in menus designed to please the most demanding gourmand."
It's no surprise to learn Ron's passions also include collecting Aussie rules footy books.
"Many large and small bookshops in and around Castlemaine, Maldon and surrounding towns (maldoncastlemaine.com.au) are my first port of call," he says. Bookshop owners keep an eye out for volumes he may not have.
"I enjoy the hunt in the hope of adding to my library. And finding that rare elusive title that has been discarded or forgotten is always a thrill."
Castlemaine's Farmers Market (castlemainefarmersmarket.org), held in the Victory Gardens, showcases locally grown heirloom vegetables, along with cheeses, organic beef and lamb, oils, seasonal fruits, wines and handmade beers that make up just some of the region's breadbasket.
Another Goldfields highlight is taking in a flick at one of Australia's most historic theatres, the Theatre Royal (theatreroyal.info), which has been entertaining crowds since 1858. Even the fiery Lola Montez, said to have been the miners' favourite tease, performed there, as did travelling minstrels, circus entertainers, burlesque dancers and boxers alike.
The smell of greasepaint is long gone from the theatre, but "watching The Life of Pi, reclining on a leather couch with a glass of Hanging Rock Macedon Rose is the way to go," says Ron. "I know you can go to a cinema in the big smoke, but in the bush it's that much better."
WHERE TO STAY
As with gold itself, The Empyre Hotel (empyre.com.au) in Castlemaine is a real find. Formerly The Albion Hotel, this beautifully restored boutique hotel, dating to the 1860s, is thoughtfully appointed, showing a blend of history and modernity. Six suites, some with large balconies, are dressed with 19th-century French and Asian-style antiques, large beds and sizable entertaining areas.
"I stayed for two nights in the Albion Suite, which has a table setting overlooking Castlemaine's historic streetscape," says Ron. "The balcony is the perfect place on which to wind down at the end of the day and enjoy a sundowner; in my case a local 2012 Sutton Grange Giovanni Sangiovese (suttongrange.com.au), some exquisite Holy Goat cheese (holygoatcheese.com), and local organic beetroot relish (ahiddensecret.wordpress.com)."
Childhood memories rushed back when Ron saw ubiquitous bull-boar sausages for sale at local butchers. Made with beef and pork, these sausages were made by Italian-speaking Swiss immigrants in the the Gold Rush days.
"Most butchers have their own recipe and I snagged a few from Top Meats in Castlemaine's Mostyn Street," says Ron.
FOOD & WINE
"For lunch, head to the Cumberland Hotel (cumberlandhotel.net.au), a true country pub that serves an old fashioned football-size mixed grill, as well as seafood basket, parmas, pies and frothy beer," Ron says. "Footy replays and racing is broadcast on big screens."
Castlemaine's Public Inn (publicinn.com.au) is a bistro and bar housed in what was once The Criterion Hotel, itself built in 1853 at the height of the Gold Rush.
"The owner, Hayden Winch, serves a fabulous dinner degustation menu," Ron says. "Regional ingredients include rabbit terrine, coffee-braised organic lamb and smoked ham hock croquettes."
Barassi recommends the breakfast menu served at Castlemaine's re-public (re-public.com.au), also a Winch eatery. "I couldn't resist the warm banana bread with Goldfields Banksia honey, poached fruit and cultured butter," says Ron.
"We dined at The Good Table (thegoodtable.com.au) one night; another classic restaurant dedicated to creating local fare using only the best local produce. The shared food served on small plates included a winning smoked eel terrine, Muscat-braised beef short ribs and a Peruvian chocolate pave with Armagnac ice-cream to finish."
Ron's favourite pubs include the Guildford Hotel, on Guildford Road, and just a drop kick away from his childhood home. "This pub hasn't changed greatly over the past 50 years. The tiny bar with its open fireplace and cosy sitting room has a welcoming smell. There's a beer garden, a simple food menu and the locals are still spinning fanciful yarns."
Antiques, bookstores, arts, cellar doors and farmers markets are Goldfields drawcards. "Learned bookworm Hedley Smith is the go-to man at Book Heaven, on Main Road at Campbell's Creek," says Ron. "On this holiday, I found a few editions to add to my collection among the 90,000 secondhand and rare books on offer."
In nearby Maldon, Beehive Old Wares and Collectables and the heritage-listed Grand Hotel, both on Maldon's main street (maldon.com.au) are must-see shops in this historic mining village. "Walking streets lined with old weatherboard homes, pubs and shop fronts, it's not hard to imagine how life was during Maldon's pioneering days."
The Restorer's Barn (restorersbarn.com.au) in Castlemaine is more than just a barn, too. This MCG-size store is an Aladdin's cave stocked with eclectic treasures and relics. Set aside a few hours to check out its nostalgic tin signs, doors and gates, old petrol bowsers and Coke machines, bicycles and Dutch lamps.
Spotted by Locals is brought to you in association with Tourism Victoria.