Paul Edwards visits a village known for its local produce, soon to be showcased at its annual fair.
If you stop in Birregurra's main street for a few minutes, you'll notice a strange phenomenon – people actually talk to each other. It seems just about everybody knows everybody else.
This is the way it has always been in this time-warped little Western District town, just a whisker off the main Geelong-Warrnambool road between Winchelsea and Colac. Much of the talk is of tractors, rainfall, crops and the Geelong Football Club but there's also a growing element of food chat and the coming annual festival in early October.
The sleepy place has won a reputation for good food – whether it's a gourmet burger from the general store or a full-on degustation menu.
Food and wine are all around, grazing in the paddocks, budding on the vines and reaching for the sun in neatly ploughed chocolate soil. And you can get it on a plate, in a bottle or in a takeaway bag in a surprising number of establishments in this town with a population of just 600.
Typical of the good-taste trend is Farm Foods. The original Birregurra butcher's shop, with sawdust on the floor and a wooden chopping table, has been reinvented. Here you'll get wine, cheese, organic pork and chicken, jams, sausages, beer, olive oil, bread, cakes – you could fill the car boot and take home enough gourmet food to last months. But you'd better take your own carry bags – Birregurra became Victoria's first plastic-bag-free town in 2004.
One of the town's most enthusiastic advocates is chef George Biron, who, after decades of working in hotels and restaurants in Melbourne and London, put down roots in Birregurra, where he operates the Sunnybrae Restaurant and Cooking School.
"Everybody knows everybody," he says. "It's a real community, the way every neighbourhood used to be. But there's always something going on. A place I really like is the general store. It's not cool or trendy but they make better coffee than I do and you won't get a finer hamburger anywhere.
“If you go to the pub, you'll talk to people who have spent their whole lives here. Around town you'll see beautiful old buildings and sensational gardens. I can't think of a better place for a weekend if you don't need much external stimulation."
Long-time resident Lynette Downard works in the general store, which she previously owned and which is now operated by her daughter and son-in-law. "It's an old-time store with everything from toilet rolls to newspapers but we've responded to demand by extending the range – offering gluten-free pizzas, wonderful coffee and Otway Prime cuts of beef and lamb,” she says.
The town is on the edge of that fascinating region of lakes and extinct volcanoes that marks the beginning of what explorer Thomas Mitchell named as the Australia Felix. European settlement began just two years after Melbourne was founded and building activity reached its peak in the late 19th century but then went quiet. The result is a streetscape of substantial old commercial and public buildings, wide streets and European trees, all cheek by jowl with workers' cottages that used to house families of 10 or more.
A heritage walk covers about 20 significant places and can be completed within an hour – for an overview, go to the rise near the corner of Bowden and Beal streets where you'll see the tree-fringed upper Barwon River skirting the little town with its churches, old railway station, main-street shops and mechanics' institute.
You're near the coast here but while most Melburnians drive to Lorne down the Great Ocean Road, folks from Birregurra have a magnificent run through Deans Marsh and the Otway Ranges and are there in less than 30 minutes. It takes just a little more to reach Geelong, with Melbourne 90 minutes away by road.
Rail is another option – the town is on the main Warrnambool line and has an attractive old station that also used to serve a branch line to Forrest, picking up logs and dairy produce and generally being a lifeline to the Otways.
Birregurra will be bustling during the town's 10th annual festival, from October 9-11. The main street is closed and more than 100 stalls are set up with art, music, food, wine, beer and family activities. Last year more than 12,000 people attended the free festival and this time, organisers are hoping to attract more than 15,000.
One of the attractions of the festival is a food-and-wine marquee in the main street highlighting the region's provedores. There are free-range beef, lamb and pork, olives and olive oil, sourdough bread, ice-cream, cheese, game meats and locally grown truffles.
Accommodation includes Butler House, with five letting rooms and a stately suite from $120 a night including breakfast (see butlersguesthouse.com.au), the 1865 Elliminook mansion with four guest rooms from $160 (phone 5236 2080), self-catering at four-bedroom Montalban from $157 (phone 0417 514 807) and 68 Main Street, with self-catering from $150 (phone 5236 2004).