I’m a frequent visitor to Melbourne. I used to live there and enjoy catching up with old friends when I can, all of whom live north of the river, so my trips south of the Yarra are infrequent. All that changed a few weeks back when I spent a few days on the Mornington Peninsula – leaving me wondering why I didn’t know about this glorious food basket. While the food scene in Melbourne is wonderful, it is well worth the short drive down the expressway to the lush, rolling paddocks and orchards and breathtaking coastline of this region. They have a wealth of goodies there to tempt you.
My visit began with a barbecue lunch among fruit trees and strawberry fields at Main Ridge. Sitting in an orchard chowing down on a barbecue of locally grown organic and free-range meats from Red Gum BBQ was a perfect introduction to the region. A moveable feast, Red Gum BBQ is a pop-up caterer that can be found at events and markets all around the region and in Melbourne too. A wonderfully happy marriage of the long, slow American barbecue traditions, but using Australian native hardwoods, they accompany their meats with some traditional US favourites. Their rich, smokey baked beans, creamy fresh slaw and range of traditional sauces added a flavour punch to their pulled pork, ribs and slowcooked brisket that reduced our table of babbling journos to blissed out silence interspersed with murmurs of happy appreciation.
The aforementioned orchard is part of Sunny Ridge Farm, owned by Mick and Anne Gallace who have been here for over 30 years. The region was traditionally an apple and cherry growing area, both of which take a while to produce, so they put in some strawberries as a quick cash crop for short-term income. It soon became clear that the strawberries were very popular and it wasn’t long before the cherry trees were pulled to make more room. That quick cash crop has now turned into a landmark business with a wholesale and retail arm, a hugely popular pick-your-own option, as well as a thriving farmgate store selling berries, berry products and the most wickedly indulgent desserts I’ve ever had.
Mick and Anne had been making small amounts of strawberry wine for themselves and to sell and , when they encouraged their kids to pick an aspect of the family business to make their own, it was this area that caught the eye of son Matt and his wife Ruth. Christening their business Rebello Wines, Matt and Ruth have grown an outrageously successful business producing their internationally award-winning strawberry sparkling wines and Australia’s only 100% real fruit blended cider – Cheeky Rascal Cider.
Hand blended, often in small, seasonal batches, the sophisticated, totally fruit-based Cheeky Rascal Ciders have taken Australia by storm and their signature strawberry sparkling, Strawbellini – an innovative blend of strawberry wine and moscato, is smashing down doors internationally. After winning all the only Australian wine show categories it was eligible for, Matt and Ruth entered it in the San Francisco International Wine Competition where it was awarded a double gold medal, along with heavyweights like France’s renowned Veuve Cliquot and Americ’s Piper Sonoma!
Mornington Peninsula’s proximity to the sea means that it’s food production is not limited to the land and the region is a source of some beautiful, fresh seafood. I found this out as I sat in a tinnie making my way out to the mussel lease of Dromana Bay Mussels. For reasons that I can’t explain, I’ve never eaten mussels and knew next to nothing about them. They’ve been grown off Safety Beach for more than 20 years and I was fascinated to discover just how utterly sustainable this excellent form of protein is. These shellfish will grow wherever they can find somewhere to latch on to and Geoff Newing of Dromana Bay Mussels provides just that. The intensity of the farm has no effect on the water quality, which is tested with frequent regularity and I was thrilled to have my first ever taste of mussels fresh from the ocean – and loved it.
While Geoff goes down to the sea in ships (well, in a tinnie actually) his wife Tamara Newing has found comfort, fulfillment and several awards at home. Seeking diversion after the sudden, tragic loss of her 14 year old son Tamara turned her chef-trained skills to artisan cheesemaking and after only 15 months her Boatshed Cheese has already won regional, Victorian and national awards. She produces a wide range of both cow and goat milk cheeses, sourcing all of her milk locally and also runs classes in cheese making in her compact premises in the front of her home. Tamara’s beautiful cheeses are all handmade and her eye-catching and award-winning Black Pearl cheese, made from goat milk and dusted in vine ash, is a tribute to her skill and eye for detail.
For a natural sweet high, you can pop in to Pure Peninsula Honey at Moorooduc. We should know by now how important bees are to our food security and Pure Peninsula’s apiarist, John Winkels has turned his hobby into a thriving business where he transports hives to pollinate orchards and crops, runs the farm shop where you can taste all his products and see the bees at work and makes a range of beeswax products. Just after my visit, Pure Peninsula Honey were granted a liquor license so you will now find honey cider on the shelves too.
There’s no shortage of gourmet outlets in the Mornington region where these and other regional treats can be enjoyed. Housed in an apple packing shed that dates from the 1920’s, Red Hill Epicurean is the regions newest gastronomic hotspot. Boasting a breathtaking refit, this vast space is now a multifunctional venue showcasing much of the local wine and produce. With a bakery, cafe, cheese larder, wine tasting area, function space, wood oven and stylish restaurant it is a destination in itself.
Flinders Hotel in Cook Street, Flinders, offers both sophisticated dining options and luxurious, contemporary accommodation only a ten minute walk from the ocean. The hotel was burnt to the ground in 1926 and subsequently rebuilt, but has undergone quite a few renovations since then. The latest has resulted in the fresh, modern design of the new Quarters accommodation and three stunning separate dining experiences within the hotel at either The Deck, Peninsula or Terminus – the latter the winner this year of an Age Good Food Guide hat for the second year in a row. All are under the watchful eye of Chef Pierre Khodja – himself awarded the Hotel Chef Award at the 2013 Hotel Management awards.
My visit to the Mornington Peninsula started with a splendid feed and finished in the same way. We were treated to a magnificent lunch at one of the peninsula’s oldest wineries, Crittenden Estate, in their much-admired restaurant Stillwater at Crittenden. Chef Zac Poulier, former chef to Russell Crowe, showed his respect for the local ingredients, many of which we had only recently been introduced to, in an astonishing spread that made our eyes pop. Zac’s commitment to excellence includes a sense of responsibility to the environment and the restaurant has recently declared itself totally palm oil free. After this amazing lunch, it came as no surprise to me to learn that Stillwater took out the RACV Victorian tourism awards for best tourism restaurant.
Lambs’ Ears and Honey travelled as a (very well-fed) guest of Rebello Wines.