Despite living in Melbourne for over a year, and having done a fair bit of rural Victoria, we had only really scratched the surface of Mornington Peninsula. That is until the recent three-day weekend, when we took residence of Red Hill’s Stringybark Cottage for two nights, and scoffed and slurped our way around this truly great gourmet destination. (A note on the accommodation – it comes highly recommended – spacious self-catering cottage with a wood-burning stove, which we lit both nights due to surprisingly wintry evenings, in a great location. Situated on the owners’ property – but very private – with a veranda for watching the local alpacas go about their alpaca business, which seems to be mostly eating.)
Our first destination – Foxeys Hangout – forget images of Wind in the Willows-style animal gatherings, the hangout here refers to a large tree on the property that was once ‘decorated’ with the decaying carcasses of that infamous farmyard predator, the fox. Owners and brothers Tony and Michael Lee have a grainy black-and-white photo of the sinister spectacle on the wall of their cellar door, however, the eerie image is soon forgotten due to the warm welcome, great wines (especially the chardonnay, multi award-winning shiraz and fortified shiraz – the latter, served chilled and with blue cheese, makes for a rich, sticky treat) and superb grazing plates.
The former owners of South Yarra’s Argo Hotel – one of the city’s first gastro pubs – it’s no wonder food plays such a central part here. With nibbles chalked up on blackboard wall, Tony and team turn out Med-inspired plates such as zucchini fritters, roasted capsicum and white anchovies, lamb meatballs and fresh bread dipped in a house-blend pistachio dukkah. Best enjoyed on the terrace, where the grass slopes away to reveal a valley studded with vines. The guys’ laid-back approach infuses the place with a relaxed, chatty atmosphere that many other more stuffy wineries in the area could do with adopting. In our humble opinion, that is.
And we haven’t even mentioned one of the best bits – personalised sparkling wines? Yep, you heard us right the first time. While Tony tends to the still wines, Michael is busy out back with his méthode champenoise bottlings – transferring them from wooden stills to a deep-freeze (to turn the sediment into a solid), before disgorging and plonking them on the ‘laboratory’ bench, where visitors can customise their fizz by selecting the level of sugar content and, on a whim, turn the liquid pink with the addition of pinot noir.
Not only that – the bottle is corked, caged and foiled in front of your very eyes, and a certificate issued naming you as a wine stylist. What excitement, and a great gift idea.
Still hungry for locally sourced treats? Just five minutes’ drive away, Green Olive has been doing a roaring trade for years, but its chic new fit-out, on-site coffee roasting and lamb-based menu all keep residents and out-of-towners flocking back for more.
Set in 27 acres of land, Greg and Sue O’Donoghue, inspired by international travels, left behind their consulting and nursing positions and turned their attention to farming – today’s operation includes the chutneys and preserves, hampers, olives and olive oils that were the basis of the company during the early days, and now boats a shop selling kitchenware, cookbooks and a range of goodies made on-site, a large cafe with outdoor terrace and a fully functioning farm comprising chickens (protected night and day by Italian shepherd dog, Pisa), sheep and brown trout. As well as a fragrant kitchen garden.
Tastings plates of food are all priced at $12. Lamb ‘from the farm to your folk’ comes in a variety of options (all cured and divvied up on the premises, in fact, Greg believes they are the only place in Australia to butcher a lamb like a pig): handmade lamb meatballs with fresh herbs served with fruit chutney and tomato relish; handmade lamb sausage with spices served with capsicum relish and tomato relish; trio of cold cured lamb – spicy lamb sausage, salt-cured lamb black-strap, lambchetta served with fruit chutney and zesty salt. In the last 18 months, Neall Russell has come on-board to start up what promises to be a very slick coffee operation – we think it is the best on the peninsula.
The following day, we found ourselves tucking into yet another selection of tasty local ingredients – this time prepared by Luke Palmer, the head chef of Fork to Fork. This fab cafe-restaurant is housed in a sympathetically designed building that sits among the colourful gardens of Heronswood – a gothic revival house (built 1866) that overlooks Port Philip from the foothills of Arthur’s Seat in Dromana.
Home of the mail-order seed sensation that is The Diggers Club, you would expect the organically grown produce to taste sensational, and it did not disappoint. So what if the capsicum is a funny shape, or you have to wait a few more weeks for the tomato to ripen on the vine? The absence of artificial tinkering makes for sun-splashed, terrifically tasty food. The menu changes daily (of course) and we feasted on cured ocean trout (from the bay) and super-fresh rock melon, heirloom tomatoes and cucumber with goat’s curd, and chunks of beetroot in various shades of purple with walnuts.
We also enjoyed a tour of the grounds with one of the very friendly gardeners, who patiently walked us from the vegetable parterre to the evergreen grey garden, pointing out flourishing examples of native species and intriguing non-native species along the way. Many thanks to him.
We found the same specialist depth of knowledge later that afternoon, when we sat down to talk all things fromage with Red Hill’s resident cheese maker Trevor Brandon who, along with wife Jan, has been making a seasonal range of specialist cheeses using fresh organic cows’ milk and free-range goats’ milk, each from a single herd, for years. The couple added sheep’s milk cheeses (blue, two soft, pure varieties and a Pecorino style) to their repertoire in 2008.
Sitting out on the shaded veranda, we worked our way around the tasting plate – using their helpful printed guide to help us navigate from mild to strong. Highlights included the Flinders Fetish, crumbly feta preserved in oil with rosemary and garlic, Arthurs Sets goats’ cheese sprinkled with oregano, and Venus Bay Blue sheep’s cheese – a smooth and creamy triumph.
While chatting to Trevor, it turned out that a focus on the good things in life runs in the family – his son owns Bright Brewery, one of our favourite haunts when we headed to north-east Victoria for a few days – we especially loved the citrus-scented American-style pale ale (Blowhard), Belgian-style Razor witbier and live music sessions on Sunday afternoons. Anyway, that was another trip – for more Mornington munches, check out part 2 and part 3.