Visitors to Victoria rave about the shopping, the restaurants, the coffee, the Great Ocean Road … the list goes on.
And they are all worth raving about.
Just over an hour out of Melbourne, though, is another part of the state worth visiting. The countryside is diverse and fertile, with crops stretching to the horizon in a patchwork quilt of yellows, greens, browns and oranges. There are rolling hills lined with vines as well as the craggy Macedon Ranges, home to the infamous Hanging Rock.
And then there are delightful country towns like Kyneton, Castlemaine, Riddells Creek, Trentham, Hepburn Springs and Daylesford. There are spas and natural springs to explore, historic villages that take you back a century or two, and an abundance of good food and wine.
An hour out of Melbourne city and you really are a world away.
Daylesford is a good base from which to explore the countryside. It’s where Melbourne folk escape for the weekend and as such it’s accommodation, shopping and food options are more sophisticated than most country towns.
Artedeco on the main street, for example, has some wonderfully rare pieces, as does Brick Lane Bazaar. It’s a pop culture wonderland. And then there’s the Mill Markets where, if you’re not careful, you could lose a few hours of your day browsing without even realising.
Try to visit in autumn. The trees lining the wide streets are stunning. And try to include a meal at the Farmers Arms, a hot chocolate at Cliffy’s or catch a train to Passing Clouds Winery. Then there’s restaurants the calibre of Sakana and Lake House.
Sault Restaurant is a 10-minute drive from Daylesford and set on 125 acres. Unfortunately for us the lavender field was not in bloom but the setting was still as pretty as a picture. I am told the fields returned to their purple splendour a week or two after we returned home. Them’s the breaks.
An attractive sandstone building houses the restaurant and bar. A wall of windows at the rear of the restaurant brings the outside in and bathes the room in natural light. Further afield and overlooking the dam is a barn used as a chapel for weddings.
Jodi Flockhart is Sault’s co-owner (with husband Damien Aylward) and our host. She is warm and attentive with a smile that rivals the windows in lighting up the room. We have a choice of a three-course lunch or a seven-course degustation and a difficult decision is made easier by a glass of Mount Macedon sparkling.
We chose beef carpaccio with garden radish, Reggiano cheese, horseradish; heirloom beetroots with Holy Goat piccolo cheese, basil and Pedro Ximénez glaze; and the lavender confit duck breast. So impeccably plated was each dish that it was almost a shame to destroy it with our cutlery. The carpaccio was to die for. Also recommended are the scallops with squid ink, avruga caviar and chili; and tortellini of leek and ricotta with lavender and ricotta whey foam and black olive.
Another gem is the biodynamic Guildford Vineyard, about 20 minutes from Daylesford. It’s Sunday and we have booked for a set four-course lunch ($50). It ends up being about eight – and each course is simply delicious.
We are seated at a long table with about 40 people. The cellar door restaurant resembles someone’s backyard pergola with its rough pebbled floor, clear plastic blinds to keep out the cold and long bench seats with cushions. We are each given a blanket and a hot water bottle upon arrival to keep us warm.
Al-fresco dining at its rustic best. The resident dog sleeps in the sun and the tiny kitchen is a few steps away. Inside, Zack Grumont is working his magic. It’s still hard to believe the calibre and quantity of food produced in that kitchen that day. Dishes were shared and included the pulled beef “sushi” with fermented white rice bread; hummus and smoked trout; pastrami with pomegranate butter; labna with olives and walnuts; and lots of rustic, warm bread.
It was a relaxed, informal and enjoyable experience. The restaurant is open for lunch on Saturday and Sunday, 12.30pm to 5pm, and the occasional dinner. Do check it out.
Picturesque Hepburn Springs is also well worth a visit. Known for its natural spas, it’s food game has also picked up remarkably in recent years. The Surly Goat is a must, as is the Blue Bean Love Restaurant where we stop for breakfast. The interior has high, decorative ceilings and bookshelves line the walls. One is dedicated to all things retro, such as Voltron action figures, Atari games and old videos.
There is simply too much to write about. Discover country Victoria for yourself.