"Don't think of food, don't think of food" I said to myself as my stomach growls. A flight attendant rolling a trolley down the aisle gave me a broad red lipsticked smile. "Would you care to buy anything from the cart?" she asked. I decided the only thing I could do was to sleep the remaining time off because once we hit Melbourne, it was just a little over an hour's drive to get to the Yarra Valley where plenty of food and wine awaited us. One of my advertisers lastminute.com.au asked us to spend a weekend in the Yarra Valley ahead of their April promotion for the region (including a competition. Read on for details) and report back on what delicious things there were to see and do!
Hargreaves Hill Brewery
It's not just wine in the Yarra Valley as there are several breweries in the area that offer an alternative to wine. And sometimes, when you're away and you're eating a lot of food, the place you really want to eat at is a place that cooks the same kind of food as you eat at home. And serendipitously, we find some of those dishes at Hargreaves Hill Brewery.
Tasting paddle $8
Mr NQN goes for the beer tasting paddle. It's a shot glass of their six hand crafted beers ranging from a pale honey coloured Hefeweizen, to their maiden beer "Pale Ale" to the AD which uses Belgian Special B malt yeast from Belgium. I must admit my pick was their deep, dark Stout, a dead ringer for its chocolate and espresso flavours.
ESB Onion rings $8
What does ESB stand for? Their Extra Special Bitter battered onions rings served with a garlic aioli and a fat wedge of lemon. They're crunchy, a touch greasy (what onion rings aren't?) but with a generous squeeze of lemon, their crunchy shell makes you forget the calories.
Spring Bay mussels, pomodoro and white wine $22
Although we were still full from the food that we ate that afternoon, all signs were quickly forgotten once this hit the table. Bold with garlic, onions and white wine and fresh flavours of parsley this came with two large slices of char grilled bread, nice and smokey from the grill. The mussels were tender and spooning these up with the vivid pomodoro sauce and bread reminded me of home.
Gnocchi with mushrooms $25
This dish is just like something that I would cook at home. The gnocchi, larger and a tad heavier than the one I make is served with a flavoursome mix of wild mushrooms, bacon, walnuts and Persian feta cheese with an olive oil based sauce. It's simple but the flavours go perfectly together for a filling, Autumnal dish.
Iceberg, romano and chive salad $8
I must admit one of my weaknesses is iceberg lettuce. I know that sounds awfully odd, but I love the crunch of this simple lettuce. This is dressed in a creamy dressing and given crunch from sunflower and sesame seeds and flavour from romano cheese and chives. And I pretty much ate this whole thing not giving Mr NQN a chance.
Southern style chicken house made bbq sauce
In the interests of research, we thought that we should give this a try but we couldn't have finished a whole serve of this as it usually comes as two or three pieces of chicken. The chicken is moist and we're given a filleted thigh piece with a thin crunchy coating of batter. To accompany it is not a traditional kind of bbq sauce but something more along the lines of a kasundi.
And if you're new to town or looking to meet locals, Monday nights play host to a Foodies table. Here a winemaker comes by to chat to patrons while they do a wine tasting. The tasting is then followed by dinner at a large communal table where diners can chat and meet each other. There was one going on that evening and the dish on offer was a fish pie with scallops and mussels.
The other thing apart from food (specifically dairy) that the Yarra Valley is historically known for producing is wine. Specifically Pinot wine varieties and Yarra Yering with its impressive wine selection specialises in reds. Vines at Yarra Yering were first planted in 1969 by Dr Bailey Carrodus who believed in the edict that the "vineyard makes the wines." Remarkably, they are a dry winery which means that they don't irrigate the vines at all. This means that the root systems need to reach out lower to get moisture. Across the 70 acres, there are 26 varieties, planted above elevation and above the frost line, some in terrace patterns.
Since the beginning, all of the grapes have been hand picked and hand harvested. Five years ago, Dr Carrodus interviewed Paul Bridgeman, Yarra Yering's wine maker during a four month process. He hired him to take over the wine making and five days later after appointing him, Dr Carrodus passed away. If you are lucky to get a peek into the winery, you'll find a rather different way of making wine.
Instead of huge stainless steel vats, you'll see custom made half tonne wooden crate vats. This allows them to explore the nuances of wine and the smaller batches allow him to tweak and play with each grape variety or planting introducing what he wants to create the wine that he wants to make in his head. All of the grapes are single estate and grown on the property and all are made to cellar for about 20-25 years.
Tasting takes place in Dr Carrodus's former house and customers can try their range of about ten wines for the cost of $10 per person-not bad considering the wines are at the premium end of the market and range between $80-$250 a bottle. The wines are stocked in restaurants like Rockpool, Quay, Catalina, Glass, Est, Altitude and Bentley Bar.
Their signature wine is the Dry Red series of which there are three. During the tasting, you can taste the difference in varietals like the Underhill 2007 versus the 2007 Dry Red Wine No. 2 which are grown on adjacent properties on the vineyard. And Dry Red No. 3 is an intriguing peppery blend of Portuguese grape varieties including Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cao, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Amarela, Alvarelhao and Sousao.
Archie the wine dog and wine speckled dog-and yes this bundle of energy features in the Wine Dogs book!
By now, we had tasted a good amount of wines and I know this sounds very Real Housewives but the next best thing to do is go shopping after wine (either that or tweet). So we stopped at Healesville to take a poke around the shops.
Clarence is a treasure trove of quirky goodies and fresh flowers. It's a perfect present store for quirky friends-flamingoes anyone? How about a long drinking straw that spells out "Life sucks"?
The Healesville store is where all of the Kennedy and Wilson chocolates are made. Their best sellers are the cat's tongues which are made with 81% cocoa dark chocolate-they're luscious and bitter. And the other best seller is the bloke friendly rusty tool kit!
K&B or Kitchen & Butcher is also a stop worth making if you are self catering or want to bring back some goodies. Many suppliers are based in the Yarra Valley and the owners (who also own the pub/hotel next door as well as the shop between them) have a farm and a range of their produce makes it to the store including these varieties of pumpkin, figs and other assortment fruits and vegetables.
It's getting to that time to check into our hotel for the next two nights. We're staying at Balgownie Estate, a large 68 suite property. The suites are made to take in the expansive, rolling lush green of the vineyard and you could quite conceivably take up meditation there it's so serene a view.
We're staying in the De Castella section in room #407 which is a one bedroom privilege spa suite. It's sizeable at 55 m2 and features a large lounge room area past a basic kitchenette area with microwave. There is a dining or work table for four in the left hand corner and a couch for two as well as a comfy armchair for one. A large flat screen television faces opposite. A Nespresso machine and tea bags sit by the mini bar provisions.
I always love checking out a bathroom and the feature of this one is the round spa bath with a clear glass section so that you can look out onto the vines. The amenities are good-there are shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, body lotion, vanity kit with cotton buds, tips and emery board, shower cap all by Appelles Apothecary on the two sink vanity. A second lot of these are on the couch along with robes and slippers.
The bedroom is colourful, modern and spacious. The late afternoon sun bathes the room and there's also a large flat screen television there as well as complimentary bottles of water by the bed. And hooray-free wireless internet in rooms!
Dinner is just across the path is Rae's Restaurant and it's nice to be dining so closeby, especially as the spa bath is calling us. Rae's has two courses for $60 a person or three courses for $70. The view afforded by the floor to ceiling glass windows is of the grounds and the three metallic kangaroo statues. The first page of the menu details nine local producers that they support by featuring their produce on the menu.
Regional tasting platter for two
We start with the regional tasting platter which has a fantastic range of goodies from Yarra Valley Persian feta, sun dried tomato pesto, grilled eggplant, zucchini, sun dried tomatoes, air dried beef, prosciutto, smoked salmon with ocean trout caviar and rocket, pickled onions, marinated artichokes, olives, cornichons, caper berries, toasted bread, crackers and wafer crackers as well as two types of sausage. And I have to say that we enjoyed everything, particularly the tomato relish, Persian feta and sun dried tomato pesto.
Vine smoked beef fillet
We ordered the vine smoked eye fillet as our main as they use grape vines to smoke the beef. I can't say that it added much in the way of aroma (I've never really smelled a grapevine) but the steak was cooked medium rare just as ordered and accompanied by a fondant potato, Dutch carrots, Lyonnaise onions and flavoured with Balgownie's shiraz red wine and thyme jus.
Saffron John Dory
John Dory is a favourite fish of mine. This one had two fillets that were saffron infused and served on a slice of peppery eggplant and a tomato and fennel salsa. Whilst we both liked the vegetable components, the John Dory didn't quite hit the mark and I like John Dory best when it is simply pan fried in butter with the skin on.
Milk Chocolate Delice
Dessert time! We went with the chocolate dessert where it had a thin coating of milk chocolate spray painted around the chocolate bavarois. On top was hazelnut praline which added a nice crunch to it and there was also a raspberry cream which wasn't really needed. To the side are two chocolate sticks crunchy with cereal inside.
Banana semi freddo
The banana semi freddo is a rectangle of frozen banana ice cream, tasting of real banana. On top is a layer of maple gel and there is also a caramel sauce with it.
Rayner's Stonefruit Orchard
Len Rayner reels off the list of the fruit in his orchard. Apart from stonefruit like peaches and plums, there's an impressive range of 308 items from cape gooseberries, goji berries (which taste so different from the dried that we often see), pepino, Dutch medlar, kia berries, Brazilian cherry, Irish strawberry, Chinese raisin, feijoa, white sapote and countless more including hybrid varieties like peachems and apriums (apricot plums). It's a considerable effort to make what would have been a four month season on the farm into a year round venture for visitors.
The farm tour experience is Len's way of connecting customers with farms. He will admit that he under estimated the number of people that are interested and now he provides farm tours on his blue tractor. He shows them the range of fruit that is available and allows them to taste it.
"One of my greatest joys is to go around and taste the fruit for the first time" he says before excitedly picking up his first pomegranate. "I'm really, really proud of this he says his face beaming with pride. He estimates that these pomegranates will grow up to one kilo in size. All of the fruit in the orchard will be sold either on site or at the local farmer's markets.
Fresh goji berries
The cafe serves ice cream all made from the farm's fruit with each ice cream containing about 70% fruit. The apricot tastes of pure sweet apricot with a creamy texture while the white nectarine reflects the fruit's own delicate perfume. And the peach and white nectarine juice? Heaven.
Our last stop is in the packing shed where we enter the one degree coolroom where the fruit goes after it is picked and packed. He takes a box of golden plums, ones that we've never seen before. Only a small amount of these plums were grown. The skins are slightly puckered and I take a bite and a river of cool, sweet plum juice comes out and I have to suck on the fruit to ensure that the juice doesn't run down my arm. These plums are too delicate and too easily bruised to ever make it to market and certainly never to the supermarket. But I also know that this is the best plum I've ever eaten.
About twenty minutes drive away is Punt Road Wines. The first thing you may notice on the left hand side is row upon row of Pink Lady apples, blushing prettily against the green leaves and blue sky above. At Punt Road, two things are happening. The winery produces a variety of wines alongside Napoleone & Co. and at the cellar door, you can have a tasting or buy both.
Simon Wright brand manager of Napoleone & Co Cider (left) and Jon Baxter brand manager of Punt Road Wines
Cider is of course that very on trend drink that many Australians seem to have embraced and Napoleone & Co's ciders are a refreshing variety made with only home grown apples grown on the 250 hectare fruit orchard. The apple cider is a blend of four apple types: granny smith, pink lady, fuji and sundowner while the pear cider is made up of packham and beurre bosc pears and is a drier pear cider variety. Mixing the different apple and pear types allows them to play with the tannins in the cider producing a crisp, delicious cider. The ciders use no concentrate and are fermented using a Rhone Valley white wine yeast and a touch of American oak.
The size of the investment is echoed in their latest product, a Methode Traditionelle cider. Everything is thought out from the expensive and labour intensive cloth bottle label that makes you just want to touch it to the process of making this connoisseur's cider with bottle fermentation, ageing on yeast lees and zero dosage. The retail price of this is $22 per bottle and it sits in specialist stores and niche retailers.
If you're after wine, there's a good range of Yarra Valley wines including of course the Yarra Valley specialties of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the latter 2011 a great match for spicy Asian food. A deal is currently being struck with Longrain restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne to serve this wine. This month saw the release of the 2012 Pinot Noir which is a lovely drop and another best seller is the Botrytis Semillon using grapes from Yenda in Griffith.
Build your own cheese plates can also be put together but if it's a hot day, the cider sorbet made in both apple and pear is worth a stop for. They're light at 1% alcohol but retain the crispness of both the pear and apple ciders as they're not completely cooked off-the apple was my favourite.
As we pull into the driveway of Rochford Winery, we notice the number of people there. Six buses worth of cruise passengers are pulling away as well as a stretched limo. The winery is a popular destination for vineyard concerts and movies on the green. It's an example of a winery that is thriving due to diversification-segway tours, ballooning rides and participation in many activities see this enormous property used by numerous visitors.
Some may start with a wine tasting, others with a spot of shopping (leave some time to explore the small but well stocked shop-yes I bought a few things there! ;) ). Some go straight to the winery for a tour (alas, we're visiting mid vintage so OH&S concerns mean that we don't see it). Others like us start with lunch at Isabella's.
Service is very personable here, particularly around the quieter times when the large groups have left and we got recommendations on what to order from our waiter. He wholeheartedly recommended the croquets which are crunchy with panko type crispy crumbs on the outside but soft inside with oozing chorizo and manchego cheese inside. Bliss although the only quibble would be that we would have loved a platter full of these.
Coffin Bay oysters with sherry vinagrette $3 each
The warm weather just called for oysters. These were from Coffin Bay and were served with a sherry vinaigrette and a generous squeeze of lemon at our hand. And they were all gone in the blink of an eye! ;)
Beef cheek $26
The beef cheek was paired with a 2010 Yarra Valley "La Droite" which was made with Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The beef was very tender and meltingly soft and sat on a bed of horseradish mashed potato, layers of cavalo nero and a slightly sweet Rochford wine jus.
Vine smoked local duck and wild mushroom risotto $28
We're in wine country so this is the second time we're seeing vine smoked meat. This is a Coldstream duck breast served sliced on top of a layer of local wild mushroom risotto with baby spinach and aged parmesan and Rochford Chardonnay. I found a couple of the duck pieces a bit tough but the risotto went very well with the Rochford 2012 Yarra Valley Pinot Gris.
Caramel macadamia nut tart $12
There was only one dessert selection left so we shared a caramel macadamia nut tart which was topped with candied macadamia nut praline and served with a mini flower pot of Yarra Valley dairy goats milk ice cream which was light and creamy and not at all musty or "goaty".
After that, it's a quick stop by the gift shop and a few purchases and then we're on our way!
Yarra Valley Tea Company
"Bags are for dags" seems like a fitting motto for the Yarra Valley Tea Company whose hand blended premium loose leaf teas have a following of their own. Garrick Hicks and Meagan Grace started the company seven years ago with the idea of using only premium organic tea leaves. Indeed using loose leaf as opposed to the bags means that you can see up close that the leaves used are the F.O.P. variety (flowery orange pekoe, the top tier of tea). Open a supermarket tea bag and what you'll find is close to dust or the other end of a 17 point tea scale.
Garrick explains the process of making green jasmine tea, "Green Sencha tea is laid out and freshly picked jasmine flowers are placed on top which then pop releasing their fragrant perfume over several hours. These are then removed and the green leaves pan roasted. This process is then repeated up to six or seven times over as many days. The end result is amazing freshness and fragrance and obviously far superior to the flavoured generic jasmine teas available in supermarkets which are created by artificial means."
They wanted the teas to taste good but also be functional. So for the tisanes or herbal teas, they make use of the ingredients ensuring that people get health benefits from drinking the teas as well as flavour. Coming from a sports supplements background means that the Garrick is familiar with artificial ingredients and made a conscious effort to avoid additives with their certified organic ingredients. Their functional iced tea drinks which we watch being packed and bottled took two years to get just right. People can drop by to buy teas at their Yarra Valley location and they also custom blend teas for other businesses. In April, they're also holding two one hour chai blending classes where participants get to blend their own chais as part of the Yarra Valley Food & Wine Festival.
The loose leaf tea is what has stolen my tastebuds. Their best selling tea is a herbal one called Nod Off, a nervine tea (promotes health of the central nervous system) blend of certified elderflower, chamomile, wild crafted linden flower and biodynamic apple which contains soft tissue relaxers and has a lovely sweetness to it.
There is a range of 22 custom blends including two chais (one caffeine free made with rooibos) and the other with an intoxicating blend of large leaves, cinnamon quills, green cardamom pods, star anise and a pungent hit of clove. The teas are also reasonably priced with a 70g box retailing for $7.95-$9.95 (some loose leaf teas can be rebrewed several times, some up to ten times, extending their life). Black tea lovers take note: their Countess Grey, a heavenly blend outsells their Earl Grey four to one and one teaspoon of the leaves fills a teapot for two.
Our final mouthfuls in the Yarra Valley are at a place that not only feeds the stomach but also the artistic soul. At Tarra Warra winery and art gallery, diners can browse in the publicly owned gallery-this month's exhibit is fascinating one by Australian artist Geoffrey Smart which brings in many browsers.
Tarra Warra is the baby of the Sussan clothing empire owners Marc and Eva Besen who come and stay in the Yarra on weekends. Their vision was to create an art gallery that would show works that they had donated back to the public. Entry to the art gallery is $12 a person and there is also a small, colourful shop attached to it. This sits adjacent to the existing winery and restaurant.
The winery was established in 1982 on the enormous 1300 hectare property where the views spill and roll as far as the eye can see. In fact many people sit on the chairs relaxing and enjoying the serene view. Some come in to have a wine tasting, we notice many try to book in at the restaurant but are politely told that the restaurant is fully booked-even on a Tuesday lunchtime, it pays to book ahead. The reason why is the food is artfuly presented and fresh, with some items from the kitchen garden.
First, we have a wine tasting with the winemaker Adam who grew up in the Yarra Valley and has come back to the region after travelling. 70 acres are under vine on the property and he points way yonder far away to where the oldest blocks sit. The reserve series of wines comes from these old grapevines in the area and comparing the flavours of the reserve wines versus the regular wines, the nuances and detail really comes through with the flavours intensifying. We also try the Marsanne, a small run of only 200 cases. We also take a look at the winery where they've just finished vintage, the air still pungent with the smell of the fermenting grapes.
Gorgonzola panna cotta $18
We take a seat in the restaurant and order lunch. The menu has an interesting combination of crowd pleasers as well as some more unusual sounding dishes. This gorgonzola panna cotta is silky smooth and custardy with an appealing hint of gorgonzola. This is paired with some prosciutto and torn figs as well as a slice of char grilled olive bread (a bit too charred for us) and a port wine glaze. The dish itself is simple but well put together and visually striking.
Chilled white gazpacho $17
Looking like an abstract piece of modern art from top, the almond based gazpacho has a creamy graininess from the ground almonds. Hidden inside are freshly shucked oysters, Yarra Valley salmon roe and verjus jelly which are a lovely, briney match for the creamy soup.
Eggplant in chickpea batter $34
Now I'll admit that it's not often that the vegetarian dish gets both our vote for the tastiest plate because we do love other proteins but the eggplant dish is a highlight. Smelling like honey from the moment it is set down, the eggplant is dipped in spiced chickpea flour and deep fried. To accompany this is a divine almond skordalia and a quinoa, radish, tomato and cucumber salad and a sweet cardamom honey. I suspect that if all vegetarian food were this tasty, we'd be a planet of vegetarians.
Roasted duck breast $38
The duck was also good and came with some sauteed spinach, a small rectangle of slightly bitter turnip cake and a tortellini dumpling filled with soft leg meat, but I must admit that the eggplant was the one that we really fought over.
Heirloom tomato salad $10
If it appears on the specials menu, the tomato salad, made with tomatoes from their own garden is summer in a bowl. Served with pomegranate arils, feta cheese, coriander and walnuts and a tangy sweet pomegranate molasses dressing, the stars are the sweet varieties of heirloom tomatoes.
Almond milk pudding with strawberries and honeycomb $16
Activating the emergency dessert stomach (important in cases like this), the almond pudding was a double layered pudding, almond jelly pudding on the bottom with a layer of strawberry jelly on top. On top of this sat a luscious layer of sliced strawberries, honeycomb and mint to give it texture and lift.
Cheese and wine matching
And it seemed only appropriate that in dairy and wine country that our very last course was made up of cheese and a merlot match!
Well, that was a long story wasn't it? But there was a lot to do there that I couldn't possibly cover in any less detail so thank you for making it all the way down here. So tell me Dear Reader, are you a wine drinker, cider drinker or teetotaler?
NQN and Mr NQN travelled to the Yarra Valley as guests of lastminute.com.au. To book your own Yarra Valley Escape visit http://www.lastminute.com.au.
Hargreaves Hill Brewing Company
25 Bell St, Yarra Glen VIC 3775, Australia
Tel:+61 (03) 9730 1905
4 Briarty Road, Gruyere, VIC, 3770
Tel:+61 (03) 5964 9267
Opening Hours: 10am - 5pm 7 Days a week
1309 Melba Hwy, Yarra Glen VIC 3775, Australia
Tel:+61 (03) 9730 0700
1309 Melba Hwy, Yarra Glen VIC 3775, Australia
Tel:+61 (03) 9730 0774
Rayner's Fruit Orchard
Schoolhouse Rd, Woori Yallock VIC 3139, Australia
Tel:+61 (03) 5964 7654
Punt Road Winery and Napoleone Cider
10 St Huberts Rd Coldstream VIC 3770, Australia
Tel:+61 (03) 9739 0666
878-880 Maroondah Hwy, Coldstream VIC 3770, Australia
Tel:+61 (03) 5962 2119
Yarra Valley Tea Company
15/4 North Gateway Coldstream 3770
Tel:+61 (03) 9739 0803
Tarra Warra Estate
311 Healesville-Yarra Glen Rd, Yarra Glen VIC 3775, Australia
Tel:+61 (03) 5962 3311