Monday, 22 June 2009

Yarra Glen: Cheesy, But in a Good Way

I've just returned from a couple of days in Yarra Glen, researching its attractions for a mini-guide to be published in The Age.

The town, east of Melbourne, sits within the Yarra Valley, a farming region whose most famous crop is the grape. As in the raw material used by wineries, of which there are many in the vicinity.

It's an interesting little town, with a mix of shops and eateries, and the usual smattering of accommodation from B&B cottages to the very grand Yarra Glen Grand Hotel.

But what struck me by the end of my investigations was how locally produced food and drink have become a major tourist drawcard in their own right. And not just in the Yarra Valley, but right across Victoria.

When I was a kid, living in rural Western Australia, the scenery in the countryside was fantastic, but you wouldn't expect too much of the food.

In those days, eating out in a town the size of Yarra Glen would entail a choice between a fish 'n' chip place, a Chinese restaurant producing heavily modified Cantonese dishes, and a local pub whose menu didn't stray much beyond steak & chips versus fish & chips. Oh, and maybe a nice prawn cocktail for starters.

But a scenic country town in 2009 is a very different place. Here are some of my foodie highlights from a winter weekend in the country:
  • Being taken around a few of the wineries nearest to Yarra Glen on Friday. The highlight was Mandala Wines' intriguing new cellar door building. Constructed from recycled materials and built around the core of an old farmshed, with rubber flooring made from old tyres, it's an impressive example of the way wineries are putting up buildings that enhance the landscape rather than spoiling it. And Mandala's pinot noir is pretty good too.
  • Lunch at Hargreaves Hill Brewing Co's restaurant in Yarra Glen's main street consisted of... a hamburger. But an impressive variant on the popular fast food item, composed of high quality ingredients and served on a wooden board with a neat longitudinal stack of chips on one side and a tiny cooked beetroot on the other. It was great.
  • Narrelle arrived that night and we had dinner at the Grand, whose ground floor was a warren of rooms, each decorated in a knowingly retro way with different wallpaper and carpet. Some rooms suited families, others couples, and the menu was similarly diverse. I had the steak & veg... well, to be precise, the prime fillet of beef on a smoked bacon and potato brique, house made pâté quenelle and a mushroom sauce. And a bottle of Big Betty shiraz from just down the road in Healesville. Never seen that wine before, want to see it again - a big bold red, heavy and memorable.
  • And finally, for Saturday lunch we made the short trip out of town to the Yarra Valley Dairy, which creates its cheeses from milk gathered from the cows on the same farm. In fact you can order a sample plate of cheeses from the counter within a converted old shed that's at the heart of the operation, sit at a wooden bench and gaze out the window at the cows and paddocks while you eat. Our selection included cow and goat cheeses, culimating in a spectacular Persian fetta. In addition to this we shared a small container of balsamic onions, a posh way of upgrading the humble pickled onion.
Clearly, food has become an attraction in itself, and particularly food that's derived from local sources. Since most 21st century citizens source their provisions from big supermarkets, it seems that an allure, even a status, has attached itself to old-style food produced from local ingredients in a small-scale way.

What that says about our psychology, particularly our relationship to food, I'm not sure. But it does taste very good.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Tourism Victoria.