Once a gold rush town and roamed by Ned Kelly, Beechworth, this quaint historic town cradled in the foothills of the Australian Alps continues to evolve and thrive as a popular tourist destination in North East Victoria, especially if you love food and wine.
My short stint trip to the alpine country as part of High Country Harvest festival from mushroom foraging in Bright, horse riding at Bogong, and finally found myself in Beechworth and the surrounding areas for more food and wine adventures.
Before exploring Beechworth, one must take that short 10 minutes drive to Stanley where the honey crisp apples are widely grown in this region. The Honey Crisp is a variety that is unique to Stanley, it has a strong honey flavour and crisp texture. During the autumn months, the whole town will be painted in red by the vibrant autumn maple leaves, the serene landscape was absolutely mesmerising.
I arrived in Beechworth bright and early in the morning; as the crisp chilled air filled my lungs, the township of Beechworth also slowly came to life. Shops opened late here in small town, many only just started to roll their doors up around 10am. I had a quick stroll along high street, window shopping and bought myself some blue gum at Beechworth Honey.
Not just in Beechworth, but the whole region is cycling friendly. I've been told that it is absolutely fine to park your bicycle outside without locking it and no one will steal it. They love their cycling so much that they even included a couple of cycling events in the High Country Harvest programme. But if you just want a casual ride around town, you are always welcome to pop in to Bridge Road Brewers who offers free bike hire, but of course don't leave without sampling a glass of the local beer or two.
But for coffee, I headed to Cellar Door Wine Store as I've been tipped off that they served the best coffee in town. Owned by Aaron Taylor, ex-Provenance restaurant manager and Slovakian Martina Brazdovicova, here they will be able to introduce you to some of the best wine from the smaller wineries of North East Victoria plus a unique selection from around the world. You are more than welcome to just grab a bottle from the shelf and enjoy a glass or two at the bar when the tapas nights are on at the store.
Coffee wise, a smooth cup of latte was brewed from AllPress coffee beans, it perked me up just nicely and had me ready to face the day.
Another place worth checking out is definitely the Beechworth Lunatic Asylum high up on Mayday Hills. Opened in 1867 as a lunatic asylum, this building had been in operation for over 128 years until 1995, it was home to over 1200 patients at its height. But today, the Mayday Hills has been resurrected and now is actually the Beechworth campus of La Trobe University. Many of the buildings are refurbished including a relaxation spa housed inside a majestic Victorian building which formerly housed the administrators for the hospital.
Fancy a night in the hospital ward? The former asylum hospital was transformed into an art deco hotel called Linaker. It was empty and vacant when I was there but I've been told that a new hotel management has just taken over the sight and hopefully it will be back in operation in no time.
I spent some time wandering the gardens and surroundings, it was tranquil and quiet with the occasional singing from the morning service at the church nearby. There were a total of 67 buildings sprawled across 106 hectares of farmland with many still empty and deserted. If you love some good spooks like I do, then come to the Mayday Hills at night to join their forever popular Lunatic Asylum Ghost tours, a night filled with stories, tales and myths that guarantee your hair will stand on end.
Sausage making at Jones Winery
I left Beechworth and went for a 35 minutes drive to Rutherglen, where I joined a group of sausage making hobbyists and enthusiasts for an afternoon of food, wine and of course, sausages. The Chef, the winemaker and the sausage maker was one of the many events of the festival where we would learn about how to make sausage at home with just very basic equipment.
The Jones Winery was pristinely gorgeous from the outside, but a whole different story on the inside...
A temporary roof made of tree barks were suspended by metal poles, as the old roof were blown off by tornadoes that tore through this region in March this year. But that didn't stop the winery from operating and guests were more than welcome to come in for wine tasting at the cellar door as per usual.
Owner and winemaker, Mandy Jones had teamed up with local butcher, Michael Frederick from Morrison Street Continental Butchers where they would share with us of their knowledge in wine and sausage making. And in-house chef Kate Akrap, would prepare a three course lunch, featuring sausages made by Michael from the demonstration.
Michael talked us through the basic of sausage making and showed us a few equipment that we can use to make sausages at home. I was lucky to learn the technique of triple-link sausages a while back, but Michael made it like a piece of cake and within seconds, the sausages were tied and linked with all at the exact same lengths.
I also picked up a few tips from the demonstration:
- must have binding agent to make sausage, like salt and emulsifier
- for Italian sausage, Michael prefers to have the ratio of 90% lean mince and 10% fat for his sausages
- he uses 15g of salt per kilo of mince
- he uses 10mm grinding plate and mince twice
- to make coarse sausage, use pork loin
- for goat sausage (if that ever happens), use 60% meat, and 40% fat
- sausages can be kept in freezer for 3 months or in fridge for 5 days
After the informative demonstration, we all got to try some of Michael's sausages, executed beautifully by chef Kate. Entree of duck and pistachio chipolata was plump and fatty, served on a bed of snow pea shoots with speck and a lurid pink pomegranate and raspberry vinaigrette, matched with Jones' 2010 Dry Red. Main course was graced with two long Merguez sausage with dijon and desiree mash, herb crusted artichokes with lamb jus, washed down with 2011 Malbec. Chef Kate also cleverly put together a simple chocolate fig and sultana panforte for dessert, inspired by the sausage of course.
It was time for me to head back to Beechworth for some rest and got myself ready for the most anticipated dinner tonight at the highly acclaimed Provenance restaurant.
Provenance Restaurant & Accommodation
Some would say a trip to Beechworth is not complete without paying The Provenance a visit. Housed inside the old Bank of Australasia built in 1856, the Provenance restaurant still capture the grandness of that gold rush era with high ceilings, ornate rosettes and original arched windows. The vault, built with thick granite blocks is now a wine cellar.
Owner-chef Michael Ryan's approach to food is to create a modern contemporary menu, with an emphasis on regional seasonal produce of the highest quality. The menu also has a strong Japanese influence as Michael has spent many years and still does working as a chef consultant at a leading hotel in Tokyo. Michael was named Chef of the Year in the 2013 Age Good Food Guide Awards, with Provenance not only claimed a two-hat status, but also taking home the gong for Regional Restaurant of the Year.
The restaurant itself was actually a lot more casual than a fine dining room would be. There was no white table linen cloths, no expensive oil paintings on the wall but just a few vintage flower diagrams scrolls that they used to hang at school.
Michael himself brought out a plate of beef jerky for us to try, because apparently there was a rivalry between him and one of my dining companion's partner to see who can smoke the best beef jerky. The chewy beef strip was still tender and not tough like store bought, the smokiness was subtle would absolutely go down well with a glass of beer.
We went for the degustation menu this evening which would give us a broad spectrum of the food what this restaurant had to offer. We started of with a simple vegetable dish, a handful of seasonal vegetables were either sous-vide or pickled, served on a congee-like okayu sauce, a tile of puffed rice added texture where the umeboshi plum brought an intense sour-sweetness to the flavours.
The second dish was possibly the most well executed dish of the evening that showcased the humble broccoli marvellously. A single stem roasted broccoli was still crunchy with a slight hint of charred smokiness from the grill, resting on a vivid green pool of broccoli puree that really enhanced the natural flavour of the vegetable. The subtle flavour was set off by the intense olive crumbs, tendrils of candied lemon, salty Longlane capers and anchovy that was simply packed with umami.
We moved on to our third course, flakes of smoked bonito was oily and tender that simply melted in the mouth, paired with braised daikon (turnip) on a flavoursome jamon consommé; sauteed lettuce and bottarge added texture to counterbalance the softness of the fish.
Fourth course was braised Berkshire pork neck with poached cuttledish salad. The pork neck was soft to the touch, soaking up the rich pork gravy and the creamy 65 degrees egg yolk. It was sheer indulgent that should be savoured slowly to the very last mouthful.
The final savoury course was grass fed Yalandra wagyu flat iron, the feather cut was full of flavour and cut through effortlessly; no big flavour pairings were needed for this dish but a few spring onion, daikon, rocket and grey ghost mushrooms foraged from the nearby pine forest.
The Japanese influence carried through in the dessert, dollops of banana mousse was ethereally light and creamy, glorified with peanut frangipane cake; an orange tuile gave a zesty balance to the rich miso caramel sauce that was simply delicious.
My short stay in Victoria high country had opened a brand new door to a whole new food heaven that I've never explored before. I had a small taste of it, but I am ready to change my name to Oliver, because...
"Please sir, can I have some more?"
[A Table for Two visited High Country Harvest festival as a guest of North East Victoria Tourism]