The Queen’s Birthday Weekend (last weekend) was our chance to visit the King Valley Prosecco Road wine trail in north-eastern Victoria, a much-awaited return visit to Beechworth and a chance to return to favoured old haunts are well as to sample new places.
We started at Brown Brothers winery for a tasting of their non-vintage Prosecco and to soothe an old wound. You see, last time we visited in March, the place was so busy we couldn’t get a shoulder in edgewise at the tasting bar and actually left disgruntled and in a huff … which takes a bit of doing at such a gorgeous winery.
This time, on Friday June 7, and around 10am, we found much more attention from the tasting room staff and much more room to move. The ladies serving were at the top of their game and ran us graciously through the tasting list. We tried the latest Patricia Chardonnay (the launch of which had interrupted our previous visit, it turns out) and a Banksdale single-vineyard Chardonnay … We also tried a Tempranillo blend and came away with two bottles and a membership of their wine club. Persistence pays off for winemakers as well as shoppers.
This was the day before the King Valley region’s seasonal festival Wines Fit For a King and a more winery specific festival Chrismont’s Festa Rustica right at the end of the promotionally named Prosecco Road.
So really it suited us because we could still find the wineries in their finery, still enjoy tastings, but beat the expected crowds!
We certainly beat them to Paul Bettio wines near the top of the valley. There we found only Helen Bettio behind the counter and we had her undivided attention. Helen told us she was the wife of the winemaker of the eponymous Paul Bettio Wines and they had been making wines there for the past 19 years since Bettio senior and the family stopped growing their lucrative tobacco crops and turned to grapevines and wine instead.
A wistful note of nostalgia sounded in her voice as Helen recalled what she said where the profitable days of tobacco, and we noticed that out the front there was one of the many property “For Sale” signs we saw along the road that day. What we didn’t know at the time was that this weekend of all others was the moment of their final wine and equipment clearance sale …
We got in early with a bottle of their delightful Barbera style red and another of a cheery and pleasantly dry rose. Helen showed us round the winery engine room, including the presses, barrel room and even the lab.
Gary Nash First National real estate signs were growing like weeds in the King Valley the day we visited, so he’ll clean up if they all sell.
While in Beechworth this time we stayed two nights at the La Pausa luxury B&B. Look for the artfully decorated lounge room complete with a fascination with Coco Chanel. More about this later …
On night #1 we enjoyed pre-dinner drinks at the Cellar Door Wine Store and dined just up the street at the Tanswell’s Commercial Hotel. Innocent Bystander Pinot noir accompanied three mounds of Irish sausage and mash, a lamb shank and a roast duck leg, followed up (for me) by a glass of Laphroaig Single Malt peated whisky from Islay, claimed to be the most richly flavoured scotch whisky in the world. As a bit of an aficionado of such items I reckon that’s an arguable claim … Oban is a stiff competitor. But what the hell, they’re both delightful.
Great newgrass sounds and friendly endearing musos had the crowd’s toes tapping and hands clapping. If you get a chance to hear these guys … who seem to have at least one member in common … take it. They’re great! Reminiscent of Crooked Still, one of the frequent plays on our CD machine.
Next night we dined at the Ox and Hound bistro.
What did we enjoy? 2 serves of pork shoulder, 3 of the trout, 1 of the roast chicken. We matched the meals with Yarra Valley wines all round: the chicken and trout went with Rob Dolan Pinot Gris 2012 and the pork (and the chicken) went superbly with a Toolangi Pinot Noir 2010. Desserts were the chocolate mousse and panacotta. Check the menu here.
Above our heads we noticed artfully arranged tungsten filament bulbs in wattle branch light holders. Our waitress made the evening enjoyable with lots of gossip about the chef, the shop and the food, and speedy service. I guess we’ll be back!
These are attentive but discrete hosts, with advice on where to go during our stay without being effusive. The gallery pictures of our stay at the restored historic building tell the story, but really, this is probably the high point of our B&B experiences over the past hectic 12 months.
From the Ford Street entrance this appears to be a nice B&B … which it is. But from the rear, where a heated lap pool and paved gardens provide guests with room to relax, it seems like a resort where we hadn’t expected one, complete with meticulously trimmed topiary hedges.
Fit out in our room was extravagant and hit the 5-star mark squarely, with king-sized bed, high ceilings, roomy marble bathroom and French doors onto a balcony with table and chairs overlooking the pool.
In the rest of the building: the front parlour was home to a miniature version of the famous Chloe nude portrait which hangs in the Young & Jackson’s pub in Flinders Street, Melbourne; the breakfast room was wide and appealing at this most delicate time of day; a rear lounge room included a fireplace, coffee machine and a small library, also opening on to the pool and garden area.
Our breakfasts helped the days start happily … Filling and tasty, and not too many carbs.
Yes, try this one.
Provenance restaurant, Beechworth
Trips away sometimes sound like “treats” for us at Eat Drink Sleep Shop Australia because we try to sample something new and different. And we realise it’s often that way for you, our viewers, unless you’re business travellers or in the Grey Army. So while in Beechworth recently we took our host’s advice and booked in at what we were told is the best restaurant in town, The Provenance, 86 Ford St, right across the road from Freeman on Ford where we were staying: Chef (and owner) Michael Ryan and sommelier Jeanette Henderson. According to the website: “Michael Ryan’s approach to food is best described as regional contemporary; contemporary in terms of design and textures and regional with an emphasis on local and seasonal produce of the highest quality. This produces menus of originality without losing sight of traditional foundations. Provenance, in its first year of operation, received one chef’s hat from The Age Good Food Guide and two chef’s hats in its second year. Provenance (continues the website) is ranked at No. 31 in the Gourmet Traveller Top 100 restaurants of Australia.”
We arrived at 8pm on a Saturday and were seated promptly, without fuss. Drinks? We couldn’t decide so when Pip suggested she’d like a gin and tonic, I concurred, and our waitress suggested we try a Fifty Pounds Gin with their preferred mixer, the UK-based Fever Tree Indian tonic. According to that website, “Fever Tree (is) the colloquial name for the Cinchona Tree in which quinine, a key ingredient for tonic, is found”. Let’s try not to gush here but this tonic came as a complete surprise, different altogether from the run-of-the-mill mixers we had used previously. If we can find a reliable supplier, we’ll take it from here. Drinks happening, I chose “an anchovy and its fried bones” from the starters menu, and Pip selected “House made silken tofu, marinated seafood, soy, pickled ginger, salmon roe”. It’s fun to see what “an anchovy and its fried bones” actually looks like and for $4, what have you got to lose? Yummy and salty, it was, this late fish, and like Jack’s giant, I was able to grind its bones in my teeth. Pip found the tofu delicate and delightful. We moved at a measured pace to mains: (for me) Braised Berkshire pork neck, rich pork sauce, egg yolk, cabbage and poached cuttlefish salad, burnt garlic oil; (for Pip) Roasted lamb ribs, broad beans, smoked potato, cucumber, mint, chilli Myrtleford buttermilk sauce; (and to share) a salad of Stanley organic rocket, orange, Beechworth olives and parmesan. To accompany these, we selected a bottle of Bobbie Burns Shiraz from Campbell’s at nearby Rutherglen. I notice it’s not on the wine list published on the website, but there you go, it was available on the night. Our friend Geoff Turner had recommended this drop and it was worth every penny and brought back memories of our visit to the Campbells’ cellar door in July last year. Dessert? I chose the cheese: Berry’s Creek Blue (a Blue on cow’s milk from Gippsland) with quince jelly, saba, walnut bread. Pip selected a special of the evening, an apple terrine. Total for the evening, $198.50: about right, we think.
Now I could go on and on about the flavours available in this menu but I’ve come to realise it’s not just the flavours but the complexity and originality of the combinations which the chef is selling. The end result of food, after all, is taste first (including look and aroma) and then nutrition. But how we get down that road, that’s where the value is created. The intricacy of the “anchovy and its fried bones” is something you would never try at home because it’s way too fiddly but in a restaurant, for a “treat”, yes, we discovered it was well worth the trouble … his trouble, in his kitchen. To locate and then braise a Berkshire pork neck, prepare and then drizzle over the neck a rich pork sauce and then combine this with an egg yolk and a salad of cabbage and poached cuttlefish salad dressed with burnt garlic oil … this takes imagination, experimentation, not a little bravery and quite a lot of quality assurance in the production. Sourcing these ingredients is also undoubtedly expensive and time consuming, given the short shelf life of foods and Beechworth’s distance from the major providores in Melbourne (a three-hour drive). It takes staff to do all this, and then other staff to manage the tricky end-game of plating and serving, looking after the customers as all the market and kitchen work is put to the test. Of course, later, more staff to remove the plates, clear up (and wash up in the kitchen) and at the last moment, it takes software, EFTPOS equipment and training to collect the money and keep the patrons happy as they actually leave for home. All that imagination, complexity, training and wages for $37 per main course says to me that The Provenance represents excellent value for money, given everything they have to do to get that money. Oh yes, one more thing … out of that $198.50, $18.05 flies off to the government as goods and services tax! So all that earlier purchasing, rent, light, furniture, staff and expertise lavished on us during 2 hours on Saturday night brought in the sum total of $180.05. Whew, who’d be a restaurant owner?
BEECHWORTH: The first thing we noticed about the Main Street of this north-east Victoria town this month was the cute and apparently faithfully preserved historic shop fronts in the main shopping precinct of Ford and Camp Streets.
The second thing was that unlike many other tourist towns we’ve visited over the years, Beechworth shops are actually worth stopping at and walking into. The tired imported trinkets we’d seen and rejected in many other places — pejoratively known as tourist traps — were absent, and replaced here by delicate handmade local items, or gorgeous imported fabrics, fashions and furniture which made the three-hour journey from Melbourne well worth the effort.
That was a welcome relief. As was the pet ferret being led up Ford Street by the ageing and friendly gent.
To us shopping scholars, however, there was a third interesting thing in one section of town. The shop signs were different. Normally shops have prominent name signs out front — on the footpath and on the windows as well as on the real estate (the buildings themselves) — but this is more often not the case here, especially along the south side of Ford Steet, where the odd numbers are ranged.
The coffee shop on the main roundabout, for instance, opposite the Post Office, looked completely unnamed to us from the outside. I took enough pictures to check afterwards and it’s true enough. It didn’t seem to be hurting business, though, because there was a tiny sign in the window alerting passers-by that a certain brand of coffee, Merlo, was on sale inside. That brand comes from our hometown of Brisbane and we found ourselves sucked into the shop by a maelstrom of memories. “Do you really have Merlo coffee?” we asked the man behind the counter. “We do indeed,” he replied with a smile. “It’s what brought us into the shop,” I told him. “Ah, you’re from Brisbane,” he said. Now that’s what I call clever. Merlo coffee has a good reputation anywhere and will probably get most drinkers through the door. But as a name brand in a foreign country like Victoria, it will definitely lure the Queensland mob in!
We continued walking uphill along the odd side of Ford Street, photographing and shopping and the sign trend continued. There were signs on the buildings visible from across the street, but few visible right there on the footpath. The grocery store, then Hotch Potch the kitchen shop, and Frances Pilley the very classy giftware shop … Same.
Big change at the top of the hill opposite the church, appropriately on the corner of Church Street. There we found the Beechworth Honey Experience, which had plenty of signs. But this is an amazing shop altogether … A truly experiential retailer. You can taste, touch, hear, examine and watch bees and bee products until the cows come home. Pip bought three different varieties of flavoured honey, a honey and ginger sparkling drink and a honey hand lotion. And John — perpetually the youngest child — stood mesmerised by the exposed working bee hive, with the little buggers crawling all over their mates, then buzzing up the clear Perspex pipe to freedom and back. And in memory of our scientific ancestor Keith, John peered down microscopes at bee eyes, bee wings and hairy bee legs!
The north side of the street (even numbers) told a slightly different story. Here there were more signs — including sandwich boards and hanging from the awnings overhead — but still strangely diffident. In one case, at The Growing Suitcase, the sign was painted on the door but then casually obscured by some wonderful fashions owner Rob Cowell had hung there for display. Lovely shop, very French.
Nearby I also loved the Beechworth Boudoir, piled high with frilly, lacy and other bedroom delights, including a complete bedroom along the back wall.
Around Camp Street we found where all the signs had gone. Here there was a surfeit of signs, more than you could poke a stick at. Especially cluttered was the Beechworth Sweet Company, which was practically covered in signs at the front, including instructions on how and where to enter and exit the shop. Unsubstantiated guess: but it looks like they’ve had some problems with sticky fingered customers here … now there’s a surprise. Probably a function of the tender age of the majority of shoppers … That might account for the number of signs inside about watching small children and paying for broken delicate goods.
Across the street at the news agency, there’s a different kind of sign … suggesting loyalty and provenance … something journalists of the 21st century crave and need now perhaps more than anything else.