A valley of producers

By Michael Harden
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Morning mist over the Yarra Valley

Morning mist over the Yarra Valley [©Visions of Victoria]

Considering the mind-boggling range of food being produced in the Yarra Valley it is a miracle that it is so peaceful. The amazingly fertile area not only pumps out sizeable quantities of wine but also produces apples, pears, peaches, apricots, raspberries, blueberries, chestnuts, figs, quail, organic vegetables, honey, venison, cheese, bread, jams and pickles, ice cream, pasta, herbs, lamb, chocolate, rare breed pork and turkeys, trout, salmon, cookies, rabbits, cherries and more.

You might expect such a food factory to run at a frenetic pace and, sure, it picks up on the weekends and at festival times when food and wine fanatics from Melbourne descend on the Valley in droves. But no matter what else is going on in the Valley, there always seems to be a time when you are driving along a back road in search of a farm selling free range eggs or heirloom peaches and there won’t be another car in sight, and you can get that rare, peaceful feeling of being the only person for miles around.

There is so much produce in the Valley, so many farm gates to visit, that you could spend several days and fill the back seats of several cars and still not see and taste everything. Sheer quantity is one part of the reason but also there are artisan producers scattered throughout the Yarra Valley who not only value their privacy but make, grow or breed such small quantities of their products that everything they produce is snapped up by chefs or those in the know long before it can hit the shops. It might be hard to get a taste of Alison Goldburn’s rare-breed turkeys or to secure a loaf of Fruition bread, wood-fired at Candlebark Farm, but if you ask the right questions at the right produce store or restaurant, you might be given a tip that will allow you a rare and tasty glimpse of the Valley’s true artisan side.

Mostly though, the Yarra Valley is a remarkably easy and straightforward place in which to negotiate a produce tour. This is largely due to the efforts of determined, committed locals like Suzanne Halliday (wife of wine writer and maker James Halliday) who has been instrumental in getting Yarra Valley food onto a wider stage. Halliday’s championing of local food led to the formation of the Yarra Valley Regional Food Group that has brought together the area’s best local producers and literally put them on the map – the Yarra Valley Regional Food Trail. This map is a vital key to much of the best stuff in the valley – informative, easy to read and a lesson to most of Victoria’s other regions on how it should be done.

If you don’t have time to trawl the Trail, the Yarra Valley Farmers Market is held in the Barn at Yering Station Winery on the third Sunday of every month. The diversity of produce - jams and preserves, chocolate, walnuts, bread, wine, a brilliant range of fresh, seasonal vegetables - gives you a convenient one-stop snapshot of what the Yarra Valley has to offer.

There are also several good produce stores scattered around the Valley where time-strapped food fans can get a quick fix on what the locals are doing.

If you miss the Farmers Market, Yering Station also has a decent produce store housed on the property in the same building as its cellar door. Regional Fare in nearby Yarra Glen has a good range of local products plus a selection of wines from the Yarra Valley’s smaller vineyards, but the best produce store in the Valley is found in Healesville.

Healesville Harvest Produce and Wine, part of the Healesville Hotel, is housed in the hotel’s former bottle shop, using the driveway between the buildings as an outdoor seating area. A produce store, bottle shop and café, Harvest Produce is not just about stocking local produce (though ex-Melburnian owners Michael Kennedy and Kylie Balharrie are great fans of regionally based produce) but rather about offering quality produce generally. That so much locally produced stuff is stocked here – herbs from Ravensbrook Estate, cheese from the Yarra Valley Dairy, bread from Fruition, jam from Cunliffe and Waters, chocolate from Kennedy and Wilson and a small, cleverly selected group of local wines – really underlines how good produce in the Valley is. With its counter packed full of cheeses, dips, terrines and meats, the smell of coffee in the air, locals reading newspapers around the communal table and light streaming in over shelves packed full of good local produce, Harvest Produce gives a good indication of where the Yarra Valley is right now.

Just down the road from Healesville Harvest is one of the Yarra Valley’s first artisan food businesses and one of its most successful. Yarra Valley Pasta, run by mother and daughter team Maria and Lisa Colaneri, was started in 1997 after Maria sensed the food and wine-driven changes afoot in the Valley and decided that she wanted to play a part.

Maria, who moved to the Yarra Valley from Melbourne thirty-three years ago with husband Felix, had always made pasta at home and started her business on a similar scale with “just a few pots of sauce and a bit of pasta”. But the handmade pasta she was producing using local free-range eggs and top quality semolina began attracting so much attention, both locally and from Melbourne, that daughter Lisa left her job to join the business and life became extremely busy. Initially Maria and Lisa ran a café, had a catering business on the side and hand made all the pasta, but after several years decided they “needed a life” and now concentrate solely on making and selling their range of Yarra Valley Pasta that includes gnocchi, cannelloni, lasagne and ravioli stuffed with a variety of traditional and gourmet fillings including local smoked trout and Yarra Valley Dairy goats cheese.

Cheese from the ten-year-old Yarra Valley Dairy is stocked and used in many businesses across the Yarra Valley and is one of the first artisan products that drew attention to the region’s possibilities. Part of a lush dairy farm called Hubertswood, owned by Mary and Leo Mooney, the Yarra Valley Dairy makes about twelve different cheeses from the 300 cows on the property that are milked twice a day and from locally sourced goat’s milk. Hubertswood has been in Mary’s family for 50 years and initially, the cheese was a way for Mary to use the dairy’s left over milk. The hobby has since turned into an award winning line of artisan cheese that includes the renowned Persian fetta, a cow’s milk fetta, marinated in herbs and oil, and a range of fromage frais.

The Yarra Valley’s cheese shop and tasting room are housed in a rustic timber and corrugated iron shed that has views over the surrounding paddocks where cows graze in a suitably picturesque fashion. The Dairy’s cheese shares space with a good variety of other Yarra Valley produce – everything from honeycomb to pickles – and The Wine Hub, a cellar door that stocks twelve of the region’s smaller wineries, concentrating on places that employ young makers interested in displaying regional characteristics in small hand made wines. It is a philosophy that suits the Yarra Valley Dairy, a place that is sticking to its hand made artisan traditions despite a groaning trophy shelf and ever-increasing demand.

A short distance across the Valley in Coldstream is another business sticking to its hand-made roots. Housed in a non-descript shopfront just off the Maroondah Highway, Cunliffe and Waters churns out an amazing variety of brilliantly flavoured jams, pickles, preserves and sauces that are sold locally, nationally and internationally. Business owner Mandy Cunliffe, who started making jam in “one French preserving pan on the stove at home” to get herself out of a jam of the financial kind, seems bemused by the popularity of her produce and feels “the business is as big as it needs to be”.

“The philosophy of the business is that everything is homemade,” she says. “The jams are made as if I was making them for myself and there are a few extra jars to give away.”

You can get Cunliffe and Waters products in many places but it is worth dropping by the shop to see the engine room with its line of burners running down one wall, each with a bubbling concoction of the much loved Williamette raspberry jam, tomato and capsicum relish or blood orange and ruby grapefruit marmalade, closely watched by Mandy Cunliffe or her manager Caroline Gray. Bags and boxes of ingredients, much of it locally sourced, are stacked against the walls and you get a real sense of the small scale, artisan approach that Cunliffe and Waters and others like it have helped draw so much attention to the Yarra Valley.

The Valley is brimming with such places – whether you are looking for salmon roe or pickles or fresh berries or chestnuts. Nose around and you never know what delicious treasures you might uncover.

© Michael Harden 2006

First printed in Food and Wine Lovers’ Guide to Melbourne and Surrounds (2006)

Regions

  • Yarra Valley (Wine) (VIC)
  • Yarra Valley, Dandenongs and the Ranges (VIC)

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March 12th, 2007
 
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