Yarra Valley, Victoria: Eating Out

By Michael Harden

Restaurants in the Yarra Valley have been slower on the uptake than the region’s food and wine producers. Until quite recently there have been relatively few restaurants in the Valley that have taken real advantage of the area’s great produce and ever-increasing wine and food reputation. A tendency amongst many Yarra Valley restaurants to either pay too much attention to what was going on in Melbourne or else pile on the hokey countrified charm brought a generic blandness to much of the dining in the Valle.

Over the past couple of years, however, it seems as if a light has suddenly been switched on and the idea has dawned that using local produce not only pleases the tourists looking for local colour but is also a very satisfying, interesting and exciting way to approach food, particularly in an area of such diversity and brilliant quality.

Well-recognised, established products like Yarra Valley Salmon, Yarra Valley Pasta, Kennedy and Wilson Chocolate, Yarra Valley Ice Cream or cheese from Yarra Valley Dairy are common sights on most local menus these days - a good thing for both those products and the region’s reputation. But a new batch of eating places are taking the regional produce idea beyond the famed brands and are taking advantage of back yard growers, hobbyists and small scale producers with a passion for rare breeds and heirloom varieties.

At the Healesville Hotel, a beautifully restored old pub in an increasingly food savvy town, the menu comes with a supplementary page that lists local producers whose ingredients are used by chef Robin Sucliffe. Some of the big Yarra Valley names are on the list but there is also an entry acknowledging backyard gardeners with “prolific green thumbs, productive gardens and old fruit trees” that supply the hotel with an array of goodies from figs, quinces and pears to lemons and limes. Harvest Farm, the home of Healesville Hotel owners Michael Kennedy and Kylie Balharrie, is also on the list thanks to the extensive kitchen gardens they are developing on their property to supply the hotel kitchen with a range of heirloom and heritage vegetables. Harvest Farm is also planted with citrus, olive and hazelnut trees that will also go straight into the kitchen and onto the menu of the Healesville Hotel.

Though he didn’t move to the Yarra Valley with the express purpose of using local produce, Michael Kennedy has wholeheartedly embraced a philosophy at the hotel that is all about “freshness and seasonality” and “circumventing the process where things are grown here, then shipped to the markets in Melbourne and then shipped back up here”. He believes the best thing about going direct to the growers or even growing produce themselves is that it makes the journey from ground to plate as short as possible. Knowing where the food came from and how it has been treated is a reassuring thing and, if the beautifully cooked, clever comfort food at the Healesville Hotel is anything to go by, something that is deliciously well-worth pursuing.

A short distance away on the Healesville-Yarra Glen Road, you will see a turn off for Mt Rael Retreat and the 3777 restaurant. A steep winding drive later and you come to the former nursery building, transformed by Sean Lee and chef John Knoll, into a stylish modern restaurant with a series of guest rooms. Perched on the top of a hill, the restaurant with its wide veranda and walls of windows has possibly the best views in the Valley. John Knoll says that people appreciate the view for its beauty but are even more impressed when he is able to point out to his customers exactly where the chocolate in their pudding was made or the location of the field where the wild mushrooms they are eating were growing that morning.

John was born locally but owned and worked in a series of eateries in Melbourne before deciding to move back to the Yarra Valley. Local produce was a big factor in his decision to return home.

“My family have orchards in the Valley and so I grew up knowing how much good produce was up here,” he says. “I think that now there are a few places around the Valley that are looking for good, seasonal produce – no matter what it is – the locals with a few nut trees or pomegranates know they can take all the stuff they can’t eat themselves to somewhere it is going to be really appreciated.”

John mentions a place called Waterwood Farm where he gets fresh walnuts from a couple “who crack them by hand in front of the TV at night” and Yarra Valley Game Meats, a company with a licence to shoot and sell wild rabbits that are “ organic as you can get and they taste great”. The seasonally changing menu at 3777 is a good a place as any to get a mouthful of what is happening in the Valley. And with views this good, it says something about the cooking and the produce that you notice the food at all.

At the De Bortoli Winery Restaurant in Dixons Creek, an enthusiastic young chef with a passion for local produce has breathed new life into one of the Yarra Valley’s original restaurants. Cameron Cansdell worked with renowned Sydney chefs like Stefano Manfredi and Peter Doyle before coming to the Yarra Valley to head the De Bortoli kitchen. He is a true forager, an artisan produce fanatic, and spends much of his time trawling the Yarra Valley discovering where the people growing or breeding small-scale high quality produce.

One of his favourite finds is the rare breed black pigs bred by Christine Ross in Macclesfield that are attracting an almost cultish following among chefs both in the Yarra Valley and further afield. Cameron is also working with Leanne De Bortoli to extend the kitchen gardens for the restaurant so they can grow more vegetables like the Jerusalem artichokes he teams with scallops and chives or the heirloom tomatoes that appear in summer salads with buffalo mozzarella. There is even talk of removing some vines to make way for a larger garden – a sure sign that the passionate chef has the ear of the owners and a plan for bigger and better things.

Other winery restaurants like those at Yering Station and Rochford Estate or newcomer Cru at Outlook Hill are also increasingly pushing the local produce barrow in impressively designed dining rooms with great views over the vines. An even more impressive view is the sight of all those local goodies starring on the menus, a sure sign that, finally, Yarra Valley restaurants are starting to catch on and are taking real advantage of all the good stuff growing in their own back yards.

© Michael Harden 2006

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


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