On a self-drive sojourn, Jo Stewart discovers Victoria’s laid-back Moorabool Valley Taste Trail is a path worth wandering.
There’s something different about the Moorabool Valley. A short drive from Geelong, even the most discerning of foodies may not have heard of this under-the-radar food bowl.
Unlike other taste trails around Australia, this emerald green valley is devoid of buses disgorging tourists into its wineries, eateries and farm gates. Populated by a network of salt-of-the-earth types keen on making the most of the area’s rich, volcanic soils and unique climate, visiting the bucolic Moorabool Valley is about as comfortable as slipping into your favourite pair of trackie pants.
Best explored independently at a slow pace, a farm visit in Bannockburn reveals the spirit of the region. At SageFarm, scientist-cum-farmer Chris Balazs explains his passion for ethical farming while walking around the 44-hectare property with his pet Suffolk sheep called Tiny.
Endeavouring to get Australians to reduce wastage and eat a wider variety of ethically produced beef and lamb cuts, SageFarm supplies artisan cuts like bavette and tri-tip to restaurants and direct to customers through the farm shop. You’ll also find its wares at markets throughout the region, including the popular Golden Plains Farmers’ Market where everything from organic garlic to artisan bread can be found.
Using no chemicals or fertilisers, the regenerative farm’s on-site artisan butchery serves the Bannockburn community (and anyone else who drops in). “Provenance and traceability is very important to our customers,” says Chris. Genuine free-range eggs are also a part of the business, with SageFarm’s hens enjoying room to roam. Running regular farm tours, SageFarm also boasts small-scale accommodation for anyone keen to enjoy a night on the farm.
Chris isn’t the only local who has transitioned from science to farming. Making a career switch from neuroscience to winemaking has provided Ray Nadeson of Lethbridge Wines with a creative outlet he didn’t have in his previous life as a neuroscience researcher at Monash University.
Interested in the region’s distinctive terroir, Ray, his wife Maree Collis and a friend bought the property in 1995. According to Ray, Lethbridge Wines isn’t just a winery but more a fertilisation of ideas. “This isn’t about making booze. It’s about making something beautiful and expressive. I didn’t want to be just another rich doctor who sets up a winery to acquire another ornament,” says Ray while standing in the property’s straw bale building.
All the wines at Lethbridge are made by hand with the grapes crushed the old way under foot. Using Indigenous yeasts and traditional Tuscan amphorae to store and age wine, Lethbridge Wines work with different varieties of grapes including the lesser-known Aglianico and Fiano grapes from southern Italy. The result is a curious range of left-of-centre wines that enjoy a cult following everywhere from Japan to France, as well as by anyone who visits Lethbridge for a no-frills tasting experience in the rustic barn.
While Lethbridge Wines is only open to visitors at certain times (it’s best to call ahead before visiting), other wineries in the region boast cellar doors including the sprawling Clyde Park Vineyard and Spanish-style Del Rios at Mount Anakie. But it’s not all about savoury flavours in these parts. Sweet tooths will love the handmade creations of Moorabool Valley Chocolate in Batesford and the to-die-for scones at historic Bannockburn Station.
By night, gastronomic sensation Gladioli proves that many of Victoria’s best dining spots are found outside the city. Located in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Inverleigh, this acclaimed restaurant’s creative degustation menu infuses dishes with Australian bush magic.
Despite Inverleigh’s sleepy reputation, there’s a solid local alternative if in-demand Gladioli is booked out. On a chilly evening in rural Victoria, there’s nothing quite like being ensconced in the warm arms of a country pub and the Inverleigh Hotel is just the place for a steak with a drop of red.
By morning, breakfast at the all-new Sonny cafe is a hint of things to come. Containing all the hallmarks of a Melbourne cafe (minus the queues) it serves up Market Lane coffee, smoothie bowls and the ubiquitous smashed avo on toast.
While it’s only early days for Sonny cafe, the winning combination of killer coffee, hip décor and wholesome dishes made with locally sourced ingredients (including SageFarm beef and greens from the kitchen garden), means that Moorabool Valley’s star is on the rise.
If great coffee is a barometer of an area’s popularity then this pocket of pastoral bliss can soon expect many more visitors. Best get there now.
Details: Moorabool Valley Taste Trail
Getting there: Located between Ballarat and Geelong, the Moorabool Valley is a one-hour drive from Melbourne and only 20 minutes from Geelong.
Staying there: Bed down in heritage-listed luxury at Devlin Apartments. 312 Moorabool Street, Geelong.
Eating and drinking there:
– King of the Castle: Load up on Padre Coffee and Asian-influenced breakfast fare at this award-winning institution.
24 Pakington Street, Geelong.
– Clyde Park Vineyard & Bistro: Savour cool-climate drops and pizza from the wood-fired oven while taking in sigh-worthy vineyard views.
2490 Midland Highway, Bannockburn.
– Del Rios Winery: Drink Tempranillo, eat tapas and chat to the 92-year-old matriarch who can be found in the kitchen.
2290 Geelong-Ballan Road, Anakie.
– Gladioli: Enjoy a night of fine dining at this lauded restaurant located within a picture-perfect cottage. 14 High Street, Inverleigh.
– Sonny Cafe: Tuck into brunch at this new kid on the block that’s injected a little cafe culture into Inverleigh. 15 High Street, Inverleigh.
– Lethbridge Wines: Call ahead to taste complex, out-of-the-ordinary wines created using traditional techniques. 74 Burrows Road, Lethbridge.