The place of gastronomic dreams, Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula is a haven of vineyard-dotted hills and long, lazy lunches – the only downside is knowing where to start (words: Susan Gough Henly)
I’m savouring every delectable bite of my lemon-thyme, honey-roasted chicken and multi-coloured silver beets in a pomegranate dressing.
From the sunny terrace of gracious Heronswood House, vegetable gardens spread out before me and sailboats glide across the aquamarine waters of Port Phillip Bay.
“It’s lime streaks mizuna!” the waitress explains to a man at the next table who’s curious about the zingy, feathery herb on his platter of raw, roasted and marinated vegetables. “You can buy it at the garden shop.”
The edible-landscape gardens at Heronswood showcase The Diggers Club’s (Australia’s largest gardening society) heirloom vegetables to home gardeners, its restaurant offering the ultimate fork-to-fork experience.
The good life treasure hunt
The stone Gothic Revival Heronswood House, by the way, was once the home of Justice Higgins who, back in 1907, established a fair and reasonable wage in Australia for a human being living in a civilised community. It’s an auspicious start to our treasure hunt of the good life on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula.
Just over an hour’s drive from Melbourne and wedged like a pointy-toed boot between Port Phillip and Westernport Bays, the Mornington Peninsula has been hidden in plain sight for decades.
Beloved by Melburnians for its alleys of ancient pines and acres of undulating vines with sweeping blue water vistas, the Mornington Peninsula is also popular with interstate visitors.
It feels a little like a Mediterranean version of The Shire in The Lord of the Rings with secret treasures of olive groves and orchards, dairies and distillers, artisanal chocolatiers and breweries, and dozens of boutique cool-climate wineries tucked away down a lacework of bucolic winding roads.
Did I mention restaurants?
There are bistros and winery tapas bars, chef’s-hatted marvels and general stores doubling as country cafes, all showcasing the fruits of a landscape as fecund as it is beautiful.
These days the Mornington Peninsula could easily lay claim to being Australia’s finest gourmet region. There’s just one problem: it’s too damn easy to get lost on all those meandering lanes.
Enter the Wine Food Farmgate, an ingenious interactive tool that helps you plot your food and wine fossicking by unearthing hidden gourmet gems. You download a Trail Kit that takes your fancy, say the Cider and Ale Trail, the Down on the Farm Trail, or the Hinterland Wine and Dine Trail.
Or you create your own itinerary by adding any number of delicious purveyors to the trip planner to create a personalised printable map with distances and directions provided. Then all you have to do is head for the hills in search of gourmet nirvana.
We decide on the latter option, wanting to check out some hard-to-find gourmet growers and brand-new artisanal producers and (all in the name of research, of course) a serious dollop of excellent dining destinations.
At the top of the Peninsula at Baxter, we meet down-to-earth organic veggie farmer Wayne Shields at Peninsula Fresh Organics.
After seeing first-hand the destruction wrought by chemical farming, this fifth-generation grower is quietly compelling when he explains the benefits of organics.
And you can’t argue with his stunning yellow, purple, white, red and orange carrots, zucchini of all shapes and sizes, radishes, lettuces, and beets.
“The new freeway is nicknamed the Pinot Link because of those fancy winemakers,” he laughs, “but we add another dimension. We’re a great place to start or end your Peninsula gourmet adventure.”
We couldn’t agree more, but since we are in what Yabby Lake winemaker Tom Carson calls ‘the Paris end of the Peninsula’, we can’t pass up the opportunity to taste some of his elegant chardonnay and pinot noir, the Mornington Peninsula’s two signature varieties.
His Block 1 was Australia’s first pinot noir to win a Jimmy Watson trophy last year.
It’s a pity we don’t have time to sample Andrew Blake’s Euro bistro food here, but we have a date at Terre, run by Royal Mail alumni Clinton Trevisi and husband-and-wife chefs Rowan and Janine Herrald.
It is set inside a pretty, white homestead framed by a sublime Edna Walling garden at Dromana Estate.
“I want to eat everything on this menu,” says my partner, but we control ourselves with the likes of a sublime house-smoked ocean trout with celeriac, horseradish, capers and crème fraiche, and duck confit with beetroot, cauliflower, figs and radicchio in a balsamic dressing.
That evening we enjoy Julian Hills’s sensational five-course degustation at Paringa Estate, each course paired with a different estate wine. A keen mushroom hunter, Julian’s standout dishes include a foraged mushroom and goat’s cheese soufflé and a wallaby tartare with caper emulsions and juniper.
Heading into the heart of Red Hill the next day we meet some of the cutest kids around (well, apart from those Crittenden boys). White Saanen and brown Toggenburg kid goats to be precise.
Their mums make some pretty tasty cheeses, too, like haloumi, marinated chevre, and the mild and nutty semi-hard caprinella, which we enjoy in the sleek wood and glass tasting room at Damien and Bess Noxon’s Main Ridge Dairy.
There’s honey tasting at Pure Peninsula Honey, olive tasting at Green Olive at Red Hill and cider tasting at Mock Red Hill, where we ogle crates of just-picked Pink Lady apples under trees still groaning with fruit. The Mock family prove it’s not just the winemakers who are innovators in these parts.
Walter Mock was one of the first orchardists in the country to go biodynamic in the 1970s. Neville Mock began cider making a dozen years ago and daughter Sheryn started the Peninsula’s first cider bar, which is a roaring success considering the jovial crowds we encounter.
Lunch is splendid at the breezy two-hatted Ten Minutes by Tractor restaurant where we feast on almost-too-beautiful-to-eat dishes with wines from a list that’s regularly named the country’s best. The name, by the way, refers to their vineyards, which are all just 10-minutes from each other by tractor.
Dinner is at buzzy bistro The Long Table. On Sunday nights you can bring your own wines so it becomes a bit of a winemakers’ canteen. They also stock wines from small producers without cellar doors. We feast on house-made spaghetti with Dromana mussels and jamon crumb with pinot winemaker friends from Hurley Vineyards.
Anthony Hancy from Prancing Horse Estate brings his entire family after harvesting all day. It’s a terrific local’s scene: inclusive, classy and relaxed with excellent unpretentious food and great wine. Newcomers and long-timers, each person is passionate about their patch and their product.
Everyone knows they have a beam on the good life down here on the Peninsula.
“Where else can you surf in the morning, work in beautiful vineyards all day and be in Melbourne in the early evening,” says Polperro’s Sam Coverdale.
The details: Mornington Peninsula
Get there: The Mornington Peninsula is just over an hour’s drive from Melbourne. You’ll need two or preferably three days to scratch the surface.
Stay there: There’s a huge array of accommodation options. We stayed at Crittenden’s Lakeside Villas and awoke to birdsong, a crimson sunrise over the lake and a rainbow soaring over the vineyards. They have three huge one-bedroom villas with fully stocked kitchens and living areas. Other options include Hummingbird Eco Retreat nestled next to National Trust rainforest on Red Hill. Enjoy rustic country fare at the Harvest Garden Restaurant with produce coming from their vegetable garden. Hart’s Farm is a gorgeous bed and breakfast that also offers cooking classes on a beautiful olive grove and orchard.
Play there: Start planning your adventures on the Wine Food Farmgate
More on Mornington… The Mornington food & wine roadtrip