What lies beneath the vegie patch is a local legend. It’s also what makes this country kitchen so great, writes Renate Ruge.
“It could be down to the horse…” muses a grinning Tim Sawyer, maître d’ and restaurateur, as he attempts to illuminate me as to why the buttered asparagus is so darned perfect at his cosy country restaurant, Bella Vedere Cucina.
At Bella Vedere, beautiful vegetables come straight from the patch to plate. The Italian-inspired restaurant, cooking school and garden share a picturesque vineyard spot with Badger’s Brook cellar door and winery in the Yarra Valley.

The AT Menu

Starters
Blue swimmer crab omelette $18
Doubled-baked parmesan soufflé $16

Mains
Salt duck with liquorice cabbage $36
Bella rabbit $35

Sides
Fried cauli with anchovy mayo dressing $9
Salad leaves from the garden $8
Buttered asparagus $9

Dessert
Rhubarb crumble to share $16.50

Drinks
Gin martini $18
Sticks Reserve Chardonnay $12
Dominique Portet Heathcote Shiraz $10

Total cost: $204

“An especially sophisticated Milanese lady shared the secret of how to grow the best asparagus with us,” says Tim, with a twinkle. “Apparently burying a deceased horse beneath a vegetable patch gives the earth a brilliant texture and goodness, which makes asparagus flourish.”

Brian Ingleson, a fellow diner who runs A Day in the Valley tours, is a Yarra local who knows just about everything and everyone around here. He fills in the gaps. The story is of an ageing mare who lived out some happy retirement years nearby before passing away and going to horse heaven here in the garden, endowing the restaurant with truly the best organic vegetables in the area.

Off the hook? Sure. And that’s what makes the oh-so-slightly eccentric experience so wonderful. It’s a combination of splendid hearty country cooking and rural yarns you simply have to experience for yourself.

Gary Cooper (ex-Chateau Yering) is the chef half of the Gary and Tim host team, proud that their venture – which has been going now for more than five years – centres around a cooking philosophy of using only local and home-grown produce. As Gary says: “How can you cook with any degree of sensitivity if you have no knowledge of where the food comes from?”

Their passionate philosophy also applies to serving as much local wine as possible to support their region (especially in the wake of last year’s bushfires) and it makes good sense, since 80 per cent of diners are loyal locals. The rest are Melburnian city types and a smattering of in-the-know interstate travellers.

Lilting jazzy tunes fill the high-vaulted ceilings as Ella Fitzgerald croons and copper pots clatter in Gary’s open kitchen while, front of house, the debonair Tim entertains with dramatic tales and menu explanations, always insisting that whatever time the kitchen clock ticks, you can still respectably order a martini.
The restaurant wraps around one long verandah. Glass walls look out over the garden, vines and distant hills, setting an idyllic rural tone for the regional delicacies to come. We sit at a big old farmhouse table and breathe in the scents of home cooking. Also on sale here are home-baked breads, homemade jams and cherries soaked in plonk, which make it a great pop-in grocery stop for foodies.

The warm atmosphere has a private dining room vibe. Seasonal menus are written daily, based on raiding the vegetable patch. Breakfast and lunch are offered Wednesday to Sunday, and on Saturday night there’s a five-course set menu: a degustation of dishes, announced to the room at large at the beginning of the night. Tonight’s menu involves smoked haddock soup with chive cream, almonds and sippet (small squares of bread), three-cheese risotto with pistachios and rocket, followed by fireplace-roasted Yeringberg lamb leg, parsnip mash, anchovies, fried capers and watercress, as well as a grapefruit and orange salad with Yarra Valley Persian feta, roasted hazelnuts and lime dressing. The evening will be topped off with a dessert of baked cumquat pudding and toasted meringues with port-soaked prunes and double cream.

We have opted instead for a long lunch today, hoping to try out Brian’s favourite: he recommends the rabbit pie. “People make gourmet pies but they never do rabbit,” he says. “I like a good old-fashioned dish and Bella Vedere’s rabbit pie is decadently deep-filled, with a beautiful pastry and rich rabbit sauce.” Sadly, today the not-to-be-missed rabbit pie is not on the menu… but Brian jumps at the rabbit special.

To start, the blue swimmer crab omelette with herb butter is light and dreamy, with the crunch of angel hair crisps and shredded cos lettuce bringing a fresh twist to the dish. A doubled-baked parmesan soufflé with walnut witlof salad, garden pepper rocket and walnut dressing offers just the right combination of cheesy richness and crisp garden greens.

What’s the Gossip?
Here’s what other reviewers have said:
“The menu, changed daily, sings a local organic melody with food that’s honest, stylish and unpretentious.” Australian Gourmet Traveller

THE AT Verdict
Renate Ruge, who paid her own way and visited anonymously, says:
This is a warming experience – think rabbit pie, organic vegies and home-baked desserts. The special country-cottage vibe makes Bella Vedere a top long-lunch destination. Punctuate a foodie day out in the Yarra Valley with a stop here.

My main of salt duck has a perfectly crisped skin and perches on some clever liquorice-infused cabbage, while potato and chive puffs float on a scrumptious onion sauce.

The star of the show is of course the house rabbit – ‘Bella braised’ in apple cider, served in its own juices with mustard shallots, bits of pancetta and a creamy mashed potato. Brian is suitably impressed and we resolve to hunt down the pie next time. There’s just time for some especially good home-baked rhubarb crumble to share, from the ‘Dolci Cucina window’, where desserts such as pear tarte tatin, chocolate and cassis cake, pistachio custard and tiramisu temptingly line up. Not the cheapest desserts at $16.50 a serve, but sizeable enough to share.

The service makes this meal one to remember. There’s only a splash of chardonnay left in my glass. On seeing me savouring the last of it, Tim shares a secret: “OK, so I think we have one of the last cases of that vintage in the wine cellar, but

I hear that there will be none left at the winery by the end of the week. Do you want me to make a phone call?”

Here’s where the Yarra bush drums make life extra special. Post-pudding we race the few kilometres to Sticks cellar door to procure the last half-dozen bottles of Sticks number 29 reserve label ’06 chardonnay – and as promised, because the vintage was a limited run, I got the last case. Bonus.

The Details

Where //
Bella Vedere Cucina,
Badger’s Brook Estate,
874 Maroondah Highway, Coldstream
Notes //
Degustation dinner price, $95; with matching wines, $160
Hours // 
Wednesday to Sunday 8am-5pm; Friday à la carte, Saturday degustation 7.30pm-10.30pm
Contact // 
(03) 5962 6161; badgersbrook.com.au


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