The main reason you’ll want to head to the Dandenong Ranges near Melbourne is for the food, writes Jocelyn Pride.
With market gardens and orchards scattered throughout the region or the nearby Yarra Valley, the fresh produce here bursts with flavour and is low in food miles.
Start at The Deli Platter in Mt Dandenong village, where everything is made locally. Specialising in ‘real wholesome food’ including tarts, small goods, artesian breads and cheeses, it’s great for food intolerances and complements the fruit and veg next door at the Organic Fanatic. Finish with a stop at one of the area’s roadside stalls and you’ve got yourself the makings of a perfect, low-key meal.
But if you want to eat out, well you are well and truly sorted. No less than three big-name Melbourne foodies have made the recent move to this area, and with the area’s ‘Europe among the gum trees’ reputation we suspect it’s more than coincidence that they’re all French.
The perfect start to your day would be at chef Shannon Bennett’s $65 million project – the renewal of Burnham Beeches, a local icon and lavish, three-storey Art Deco mansion and surrounding gardens built in 1933 (by the founding family of Aspro, incidentally).
Stage one, the Burnham Bakery and Piggery Café, is set in an old pigsty, opened last year, and it’s the kind of provincial setting where hay bales meet marble, the wait staff dress in chequered shirts and the car park is full by 9am.
The indoor/outdoor café overlooks the work-in-progress idyllic country scene – a bowling green, croquet lawn, vegetable garden, truffiere (with 500 French Oak trees thriving on the rich soil), and a bunch of rescued emus, who provide large ‘golden’ green eggs for the revered ‘emu egg sponge cake’. When the reported ‘six-star’ accommodation is added, part of the grand plan is for guests to experience something money can’t buy – digging in the garden, lending a hand in the bakery or even taking a resident dog to hunt for truffles. And there’ll be a reward for hard work – a reduction of the bill.
The café serves food all day, every day. For breakfast, don’t miss the cassoulet with corn fritters and for lunch try the melt-in-your-mouth pork belly BLT with a glass of wine from a nearby Yarra Valley vineyard.
If you’d prefer to start your day off crowd-free, head to The General Food Store in Emerald. Small in size but big in The Age Good Food accolades, husband-and-wife/chef-and-graphic designer team Paul and Belinda Douglas craft their monthly menu based on what’s in season.
With quirky pardon-the-pun dish names like Peachy Keen (the type of honey-roasted juicy peaches you don’t mind dribbling down your chin), Heading South (eggs with the works including chilli jam), and Grab a Granny (as in apple granola with rhubarb swimming in pistachio yoghurt), the menu is as creative as the food. The café caters perfectly for food intolerances and is committed to stepping lightly on the earth – check out the worm farm in the courtyard.
If you’re game to eat lunch after that, Ranges in Olinda is the place to go. Head chef Garth Talbot is another foodie with a background in French cuisine (and the requisite pedigree in Melbourne hospitality, having served his time at long-standing icon Koots Salle a Manger), and his new venture – while casual – serves a serious range of food in a lovely leafy setting.
Lunch or not, you’ll probably welcome a 2pm pick-me-up. When it comes to coffee, every region needs a best-kept secret and here, it’s Café de Beaumarchais in Sassafras. Blink and you may walk past it, but please don’t: inside you’ll find a chic bistro atmosphere of gold picture frames, darkened walls, dramatic chandeliers and oak tables.
Four years ago when passionate Francophiles Neil and Lisa Harvey revamped the street’s oldest standing building to ‘bring a touch of Paris to Sassafras’, they knew their timing was right – the café was quickly adopted by local caffeine connoisseurs and consequently deemed a ‘Top Cafe of 2013’ by beanhunters.com (a feat all the more impressive when you consider the competition was all Melbourne-based).
The food is good, sure, but the cake selection is exquisite – éclair with espresso cream and hazelnut praline, white Lindt chocolate and lime cheesecake. As for the coffee, well it’s fair trade and beautifully made, but what’s even better is the Parisian hot chocolate. Here’s the mental picture: pure melted chocolate in a cup with a bit of milk. Now add a croissant on the side for dunking. Total indulgence.
And the French connection continues into the night. For a nice dinner out, Le Voltaire Bistro Francais in Belgrave – which only sprung up last June – is the type of place you wish just opened in your neighbourhood. That’s how locals feel about this cute little restaurant, owned by newcomer Jean-Noel Langlet, who moved here after 20-odd years as the waiter at Melbourne institution, France-Soir.
Offering all the Gallic classics (with a few Australian twists), his menu mightn’t win any awards for boundary-pushing, but it has won a legion of fans – advance bookings are in permanent order on weekends. Expect all the favourites – boeuf bourguignon, canard à l’orange, oysters shucked in front of you and, of course, snails – but with in-house churned butter, bread made from scratch and a well-balanced wine list of new- and old-world styles.
Much like the area itself, actually.