Food and wine go hand in hand. Who can resist a crisp white with a fish dish, or rounding off red meat with a full-bodied shiraz? And in Australia’s best wine regions you’re never far from an excellent meal.
On a tour of one of Victoria’s wine regions I discovered people passionate about the quality and range of food they served to a steady stream of far-flung foodies and local epicurean explorers.
Around an hour from the city I arrived at Montalto, a vineyard, olive grove and restaurant in Red Hill – an area synonymous with quality food and wine production.
I’d found a food lover’s paradise in one of Australia’s best wine regions
It wasn’t yet noon, but as I discovered, it’s never too early to sample fine wine vintages in Australia. I tasted Montalto’s chardonnay, pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, the very Victorian pinot noir, before heading outside to meet the people who made it all happen.
John and Wendy Mitchell founded Montalto after returning to Australia from the UK in 1997.
“With a business like this you need to know what matters to you,” said John. “For us, it’s that people go away saying they had a great experience.”
When the couple created a restaurant, with daughter Heidi, they introduced organically-grown produce from Wendy’s garden to the kitchen. A passionate gardener, Wendy thrives on growing vegetables, herbs, fruit and nut trees. She could happily spend hours labouring love and attention on the plants in her patch. And the proof of this is in the pudding – in fact every dish. Montalto’s restaurant has won The Age Good Food Guide’s Chef’s Hat multiple times.
But in keeping with the Aussie’s no-fuss approach, it also has a Piazza and Garden Café for relaxed dining and packages delectable dishes for picnics in Montalto’s vast grounds.
Wendy said: “Wine and cellar doors aren’t for me, so I said ‘just give me a garden out back’ and things developed from there.
Stopping for lunch I enjoyed a fantastically light twice-baked goat cheese soufflé with grilled eggplant, and chardonnay poached scallops, beets and raspberry vinaigrette. I followed this with glazed pork belly, braised baby cos and garden turnip. The freshness of the ingredients lingered on my palate while a crisp sauvignon blanc followed by a Moscato with rosey tones of Turkish delight teased out even more flavour.
For its gardens, delicious wines and atmosphere, Montalto was a highlight. But I know other destinations in Mornington Peninsula are rightly topping other people’s lists.
For example, my tastebuds were also rocked by a gourmet feast at the celebrated Ten Minutes by Tractor – a dégustation menu graced with wines from its award-winning vineyard.
With Chef’s Hat awards for the past four years, Ten Minutes by Tractor could be a stuffy dinner date. But this is Australia – a land where Mornington Peninsula is too long a name to cite in full. Here in The Pen the gourmet restaurants are well-dressed but unpretentious – a perfect likeness for Ten Minutes by Tractor’s menu.
And though the restaurant is in one of Australia’s favourite wine regions, its tome to wine, otherwise known as the wine list, collects vintages from all over the world.
Our delicious dégustation included crab cannelloni with crispy prawn and bisque fumét, quail with red cabbage, mulled wine jelly and quail egg, duck breast with sweet potato, cumquat espuma, citrus granola and spring greens, and roasted lamb rump with Jerusalem artichoke, baby leek, pine nuts, golden raisins and leek velouté, with a side order of rosemary roasted kipfler potatoes. Yes, I’d found a food lover’s paradise in one of Australia’s best wine regions.
Andrew Doughton and Samantha Fitzgerald founded The Long Table in 2003 serving inspired, creative meals and excellent wines. And they source everything from The Pen.
In a warm, family atmosphere I dined on a selection of dishes. All of them were sublime, but highlights were Otway pork, turnips, maple smoked chickpeas, and smoked apple; crispy masterstock free range chicken with market greens and plum vinegar, followed by the best dessert in The Pen – milk chocolate, caramel meringue and salted popcorn cream.
Sausage making was enormous fun, and I learned how passionate everyone in The Pen is about quality food production
You’d be forgiven for thinking everything produced in The Pen is an elaborate, calorific affair. But the next day I hit Dee’s Kitchen for lunch made with simple, tasty ingredients.
Dee Busani-Caligiuri and John Filiopoulos opened Dee’s Kitchen in 2011, bringing new flavours to the area, yet ensuring all ingredients were from the local area.
Dee explained the ethos by which she runs her kitchen: “It’s not about flashy food, but good honest food. It must be local – 99% of our ingredients are what we can buy locally and seasonally.
“We combine this with traditional recipes from my mum.” said Dee who is originally from Tel Aviv, in Israel. And an Israeli dish – shakshouka was my favourite dish from her kitchen, alongside warm olives – heated to release more flavour – a popular treatment in The Pen.
The most fun you can have in a kitchen
It would be tempting for chefs in this, one of the most popular areas for wine in Australia, to keep all the tricks of their trade to themselves – after all, they’ve built an enviable reputation. But as I discovered at Green Olive at Red Hill, they’re more than happy to share.
There I was to take a sausage making class, but first owner Greg O’Donnaghue gave me a tour of the vineyard, olive grove and farmland surrounding the restaurant.
Green Olive is totally organic farm which produces its own fuel, so operates off the grid. Greg, a former PricewaterhouseCoopers management consultant, said: “There was nothing here in 2003 when me and my wife Sue, planted five varieties of olives. We’d never done farming before but had a passion for food.”
The couple later started rearing lambs, growing vines and opened a cafe, and now make a host of products including their own olive oil, tapenade, dukkah (an Egyptian mix of nuts, herbs and spices, very popular in Australia right now) and a satisfyingly exclusive selection of wines under the Kelpie Bridge label (they can only be purchased on The Pen or by mail order).
Green Olive is a real farm to plate experience – its café serves delicious dishes from everything grown there – from vegetables to lamb butchered on the premises.
They also run a number of cooking classes for those who want to get closer to food production.
You can see my sausage making class below…
As you can see, the sausage making class was enormous fun, and I learned a lot – not only how to make sausages, but just how passionate everyone in The Pen is about quality food production.
More treats in one of Australia’s top regions for wine
Don’t miss Max’s at Red Hill Estate. I only sampled the wine at the vineyard but head waiter Hugo Perrin told me how the restaurant founded by Mornington Peninsula boy Max Paganoni, serves up meals made from locally-sourced, in-season ingredients, such as saffron grown in The Pen’s Main Ridge. Max and sister Danielle even run food-based tours of the area. They visit a working olive farm and an artisan chocolate factory, include private tutored tastings with winemakers, and a look behind the scenes at a dairy.
Crittenden Estate is another vineyard and its restaurant has a spectacular setting beside a beautiful lake. Also don’t miss Port Phillip Estate, Morning Star Estate, Paringa Estate – all of which came highly recommended to me. This is merely the tip of The Pen’s gastronomic iceberg. But know this – wherever you go on the Peninsula – you’ll find fine food and wine delivered with passion.
For more on Mornington Peninsula check out Wine Food Farmgate – a food trail, celebration of the best the Peninsula has to offer, and great recipes.
Want to eat The Pen yourself? Enter now to win a luxury holiday in Melbourne.
I sampled some of the finest food and wine in Mornington Peninsula on my #MelbourneTouring trip created and managed by iambassador, Tourism Victoria and Visit Melbourne in partnership with Royal Brunei Airlines. All opinions and extra inches around the waist are my own.