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On the Great Ocean Road

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Aplenty On this winding Australian road there is a sinful decadence of food
Aplenty On this winding Australian road there is a sinful decadence of food

SHONALI MUTHALALY

It’s a road trip with luxuries. No smelly sneakers or crummy tents. Instead, there’s a charming cottage by the sea and fragrant café lattes at breakfast. We’re on the Great Ocean Road in Australia, making random stops at beaches studded with delightfully buff surfer boys, chocolate boutiques wafting rich cocoa scents and eucalyptus tree clumps bearing plump, sleepy koala bears, all smelling like large cough drops.

Sorrento’s the last town we drive through, before plunging into wine country. The Mornington peninsular, dotted with towns bearing almost embarrassingly cutesy names such as Rosebud and Tootgarook, has become a deliciously exciting place thanks to it’s relatively new vineyards and even newer fine food ‘traditions.’

While countries like Italy and France have the advantages of century-old recipes and established reputations, Australia’s biggest culinary advantage might just be its youth. There are no rules to break, or walls to batter down. The cuisine here, as a result, is light, fresh and young, guided by older traditions without being shackled by them.

So good old British fish and chips are a staple at the seaside towns, but you can order them with scalding batter fried pineapple rings, dusted in cinnamon. The American pancakes are golden and fluffy, but they come with just a dusting of sugar and squeeze of sunshine yellow lime. And at the Mornington vineyards, the food is as important as the wine, created by talented chefs, using designer olive oils and meticulously balanced local ingredients.

At the Red Hill Cheese artisanal, cow and goat milk cheeses are handmade in the forest. Unforgettably named ‘Ten Minutes By Tractor’ it is as famous for its food as its wine. The sophisticated ‘Long Table’ restaurant serves pretty plates of tapas: moist marinated olives, fresh juicy figs served with dainty slices of ham and Greek saganati, rich cheese topped with herbs.

And then there’s Sunny Ridge strawberry farm. Drawing about 300,000 visitors a year, primarily from Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, China and U.S., the farm was established in 1964 and is Australia’s largest producer of strawberries. Today, it’s lush with strawberries, they grow big, bright and beautiful on 240 acres of picturesque hilly land. But when it began, it was more of a cherry farm. Then the owner, Pietro Gallace, went to Italy to find a husband for his only daughter. He returned unsuccessful two months later, only to find that strawberry-obsessed son Mike had replaced the cherry trees with neat rows of strawberry bushes. Mike was sheepish, Pietro was tired; so he decided to ‘deal with it later.’

Luckily he never did. The farm now produces award winning wines and liqueur that you can try in their store, which bristles with every imaginable strawberry product from deliciously tart freeze-dried chocolate coated strawberries to handbags emblazoned with the fruit and hand creams laced with its pulp. The strawberry grigio pinot is surprising, the port is fragrant and the cream liqueur mellow and delightful.

It helps that there are bowls of juicy strawberries tantalisingly scattered around the store. There’s also jam, of course. And syrups. And ice creams. If you’re feeling particularly energetic you can even pick your own, a sort of Tom Sawyer strategy in my opinion, where tourists are enticed into paying to wander around the fields finding their own fruit. Very hunter-gatherer really. Fortunately, for those of us who would rather have them delivered, there’s a café. And bowls of warm, melted Belgian chocolate to dip the strawberries into. Some things are so much more enjoyable when they’re decadent.

The Reluctant Gourmet is no food connoisseur. She lives in fear of snooty know-it-alls. So you won’t find much fancy terminology here. But if you simply enjoy food and dining, and all the drama built around both, this column could be your new best friend. shonali@thehindu.co.in

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