Christine McCabe takes a horticultural and gourmet tour of the cool-climate gardens, wineries and revitalised villages of Victoria’s Mt Macedon region
THE tree list produced at the precipitous Alton on Victoria’s Mt Macedon is enough to make any keen gardener weep: several handsome monkey puzzle trees, the state’s largest known Sitka spruce and giant fir, and various rare and wondrous trees one normally spies only in books.
I am traipsing around Alton, one of Australia’s finest and Victoria’s few remaining 19th-century hill-station gardens, in the company of Stephen Ryan, author, horticulturist and owner of the Dicksonia Rare Plants nursery, also located on the mountain in the tiny township of Macedon. We are having a marvellous day, tea and cake by the fire of Ryan’s cottage in his famous garden, Tugurium, a treasure trove of rare plants (you may have spied it on Gardening Australia ), rifling through seedlings in his charming nursery (so old-world, I expect to find Vita Sackville-West lurking behind a potted palm), and hiking the damp trails of Alton, counting National Trustlisted trees. There are 24.
Mt Macedon is one of the country’s most important pilgrimage sites for green thumbs, its cool climate having given rise to many exceptional gardens established by wellheeled 19th and early 20th-century Melburnians seeking respite from the summer’s heat. Several of these can be viewed as part of the Open Garden Scheme; others, including the rather grand Forest Glade and romantic Tieve Tara, are open in season, the former daily from September to May and the latter in spring and autumn.
Even if you find gardening a bit of a yawn, stay tuned because there’s much more to these parts. There is wine (Mt Macedon has its own appellation, as it were) and food, with the nearby town of Kyneton flexing to steal Daylesford’s mantle as the funkiest village in Victoria. Behind Alton’s sprawling arts and crafts mansion, tucked just below the encroaching forest, there’s a glasshouse (or vinery) and vegetable patch where Clare Jeffries grows herbs, berries and greens for her Sitka Foodstore and Cafe in Macedon, where the soups (and wine list) are recommended.
Taking horticulture as my touring cue, I have checked into the Rectory in Kyneton where the small but charming garden, dominated by an impressive walnut tree, was designed by Paul Bangay.
The Rectory’s historic bluestone facade belies its somewhat more contemporary and stylish, indeed magazine-worthy, interiors. Chatelaine Lyn Currie, who runs a driving school on the side, operates an old-fashioned establishment: cosy rooms, big cooked break- fasts and a shared bathroom, albeit an enormous and rather fabulous affair with lavish fixtures imported from Paris. Wash basins are graced with soaps handmade at Kyneton Chemical Free on Mollison Street (be sure to stock up on their excellent gardeners’ hand scrub or face packs mixed to order). The Rectory has only three guestrooms so it is perfect for groups planning a house party weekend.
Across the road from the Rectory, on Piper Street, is the Royal George Hotel, one of the first signs Kyneton has made it on to the style map, and the latest venture for Frank Moylan and Melissa Macfarlane, the team behind the celebrated Farmers Arms in Daylesford.
They have taken one old blokes’ pub and transformed it into a fashionable and cosy restaurant with a lovely, dimly lit library bar and happily distressed walls lined with foxed mirrors crafted by Macfarlane’s mother.
Food from head chef Matthew Fegan is a notch above gastro pub fare: think rabbit, pistachio and pancetta terrine or grilled, dry aged Kyneton Angus steak. The wine list features the best local drops (I am lucky to procure a bottle of Curly Flat pinot grigio, sold out at the cellar door).
But the Royal was not the first establishment to raise Kyneton’s foodie profile. Annie Smithers Bistrot, a charming eatery with blue and white cafe chairs and linen-dressed tables set in the funked-up surrounds of an 1860s general store, also on Piper Street, has led the town’s renaissance and is still generating a buzz sufficient to lure Melbourne folk upcountry just for lunch.
The seasonal food here is simple, elegant and well priced, with a comforting menu of the cote de boeuf, rabbit moutarde and oysters Rockefeller variety. A warm salad of local Tuki lamb sausages with mustard vinaigrette hits the spot, while the cheese is from the nearby Holy Goat and handmade in traditional French soft curd style.
Out front an old-fashioned general store sells Annie’s preserves (her home-mixed Breakfast in Paris hot chocolate is a must) and highly covetable European hand-forged gardening accoutrements.
The region’s gardening pedigree is a natural fit with the foodie predilections of newcomers, giving Kyneton a sort of 21stcentury The Good Life vibe.
But it is also somewhat ironic that people such as Smithers, who have opted for a tree change of sorts, are leading the transformation of Piper Street from sleepy country thoroughfare to groovy shopping strip that would look equally at home in Melbourne’s Brunswick or Sydney’s Darlinghurst.
On Piper, homewares retailers shoulder a retro 50s pizza restaurant (Pizza Verde), organic food store (Slow Living) patronised by elderly lady bakers (who compare the flour favourably with that once available from the town’s old mill), and Life’s Sweet, a cupcake outfit relocated from Daylesford that churns out about 2000 treats a week. Newly opened is Gannim’s Marketplace, selling fruit, veget- ables and fabulous gelati. The other string to this area’s bow lies with its winemakers. Mt Macedon and its environs represent Australia’s coolest wine region. The high altitude is perfect for the production of pinot noir and output is small; most wineries are family owned and operated.
On the northern side of the Dividing Range, Alan and Nelly Cooper make wine in the most unlikely place, atop remote granite hills where vines wind through bush and there’s not a sound to be heard other than the occasional sigh of contentment from patrons of the Cobaw Ridge mudbrick cellar door.
The Coopers are passionate about terroir; their wines are 100 per cent estate grown, made and bottled, and they are some of the first winemakers outside Italy to grow the lagrein variety (from the Alto Adige region). Their charming cellar door is open seven days but do bring a map, as Cobaw Ridge lies well off the beaten track.
Easier to find is the Hanging Rock Winery, within sight of the famous landmark and home to a relaxed tasting room where you can pick up a bottle or two of the excellent Macedon NV Brut Cuvee (considered by many to be Australia’s finest sparkling).
But perhaps no one is as passionate, nor representative of the enthusiasm with which newcomers are embracing this chilly corner of Victoria, as Phillip and Jeni Moraghan, who gave up high-flying careers in finance to craft some of the country’s finest wine.
The small cellar door at their Curly Flat operation is open only on weekend afternoons; the Moraghans are also happy to see visitors by appointment (phone ahead to make arrangements). The winery is set in a big shed overlooking a wind-tossed dam where Phillip, with the air of a distracted professor, stalks about, checking and rechecking vats, elucidating on qualities of soil and the aspect of the vineyard to the sun. Nothing here is left to chance and this obsessive attention to detail has paid off. Last year British wine writer Jancis Robinson named Curly Flat her favourite pinot noir in Australia and its critically acclaimed wines are now in great demand overseas.
The Moraghans’ enthusiasm for their new home is rooted in climate (of the cool to cold variety), which in the past has enabled the creation of grand gardens in the European style but today fosters small-scale wine and food production, not surprisingly also in the European mode.
It is hard to imagine a better place for a long weekend of fine wine, excellent food and inspiring gardens that will have you rushing home to don those gloves and get weeding. Christine McCabe was a guest of Daylesford and Macedon Ranges Tourism.
Alton is open by appointment for groups of 25 or more. More: www.altongarden.com. Stephen Ryan’s Tugurium can be viewed as part of Australia’s Open Garden Scheme next year (April 12-13). More: www.opengarden.org.au. The annual Kyneton Daffodil and Arts Festival is held in early September. More: www.kynetondaffodilarts.org.au. The Rectory (61 Ebden St, Kyneton) has rooms from $180 a couple, including full breakfast and wine and cheese on arrival; it’s best in spring when the Bangaydesigned garden is bursting with bulbs. More: (03) 5422 6738; email@example.com. There are several botanic gardens in the region, including Malmsbury, Wombat Hill, Gisborne and Kyneton, where many of the trees were supplied by Ferdinand von Mueller. www.visitmacedonranges.com www.sitka.com.au www.royalgeorge.com.au www.anniesmithers.com.au www.cobawridge.com.au www.hangingrock.com.au www.curlyflat.com
Feeling groovy: Charming old buildings in Kyneton now house trendy cafes and homewares shops, main picture; right, from top, the Rectory; one of Mt Macedon’s cool-climate gardens; Piper Street in Kyneton