FUNKY TOWNS

Chris­tine McCabe takes a hor­ti­cul­tural and gourmet tour of the cool-cli­mate gar­dens, winer­ies and re­vi­talised vil­lages of Vic­to­ria’s Mt Mace­don re­gion

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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.

Check­list

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; rec­tory@big­pond.net.au. 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

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