Graeme Blundell hits the byways of Daylesford in Victoria’s spa country on an epicurean search and survival mission
FOLLOWING the signs for Wombat State Forest I am suddenly in damp, autumnal Daylesford, just 11/ hour’s drive from Mel2 bourne, but a universe away from the redroofed suburbs and takeaway joints surrounding the city. Birches and maples vie for the limelight with their splendid scarlet, tangerine and claret hues. Quince trees are laden with furry fruit and leaves of cadmium yellow, and signs are everywhere pushing breads, honeys, figs and organic produce.
I pull up at Lake House, chef Alla Wolf-Tasker’s award-winning luxury hotel and food destination, where I’m to participate in her latest culinary initiative. Called Forage & Feast, it’s based on scavenger hunts and wonderful notions of unscripted travel experiences.
‘‘ Being a little less hands-on nowadays, I’m often visiting suppliers or doing a bit of foraging myself; it’s got to be one of the most enjoyable things about being a cook in the country,’’ Wolf-Tasker tells me. ‘‘ So there I would be, picking damsons in a century-old orchard or mushrooming in the local forest and I’d think about how pleasurable the activity would be for our Lake House guests.’’
Throw a local grower into the mix for guests to yarn with, add a whiff of competition and she thought she might just have a winner. And indeed it seems she has, with bookings for groups of all sizes pouring into Lake House for the new program.
Wolf-Tasker’s witty take on the old scavenger hunt is part competition, part team-building exercise, and part cultural anthropology, with some robust adventure built in, along with a fair amount of wine tasting. I can’t wait for the television show.
The challenge is to source local produce and prepare a regional lunch with the assistance of two Lake House chefs, one of whom, on my visit, is Wolf-Tasker.
The program takes place over two full days and includes an a la carte dinner on the first night and, on the final evening, a group degustation feast of several courses in the private cellar dining room at Lake House.
Arriving the afternoon before to prepare myself and reconnoitre the terrain, I take a spa treatment at Lake House’s Salus Spa, drawn, at my age, to the promise of clean arteries, blood that flows like a rushing river and a clockwork heart.
The group meets in the hotel’s reception area next morning after a serious breakfast involving brightly yoked eggs from nearby Lancefield and local Daylesford bacon, only a few hours from its last oink. Wolf-Tasker briefs our small group with military precision. We are divided into two teams; inevitably it’s the guys against the gals, and the women are already competitive, scheming diversions and feints, decoys and other ruses de guerre .
Wolf-Tasker tells us stories of previous foraging parties. ‘‘ You’d have to see their determination to believe it,’’ she says. ‘‘ Gentle, well-behaved, wellspoken folk have been known to offer bribes to local suppliers to post ‘ out of stock’ signs for when the other team visits.’’
We’ve been given a menu for which we have to chase ingredients: regional antipasto, caesar salad with poached free-range egg and trout meuniere with seasonal vegetable accompaniment. Mandatory items required to complete the challenge are one freshly caught trout for each team member (no more than 300g and caught by us), a dozen free-range eggs (bonus point for organic), locally produced pancetta or bacon for the caesar salad, and prosciutto for the antipasto.
We must also find a bottle of local organic wine that subtly matches our dishes, and another made by someone whose profession is other than regional winemaker. Already we are way deep in Agatha Christie territory, confronting puzzles, riddles and odd clues. But Wolf-Tasker tells us to lighten up.
‘‘ I’ve never seen people have so much fun, getting ankle deep in a muddy paddock, scratching themselves silly in a raspberry patch or photographing themselves in chicken coops just to prove that, indeed, their eggs are free range,’’ she says of past groups.
Wolf-Tasker warns us to use photography and even signed declarations to provide the evidence of our foraged produce. It’s starting to feel like an episode of Law & Order .
Scores will be determined by the successful sourcing of said mandatory items, preparation, cleanliness and the aesthetics of the final dishes. There are additional points for other, non-listed local ingredients, and for spending less than the $150 Wolf-Tasker hands us in brown envelopes.
We designate a driver and take off; I’m pressed back in the leather as if I were leaving Lake House on a fighter plane. Our driver keeps the engine revving as we look for the Tuki Trout Farm in Smeaton, just outside the township.
Eventually we bump across a lunar landscape, yellow signs painted on huge basalt boulders shouting No Wind Farms, and discover the fish farm. The women are ahead of us; their fish already caught, they’re running for their black limousine.
At Tuki Trout Farm, you are guaranteed a catch, and we quickly hook a couple at the heavily stocked first pond; our khaki-clad guide, David, cleans and packages them. Then, as plaintive country music plays on the car radio, we head after our female rivals, covering the ground as rapidly as if we were in a light plane. As the clouds lift from the sun, it all falls into place for us.
We pick up a bottle of 2005 Sparkling Hepburn from Captains Creek Organic Wines’ cellar door at Blampied, nestled at the foot of the Kangaroo Hills. Then we head for Ellender Estate boutique vineyard, across the township at Glenlyon, also the home of the local dentist. Here Jenny Ellender, whose husband is busy with a patient, provides us with an organic pinot gris. This is our wine made by someone who has a profession other than winemaking. We are getting the hang of the hunt.
Accelerating past the Glenlyon General Store, we stop at a home-made sign. Diane Irvine collects freerange eggs from her neighbours and sells them from a battered old ice chest on her front porch. Another tick on the list.
We just have time to pick up organic vegetables from Fernleigh Farms in Bullarto, fearfully sneaking past pens of marauding Wessex Saddleback pigs that look like characters from the Hannibal Lecter novels.
Now it is time to cook our scavenged produce with Wolf-Tasker in one of Lake House’s huge kitchens. She’s a doing-things-from-scratch kind of chef, who follows deeply embedded instincts and is full of hints and advice on the basics.
‘‘ With the Feast & Forage groups we mostly cook simple things from local produce, but there are plenty of useful fundamental techniques that people take home with them,’’ she says.
She often receives follow-up notes from guests about something they have picked up in the cooking session. Participants also often return to suppliers and fill their cars with local food to take home, a rather pleasurable way to shop.
We prepare our luncheon, working so quietly at times that a meditative atmosphere descends as we slice, julienne, sift and fold; though it doesn’t take long for Wolf-Tasker to pour more white wine and laugh boisterously at my attempts at restaurant-style plate arrangements.
She also announces that the men have been thrashed in the scavenging competition; the women, more inventive and ingenious, are the winners.
Wolf-Tasker’s constantly repeated mantra is ‘‘ sense of place’’. She has championed close-to-home produce from the times when ‘‘ local’’ was only ever used pejoratively. Wolf-Tasker has always been evangelical about getting back to grassroots, supporting regional farmers and reducing the kilometres our food travels.
It hasn’t always been easy. She and her husband, artist Allan Wolf-Tasker, moved to Daylesford’s forestrimmed village in the late 1970s, driven by the dream of creating a country-style restaurant in what she calls ‘‘ some mad Chekhovian flight of fancy’’.
She placed an advertisement in the newspaper asking for supplies of locally grown produce. The day after it was published, someone dumped a lumpy sack at the back door. It was full of old potatoes. Graeme Blundell was a guest of Tourism Victoria and Lake House.
Basic Forage & Feast packages include two nights’ accommodation, breakfasts, one a la carte dinner and one degustation dinner, foraging expedition and a cooking class with a Lake House chef, including lunch. From $910 a person; minimum six guests. More: www.lakehouse.com.au.
Seek and find: Idyllic Lake House, main picture; clockwise from top right, foraged bounty; mistress of the hunt Wolf-Tasker