HID­DEN TREA­SURE

Graeme Blun­dell hits the by­ways of Dayles­ford in Vic­to­ria’s spa coun­try on an epi­curean search and sur­vival mis­sion

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holidays Afloat -

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.

Check­list

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.

www.vis­itvic­to­ria.com

Hunt pic­tures: Graeme Blun­dell

Seek and find: Idyllic Lake House, main pic­ture; clock­wise from top right, for­aged bounty; mistress of the hunt Wolf-Tasker

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