The Grampians

25th May 2015

Packing up the van after camping is always a challenge for me. I like things to be packed in the most practical order, and to slot into their chosen spot perfectly. I can’t handle things just heaped on top of each other without purpose. This becomes a challenge when one tries to pack together: a campsite, camp kitchen (including mortar and pestle,) a bike, 2 chairs (1 full recliner), an espresso machine, a market stall, clothes for 4 months, a 75L ice box, 240V inverter with batteries, cook books and chef uniforms. I think I almost happy, this being the 5th configuration.

I headed from Port Fairy due North to Dunkeld, at the bottom of the Grampians. I had heard very good things about a hotel up there called the Royal Mail and planned to indulge. I booked in at a local airbnb called Cloud Mountain.I discovered on arriving a good friend of mine from farmers market days, Daniel Lutz, was managing the local sheep dairy – Grampians Pure. I headed over for a tour and a taste. Daniel is one of the most genuine and passionate people I know. He is very excitable and on arrival was shaking all over in anticipation of showing me the farm. It’s a great little set up and the products were delicious. Sheep’s milk is definitely an underrated commodity. Daniel explained to me that the lactose structure is completely different to that of cow’s milk and is a lot more easily digestible, therefore suitable for a lot of lactose intolerant folk. The milk itself was similar tasting to cow’s milk, with an added nuttiness and complex sweetness. I imagined that it would have that same unpleasant ‘lanolin’ like flavour of goat’s milk, but this wasn’t the case at all. I tried the yoghurts, lemon being my favourite, pecorino and feta. The cheeses were pleasant enough but could go with a little more work and balance of salt.

The Royal Mail is a highly awarded destination fine dining restaurant in the middle of nowhere. There is luxury accommodation on site and they run extensive gardens to supply their kitchen. They offers tours and guides to the nearby Grampians. Great idea, I was excited. On arriving the building itself looked a bit out of place, bit like a city based function centre. From there I headed to the front bar for a beer. It was brewed by the chefs at a local brewery, perfumed with house grown Lemon Verbena. Not wow but I could definitely settle back with a few of them on a sunny afternoon. I headed into the restaurant which was located behind the bar. It had a similar feel to the exterior, a bit stark and boring. A big open kitchen was on display with a number of chefs standing around waiting for the orders to come in. It worries me when chefs aren’t continuously busy as in my experience, there is never an end to jobs in a kitchen, plus you do your best work when you’re busy.

First was snacks and champagne. It was a gorgeous plate of crisps, crackling and canapés. Straight away the flavours were full on, miso butter, artichoke, heavy sauces and lots of salt. I proceeded to order the five course with matched wine. As the dishes came out there just didn’t seem to be balance or harmony. Either the dish was a little bland (pine mushrooms & pumpkin gnocchi) or too strong in flavours (the wagyu steak with pea puree and miso jus), or just plain bad (roasted feijoa (skin on and underripe) with Sabayon.) There was no clever pastry work in the desserts and the bread was beautifully presented but rather average. Why is restaurant baked bread always the same? It always seems rushed. Dense, salty and oily. They served the bread with a strong mustard butter. This just didn’t make sense to me, as it was just another over the top flavour that had to compete with the food. And once again where the fuck are the vegetables?

Mind you the wine matching was very clever and thoughtful. A dirty red/brown pinot noir that smelled of under ripe orchard fruit was served with the duck and quince dish, and a carefully oxidised Tokaji with a certain minerality to it was served with the mandarin dessert. The service was nice, formal but a little stiff. I much prefer a professional but fun and friendly host, especially when dining by myself. $224 later I left feeling disappointed. Compared to meals I’ve had at Hentley Farm and Bistro Dom, this didn’t even start to compare in quality, excitement or value.

26th May 2015

As it turned out Paul and Pauline, the owners of the airbnb I was booked into, were in a similar state of recovery to me. 2 years previously, they had bought the local bakery. At that time it was an out of action, old country bakery, with a big old wood oven. Paul and Pauline aren’t bakers or even foodies but it seemed like a lovely romantic idea at the time; retire to the country, buy a little old bakery, happy days. Soon enough though, they were working 7 days a week, 12-14 hour days, running farmer’s market stalls all over the state, running wholesale deliveries and were caught in the viscous cycle of a small food business. They burnt out and sold the business. Thus, we bonded.

After a breakfast of porridge and prunes I drove up into the Grampians. I haven’t been to the Grampians since I was about 10 years old. It was just as exciting as I remember it, I would definitely be keen to return to Halls Gap for some serious bush walking and rock climbing. I hit up the Pinnacle walk and it was well worth the hype. The people who design the walks and install the infrastructure do a fantastic job of making the walks as fun as possible. It starts at the ‘Wonderland’ Carpark, winds through the stunning ‘Grand Canyon’and then ‘Silent’ Street before finishing at the stunning views of the ‘Pinnacle.’ After a great burger for lunch I headed off to check out the MacKenzie waterfall, which was absolutely stunning. I met a few backpackers along the way who recommended heading up Mt William at Sunrise, so the following morning, this is what I did, and it was beautiful. Saying goodbye to the Grampians I headed down the great ocean road towards The Otways.

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