I depart for Bright early one morning from Melbourne. As I travel out along the Hume Highway, the sun is rising on a lovely warm day. After a brief stop in Glenrowan to experience all things Ned Kelly, 2 1/2 hours later I pull into the foodie haven of Milawa. Milawa is known for the production of beautiful cheese, tangy mustards and a wide variety of wine. So where do I start? I do the ‘sensible’ thing and pop into Brown Brothers Epicurean Centre to try their latest vintage. The Epicurean Centre is set in the grounds of Brown Brothers and Head Chef Cate Hardman has put together a thought provoking menu of small tasting dishes, each matched and served with a Brown Brothers wine.
Next stop in Milawa is The Olive Shop. No points for guessing what they may sell! Stocking everything to do with olives, the Olive Shop hosts an extensive range of local olives and oils, through to the less edible olive soaps and moisturisers. A must try is the Oils of Milawa olive oil. This divinely grassy olive oil is produced from locally grown Luccino variety of olives and is $18 for 250ml. If my taste buds were caught by the oil, then my eye was caught by the beautifully crafted pottery by local potter Andrew Cape dotted around the shop.
Right next door is the Chrismont cellar door. The day is developing into a hot one, so to quench my thirst I try their La Zona Prosecco NV. It was so enjoyable that I bought a bottle to share with my travel companion when we reached Bright. Prosecco is a relatively new variety for this region but the examples being produced are on par with the Italian versions of the style. Chrismont is owned by Arnie and Jo Pizzini, with experienced winemaker Warren Proft installed as head winemaker.
A few kilometres further down the Snow Road is the small town of Myrtleford. Many Italian families farmed tobacco in this region right up until 2006 when British American Tobacco ended it’s contract with the local growers, who opted for a federal government payout. Although I hear new crops such as grapes have taken the tobacco’s place, evidence of the past is still present. Kilns are at the back of almost every property and a historic wooden kiln has been restored in the centre of town. A fitting tribute to the hard work of the local producers.
The other ‘must do’ in Myrtleford is The Butter Factory. Run by Naomi Ingleton and her talented mother, who both trained in Melbourne, this café and produce store is on the verge of launching commercial butter production making certified organic butter, buttermilk, buttermilk soaps and a skincare range.
The approach into the Ovens Valley is beautiful. As one local described it to me, it’s like driving through the alpine areas of Europe – clean, clear and breathtaking. The mountains are high on both sides and the lush green farms and vineyards line the valley floor.
Bright is a quaint little holiday town set on the Ovens River. I check into my impressive accommodation at Centenary Peaks, a light filled, glass walled apartment overlooking the river. By now it is very hot and to cool down my travel companion and I stop into the Riverwalk Cafe for a late lunch and a cool drink. The wooden deck in full view of the river has a natural arbour of weeping willow trees and provides much needed respite from the heat as we eat our freshly made gourmet sandwiches. The rest of the afternoon is spent taking a dip in the river, watching the local older men sun lounging and chatting amongst themselves and hearing the squeals of the kids as they float through the rapids on used tyres.
Simone’s of Bright
But the unquestionable highlight of my trip to Bright is dinner at Simone’s of Bright. Patrizia Simone and her husband George and son Anthony have run the renowned two hatted restaurant for 15 years, consistently winning the coveted hats from The Age Good Food Guide every year since opening. This year Patrizia was awarded legendary status.
I am greeted with a warm welcome and settle in for my little feast. And I am not disappointed. A fresh deconstructed insalata primavera topped with in season stuffed zucchini flower was a perfect start accompanied by warm pea and asparagus soup, a refreshingly light homage to my favourite vegetable, the pea! Patrizia then presented a steaming plate of melt in your mouth oxtail gnocchi complemented by a glass of Frescobaldi Sangiovese. I could not leave without dessert and enjoyed a deliciously light crostata al limone and espresso whilst stealing a spoonful or two of my companion’s divine chocolate tasting plate.
As I sit with Patrizia Simone in her garden the next morning, sipping on an espresso and sampling some of her fine biscotti, I couldn’t agree with her more when she tells me that being a foodie is the flavour of the month. But it has been a long time coming.
Originally from Perugia, Patrizia took a six month vacation and visited Melbourne on her trip. Even though Patrizia was still very much in her youth, her parents were concerned she would be a ‘zitella’ and remain a spinster her whole life! Luckily for her parents, she met her husband George Simone, an Italian Australian from Melbourne. Their new life together led them to Bright and now Patrizia can’t imagine being anywhere else.
Patrizia’s food philosophy is to take the traditional recipes of her mother and grandmother but make them lighter. “Using fresh local ingredients I like to interpret the traditional recipe, for example instead of a heavier meat cannelloni, I use asparagus.” Her local producers have been sourced over many years and some now even grow ingredients specifically for her such as the chestnut fed pigs that are used in her homemade salami and the olive oil that is blended to her specific requirements from three different oils (which I could not stop eating!).
Patrizia is now looking to the future and after many years of resistance, is beginning to record her recipes in a book. Her son Anthony, who trained with Melbourne chef Andrew McConnell, has returned to Bright and is now supporting her in the kitchen. His bread alone is worth the drive!
A meander through the town centre introduces me to the delightful Food Wine Friends cafe. Run by local woman Teghan Ellis, the modern cafe is supported by a produce and wine store featuring locally produced wines and gourmet chutneys, olives, dukkahs, smoked trout and olive oils.
But sadly now it’s time to leave Bright but not before taking a diversion off the main road and into the Buckland Valley. I had heard about Villa Gusto, a small boutique hotel in the valley that was worth a visit. My sources were correct! As I pulled in to the hedge-lined driveway I was immediately transported to the Italian countryside.
Villa Gusto was built by author Colin McLaren who has developed a deep love for Italy having spent much time in Calabria, Sicily and Naples in particular. On a trip to Lake Como, Colin decided he wanted to replicate the grandeur and opulence of the great villas of Italy in Australia.
“In 2002 I came home and searched all over Victoria for a landscape that matched northern Italy, the mountains, the vineyards, and that special magic that is Italian ambience. After 6 months I found the block and set about building. Villa Gusto looks at Mt Buffalo, is surrounded by vines and Italian families, all good people. It is the best representation of la dolce vita in Australia that I could find, and I love the end result.”
As the building progressed Colin received containers of marble, tiles and tapestries direct from Italy. Visiting the villa today, I can see how critical these imports are to the authenticity of Villa Gusto. It is restful, inviting and the ultimate in relaxation. Built around a calming fountain, the well tended garden overflows into the Buckland Valley with direct views out to Mount Buffalo. I momentarily forgot I was in Australia.
Villa Gusto Manager, Karen Gregory says the clientele is diverse. “Just last night we were fully booked by a group of couples from Griffith celebrating a 40th birthday, or we might have someone that wants a trip to Italy but comes here for a fraction of the price.”
The attention to detail at Villa Gusto is the element that shines through. From Bvlgari toiletries and Grossi Florentino-trained head chef John Spencer in the kitchen, Villa Gusto really is a little piece of Italian heaven in rural Australia.
The journey to Bright opened my eyes to the amazing food and wine being produced in the Italian style in Australia and to the wonderful people running the thriving local industry.