Follow your nose

By Michael Harden
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White and red cherries from the Mornington Peninsula, Victoria

White and red cherries from the Mornington Peninsula, Victoria [©Mornington Peninsula Gourmet]

Ellisfield Farm, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria
Strawberries from the Mornington Peninsula, Victoria
Summer raspberries from the Mornington Peninsula, Victoria
Flinders Farm Tomatoes, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria

The best way to explore the Mornington Peninsula’s incredible variety and quality of produce is to get in the car and get lost. While much of the best produce is found around the hilly, pine and eucalypt forested areas of Red Hill and Main Ridge there are home grown treasures to be found from one end of the Peninsula to the other, from the hinterland to the seaside, and mostly away from the main roads.

For those who can’t live without a map there are some decent guides like the Mornington Peninsula Gourmet Food Map and Get Fresh at the Farm Gate. But how much better is it to follow your nose, feast your eyes on the scenery and discover the road side stalls selling pumpkins and eggs or the pick your own cherry farm yourself? The small dirt roads winding through beautiful bush not only offer some wonderful food experiences but also provide the perfect way to experience the most serene and secluded parts of the Mornington Peninsula.

If you like all your free-range eggs (and fruit and vegetables and jams and preserves) in one basket there are markets on just about every Saturday. The biggest and busiest of these is the 30-year-old Red Hill Community Market. The sprawling mass of colour and movement with the creed ‘make it, bake it, grow it or breed it’ explodes early on the first Saturday of the month and shows just how abundant the region is, no matter what the season.

A series of Mornington Peninsula-centric food stores are also good places to get a quick local produce fix. The Red Hill Cool Stores, set up in a former apple packing shed, combines local arts and crafts with a good selection of jam, pickles, cheese, olive oil, wine and a small selection of seasonal fresh produce. It is also the perfect place to get the low-down on what is happening with local produce and where to find the best stuff. Close by, the Red Hill Cellars masquerades as a regular supermarket but has a great range of local goodies including fresh produce and a wall of wine dedicated to the best of the local drops. If you’re on the Port Phillip Bay coast Rosebud’s The Tasting Station stocks an extensive range of the Peninsula’s finest from cheese and wine through to jams, pickles and olive oil. But for the fully fledged produce forager, the best thing to do is get on the road and go direct to the source.

Flinders, on the southern coast of Westernport Bay, has retained an old-fashioned fishing village air despite being increasingly colonised by burnt out city slickers. Down at the Flinders jetty, recreational fishermen cast hand lines from the weathered timber wharf, regularly pulling in flipping fish and ink-squirting squid against a backdrop of bobbing fishing boats. In such a picture perfect setting, it seems almost to good to be true that you can stroll out onto the jetty and buy mussels that have been pulled from the water less than a kilometre away. It is, as Michael “Harry” Harris, operator of Flinders Shellfish, says “a simple luxury that you can’t do much anymore”.

Harris has been farming mussels off Flinders since 1992 before he “bought a piece of water” off Flinders and established his own business in 2000. He does a roaring trade from his boat that is moored at the jetty every weekend (except in early spring when the new ‘crop’ is still growing), and also supplies 150kg of his plump, juicy mussels per month to restaurants across the Mornington Peninsula. If you don’t know much about cooking mussels, Harry has more than one recipe up his sleeve to show you just how good truly fresh shellfish can be.

If you’re after fruits of the land rather than of the sea, you should head to the winding tree-lined roads and dirt tracks of Main Ridge and Red Hill. Not only is the area home to many of the Mornington Peninsula’s better-known wineries, but there is also brilliant fruit of the non-grape variety. Orchards of apple and cherry trees were established here in the very early days of European settlement, taking advantage of the higher inland altitude and cooler temperatures that means the fruit ripens more slowly and the flavours become more intense.

Bite into one of the fat red sun-warmed strawberries from Sunny Ridge Strawberry Farm and you understand the climactic advantage immediately. Big, juicy, firm and almost unbelievably sweet, the strawberries from Sunny Ridge put the bland, chalky supermarket versions to shame. It is little wonder that Mornington Peninsula strawberries are becoming a brand in their own right.

Established as a mixed fruit and vegetable farm in 1964 by the Gallace family, Sunny Ridge now produces more than 3 million punnets of strawberries per year, making it Australia’s largest strawberry producer. But even with the tourist facilities that were built in 1997 to cope with the increasing crowds who flocked to pick their own strawberries (and raspberries and cherries), Sunny Ridge doesn’t feel like a heaving strawberry factory. On sunny days when the fields next to the shop and factory buildings are filled with people picking strawberries and the shop is full of people buying jam or sparkling strawberry wine and eating the house-made strawberry ice cream, the place still has a modest, home made farm gate feel.

This relaxed pace is evident at most of the U-pick and farm gate businesses in this neck of the woods. Ellisfield Farm, an orchard growing quinces, sweet cherries and the black sour Morello cherries – a brilliant fruit for everything from jams to fortified wine – retains its tranquil pace even during the short summer cherry-picking rush. There is more tranquillity to be had on winding Boneo Road where you can pick up a bag of much praised Flinders Farm hydroponic tomatoes from a roadside farm gate stall. The untended stall operates on an honour system – pull up, grab your bag of tomatoes, put your money in the box, drive away again. It is a wonderfully old-fashioned idea that leaves you with good tomatoes and a calming feeling of stepping back in time.

All that fruit picking and produce gathering can leave you feeling thirsty so it is time to head to the Red Hill Brewery, the Mornington Peninsula’s only micro-brewery.

The Red Hill Brewery is owned and operated by David and Karen Golding who live in the small wooden house that shares the leafy property with the purpose built brewery buildings. There is a nice sense of scale to the place – from the small hop yard where all the hops they use in their beer are grown – to the café building with its pleasant sunny wooden veranda and its viewing windows into the brewery.

The pitch-roofed brewery building may look like a rustic wooden and corrugated iron barn, but inside it is all copper clad, stainless steel and steam fired action that produces three European style ales – a pale, fruity and crisp Golden Ale, a slightly cloudy, creamy aromatic Wheat Beer and a beautifully coppery, malt-driven Scotch Ale. You can team your ale with rustic food that uses plenty of local produce in shareable dishes inspired by “the great beer cultures of England, Belgium and Germany”. Kicking back in the sun with an ale or two and a ploughman’s platter your thoughts turn, of course, to dinner.

Criss-crossing the Mornington Peninsula foraging for food, you would have noticed fat and happy cattle grazing in fields around Flinders, Tyabb, Moorooduc and Red Hill. So where are you going to get your hands on some of that?

Somerville may not be the most picturesque town on the Peninsula and, being in the Peninsula’s warm, flat north, isn’t on the regular food and wine radar. Somerville Village Meats is a great excuse for a detour.

Butcher Phil Revell runs what seems like a traditional country butcher shop complete with concrete floor and plastic grass in the counter display cabinets. But look a little closer and you will notice trophies dotted around the shop for “Best Ham off the Bone” and “Best Strasbourg”. The award winning smoked goods– ham, beef, cabana, chicken breast, ham hocks – are worth the trip in themselves but Phil also stocks Peninsula Blue Ribbon Beef: chemical, growth-hormone and antibiotic-free meat sourced entirely from those pastures you noticed across the Mornington Peninsula. Come in at the right time and you might also be able to buy lamb from Phil’s own Peninsula farm.

Your back seat is filling up. Dinner is looking better and better. Now, all you need is a little cheese.

Five Great Farmgate Products

  • Organic honey and honeycomb from Bungower Park, Derril Road Moorooduc.
  • Free range eggs from Summerhill Farm, Barkers Road, Main Ridge.
  • Olive oil from Summerfields, Hunts Road, Bittern.
  • Organic vegetables from Bryant’s, Old Cape Shank Road, Rosebud.
  • Blueberries from Drum Drum Blueberry Farm, Davos Street, Main Ridge.


© Michael Harden 2006

First printed in Food and Wine Lovers’ Guide to Melbourne and Surrounds (2006)

Regions

  • Melbourne Surrounds (VIC)
  • Mornington Peninsula (VIC)

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