Disclosure: I was invited and hosted by Rural City of Wangaratta
You may think you're visiting Wangaratta, one of Victoria's rural cities in the northeast of Victoria, for the fresh crisp air, a break from the busy city pace and gorgeous local produce and abundance (plentiful abundance) of wine.
But what travelling alone has shown me, in crystal clear terms, is that you visit for all the above reasons, but leave realising it's the people that made the trip.
I was fortunate to be invited to check out some of the events during the High Country Harvest, an autumn celebration of all good food, wine and beer in the region, on an absolutely beautiful weekend in May. I always find the three hour drive so relaxing, as long as I make sure there're a couple of karaoke worthy tunes pumping. There's absolutely nothing like getting out of the congestion of the city, the stop-start-stop-start traffic lights and hitting the long straight road for a bit of smooth sailing.
My first stop was Cafe Derailleur, where I met the ever bubbly Emma for lunch. Cafe Derailleur is a little off the main strip in town, and has been transformed by Eric the owner, with over 20 years of experience in the hospitality industry, into a quirky and very cosy destination, bustling with life the second I stepped in. With pops of colour everywhere, it's hard not to be in a good mood!
I particularly liked the personal touches through the cafe, from the adorable button-covered tea cosy that Eric's wife had made, to the fully crocheted bicycle (with matching helmet) hanging out the back in the courtyard as a piece of art (quietly want a bike like this to ride around town with!)
Emma and I gas-bagged away, with Eric popping into say hi and check in on us, sipped on our coffees (my chai latte had a little too much foam, but these things happen!), and tucked into some hearty meals. A vividly coloured corn fritter dish for me and a very very moreish roast lamb (or something like that) with gnocchi made in-house. Such fluffy gnocchi, but with such a warm and comforting topping.
Eric's house made baklava is also simply to die for, made with local produce such as Myrtleford butter, and walnuts from the King Valley, it was quite light and not weighed down by syrup and honey. Simple beautiful!
Rolling out of my chair and back into my car, it was then on towards Oxley to Forges Farm for one of the main events, Packing Prosecco!
I arrived a little early, so got to have a lovely chat with our hosts Graham and Anne-Maree Forge (who between them have quite a number of packhorse championship titles), and got to meet some of the smaller animals around the farm.
I fell in love with the two week old Dorpy (with the black head), named as such because he's a Dorper sheep, a breed of sheep that doesn't shed. Napping away initially, he quickly roused when called and bleated cheerfully at Anne Maree until we entered the enclosure and proceeded to follow us around! I was quite amazed at how affectionate he was, and even more surprised when Anne Marie said she thought they made better pets than dogs! Maybe I should move out to a farm…
We also met Napoleon the bunny, a Rex rabbit who used to be used in shows and as a prestigious bunny sire! I couldn't get over firstly, how big he was and secondly, how soft he was!
After my mini tour, Graham proceeded to show us how to pack a horse. Packing's a dying art, as cars and other forms of transport have become more prevalent. Even the saddles for packing aren't being made any more, the one that Graham used to demonstrate with was made in the war. Apparently you can pack a horse with 200 kilograms worth of stuff, and Graham's mentioned that even pianos have been packed on horses backs before!
In more recent times, the Forge family packed horses to help bring supplies and resources for rebuilding during the bush fires, showing that there is still a need and a use for this practise.
On this particular day though, we packed a far more jovial product…Prosecco! And of course, it has to be Dal Zotto's.
An experienced rider myself, I couldn't wait to get back into the saddle and loved the leisurely stroll we had through the Forge family property. Many in our group were beginner riders, or had never ridden before, but Anne Maree and Graham, with the help of their daughter Tup, made sure everyone as well matched and comfortable.
My ride was Max, a spritely little fellow who refused to stay at the back of the pack!
Our lovely and lazy ride took us to a riverbank, with simply the most gorgeous picnic set up, flowers, cushions, local cheese and more Dal Zotto Prosecco, naturally!
The land we were on was also, amazingly, the original settlement of Anne Maree's Great great great grandparents back in the 1840's or 1850's, making it the only bit of land that still belongs to family along the King River.
So the event was supposed to run from 2pm to 4pm, but because we were enjoying ourselves so much, kicking back, relaxing and just chatting to everyone, we all ended up staying an extra hour out. How could you not when everyone was so friendly? Despite being on my own, I quickly and quite naturally found myself in other people's conversations, and having my glass topped up against my will (not that I was fighting it too much though!)
But as the sun started to set, we had to head off, as I had to quickly make my way back into Wangaratta to drop my stuff off at Via Bella Vista, change my clothes, make sure I didn't smell of horse and run off to catch the bus to dinner!
Dinner that night was at the Booths Taminick Cellars in Taminick, and to get there a bus went around to a couple of hotels in Wangaratta to pick up guests before taking the dark and windy roads out to Taminick…I was definitely quite pleased to not be driving there on my own!
And despite the bus filling up completely with couples and groups of friends merrily chatting away, I found myself engaged in deep foodie conversation with a man who got split up from his friends and found himself next to me on the bus ride. So riveting was our conversation in fact, it wasn't until we got off the bus that I realised I didn't know his name and had to go introduce myself!
I found it interesting that there were a lot of locals at the events (which obviously makes sense now that I think about it), but regardless, I found many of them were quick to notice I was alone, and quick to befriend as well, my bus companion introducing me to his wife and his friends, where we continued talking about Savour Tasmania, eating around Asia and reminiscing about first visits to Booths winery (where apparently in the heat, the bottles of wine they had bought were exploding in the boot of their car!)
There was a charming medieval banquet feel to Booths Taminick Cellar, the building itself has actually been around since the 1890's, with long white tables and dressed abundantly in candles. With the number of people, the space was quickly filled, the band at the front imbuing a cheerful and cosy vibe.
The Hop vs Grape dinner had been running for the last couple of years, with Black Dog Brewery and Taminick Cellars butting heads in a bit of friendly family rivalry to try and win diners over what matches better with the food, hand crafted beer, or estate grown wines. Grapes have had the upper hand for a few years in a row, so this year, the brewery was out to make it's stand.
Our five courses were created by Rinaldos Adam Pizzini who after this meal has made me want to return to Wangaratta to try out Rinaldos itself!
On arrival we were greeted with a selection of mouth watering canapes; pan fried scallops topped with black pudding, smoked salmon candied lemon rilette and slow cooked lamb shoulder croquettes (which were the fastest to disappear). Paired with this the Black Dog Brewery offered up a lazy dog ale, light and fruity, and Taminick Cellars their 2013 1919 Series Trebbiano, a grape I had never tried before. I found it dry and savoury, with mineral notes, making it quite a clean and refreshing palate cleanser to start the night. First round to grapes for me!
Jugs of beer hey? This was was going to be a big night…!
A truffled mixed gourmet mushroom bruschetta, topped with Shaw River Buffalo Mozzarella followed, paired with Taminick's 2013 1919 Series Alicante Rose, which was surprisingly deep and rich in colour, and quite full bodied for a Rose, as well as Black Dog's Red Doggin Roggen Red rye, hoppy, full in the mouth, with a bit of richness and chocolatey notes. Both were pleasant on their own, but definitely heightened and sweetened when paired with the light but earthy dish.
My mouth watered as the pan fried pork fillet, wrapped with Formichi pancetta and served on tomato braised lentils was placed in front of us. The pork was perfectly cooked, with all the fat rendered just right to give a gorgeously tender smooth texture, matched beautifully with the soft, lightly curried and very moreish lentils. Could have quietly eaten a bowl of those alone!
With the pork, Black Dog brewery came in with all guns blazing, with their Bloodhound Vienna Lager a very smooth offering and Taminick Cellars with the 2011 Nero D'Avola, a big and black wine, plummy and tannic.
Through the night, I got to know my table neighbours quite well, surrounded by a group who were all connected in someway (niece, uncle, co-workers, local surgeon…I love how small and tight night Wangaratta seems to be!), and I felt very included as we joked and laughed together (I think I might have been the butt in that beef cheek joke…) and discussed about the mechanics of clay target shooting. I'm still waiting for the invite Brian!
I didn't think I would or could have that much dessert by the time we got to it. How wrong could I be when Adam Pizzini is serving up the fluffiest ricotta chocolate panettone pudding with chocolate sauce and candied orange? I normally don't like fruits and chocolate together that much, but he's just somehow married the two here and I could not stop eating it!
The Tawny served with dessert I have in my notes as a capital lettered 'YUM'. And yum it was, smooth like chocolate. Black Dog's Dead Dog Stout was beautifully sweet as well, with raisins and chocolate notes. I may have had a few of the stout since some of the table wasn't quite as keen on it…
I absolutely loved meeting the Booth family, James, brewer of Black Dog and winemaker of Taminick Cellars was a well of knowledge, and obviously equally passionate for both grapes and hops (and apparently has a very, very, very hoppy beer on the cards, probably too much for me, but should be interesting nonetheless!). I cooed over the stout with Julie, who then disclosed that for Christmas she makes a stout glazed ham, to which I've now decided I'm going to start gate crashing every year. I think by the time I met Peter Booth, James' dad, he may have been enjoying the night (and drinks) as much as I had, but was still able to fill me in on the buildings, the cellars and the accommodation they had on site as well.
We wrapped up with minted chocolate ganache tarts with candied mints, some sticky but not sugary 2009 Vintage Port with an intoxicating aroma and blackberries on the palate and a Hellhound India Black Ale (which was probably a little too hoppy for me).
Although the walk from the cellars, past the beautifully lit willows, to the toilets was cold, the rest of the night was warm, invigorating and inviting. I was honestly surprised that I had not fallen flat on my face yet, with the generosity of the Booth's, but was quite happy when we bundled up into the bus, where I once again was paired with my original bus partner and we exchanged notes of the evening.
Despite there being a loud party across the road from my accommodation when I got back (which is very unusual for the area), I was simply so exhausted and so comfortable with the electric blanket and pillowy bed, that I immediately crashed, to get ready for another early start in Wangarattta the next day...
38 Norton Street
1289 Wangaratta/Whitfield Road
22 Riverview Crescent
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