My husband suggested we go away for the weekend and I jumped at the chance…any excuse to avoid stepping back into the reality of everyday life and more truthfully… any excuse to avoid doing the rewrite that my new book was needing!
We both love wine. Heathcote perhaps? Just an hour and a half North and reputed to have some of the best Shiraz in Australia. I got on my computer and booked a hotel room and a table at one of the few restaurants open that Friday night.
On the Thursday night before we were about to leave I’d watched Giorgio Locatelli cooking his way around Italy, dining at restaurants I’d been to and visiting many of the places I loved… and my wanderlust just got worse!
He crunched through the crackling on a delicious piece of Porchetta and I was immediately transported back in time… It was the 80s, my first trip overseas, first trip to Italy. We’d pulled up to a road side stall where the farmer was roasting a pig over glowing coals. The delicious pork, slapped between two slices of rustic bread, was insanely good.
I wanted to jump on the next plane but the bank account was empty and Italy would have to wait. For now a few days in the Victorian countryside would have to do…how on earth could it compare?
I hadn’t been to Heathcote for a very long time, way before the kids were born and way before it’s wine industry was developed. I wondered what it would look like now?
I’d picked up my husband from work early to avoid the traffic on this busy long weekend. We arrived, after an easy 1.5 hour drive, to find a very a sleepy little country town.
Not much had changed. A wide main street full of the usual shops, old houses, people calling into the supermarket before it closed. We continued along the road, our motel was at the other end of town, and saw signs pointing to vineyards, wineries and tasting rooms. The change was subtle.
The Heathcote Retreat Motel was a pleasant surprise.
The rooms had been completely refurbished. Stylish bright interiors, new furniture, clean lines. I’d expected something way different, older, more like the motel I’d described in my third book, FINDING THE LOST WOMAN. Christina goes back to her home town of Greenhope to escape the chaos of city life and finds a place that is the complete antithesis of the minimalist home she’d left behind in Fitzroy.
It was exactly like so many motels built in the seventies, dark green paintwork contrasting gaudily with the cream brick. A car space right out the front. He opened the door then handed me the keys. A faded floral bedspread, pine bedside tables held the brass reading lamps and the digital clock flashed the wrong time. A pine table and a vinyl covered chair sat in front of a window hung with sheer white nylon curtains, drapes on either side the same fabric as the bed. A feature cream brick wall ran the length of the room and the built in desk bench and wardrobe were in matching pine as well.
‘I’ll leave you now, Ms Maxwell. Don’t hesitate to sing out if you need anything.’
‘Thanks Malcolm, I will.’
He shut the door behind him and left me to explore. The bathroom was a shrine to salmon pink, tiles, laminate vanity and porcelain basin. The step through shower was enclosed by a brass and meshed safety glass screen. A large mirror reflected my rather ragged image, made even more dazzling by the bright humming fluorescent light above. The vanity held a supply of cheap toiletries neatly stored in a woven cane basket, the towels a contrasting dark green. I wondered if Malcolm’s wife had done the decorating?
At the Retreat there were L’Occitane toiletries, fluffy white towels and real wine glasses…we opened a bottle of Prosecco and toasted our arrival!
Across the way there were brand new luxury units… next time?
The Heathcote Harvest had caught my eye when I was doing research and advertised that it did special dinners on Friday and Saturday nights. I’d booked the restaurant for 7 pm so we finished our wine and jumped back in the car.
After about 7kms we turned left off the main highway to Drummond’s Lane. Not long down the road (after Jasper Hill Winery) we found Tuscan Court and headed along the track…
…to discover a little restaurant in what looked like the middle of a working farm.
We walked through the enclosed veranda and into the farm shop…
The wine list was local and we ordered a Shiraz…when in Rome?
Lyndal explained that this was in fact a working farm where she and her partner, Steve, raised rare breed pigs, grew vegetables, fruit and had a coop full of chickens producing the freshest of eggs. The restaurant, café and shop was a chance to showcase their produce. Whatever they didn’t grow on the farm they sourced locally.
I looked at the menu and knew it would be special…not over complicated, not loads of items, just a succinct list of the things they do best… always a good indicator of a confident chef and a well run kitchen.
Lyndal explained that they would have preferred to cure their own pork but health and safety requirements made this prohibitively expensive so they had to outsource the curing and smoking of their meat. Rules like those favour the big companies and completely frustrate innovators like Steve and Lyndal. Even in Europe these restrictive practices have become a problem for small farm producers. Imagine France without its regional specialties? All that history lost to big manufacturers and generic supermarket brands!
It was Porchetta! Giorgio had talked about it last night and I’d lamented the fact that it would be a long time before I’d get back to Italy to try it again. But here in Heathcote I’d found something to compare…it was utterly sublime. It had been slowly cooking all day. The crackling was salty, crisp and the meat, succulent, sweet… the best tasting pork I’d ever eaten, even better than the one from that small Italian farm.
And then there was the duck. I’d begun to dread the word ‘confit’. So many times chefs fail to do this twice cooked poultry justice. More often than not I’ve been served overcooked dry meat that tastes like reheated supermarket chicken. But not tonight, it was moist and perfectly cooked… the meat falling off the bone. The lentils were the perfect foil to the duck’s richness, soaking up the juices, the bacon crumb adding just the right amount of salty crunch.
The servings had been so generous that there was almost no room for dessert… but what would we miss if we didn’t try the two sweet things on offer? Lyndal, the dessert queen, was pleased we’d made room for what she’d baked that day. The Italian cheesecake with homemade vanilla bean ice cream was to die for.
Steve came out and introduced himself, talking about the sea change his family had made. Of a desire to live more self-sufficiently and how this simple idea had now become their business, their life. We thanked him for the beautiful meal, his light touch that honoured the food he and Lyndal had so lovingly produced.
It was such a good meal and such a beautiful place. It reminded me of Maggie Beers restaurant when she first set up the Pheasant Farm in the Barossa Valley many years ago. We were relaxed, completely sated, enjoying this laid back evening and could begin to see the attraction of the life this family had chosen. We would most definitely return.
The next morning we were ready for a big day of hunting and gathering. The town was buzzing. The street busy with tourists. Very different from when we’d arrived last night. After one too many wines we were in need of a carb fix and found a great little bakery to ease the pain…is it wrong to eat donuts for breakfast?
At the Heathcote Wine Hub, next to the bakery, we saw that many local wines were available for tasting, convenient… but where was the sense of adventure? Instead we grabbed a coffee, hit the road and headed up the highway to the little town of Toolleen at the far North edge of the wine district.
Heathcote II is the winery owned by French viticulturist, Lionel Flutto and French trained, but Danish born, winemaker Peder Rosdal.
“Why Australia, why here” I asked Peder (above) and he replied “the terroir, the unique Cambrian soils that produce some of the best Shiraz.”
We tasted his wine. It was very good, so we bought a couple of bottles to add to our growing collection (and I snuck in a tin of some of their beautifully packaged olive oil as well!).
Back in town, and many more wineries later, we talked to the friendly women at Heathcote Estate who not only poured some great wine but gave us lots of info about things to do in the area and what other wineries we shouldn’t miss.
They directed us to M. Chapoutier and the lovely Monica who introduced us to the wines of this French/Australian company. It was good to taste something from the Rhone Valley and compare wines from the two regions.
It was getting late but we had one more place to visit on the other side of town, Condie, the winery that produced the lovely red we had at dinner last night.
Richie Condie is the very charming and knowledgeable owner and winemaker. He opened many bottles and gave us comparative tastings of wines differing in years and style of barrel fermentation. I asked him the difference between American and French oak…
So he very kindly took us out the back and gave us a tasting of Shiraz maturing in the two different barrels. It was as if they were two different wines. The American Oak imparted flavours similar to some of the Bourbons I’d recently sampled with my brother-in-law, Craig, back in Virginia.
Because it was the end of the day and the cellar door had officially closed Richie relaxed, kicked back a little and opened a few more bottles for us to taste… treasures he had hidden away at the back of the room. We chatted about the risks people like him take, making wine, trusting the climate and investing everything they have to follow their dreams. People like Lyndal and Steve who now make up the new community of Heathcote, re-inventors who’ve helped bring life back into this small farming town. I wondered whether I’d have the guts to be quite so adventurous.
Now it really was getting late, Richie had a few more things to do before he could head home and we’d pretty much tasted all that was possible to discern before our palettes were shot! We added a few more cases of wine to our now overladen car and said farewell. It had been a long, but pleasant, day. I’d been the driver, had sacrificed so much tasting for spitting and was now ready to sit back and really enjoy a glass of Richie’s Sangiovese. Bread, cheese, wine, salami and an early night beckoned back at the motel. What a nice way to end such a lovely day.
Coming to Heathcote was such a pleasant surprise. None of these posts were sponsored, I just wanted to share with you the discoveries, the excellent wines, the outstanding produce and most importantly the stories of the lovely people we’d met. People who bring new life, businesses and passion to these once sleepy country towns… places like Heathcote.
Why don’t you check it out, Giorgio would most definitely approve!
Cheers Anna x
P. S. Have you found towns like this, would love to hear of your discoveries…
LOVE YOU TO READ MY BOOKS.
The Lost Woman series follows the sexy adventures of Christina as she makes her way through a world of new media, design, fashion, travel, and … men.
A perfect read for those of you looking for something after Fifty Shades of Grey.