High Country Superlatives
From cross-country skiing to cycling, hiking and hang-gliding, Victoria’s High Country offers the gamut of outdoor challenges.
Patience, they say, is a virtue. Certainly it is when it comes to making crumpets. As Beechworth Honey’s CEO Sara Quon explains, the secret to cooking a great crumpet is low and slow. If you want those amazing little tunnels to soak up the gooey, buttery, honey-laden deliciousness that elevates a crumpet into a culinary masterpiece, you can’t rush it. You need the little air bubbles to work their way up through the batter until eventually they pop. It takes a good four to five minutes for that to happen. Anything less and you’ll just have a ring of batter that’s burnt on one side and gloopy in the middle.
Sara takes the time to impart this homespun wisdom at the Bee School, an education centre and cooking school at Beechworth Honey HQ in a former bank building in the centre of the remarkably well-preserved goldrush town. As well as providing visitors with a venue for learning about the inner workings of a hive and the importance of pollinators to the future of agriculture and bio-security, the Bee School is home to the Lost Arts series of cooking and craft classes, where you can learn everything from the fundamentals of beekeeping and making candles from beeswax to pickling, drawing with charcoal and how to pimp up a pavlova. Plus, of course, old-school crumpet making.
A few hundred metres up the road at the Beechworth Honey Experience, visitors can taste the difference between delicate, fruity and warm-flavoured honeys and learn how fourth-generation beekeepers Jodie and Steven Goldsworthy bought their own bees in 1999 and started their label shortly afterwards. Today, they are not just a national brand with more than 40 different eucalypt and floral honeys in the range, they are also passionate educators on the diverse uses for honey and the fact that 65 per cent of Australia’s agricultural produce is pollinated by honey bees. There has been a decline in Australia’s mainstream beekeepers since 2008, which means that 60 per cent of Australia’s honey is produced by 250 beekeepers and Australia’s future food security and agricultural prosperity lies in the hands of around 1400 barely viable, ageing beekeepers. All of which sounds like a very good reason to master the art of crumpet making and spoon on some honey.
Beechworth, population approximately 4000, is one of the major towns in the Victorian High Country, which extends south-east from Albury-Wodonga on the Hume Highway and encompasses the alpine regions of the lower reaches of the Great Dividing Range. The region may have gained fame for the ski fields of Mount Beauty, Mount Hotham, Dinner Plain, Mount Buffalo and Mount Buller, but these days, it’s summer, rather than winter that attracts the lion’s share of visitors. Several rail trails along disused tracks make cycle touring a popular pursuit and of course the mountains are popular with bikers and bushwalkers.
The gold rushes populated the region in the 1850s, but today the major industry is agriculture, with honey just the start of a cornucopia of produce that ranges from apples, pears, berries and cherries to asparagus, olives, tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant. Nuts, including chestnuts, hazelnuts and almonds, and dairy products (with famous by-products including Milawa cheeses and Gundowring ice creams) add to this larder, and free-range pork, lamb, beef, goat, trout, yabbies and Murray Cod further encourage a culture of fine dining. Beechworth’s Provenance restaurant boasts two chefs’ hats, while The Terrace Restaurant at All Saints Estate and Patricia’s Table at Brown Brothers also have a hat each. Then there’s a plethora of cafes — from The Pickled Sisters at Wahgunyah and Saint Monday in Yackandandah to Coral Lee and Ginger Baker in Bright — further spreading the produce word. Add a smattering of gastro pubs, including the Snowline in Harrietville, the Happy Valley Hotel in Myrtleford and the Wandi Pub in Wandiligong, and there’s no risk you’ll go hungry in this neck of the woods.
Nor will you want for a drink as the wine scene is thriving, with the High Country divided into subregions including the King Valley, which has a strong Italian accent and is noted for its Sangiovese, Pinot Grigio and Prosecco. With its warmer climate and lower-lying vineyards, Rutherglen is known for its rich reds including Durif and Shiraz and liquid-sunshine fortifieds such as Muscat and Topaque. The cooler-growing seasons of the Alpine Valleys (of the Ovens, Buffalo, Buckland and Kiewa Rivers) are famed for Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc as well as Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. There’s also a paddle of microbreweries in the region, including Beechworth’s Bridge Road Brewers, Dinner Plain’s Blizzard Brewing Company and the Bright Brewery, where beer lovers can take a tour and tasting on Friday, Saturday or Monday and enjoy live music on Sundays. Groups of a maximum of four can book in for a Brewer for a Day experience, a full day of hands-on brewing and tasting.
Food and drinks merge 10 kilometres west of Beechworth at Amulet Vineyard where Sue and Eric Thornton and their son, Ben Clifton, make Italian-style wines and Beechworth cider. They serve lunch at the cellar door on weekends, just the perfect length of time to top up your Tesla at the charging station that runs on electricity harvested by solar panels on the winery roof. A winter menu might include Barbera-braised beef cheeks or pan-fried gnocchi with broccolini, pesto and smoked bacon and a regional tasting plate including cheeses from Boosey Creek, locally cured meats and olives.
Continue south to Milawa and past the HQs for Milawa mustard and cheese and the legendary Brown Brothers winery to Hurdle Creek Still at Bobinawarrah where Wendy Williams and Simon Brooke-Taylor create gin from a grain spirit they make from local barley and oats and infuse with botanicals grown in their front garden. Son Alex Williams mans the cellar door shed and guides tasters through their range, which includes their signature Yardarm gin infused with hops (Simon was a master brewer in a former life), Evolution Aniseed gin, Powder Monkey Navy Strength Dutch-style gin, Pastis and a limited-edition cherry gin.
After rejoining the Great Alpine Road, Myrtleford is a good spot to grab a coffee thanks to an Italian heritage that dates from the hop and tobacco farmers who originally farmed in the area. For a completely different cultural experience, drop into Cafe Fez, a little outpost of Morocco in a vast barn bazaar called Red Ramia Trading. It would be a travel-weary shopper indeed who failed to find something tempting in the immense array of wares. From Moroccan tea glasses, lanterns and teapots to Indian throws and furniture, Chinese antiques and Japanese kimonos, there’s truly something for everyone in the riot of colour on display. The Ramia family also offers accommodation at Panoramia Villas, self-contained apartments with views of the Ovens Valley four kilometres out of town.
You can enjoy views and a private tour of a winery and vineyard by booking into the apartment accommodation above the cellar door at Feathertop Winery, where tastings and platters are available on weekends. Or detour a bit further up the road to Bushies Love Shack, where Fay and Robert Bushby have turned a forestry hut into a self-contained apartment with an outdoor bath that comfortably holds two. Australian Country, however, headed on to Bright where we stayed in luxuriously appointed digs right on the rail trail courtesy of Bright Luxury Apartments. Next morning we dropped into Bright Chocolate, where Simeon and Shannon Crawley are one of the few chocolate makers in the country to produce the delicious treat from bean to bar. From their factory in a historic brick stable building they guide visitors through the process from fermentation, roasting and husking to refining, conching, tempering, moulding and, of course, tasting.
In a stroke of sheer serendipity, we chose the week of the “dump of the decade” to head up to ski country at Mount Hotham and Dinner Plain. It’s only 56km from Bright to Mount Hotham, but the altitude rises more than 1300 metres and, during the season, all vehicles, even 4WDs, must carry diamond-pattern chains when travelling (one-way hire is available). We’re newbies to this snow bunny business, so the prospect of fitting chains and driving on the steep and winding road with heavy snow cover and fresh falls swirling around is daunting to say the least. Fortunately, when we pull up at the chain-fitting bay, a rosy-cheeked, lumber-jacketed young man takes pity on us and takes care of the macramé of chains in a matter of minutes. From there on, it’s a matter of taking it slow and steady. By the time we get to Mount Hotham, there’s a virtual white out on the road. Having driven on alpine roads during summer, I’ve always wondered why the red and yellow poles are so tall. But now it’s bleeding obvious, as the tops are just peeking out through the cliffs of snow and in the dense fog, they are the only indicator of where the road actually is.
By the time we reach Dinner Plain, Australia’s only freehold land above the snow line and a popular destination for families and cross-country skiers, the skies have cleared and we find ourselves in an absolute winter wonderland. Dinner Plain village is architecturally remarkable, as the designers decreed that all buildings must take their inspiration from the High Country cattlemen’s huts. So there are strict rules governing the materials — stone, timber and corrugated iron — and even the colours, which must blend with the alpine landscape. It was a truly inspired piece of 1980s master planning and to see it under snowy conditions is a privilege. Dinner Plain also offers a truly bucket-list experience at the Onsen Retreat and Spa where, alongside the usual menu of massages and beauty treatments, patrons can enjoy a dip in the outdoor onsen, a Japanese-style thermally heated pool, with the curiously Australian accent of snow-laden eucalypts all around.
The treats don’t stop there though as that afternoon we have a date with Howling Huskys. Dog sledding may be commonplace in the northern hemisphere, but here it’s a relative novelty and the folk at Howling Huskys take visitors on 30-minute tours through the snow. We meet our musher (Husky handler) and don helmets for a truly exhilarating spin through the snow gums.
As if that weren’t enough, there’s yet more magic in store when our sledding experience ends at the tipi expat Frenchman Jean-FranÇois Rupp has as the HQ for his Alpine Nature Experience. JF, as he’s known, grew up in Tignes near the ski slopes of Grande Motte, in the French Alps, and fondue was a staple on his family’s winter menu. When he met and married his Australian wife, who happens to be an Albury girl, they decided to introduce his childhood experiences of coming in from the cold to a supper of molten Gruyère and Emmenthal to the High Country. Guests arriving at the off-the-grid outpost by Skidoo, snow shoe or dog sled are greeted with a glass of glühwein (mulled wine) around a roaring fire. Then they head into the tipi for a hands-on fondue cooking class as a precursor to a three-course dinner.
Eight lucky guests who succumb to a cheese coma or are so utterly bewitched by the combination of fine food, wine and schnapps around a blazing fire that they never want to leave, can opt to stay overnight in one of four snow domes dotted around the site, which is based on the ethos of simplicity being the ultimate luxury. Trying to describe the magic of walking out on a star-studded night to a cosy dome complete with a wood-fired heater and a bed equipped with a real mattress and pillow, faux-fur blanket, fleece liner and minus-10-degree sleeping bag seems an insurmountable task. But then again, after a few days in this utterly beguiling part of the world, we are totally accustomed to the daily struggle for superlatives.
The complete story was originally published in Australian Country issue 21.4. Click here to subscribe to our magazine
Words Kirsty McKenzie
Photography Ken Brass