Australia’s New Culinary Capitals: Victoria
26 November, 2019
An hour's drive from the gateway city of Melbourne, I pull up at dusk to the futuristic Jackalope hotel, tucked into the vineyards of the fertile Mornington Peninsula. Named after a mythical North American monster that looks like a jackrabbit but has the horns of an antelope, the hotel seems to have taken its design cues from Donnie Darko - my wardrobe is filled with coat hangers covered with silver rabbit fur and there's a geometric bathtub at the foot of the bed.
This attention to aesthetics apparently extends to the staff - if ever a chef matched their restaurant, it's Guy Stanaway of Doot Doot Doot, the Jackalope's fine diner. His cheekbones are as angular as the marble bar. His slicked-back hair gleams like the leather sofas beneath the installation of 10,000 amber light bulbs. In short, he looks like he belongs in one of the many natural-wine hubs in the achingly hip Melbourne suburb of Collingwood. Yet instead, Stanaway has chosen the candy-coloured beach huts and lush pony paddocks of the peninsula as his larder. As I dissolve a scoop of avocado sorbet textured with crispy saltbush (a native herb) on my tongue, he holds up a pomegranate. "One of our neighbours recently brought in a basketful that had over-ripened on her tree and asked if we wanted them. We treated her to lunch to say thanks. This part of Victoria has that old-world, community vibe you just don't find in a city."
Compared to Jackalope, the nearby seaside town of Geelong is positively old-fashioned. An ancient Ferris wheel creaks on the pier as seagulls the size of cats wheel overhead. However, our sights are set on Igni, a restaurant in a converted refrigerator showroom with a staggering dedication to sustainability. While there are always a variety of dishes available, there isn't enough of each ingredient for every diner to order the same. Instead, servers chat to guests about their preferences and report back to the chefs, who then decide which version of the eight-course tasting menu is most appropriate. Chef and co-owner Aaron Turner is tending the grill in the open kitchen as we arrive. Peering through a cloud of cherry-wood smoke, he informs me: "We work with very small local producers. By not demanding a certain amount of any one ingredient, we aren't pressuring them and the environment to produce more than is natural. It also means that we have to roll with what we've got, which makes us far more creative." As I tuck into an unexpectedly sharp goat's-milk ice cream infused with botanicals from the farm's garden, I agree that the proof is in the pudding.
It's impossible to talk about Australia's regional dining scene without returning to Dan Hunter and Brae. It may be little more than a clapboard cottage under an enormous weeping willow, but the renowned restaurant's name is whispered by every chef I meet with a reverence bordering on fanaticism. The drive from Geelong reveals snatches of villages that look like they could be filmsets for cowboy movies - old boys sit in the shade of their porches, sipping cold ones and cracking jokes as dry as the clouds of dust that gather when the wind picks up. When we arrive, Hunter shows us around his organic farm. Shooing away a couple of chickens, he points out two young people weeding a bed of kale. "All my chefs do two shifts a week in the garden. I want them to spend time nurturing the food they cook," he says.
Just like his 14-course menus, Hunter is understated yet electrically creative. He plucks what looks like a green brazil nut off a bush, breaking it open to reveal caviar-like pearls of fresh within. "Finger lime," he explains, popping some into his mouth. "We're trying to use more native ingredients because we see it as our duty to educate people. There's a growing interest in healing the rift with our indigenous population, and food is an excellent way of understanding more about their culture." Warmed by an open fire and roamed by soft-voiced staff, the dining room has the tranquillity of a chapel. As I tuck into a dish called "the last of this year's rock melons", a single slice of homegrown cantaloupe served with a tiny golden fork, I am fully ready to sign up to the diocese of Dan Hunter.