"There's so much more to the Great Ocean Road than the big rocks," says Tim Marwood as we wander through the picturesque town of Timboon, just inland from the 12 Apostles, one of the country's top tourist attractions.
Since starting the award-winning Timboon Fine Ice Cream in 1999, Marwood and his wife Caroline Simmons have helped put the small town on the map. "This area is a green wonderland," he says. "It's so accessible from Melbourne and you have a real regional artisan community. So many people are producing wonderful things."
Marwood has been central in creating the 12 Apostles Gourmet Trail, a 75-kilometre loop that starts in Port Campbell, taking in some of the area's best food producers. The temperate climate and reliable rainfall are a blessing for the area's artisans, who produce premium cheeses, milk, berries, whisky, wine, chocolate and even snails.
With a trail map, available at the visitor's centre, I set off on the self-guided road trip to sample some of the region's most enticing produce.
But before leaving, Marwood and Simmons show me around their beautiful new timber-clad ice creamery, which opened in December. It includes a "Sundae School" scheduled to open in February where you can learn about ice cream making before concocting your own. "It's cow to cone," says Simmons, laughing.
The couple have made their mark on the town, as I realise across the road at the Timboon Railway Shed Distillery, a revamped corrugated iron goods shed with a large deck overlooking the popular Coast to Crater Rail Trail. Owner Josh Walker says Marwood and Simmons started the distillery nine years ago. "But both businesses took off so they decided to focus on the ice-cream. I've always loved single malt whisky, so when this opportunity came up I jumped at it."
Walker has created a welcoming restaurant, produce store and whisky distillery all in one. He champions local ingredients such as Shaw River buffalo mozzarella and Hopkins River beef. I can't resist trying something sweet and order the brownie served with a quenelle of Timboon ice-cream and a slick of chocolate and whisky sauce topped with local berries.
"I just love eating strawberries!" a girl exclaims to her mother at my next stop. She's crouching, deciding which ruby berry should bypass her container and go straight into her mouth. From November to April, Heather Nicholls opens Berry World, her Timboon farm, to the public and lets them loose among her 40,000 plants. "We supply local restaurants with strawberries, boysenberries, blackberries and raspberries," Nicholls says, handing me an enormous Melba strawberry. "We also make jam, relish and even strawberry chilli sauce," she says. "It's great with spring rolls."
I prefer strawberries with cream, so I take a side road to Timboon Cheesery. Long before Marwood and Simmons came on the scene, Simon Schulz's grandfather was making biodynamic farmhouse cheeses. "He was a visionary," says Schulz. On the lush property, amid established trees and grazing cows, sits a cheesery, selling Northern European cheeses such as havarti and buetten, along with Schulz's organic milk, yoghurt, cream and quark.
The products have a cult following among chefs and foodies. "Heston Blumenthal used our milk when he brought the Fat Duck to Melbourne, and Dan Hunter from Brae uses our products too," Schulz says. "I think they like that we are sustainable and organic."
Nothing goes better with cheese than wine so it's not long before I make the meandering drive to Newtons Ridge Estate, a small vineyard overlooking the lush countryside. It's a family affair, as former teacher Susie Falk owns the undulating property with her brother and his wife. "It's tiny, we are in the middle of dairy country and it's a lot of work," says Falk. "But I absolutely love it." Cool-climate grapes, including chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier and shiraz, are blended into nine wines. "The chardonnay has a crisp, slightly soft mouth feel," says Falk. "It's great with soft cheeses."
I pick some up a little farther down the road at Apostle Whey Cheese, where Julian Benson likes to make puns as well as cheese, hence names such as Loch Ard Gorgeous (camembert) and Southern Briez (brie). Benson offers tastings of the cheese range, which includes white moulds, creamy blues and feta in oil flecked with herbs and garlic. You can watch the cheesemakers at work or if you're lucky, glimpse bovines calving in Benson's Mooternity ward.
Someone familiar with Benson's humour is Mel Pollock, Benson's first cheesemaker in 2005. "It was wonderful working for Julian but I wanted to work closer to home," says Pollock. Now her heavenly chocolate shop, Gorge Chocolates, is right next to her house, four kilometres from Apostle Whey. The shelves are brimming with old favourites including chocolate-coated licorice, rocky road, chocolate frogs and the biggest freckles you're likely to see (or eat).
At my last stop, when Helene Hawes pulls something from her freezer, I almost mistake it for Belgian seashell chocolates. A closer look reveals they are frozen snails. Hawes started her snail farm, Simpson Snails, in 2011 with her husband Denis. It's a small patch of damp land next to her house, rimmed with corrugated iron that holds around 20,000 free-range snails.
"People are always fascinated," she says. "They have no idea you can farm snails."
Apparently they are the ideal creatures to cultivate. "They're slow, silent, they don't smell and they are delicious," Hawes says. "What more could you want from a farming animal? So many people say the snail farm is their highlight of the trail."
Heading home, my front seat full of goodies I've picked up along the trail, I pull in at a lookout to view the 12 Apostles, the majestic limestone columns reflecting the sunset's pink and purple hues.
Timboon Fine Ice Cream, 1a Barrett Street, Timboon, timboonfineicecream.com.au
Timboon Railway Shed Distillery,1 Bailey Street, Timboon, timboondistillery.com.au
Berry World, 6 Egan Street, Timboon, berryworld.com.au
Timboon Cheesery, 23 Ford & Fells Road, Timboon, timbooncheesery.com.au
Newtons Ridge Estate, 1170 Cooriemungle Road, Cooriemungle, newtonsridgeestate.com.au
Apostle Whey Cheese, 9 Gallum Road, Cooriemungle, apostlewheycheese.com.au
Gorge Chocolates, 1432 Princetown Road, Cooriemungle, gorgechocolates.com.au
Simpson Snails, 399 Centre Road, Simpson, simpsonsnails.com.au