When retailer Darren "Daz" Murphy arrived in Bendigo from north-east Victoria in 1998, he was intent on setting up a food store based on local seasonal produce, but there was not a lot to find.
He could get his hands on some apples from nearby Harcourt and organic milk from the local dairy, but the city did not have a local food culture. "All the produce went to Melbourne," says Murphy. "Then the [Bendigo] restaurants and stores ordered it, and it came back by truck,"
Two decades later, the former goldmining town, 150 kilometres north-west of Melbourne, has been recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation as one of the world's food centres, joining 36 cities around the globe, including Parma in Italy, Merida in Mexico, Phuket in Thailand, and Yangzhou, China.
The UNESCO City of Gastronomy award was handed down to Bendigo and its surrounding shires in late 2019, "but with bushfires and COVID, we were not able to capitalise on it", says Bendigo Tourism's marketing manager, Glenn Harvey.
Yet despite COVID, a dozen new bars, restaurants and cellar doors have opened in and around Bendigo in the past 12 months alone.
In March last year, former MoVida manager Ellis Nuttall opened the doors to Ms Batterhams opposite Bendigo Art Gallery. He grew up on a farm on the edge of Bendigo and built a career in Melbourne but returned to Central Victoria for a quieter life and a smaller mortgage.
"For years, I was scared that Bendigo would not have the appetite for the level of food we wanted to serve," says Nuttall. "But that has changed. The population has changed. The food culture has changed."
Glenn Harvey says the UNESCO recognition has given businesses the confidence to open in greater Bendigo.
Restaurateur Tim Foster took over the historic Gold Mines Hotel in Bendigo's Golden Square in 2018, and in the coming months he will relaunch with a fine-dining restaurant.
Ellis Wines are made at the estate vineyard at Colbinabbin, north of Heathcote, part of Greater Bendigo. The winery opened its new cellar door in the heart of Bendigo mid last year, pairing wines grown in the district's rich Cambrian soils with cheese platters. North of Heathcote, Tellurian Wineshas opened a $2 million cellar door confidently offering pre-booked, pre-paid seated wine tastings supervised by a qualified sommelier.
So how did a town with very little arable land and no natural fresh water in the middle of Victoria become internationally recognised for its gastronomy? "It took time, and it took teamwork," says Murphy, whose store, Bendigo Wholefoods, now buys more than $1 million of local produce annually.
Murphy and his wife Nicole founded the Food Fossickers network in 2007. The not-for-profit community network aims to connect the people who eat and cook food with the people who grow and produce it.
Among the early members of the network was Michele Martin, who co-founded Bendigo Community Farmers' Market. Teaming up with Nicole Murphy, Martin started writing a column for the now defunct Bendigo Weekly newspaper, featuring local vegetable growers, orchardists and beef farmers. When local cafes and restaurants took notice of the campaign and started sourcing ingredients from nearby producers, the food activists wrote articles about the venues.
Chefs Sonia and Nick Anthony, who opened Masons of Bendigo in 2012, were early adopters of the local-and-seasonal mantra, and used the Food Fossicker website as a tool to finding suppliers.
"We were seeing people returning to their family farms to start small-scale farming for the first time in generations," says Sonia.
She cites McIvor Farm Foods as an example. This is where husband and wife Jason and Belinda Hagen raise free-range pigs on the family farm, where generations before animals were bred, butchered and sold through a small butcher's shop on the main road at Tooborac.
Today, their award-winning pork is prominent on restaurant menus in greater Bendigo and is sold at their new farmgate shop, which features alongside dozens of other farm gates, bakeries, restaurants, distilleries and coffee roasters on the new interactive Bendigo and Region Gastronomy Guide, which was launched in March. bendigogastronomy.com.au