Put East Gippsland on your holiday radar this year: the smoke has cleared and the locals are hungry for our business.
Farmer Josh Thomas pulls a peach from a tree, brushes ash from its fuzz, and takes a big, juicy bite. "It still tastes great," he says, nectar running down his arm. The ash fell from the sky on December 30, when bushfire tore through Sarsfield, 10 kilometres to the north, and loomed on the flats to the south. "There was billowing smoke, smouldering leaves and huge bark embers falling from the sky," says Thomas.
He and his partner Saskia prepared to evacuate Rivendell, the Thomas family's lovingly tended property. They plugged downpipes and filled the guttering with water. They cut their horses' manes and tails so they were less susceptible to ember attack. They crated the cats, called the dogs and – last minute – Saskia packed her cello and Thomas' dad's vintage guitar before driving to a friend's place out of the danger zone.
Their phones pinged constantly with VicEmergency app notifications – one alert seemed to show that their home was on fire. "I don't know what I thought," Thomas says. "You're just in it." But when they returned the next day, the property had been spared. The farmhouse, the cattle, the truffiere, the unique water-tank accommodation they rent out to guests, and the walled garden that works for weddings, parties, anything: all were OK. Grass fires had flared on low-lying paddocks and it looked like helicopters had water-bombed them to a smoulder. The presence of cows in the orchard suggested ground crews had been by to fight fire, leaving gates open in their wake.
I'm visiting a month later, eating my way around East Gippsland, celebrating what's been saved, and calibrating the trauma and hardship of fire, smoke, loss and fear. Everyone has a story. No one is untouched. Crying in front of interviewees is not my journalistic modus operandi but I find myself moved to tears again and again by the wounds and troubles wrought by our summer. I pat dogs very fiercely to regain professional equilibrium. I blink hard at horizons. I hug, when that seems like an OK thing to do. And, of course, I eat.
You often find in the food world that the webs of connection run far, fast and deep. As it happens, I had tasted Josh Thomas' ashy stone fruit before I got to his farm. At Northern Ground cafe in Bairnsdale, chef Rob Turner wraps wedges of barbecued nectarine with his first home-cured prosciutto, salty and smoky working in bittersweet harmony on a ploughman's platter that is a jaunt around the region. There's pickled zucchini from up the road, a soft-boiled egg from Forge Creek on the other side of Bairnsdale, greens from Lindenow 10 minutes away, a terrine of Bruthen Creek pork, and apple puree made from nearby Picnic Point apples.
"There's a reason I use local produce and it's not because it's on our doorstep," says Turner. "It's because it quite simply is the best. It's great to pick fruit on the way to work – local produce is logical. But the primary reason is that it's the best."
As I make my way from Bairnsdale to Marlo and back again, it feels like my appetite is being handballed from producer to chef to winemaker to fisherman to farmer to cafe owner, each of them eager to share what this special part of Victoria has to offer. It's more than regional feasting: it's an edible narrative that's expressive, meaningful and tangible. And you know what? Everyone in East Gippsland would love you to eat their story, too.
Chef Rob Turner uses local produce in Euro-focused dishes like the Gippsland ploughman's platter and a bouillabaisse made with Lakes Entrance seafood. If you're coming from Melbourne, Bairnsdale is three hours along the A1 and Northern Ground is the perfect place to kick off an East Gippsland journey.
144 Main Street, Bairnsdale, northernground.com.au
Nicholson River Winery
Ken and Juliet Eckersley have been growing grapes and making wine here since 1978. Their brand new Barrel Room bistro had been open two weeks when nearby fires saw the chef evacuate and bookings evaporate. A month later, the Eckersleys learnt that the smoke that settled over their vines had tainted the grapes, forcing them to write off this year's vintage. It's been a dreadful summer but winemakers are trained by circumstance to be eternal optimists. The Barrel Room has just reopened with great views and a Gippsland-focused menu including feral deer turned into venison dishes. Ken is always up for a chat in the cellar door, too. While you're in the area, check out Tambo Winery, nine kilometres away.
20 Cabernet Close, Nicholson, nicholsonriverwinery.com.au
Lightfoot and Sons Wines
You'll see Lightfoot wines on menus all around the region. The cellar door has a huge deck with views to the limestone bluff that nurtures the Lightfoot family's grapes and overlooks fertile farmland, which grows lettuce and corn for the city. Try the light, fresh Green wine, based on a Portuguese vinho verde style. Tom Lightfoot told me it's perfect for "day drinking" – proving him right has been enjoyable!
717 Wy Yung-Calulu Road, Calulu, lightfootwines.com
Lindenow Long Paddock
Tanya Bertino grew up in Lindenow and her family runs a dairy farm down the road. She worked as a fine-dining chef – including at Vue de Monde – before returning to her tiny home town and opening a charming cafe that anchors community. I inhaled the spanakopita made with greens from across the road (pictured right; photo: Richard Cornish).
95 Main Road, Lindenow, longpaddock.com.au
Picnic Point Farm
Two generations of the Baldwin family grow modern and heirloom apples along the Mitchell River and you can buy direct from the farm shed. Ask about excellent value seconds for baking and sauces.
172 Drevermann Street, Bairnsdale, picnicpointfarm.com.au
Time at Rivendell is about connection – to the land, animals, gardens, and to owner Josh Thomas himself. Sometime sourdough baker, cheesemaker and charcutier, Thomas runs cottage accommodation, hosts weddings or your next big party and runs occasional immersive food events – get him to tell you about the lamb slaughter.
926 Stephenson Road, Tambo Upper, rivendelleastgippsland.com.au
Sardine in Paynesville Photo: Jessica Shapiro
Sardine Eatery Bar
Mark and Victoria Briggs' bright, busy restaurant showcases Gippsland cuisine in accessible fine-dining dishes. Think sardines done nicoise-style with beans and cured egg yolk, or outstanding snapper with clams and sea herbs.
65-69A Esplanade, Paynesville, sardineeaterybar.com
The classic pub menu is well-stocked with local seafood, and the view to bobbing boats in Bancroft Bay is beyond beautiful. See if the general store next door has some Seasalt sourdough, baked up the road in Swan Reach.
Kurnai Avenue, Metung, metunghotel.com.au
Beer is brewed on site and a massive menu sorts out locals and tourists with everything from sake clams to Hawaiian pizza. Bruthen is a sweet town with a huge grassy median for micronapping and the main street is worth a wander. I never leave the quirky secondhand store without an odd treasure. The pub has a massive back deck with great views too.
46 Main Street, Bruthen, bullantbrewery.com
Gab and Chris Moore of Sailors Grave Brewery in Orbost. Photo: Dani Valent
Sailors Grave Brewery
I got a bit messy visiting Chris and Gab Moore at their brewery, carved out of the dilapidated old butter factory in Orbost. Sailors Grave Brewery is named after a gnarly cove at Cape Conran coastal park, 30 minutes east of its namesake brewery. The Sailors Grave beach is a special place for the Moore family, and for me. I've been camping at Conran every summer for 16 years – like many people who treasure it, I feel like the place is part of me. The coastal park had been evacuated before New Year, so we hadn't been camping, but I had counted on a quick head-duck into the ocean during this East Gippsland odyssey. It wasn't to be. As I left Melbourne to head east, the campground was burning and the Sailors Grave dunes and scrub were blackened all the way to the sand. Somehow, that's all the more reason to celebrate Sailors Grave beer, with its creative seasonal flavours and incredible can artwork. It's available throughout the region and at stockists nationally.
7 Forest Road, Orbost, sailorsgravebrewing.com
This classic pub is great for a game of pool, fab for flathead tails on the deck, and amazing for its big front lawn, where kids and dogs can run free in front of killer sunsets. Visit the pier down below to say hello to the local seal.
19 Argyle Parade, Marlo, marlohotel.com.au
You can buy fish straight off the boats at Lakes Entrance, but if you're not in cooking or Esky mode, get Sam Mahlook and her family to sort you out for local salmon, flathead or octopus dishes at their relaxed restaurant.
3 Bulmer Street, Lakes Entrance, miriamsrestaurant.com.au
The Bush Cafe
Owned by local Gunaikurnai people at their land and water corporation headquarters, this easygoing cafe is open weekdays for great value simple lunches with Indigenous flourishes. My pick is the flathead tails, expertly battered by chef Kevin Murray and served with fresh salad and chips.
Forestec, 27 Scriveners Road, Kalimna West, facebook.com/glawac
The Barn at Kalimna
Turn into the garden centre to find the welcoming and versatile cafe behind it. They take pride in their coffee and have fun with regular themed nights, anything from a Mexican banquet to a cheesy burger fest.
5 Comers Road, Lakes Entrance, facebook.com/thebarnatkalimna
The Fruit Farm
If you are able to obey instructions not to squeeze the produce, then you're welcome to visit the Jenkins' farm for fresh-picked fruit, homemade jam and local eggs and honey.
54 Bumberrah Road, Johnsonville, 03 5156 4549
Can't go, can buy
- Keep an eye on the Go East Gippy instagram.com/goeastgippy campaign, which is hosting an East Gippsland farmers' market in Melbourne, as well as regional #emptyesky markets in Lakes Entrance (February 29), Bruthen (March 8) and Marlo (April 11).
- Buy Snowy River black garlic, grown out the back of Orbost and turned into sweet black garlic by farmer Mark Johnstone. It's available online and via city stockists, blackgarlic.net.au
- Look out for Forge Creek Free Range Eggs, produced outside Bairnsdale and prized by local chefs. forgecreekfreerange.com.au
- Try Gippsland wine or beer next time you're in a restaurant or bottle shop.
- Gippsland Jersey milk is sweet, smooth, creamy and farmer-owned, gippslandjersey.com.au