It's 8.30am on a brisk autumn Monday when a minivan pulls up in Mansfield, 180 kilometres north-east of Melbourne. MoVida's Frank Camorra and seven of his chefs and sommeliers spill forth, savagely under-caffeinated, all black jeans and rumpled hoodies.They're on a produce-sourcing road-trip, trawling the hills, dales and misty fields of Victoria's High Country for ingredients and special bottles to bring back to their city restaurants.
But first, coffee. Mansfield Coffee Merchant is a big, busy all-day cafe that roasts its own single-origin beans and fuels the crew with chilli-jammed scotch eggs and muesli pots. The weekday bustle in the main street cafe undoes the idea of a sleepy country town: it's pumping. Breakfasted and mostly awake, the chefs and sommeliers head to the first farm of the day, 20 kilometres up the road near Tolmie, in the lower reaches of the Great Dividing Range.
Nine years ago, after just six visits to their new weekender, Danni Schneider and Tim Szczerkowski quit the city and turned their Tolmie hobby plot into a garlic farm. They now grow 6000 bulbs a year on fields fertilised by clomping Clydesdales called Scarlet and Ned.
After much experimentation, the couple settled on a purple hardneck variety of garlic that adapted itself to their particular soil and the High Country's hot summers and icy winters. Garlic bulbs grow underground but Schneider also harvests the "bulbils", pearl-like garlic cloves that grow on the stalks. The tiny bulbils are arrestingly pretty, strong but sweet in flavour and can be used in dishes where they almost melt away, or as a bright last-minute garnish.
Camorra crushes one between finger and thumb. "They're amazing," he says. "This is the kind of thing we're hoping to get out of this trip. When you go to a producer and talk to them you always find something that's not at the forefront of their commercialisation. It's those, 'Hang on, have you tried this?' moments."
Where can I get it? The garlic season is over so diarise a trip to Mansfield Bush Market on Australia Day 2019 and be among the garlic lovers storming the Rushnot stall.
King River Picnic
With Mount Buller to the right, the convoy winds through hills to Dal Zotto winery, 45 minutes away in the King Valley. On the banks of the King River, a picnic table is laden with treasures, including local bread, veg and Milawa Cheese. "They're an iconic cheese producer," says Camorra. "It's great to go back to their blue and the washed rind King River Gold."
The sommeliers get busy tasting prosecco from Dal Zotto and nearby Pizzini while the chefs eat their way through Gamze Smokehouse's cured meats. Camorra is sceptical about the Gamze chorizo at first. "Because it's smoked it almost has the look of a Polish sausage," he says. "But when it's cooked the paprika and the pork flavours really come out and it reminds me of the chorizo from the north of Spain. I was honestly surprised how good it was."
He cooks a tortilla by the river over a fierce gas burner, letting the eggs sizzle in the rich, red, porky oil that seeps from the chorizo. Also in there, the pretty bulbils and eggs from our next stop, Tarrawalla Farm.
Where can I get it? Dal Zotto and Pizzini both have cellar doors. Milawa Cheese Company has a tasting room and restaurant in Milawa and is stocked at Oasis Bakery in Murrumbeena, Piedmontes in Fitzroy North and other delis. Gamze Smokehouse has a casual restaurant in Milawa and its products are stocked in retailers such as Leaf in Elwood and Toscano's in Kew, Hawthorn and Hawksburn.
Steve and Catherine Crawford were living in Melbourne when they decided they wanted more control over where their food was coming from. They went organic and shopped local but it wasn't quite enough for them.
They ended up ditching the city for a small holding in Tarrawingee, on the Ovens River just east of Wangaratta, and started working towards a "biofarm" using sun, rain, cattle and chickens to stimulate biodiversity, build soil health and, in so doing, grow delicious eggs, vegetables and meat. "As farmers, our main role is to capture and package sunlight," says Steve Crawford. "However we can convert that into a product that nurtures and nourishes people, the more valuable it's going to be."
"The passion and commitment to what they're doing is incredible," says Camorra, as happy, pasture-raised chooks curiously peck his boots. He used their eggs to make his riverbank tortilla, the vibrant orange yolks so rich they were hard to whisk.
Where can I get the eggs? Everyday Gourmet and Wangaratta Wholefoods in Wangaratta, and Beechworth Food Co-op.
Gamila's saffron. Photo: Greg Elms
Gamila at Beechworth
Just outside Beechworth, with its handsome gold-rush-era edifices, is Gamila MacRury's hardscrabble saffron farm. MacRury talks the chefs through the process of planting, lifting and caring for the corms (like a bulb), tending the crocus flowers and gently extracting the colourful, fragrant threads. Weather and disease can play havoc; indeed MacRury's biggest-ever harvest has been a mighty 11 grams, which goes some way to explaining why saffron is so expensive.
"Saffron is extremely temperamental and little understood as an ingredient," she says. "It's a perpetual rollercoaster of emotion." Camorra is impressed. "Her passion is extraordinary," he says.
Stanley Hall Premium Chestnuts
Ten minutes from Beechworth, near Stanley, Joy and Andrew Hall are one of a number of chestnut producers on the Stanley Plateau. It's harvest season and the chefs tramp the sun-speckled groves while pickers crouch on the leaf-littered ground, removing shiny chestnuts from their spiky burrs. There are 4000 trees here, and nine varieties of chestnut, including the prized di coppi marroni, a great eating chestnut that is famously easy to peel.
"It's a spectacular farm with incredible views," says Camorra. Andrew Hall, an ex-merchant banker who thought he was escaping to the High Country for an easy life, hasn't had the cushy tree-change he imagined. "We work seven days a week but it's the best office in the world," he says.
Where can I get them? The Halls supply chestnuts to major supermarkets and wholesalers, though they are unbranded so it is hard to tell whose chestnuts you're eating. They also supply to Cheznuts, who sell handy vacuum-packed peeled and cooked chestnuts.
Last stop is a small organic vegetable farm where Steve and Gena Cavini grow turnips, pumpkin, celeriac, quince, daikon and native warrigal greens, with rolling seasonal plantings. In an era of mono-culture farming, their small farm is vibrant, varied and intensely personal, and a great inspiration for the MoVida menus.
"As a chef, you're always trying to find that point of difference," says Camorra. "When you get to know the person making something and you learn why and how they're doing it, it's really special."
Where can I get it? Yack Organics opens the farm gate Wednesdays and Saturdays for pre-orders. Email them to find out what's in season and to put in an order.
MoVida Aqui presents a special High Country Harvest lunch this Saturday May 26. Bookings (03) 9663 3038. Dani Valent travelled to the High Country as a guest of Tourism North East.