This is sponsored content for Visit Victoria.
In the 1800s, if you were rattling pans in Ballarat it was by a river, looking for gold, but a host of new restaurants means that it's foodies who are now rushing to the regional town for a taste of winter.
Ballarat is just over an hour from Melbourne and it's full of great spots for a winter bite whether you're cosying up in a nook in a country pub, having a hearty café breakfast or heading to one of the region's new fine diners.
One of the latest places to plant a culinary flag right next to Ballarat's train station is Lola restaurant, housed in the recently renovated The Provincial Hotel that is co-owned by Simon and Gorgi Coghlan, presenter on Channel 10's The Project. "I think winter is the best time to visit Ballarat, it's when the city comes to life," says Gorgi. "You can enjoy good food, great wine and country hospitality."
The new-look "Pro" is now full of fabrics from New York, a celebration of local artists' works and antiques sourced from the region. This grand hotel has had quite a chequered history, much like Ballarat itself, and to celebrate this the in-house restaurant was named after famous goldfields courtesan Lola Montez.
Gorgi and Simon feel that Ballarat embraces winter much like they do in Europe, which was the inspiration behind the hotel and restaurant. "We saw that unique model where you have an incredible accommodation experience along with delicious, high-standard food and we felt that Ballarat really needed that offering," Gorgi says. "And what we loved about travelling to Europe is the simplicity of the food. It's not really interfered with much when you have incredible produce."
Signature dessert at Lola's Restaurant
Paddock to plate produce
For Lola, being part of this new Ballarat food scene meant sourcing all the produce as close to the doors of The Provincial as possible, a job given to head chef Shaun Thompson who has come from Peter Kuruvita's Flying Fish in Fiji as well as working with Neil Perry (Rockpool) and Peter Gilmore (Quay).
Thompson says that the theme is one of hearty produce that really comes into its own when the temperatures drop and diners are looking for something to combat the cold. The winter menu at Lola is full of braised meats, slow-cooked dishes and homey pastas, all celebrating Thompson's fresh local finds.
"It's just exciting that people are coming to the restaurant and dropping off boxes of quinces or blood plums," he says. "They might not grow a lot, but what they do grow has more flavour than a commercial product.
"The Ballarat region is so lucky with the sort of products they have right on their doorstep," says Thompson. "We have Bannockburn chicken, Western Plains pork and Sher Wagyu in Ballan. We also have some of the best charcuterie in Victoria with Salt Kitchen and Istra Smallgoods in Musk – it's all very local and it's all good produce."
Gorgi and Simon Coghlan see Lola, and The Provincial, as a champion not only for the produce but the new wave of hospitality operators setting up in Ballarat. "Ballarat has really exploded in the last couple of years," Simon says, citing venues such as Mr Jones (previously Catfish Thai) and authentic Spanish tapas bar Meigas as places they recommend to guests.
Gorgi is a big fan of Underbar, by Derek and Lucy Boath, a Thomas Keller alum from New York who have set up a tiny, degustation-only experience that wows the tastebuds of just a dozen diners in a sitting.
Degustation experiences are on offer at Underbar.
"I also love Café Sidra in Learmonth," says Gorgi. "Belinda [Brooksby] and Anthony [Penhall] are beautiful hosts and their food is exquisite, Belinda will just knock up a quince and cinnamon cake with fresh cream. And they have their own cider."
In each room at The Provincial you will also find a mini bottle of Kilderkin gin, made especially for the hotel. Gorgi and Simon cite Kilderkin as a great example of the passion projects that are fuelling Ballarat's new wave of foodies. "We sent some guests to Kilderkin distillery last weekend and what they loved the most was Chris's passion and devotion to producing this incredible gin," she says.
If you prefer a warming glass of winter red, then Gorgi suggests the Mitchell Harris Wine Bar in a heritage-listed building. "They were really the first people in Ballarat to turn everything on its head and say, 'we are not going to have a cellar door out at our vineyard, why not put it in the middle of town'," Gorgi says, adding that they stock Mitchell Harris's range of tipples. "We all tend to work together here in Ballarat to help each other out, our mantra is there is enough to share."
From small bars to filling meals, historical architecture made modern, and a city food scene making its mark in regional victoria, there's all this and more to enjoy in Ballarat this winter.
To follow the rush and plan your next foodie escape this winter visit: yourhappyspace.com.au