Dan Hunter's Grampians

Chef Dan Hunter of Dunkeld’s Royal Mail Hotel gives us his insider’s guide to the Grampians’ finest.

Most people think of a homogeneous region when they think of the Grampians. They think it's remote, it's outback. But in fact it's incredibly diverse. The southern Grampians get quite a bit more rainfall than the northern Grampians, and the plains to the south are dominated by pasture for beef and sheep. Hopkins River Beef is here, running grass-fed as well as grain-fed Angus, which they supply to some of Victoria's top restaurants. The coast is quite close - Port Fairy is only 50 minutes away. And there are some beautiful wetlands in the southern Grampians. When I first moved here the area had been through a 10-year drought, so I didn't notice them; the paddocks were bare. But when the drought ended, suddenly some of the paddocks were under water, and a lot of native birds arrived.
The northern end of the ranges, up to Mt Stapylton and Mt Zero, is very different: it's rocky and dry, and well known for rock climbing. Olives grow really well up there. North of there again, towards the Wimmera, the landscape flattens out again and the land is good for cropping. Wheat, other grains and pistachios do well there.
I enjoy driving early and late in the day, when the light is soft. The sunset glowing off the sandstone of the west face of the mountains is beautiful. The waterfalls, creeks, walking tracks, rock-climbing routes and camping grounds throughout the Grampians have made it perennially popular with people seeking nature-based experiences.
It's those natural features that have made the Grampians iconic. But the focus is starting to shift or expand as winemakers and smaller food producers make their mark here. Of course, wine has been made in western Victoria for generations, but now people are recognising the sense of abundance and space that exists here and are making the most of it.
At the Royal Mail we have a large vegetable garden. The main growing season is late winter or spring to mid-autumn, so that's our most abundant time of year, but we like the cooler winter months because the rain is so important to farmers. And autumn is a busy time because there is so much wild produce for foraging - slippery jacks, pine mushrooms. It's a time for getting in amongst it.
Grampians Pure Sheep Dairy
One of the local producers with whom the Royal Mail has built a relationship is Grampians Pure Sheep Dairy, just outside Dunkeld. It's a small farmhouse dairy selling produce at the farm gate, including yoghurts and cheeses. Visitors can pop in any day for a tour of the farm and the dairy, and to purchase some yoghurt, made daily. One of the owners, Bruce or Elisabeth Cumming, will be there for sure. Glenelg Hwy, Glenthompson, (03) 5577 4223
Enigma Variations
A couple of minutes from the Royal Mail is a small winery and biodynamic farm, Enigma Variations. The natural winemaking set-up is interesting to see because it's all open - there's nothing hidden away. Chenin blanc and syrah are grown there, and the winemaker, Tamara Irish, keeps chickens, bees and rare-breed pigs, and grows vegetables. We enjoy her wines and often offer them with the tasting menu at the Royal Mail. The cellar door is open from Thursday to Sunday, but they prefer a phone call first. What they offer there is more than wine-tasting; it's an experience. 0417 894 081
Other wineries
Winemaking in western Victoria has a long history, and the region is starting to become better known. At Best's, the first vines were planted in 1867, and they're making great interesting wines. The tasting room is in the old stables, which were built from red gum slabs in 1869. The oldest vines at Seppelt, too, date from the 1860s, and you can take a guided tour of the extensive underground cellars. Visit both wineries on a daytrip to the town of Great Western, 90km north-east of Dunkeld.
Mount Zero Olives
Mount Zero Olives has expanded into a sort of cooperative of growers and sells chickpeas, red lentils and Tasmanian quinoa as well as olive oils. Tastings are available, and the produce shop and café is a lovely place to just sit and be. Country people are famous for being open and approachable, and at Mount Zero you'll experience real country hospitality. 
Toscana is another one of several olive producers in the northern Grampians. Olives go really well up here where it's drier and rockier than the southern Grampians. Toscana offers tours of the olive grove and processing plant as well as products and tastings. We use their lemon-pressed extra-virgin olive oil at the Royal Mail. 
Halls Gap is a great base for walks, from five-minute strolls to eight-hour hikes. The waterfalls in the area are especially beautiful - MacKenzie Falls is a must, and there's a popular picnic area here. The quick walk to the summit of Mt William (3.6km return) is good for fantastic views of the whole district. Closer to Dunkeld, the walks to the top of Mt Sturgeon (7km return) and Mt Abrupt (6.5km) aren't too stressful. From the top of Mt Abrupt you'll get spectacular views of the national park. Up in the northern part of the park is the Ngamadjidj Aboriginal art site, which is only five minutes' walk from the carpark. I haven't seen it myself yet but it's a good example of the cultural dimension of the Grampians. 
Spring is a busy time of year at the Royal Mail, when the wild orchids and other wildflowers are in bloom and people make a special trip to see them. It's amazing to walk through a native forest that's been burnt by bushfires and see so much colour at ground level. The northern part of the Grampians is always the first to see wildflower displays. A little later, in the south, look along the road from Dunkeld to Halls Gap, and on the walk to the top of Mt William.
Art galleries
This area has a long history of European settlement and has been home to prominent families for generations, so there has always been a certain level of affluence here, and often the arts follow affluence. Hamilton Art Gallery has an interesting permanent collection of local and other Australian artists and shows travelling exhibitions too. It's a highilight of Hamilton. Dunkeld, too, has a number of small independent galleries. 
Roz Greenwood Old & Rare Books
Opposite the Royal Mail there's a bookshop owned by Roz Greenwood, who's been a bookseller for a long time and is very well connected in the industry. People are blown away when they see what's available - it's an amazing shop, and Roz can track down almost any title you want. 107a Parker St, Dunkeld, (03) 5577 2365
Brambuk is the indigenous cultural centre in Halls Gap. It offers themed tours and guided walks, and it has a unique garden of edible indigenous plants. The food knowledge held there is a great resource for us at the Royal Mail. Brambuk is also the national park information centre, so it's the best place to get hold of maps and brochures about the walks in the area.