The first thing you notice when you drive into Beechworth is that it's a very pretty town. Gold was first discovered here in 1852, and the subsequent gold rush brought a lot of money to the area. It only took a couple of years before some very substantial buildings were constructed, including the one that now houses Provenance restaurant. It's the former Bank of Australasia, built in 1856, and the original bank vault is home to our wine cellar. The wealth of the era is reflected in the building itself, which has six-metre ceilings and elaborate arched windows.
The Historic and Cultural Precinct in the centre of town encompasses the courthouse, the town hall and other historically significant buildings. And the town's hotels and other former bank buildings all contribute to the well-preserved look of the town.
It hasn't always been a tourist town. It had a working asylum and a prison, and although it wasn't economically depressed, it wasn't wealthy either. In the 1970s, in the face of pressure from developers, a group of locals were successful in helping preserve the look of the town.
Now its population of about 3000 swells with tourists on weekends.
In this mountainous region, the Kiewa Valley, the Ovens Valley and the King Valley all have their own beauty and attractions, although I think the Kiewa Valley is perhaps the prettiest. You could easily spend a couple of days exploring the main towns of Bright, Myrtleford, Beechworth and Mount Beauty. Beechworth itself has enough pubs and restaurants that visitors can wander down the streets and explore in between going for walks and wine-tastings out of town.
North-east Victoria is very seasonal, which I love, because monotony gets to me. Here you have the extremes. Summer can be tough because it's so warm, but it's great for produce - tomatoes, zucchini flowers, basil. Spring is very pretty, but autumn is my favourite time of the year, with its warm days and crisp, cool evenings. It's a time when the deciduous European trees are losing their leaves and the mushrooms are coming in.
MICHAEL'S TOP PICKS
Tani Eat & Drink, Bright
Chef Hamish Nugent doesn't take the easy path. With his co-chef Rachel Reed, his partner in the business and life, he makes his own soft-curd cheeses and sourdough, and he's a very creative chef. Having worked for me at Provenance, he cooks food that is linked to mine in its use of Japanese ingredients and techniques, but he's always thinking, so you have small dishes such as spanner crab with saltbush, bonito and puffed rice, or fresh cheese with hop shoots and honey. Tani is open for dinner Wednesday to Sunday, and for lunch on weekends. It's on the main road through Bright, opposite the brewery.
Café Dérailleur, Wangaratta
On the face of it, Café Dérailleur is just a coffee shop, but owner Eric Bittner makes all his own breads and pastries, and he's deadly serious about the quality of his coffee. Eric used to work for me front of house at Range restaurant in Myrtleford, then he studied cooking; he's also worked at Provenance, among other places. He's precise in the kitchen, and very engaging - customers love him. With Café Dérailleur he's proved that location isn't everything. It's opposite the train station in Wangaratta, away from the centre of town, but it's always packed.
I've never done the so-called "Big Walk" from near the top to the bottom of Mt Buffalo, but I've always thought it'd be a great thing to do. It's about 11km of walking, and it descends (or ascends) more than 1000 metres. The area around the historic chalet has echoes of how the mountain was regarded in the 1920s, when it was the resort area in Victoria. Ice-skating on Lake Catani was popular in those days, as was tennis in summer, and the old cricket ground is still a great spot. Pack a picnic and enjoy some of the best views in the area from the lookouts, where you can also see paragliders thermalling above the valley. A little further down the mountain, we like to take our daughter on the short walk to Ladies Bath Falls, where there's a gorgeous waterhole.
Bridge Road Brewers, Beechworth
It started off as a small pizza place with a brewery out the back, but Bridge Road Brewers keeps getting bigger and better. There aren't many breweries that have access to fresh local hops - most use dried - but hops grow well in the north-east, so Bridge Road Brewers uses them in special releases after harvest from time to time. The classic pizzas are good - I go for the prawn and chilli version. It's a great spot for Sunday lunch, and on Sunday evenings it's packed with locals.
Even if it weren't for the pub, the cute village of Stanley would still be worth a visit. It's where I send photographers. Turn right just past the pub and head to the apple and chestnut orchards. They're very picturesque. The pub is run by friends of ours, Shane and Annemarie Harris, who came here from Sydney, and Shauna Stockwell does the cooking. She's taken it in a very French bistro-style direction, so you'll find terrines, confit duck, and French cheeses as well as local produce such as chestnuts, walnuts and Gundowring ice-cream. The wine list is compact but interesting, with a good selection of local and imported wines, and the big beer garden is great in summer. Just this year the road from Myrtleford to Stanley has been sealed, and now it's a really lovely drive.
Broadgauge restaurant in the old Wodonga railway station hadn't yet opened at the time of writing, but I know it will be a place I'll definitely want to eat at come June or July. Steve Carne and Jodie Jones have been running The Kitchen at the Courthouse Hotel in Howlong, and before that they had Sourcedining in Albury. At Broadgauge they'll still be doing modern Australian food, but it'll be less fine-dining and more pared back, with a focus on great steaks, including wagyu from Sher Wagyu's Tallangatta property.
North-east Victoria has six wine regions: Rutherglen, Beechworth, Glenrowan, Upper Goulburn, King Valley and Alpine Valleys, which takes in the Ovens, Buffalo, Buckland and Kiewa valleys. There are too many excellent wineries to describe, but for a good cellar-door experience, a couple worth mentioning include Feathertop Wines in Porepunkah and Brown Brothers in Milawa. Feathertop Wines, run by the Boyntons, has an amazing location, looking right up at Mt Buffalo. Brown Brothers not only offers tastings but runs tours seven days a week, and chef Douglas Elder is doing very good things at the restaurant there, Patricia's Table.
A lot of our guests at Provenance have enjoyed a class at one of the two local cooking schools. At Pizzini winery in Whitfield, Katrina Pizzini teaches home cheesemaking and pastry, among other specialties. It's a great set-up. In Bright, Patrizia Simone has opened a purpose-built cooking school where she teaches Italian cuisine, particularly pasta. Typically, participants might have a cooking lesson followed by lunch or dinner. Both schools also give an insight into the Italian communities of Whitfield and Bright. It makes for a good day out.
All Saints Estate, Rutherglen
All Saints is a curious building, a sort of castle built in the late 19th century from bricks made on site. It's surrounded by some of the most beautiful gardens in the area and it has a grand tree-lined entrance. Winery tours are available on weekends. At the Terrace restaurant, Simon Arkless cooks a modern Australian menu. It's good stuff.
Cellar Door Wine Store, Beechworth
It's a natural progression for former staff to open up places of their own, and Aaron Taylor and Martina Brazdovicova both worked front of house at Provenance before they started Cellar Door Wine Store last year. It's what I call a proper wine bar, with really good local and imported wines, cheese, charcuterie, a Berkel slicer and seriously good coffee. There's one table inside and some outdoor seating, plus spots at the bar - very cosy. I often go there for lunch on a Monday.