It would be easy to spend an entire stay at The Kilns, in Victoria's Ovens Valley, staring out one of the vast box-frame picture windows set into the corrugated-iron walls. Beyond the surrounding cattle stud, filled with curious black Angus bulls, cows and calves, lie rows of grapevines, native forest and the granite bulk of Mount Buffalo, above which clouds blow in and out of the valley across a vast tract of sky.
Three hours from Melbourne, seven from Sydney, The Kilns is a modern take on the homestead. Designed by architect Sally Draper, with interiors by Russell Grainger, the one-level house is set in a paddock by the Great Alpine Road 10 minutes before the town of Bright, gateway to the snowfields of Mount Hotham and Falls Creek.
The property's two corrugated-iron 1950s tobacco kilns were dismantled and rebuilt on-site. They were transformed into luxe living areas featuring soaring ceilings, cowhide rugs, a slow-combustion stove and a collection of contemporary Italian furniture: deep leather couches, Tolomeo lamps and carved wooden side tables-cum-stools.
The spaces are unabashedly modern, designed to take in the landscape and bask in natural light. In the hallways, floor-to-ceiling windows offer sweeping views; from the main spa bath there is enough privacy to bathe with full views of Mount Buffalo. The full cook's kitchen is complemented by a barbecue for the warmer months; for wintry stews, there's a stash of cast-iron pots. After meals, guests can retreat to the piano, to the master bedroom's long desk (with internet access) or to the couch to attack the pile of glossy magazines.
Owners Clare and Jim Delany are building two more kiln-inspired houses on their property, with construction slated to start this March. "This place has been such a success," says Clare. "Word gets around. There's a real market here for this kind of luxury, modern accommodation - we have to block it off for ourselves a year in advance."
The property's location makes it the perfect base camp for foodies, given its proximity to the scenic towns of Bright, Myrtleford, Beechworth, Milawa and Whitfield, as well as dozens of wineries and other food producers dotted along the country roads.
"There's something about High Country hospitality that sets it apart," says restaurateur and Slow Food pioneer James Broadway of Melbourne's Gertrude Street Enoteca. Broadway has been coming to the High Country for years. When not clad in Lycra on his French carbon-fibre bicycle, conquering the extreme bike trails in the area, he might be found having a glass of wine at the bar of Simone's Restaurant, catching up with Patrizia Simone, the woman who helped to put the High Country on the map with her Italian regional food.
The family-run Simone's opened in Bright in 1986, four years after legendary Giaconda winemaker Rick Kinzbrunner planted his first vines in the region - a pivotal time in its development. For a perfect autumn dish, Simone prepares baked figs wrapped in prosciutto with fior di latte, a cow's milk cheese. So connected is she to the local produce that she can tell you exactly when those figs were picked. The Simone's team butcher their own locally sourced meat. In the kitchen, they turn out such treats as nougat, baci, and tortellini made from Mount Beauty free-range eggs.
The High Country enjoys four distinct seasons and a mountain climate: hot summers, cool nights with gentle breezes through the valleys, high rainfall, heavy frosts in winter and plenty of sunny days, and this all adds up to a steady stream of produce. The locals' passion for great food sees them dining elbow to elbow with tourists in the region's many top-end restaurants, and often turning up at the kitchen door with bundles, baskets and bags straight off the farm.
Becoming one of Australia's best food and wine regions "happened quietly when no one was looking", says James Broadway. "We're not all lawyers around here," adds Christian Dal Zotto of the eponymous winery. "We're farmers and we love what we do." And it shows. The infrastructure, if you like, of the area is solid gold.
Providores regularly bring their star fruits and vegetables to Michael Ryan at Provenance Restaurant in Beechworth for consideration. In autumn, he is supplied with plump, shiny zucchini ("zucchini bombs", he jokes) that will become zucchini carpaccio with tomato jelly, olive sauce, parmesan and extra-virgin olive oil. Similarly, ice-cream makers from the nearby Kiewa Valley have linked up with Ryan to develop some unusual flavours. A salted butter caramel variety and a bitter almond version used in the restaurant's affogato are among recent successes.
Provenance is housed in the centre of town in an old bank that dates back to 1856. "It has so much character," says Ryan. The new business includes four guest suites, essential for many gastronomic tourists. "They want the whole package," he says.
Ryan isn't new to Beechworth. He did a stint at the town's Wardens Food & Wine before opening Range, in nearby Myrtleford, three years ago. Under Ryan, Range was widely acclaimed as one of the very best country restaurants in Victoria.
At his latest venture, he works with only a sous chef and an apprentice in a kitchen typically producing a menu of just four starters, six entrées and six mains. A favourite is feather-light potato gnocchi (he likes to use around 15 per cent flour) that is served with cauliflower, new-season Mount Buffalo hazelnuts, sage, and King River Gold cheese from the nearby Milawa Cheese factory.
The wine list, compiled by his wife, Jeanette Henderson, includes drops from regional up-and-comers such as Dal Zotto (the deliciously dry and hard-to-find prosecco) and Mayford (chardonnay) as well as premium well-established names such as Giaconda, Castagna, Sorrenberg and Savaterre. Henderson has also thrown premier cru Chablis, big Italian reds and even biodynamic Champagne into the mix.
The slower pace of life here creates time for regeneration rather than burn-out. The chef's working week is typically four or five days, instead of the six- or seven-day grind common in the city. This is probably why every chef, winemaker, grower or brewer you meet around here always seems to be full of ideas. In her spare time, Patrizia Simone leads culinary tours around her native Umbria; Rick Kinzbrunner collects Australian ceramics and early Australian furniture and spends several months in the Languedoc region of France each year.
Kinzbrunner is also completing an underground tunnel of solid granite that is being blasted out of the side of a hill on his property near Beechworth. It will be the perfect temperature for wine storage, leaving no need for the energy-hungry airconditioners that cool the cellars and wine storage sheds of most Australian wineries over the hot summer. A concert violinist has tested the acoustics in the tunnel, giving it the thumbs-up.
Beechworth itself, an historic gold-mining town, is filled with food and wine stores, delicatessens, bakeries and homewares stores. An old corner pub is now Wardens Food & Wine, the creation of Puglia native Rocco Esposito and his wife Lisa Pidutti and a haunt of many top local winemakers. The wine list is Esposito's very personal project, featuring top local wines and select international favourites, especially Italian reds. Chef Douglas Elder continues the strong Italian influences begun by Michael Ryan - think risotto of char-grilled quail, fennel sausage and butternut squash with local hazelnuts. Two blocks away, the Green Shed Bistro is also a place for a long, slow Saturday lunch.
One of the challenges of a visit to the area is pacing the meals. Everything seems to revolve around food and wine. Thankfully, there are many walking tracks in the area for burning off excess calories, including shady winding paths alongside the Kiewa River, and more strenuous tracks on Mount Buffalo. Outdoor enthusiasts can also try fly-fishing, lilo-ing down the rivers, horse-riding, hang-gliding and rock-climbing. For cyclists, the options are varied: there are the recreational rail trails - easy routes formed along abandoned rail corridors, best suited to hybrids or mountain bikes - and year-round road cycling events. Cycling is so popular in this part of the world that wineries have been known to install bike racks for those precious $10,000 Orbea bicycles.
Unfortunately, not all the wineries are open to the public - Giaconda, Castagna, Battely, Sorrenberg and Savaterre, for example, are by appointment only. Their wines are so covetable they cannot keep up with demand from restaurants, let alone passing trade. But plenty of other wineries - among them Boynton's, Pizzini, Chrismont, Gapsted and Dal Zotto - offer great cellar door experiences.
Make time for frequent stops at roadside stalls selling everything from free-range eggs and honey to potatoes, berries and nuts - even the most lethargic chef will find inspiration here. In a day's touring of the region it's easy to gather up a feast to prepare when you eventually make your way back to The Kilns.
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