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Joy - lunch at Dame Nellie Melba's place

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” John Keats

“Laughter is wine for the soul - laughter soft, or loud and deep, tinged through with seriousness - the hilarious declaration made by man that life is worth living.”

Sean O'Casey

I took this photograph through the window of a Yarra Valley restaurant over a week ago now. I meant to write about that day long before now but Christmas with all it's panics and busyness intervened. I have it now as my computer desktop photograph. It lifts my spirit every time I see that smile/laugh. It is far from being a perfect photograph. As I said, it was taken through a window and so it has the reflection of the window panes - I could say how arty - but really it's a distraction. You can't see the face of the second girl very clearly, but you can just see her smile.

You see, these girls were parading in front of table by the window, with enormous pots of flowers which were so striking, that I tried to catch the moment. We asked our waitress who said they were for a wedding which was taking place in the reception centre at the complex that evening. This is by far the best of the three I took, and I almost missed this time too. The young girl at the front turned to see me photographing her and smiled, almost laughed with delight, but I only just caught her before she moved out of the frame. You can just see her companion smiling too if you peer through the flowers. So young, so joyful, so optimistic in such a beautiful setting on such a beautiful day.

It lifts my heart because it tells me that even in these worst of times, with apocalypses of all kinds looming on the horizon, these young people can be so carefree, even care less. Optimistic or just unthinking? Does it matter anyway? Isn't that how we all have lived our lives - day to day - moment by moment? Shoring up those moments of joy to remember, and occasionally capture on film. This was just one of those magic moments.

We had decided to have lunch in the country with our friends of the productive garden, the week before Christmas. The original plan had been to go down to the Mornington Peninsular but it was decided in the end that it was too long a drive for oldies exhausted by the thought of Christmas. So we swapped one of Victoria's glorious locations for another - the Yarra Valley - which is just on our doorstep. It is, after all, also full of vineyards with excellent restaurants attached, and also just excellent restaurants - of which this is one. I think they might have some vines there now as well. This one is part of Dame Nellie Melba's estate a short drive beyond the edge of Melbourne - now - although once upon a time the edge of Melbourne was much further away. It is all immaculately preserved and the restaurant is located in the old motor house (too late for stables I suppose), which is dominated by its clocktower.

The visiting card is lovely, the grounds are lovely - what a paucity of descriptive words I have in my head today - and the hedges are magnificent.

The restaurant is called Coombe - after the main house - Coombe Cottage, in itself named after a holiday home that Dame Nellie rented once in England. It is still in the hands of her descendants, but these days you can take a guided tour of the house and gardens followed by lunch or coffee in the restaurant. The gardens also provide the ideal (and doubtless very expensive) setting for the perfect wedding.

Nellie Melba herself retired here. In her time she was described as the most famous woman in the world although to a foodie she is probably more well known as the lady who had a classic dessert - Peach Melba - named for her by Escoffier no less. And yes there are two different versions of peach melba on the menu at Coombe although we declined dessert, having eaten enough of our entrées and mains.

So what did we eat? Well I think we all plumped for the Melba gin cured trout with crab rillette, as an entrée, which was beautifully presented, tasted good - well how can you go wrong really - but which was a bit on the small, delicate side we thought.

This was followed by Roast barramundi fillet for Monika, slow-cooked Cape Grim beef rib (with gratin dauphinois) for me - yum, yum, yum and perhaps the star dish which David and Craig shared - slow cooked shoulder of lamb with roast jerusalem artichokes

Sort of what you would expect from such a place and I would go again, but probably not up to the standard of the Michelin star lunches that my son is treating his family to whilst on holiday in Spain and Portugal. There are photos but alas they are on What's App and Facebook, neither of which I have access to.

But why whinge about food - and I really am not whingeing for the food was delicious. But really the joy from the day all came from the company, from the beauty of the setting, from the smiling girls and then from a short visit we made to the grounds, and the wedding chapel at a nearby vineyard/wedding venue/restaurant called Stones - a location with stunning views - although it has to be said that almost all vineyards in the Yarra Valley have some sort of view, many of them almost posed. I guess they seem that way because the viewpoints and the buildings have been so artfully placed to capture the very best vista. And here at Stones there was also the enormous joy that David got from singing his pseudo Gregorian chants in the wedding chapel there, and getting some other visitors to do the same. Many smiles on many faces.

I will admit that our lunch at Dame Nellie's was privileged and mildly expensive. But the views are for free. We just wandered around Stone's without having to pay, and with nobody telling us to go away. After all we could have been somebody sussing out a wedding venue. And besides there are many cheaper places to eat out in the Yarra Valley, humble pizza places, the Chocolate Factory, numerous little cafés and many of them with similar views. You can wander around the entire Domaine Chandon - the ultimate luxury place perhaps - for free. You don't have to eat or buy wine - you can just wander and enjoy. Bathe in the beauty of the place. And it's just on our doorstep. Every time we need to refresh our souls, contemplate how beautiful this world is, all we have to do is drive for quarter of an hour and the vistas begin.

And if you do it in the company of friends there are likely to be a few more laughs. 55 years with one person, no matter how loved, perhaps limit the laughter. Although we often manage a smile. It's Christmas - well holiday time - although life is, of course, a permanent holiday for us these days, so we smile a little more often.

But such a joy to see that the young can smile, and laugh even in the face of a potentially dire future. I love that photo so much I'm going to repeat it here.

The most wasted of all days is one without laughter.” Nicolas Chamfort


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