Was it about the wine, the view, the company or the food, maybe even the cookbooks?
We had a really good day yesterday, theoretically a day that was all about visiting our Nillumbik wineries - it was the October Open Cellars weekend. We went with good friends Monika and Craig, who, in our later years have been responsible for getting us out of the house and into the Victorian countryside on many occasions.
Nillumbik is the name of our local council. On this map of most of the Melbourne local councils, we are number 11 in the top right-hand corner. the bottom wiggly border is the River Yarra, and really the only fairly densely populated area of the shire is in its bottom left-hand corner - which is where we are. As you can see it is one of the larger councils in terms of area - but not in terms of population. Melbourne actually spreads much further southwards, but that part is not shown here - another major wine producing area as it happens - the Mornington Peninsular. And further to the west is Geelong and the next big wine growing area. Well actually Victoria has many, many wine producing areas. All situated in scenic spots and thus centres of tourism - not just for the wine, but also for the food, and the scenery and the history too.
Nillumbik is hilly. It includes within its boundaries the bottom of the Great Dividing Range that runs all the way up the east coast of Australia all the way to the top. Hills rather than mountains, even though we call them mountains occasionally. The Dandenong Ranges, for example, which we glimpsed here and there yesterday, with its highest peak Mount Dandenong may look as if its all forest from the distance, but it's actually part of Melbourne's outer, outer suburbs. Melbourne spreads a long way.
And because Nillumbik is hilly the views are pretty spectacular - at one point you could even see Melbourne city in the far distance. I didn't take the photograph below, it's a bit fuzzy and it is rather closer to the city than we were, but it gives you a picture I think.
But I'm rambling. So I'll just insert a couple of shots that I took on the day and note that driving through this wonderful part of Victoria was one of the highlights of the day, and also to note that we should do it more often. It might have been the Open Cellars weekend, but actually these days the wineries are mostly open at the weekend anyway.
So yes a goodly part of the journeying part of the day was the scenery.
What about the wine? Well yes - at least theoretically it was all about the wine. This time we were not perhaps very adventurous and visited just four wineries - well three wineries and one in town cellar door - all of them visited before.
At the in-town cellar door - Punch - there was expensive and not that wonderful wine, but hosted by an ex nurse at our GP practice. Whilst the men tasted, Monika and I wandered across the road to the St. Andrews market which is an outpost of Melbourne hippiedom. It was closing down really so the fresh fruit and vegetables were gone and most of the food as well. What remained were stalls such as this, bearded and unkempt hippies and a slight smell of marijuana in the air. Yes hippies still exist, although it has to be said that on the whole they are ageing.
But back to the wine. First stop Nillumbik Estate - the second picture in the gallery above is of the view. Here is the deck where people were enjoying the view and the pizza and platters. For here was the first point at which we noticed that the majority of the people who came to these venues - and there were plenty of them - were there for the food and the music rather than the wine. The wine tasting areas were relatively uncrowded. It was also obvious that during COVID most of the cellar door owners had taken the opportunity to expand and refresh their venues. If you want a pleasant afternoon drinking in the views, the wines and eating the food, then this is one of the many venues to head for. However we were a little disappointed with the wine, which we had memories of being good but which was not amazing - Aldi's recent gold medal winning South Point Pinot Grigio was much better. On the plus side - although I suspect the driver disagreed with that assessment - the GPS took us on a roundabout route along very narrow unmade roads, sometimes with a largish drop - but also that view of Melbourne and others out to the far north and east. A bonus for the scenery - a negative for the driver. Fortunately we did not meet anything coming the other way.
The best was yet to come though - first Shaws Road - a perennial favourite - the fabulous views in my gallery are from there. And here the winemaker - there are two but only the one on the left was there - sort of recognised us from our previous visits. Lovely wines - a little bit pricey but some chardonnay and pinot were purchased. Lots of work had been done during the COVID lockdown here - the arrangement of the cellar door and the restaurant had been completely revamped, and renewed, and the owner's house had been converted into three B&B apartments.
And finally, a mere ten minutes from our own house the welcoming Kings of Kangaroo Ground, where we were definitely recognised. Now this is home to some of the best wine - pinot and chardonnay were the stars for us and Craig also loved the shiraz - all purchased and brought home. Ken King a one-time Nillumbik mayor and manager of the Kangaroo Ground post office which is next door to his wine shed - partnered with Chris Ramsay in 2013. They are an entertaining pair, generous with their time and their knowledge. It's always a pleasure to catch up. The vineyard itself is very small but they also buy in grapes from nearby and also from Heathcote - to make that shiraz - indeed it won gold medals at the Heathcote wine show. Heathcote for those who don't know is a premier shiraz winemaking area. Lots of other gold medals too and at a much more accessible price.
One thing I noticed about Shaws Road and Kings of Kangaroo Ground was that the owners were ageing - particularly at Shaws Road. I hope that there is another generation waiting in the wings to carry on the tradition, and also, of course, that the current winemakers have several years of winemaking in them yet.
Food - what about the food? Well two things. With respect to the Open Cellars event it actually looked as if it was all about the food - and the food was relatively elaborate. We had intended to stop somewhere for a coffee and cake, or a dip or two - a snack anyway. But what seemed to be on offer was rather more substantial - very good looking mind you and worth a visit on its own account some time I think. We very briefly called in, without stopping, at another winery - Easthill Estate where there were quite large crowds sitting outside enjoying the spring sunshine and pizza.
The other thing was our dinner at home at the end of our cellar crawl. That leftover lemony chicken with some more asparagus for a starter; Elizabeth David's Carbonnade Nïmoïse for the main - made with lamb shoulder - the meat just fell apart; and finally another Ottolenghi dish - Pistachio macaron cake:
On the left the 'real' thing and on the right mine - and in spite of the much worse photography it actually looks much the same. I didn't do the Elderflower apricots that were supposed to accompany it of course - it's not apricot season, but gee it was good - and really very simple. Alas it's another one from that recent Ottolenghi cookbook so there is no recipe online, just an extremely rapid and short video from which that photo is taken, which doesn't really give you much of a clue about its fabrication. Honestly it took no more than half an hour - if that - to make it. Well- excluding the cooking time - also only half an hour.
Which brings me to the cookbooks. Monika, who is an extremely fine and interested cook spent some time browsing my Ottolenghi cookbooks - well the ones she does not have - and was so impressed by the cake and other things she saw in the book that she plans to go out and buy. Apparently he and Noor Murad are coming out on a celebrity cook tour. Don't think I shall bother.
Of course I did not take any photographs of the thing that was really the most important of the whole afternoon - time spent with our friends. In some ways it's a little bit sad that trips like these are always more enjoyable when done in the company of friends. When we were young and in love we did more such things on our own, although, now that I think about it, even then many of our most memorable escapes were with friends. Yes they were. Maybe two is not company. Maybe we need more.
It does show, however, that you can be a tourist wherever you are - even in your own hometown I'm guessing. Particularly if you live in historic places like England. There's always something to see and do.
This was an ancient grass tree at the Nillumbik Estate - isn't it wonderful?
David has told me to stop him buying any more wine - ever. Really?