A leading commentator on televised matches of Australian Rules football is renowned for his quick-witted quips and puns as much as for his football knowledge. Possibly the best known of the terms he has coined is “centimetre-perfect”, which is used to describe a precise transfer of the football by foot or hand from one player to a team-mate.
This term came to mind when Maggie cut into the porterhouse steak she ordered for dinner on our first night at the Mountain View Hotel, in the small town of Whitfield in the King Valley. Yes, it was her preferred shade of deep reddish pink in the middle but there was a thick layer of too-well-cooked meat on the top and bottom of the steak. This was due to the piece of beef being cut imperfectly, at least a centimetre over-sized, thus requiring excessive cooking to achieve a medium-rare result in the middle of the steak.
I chose a plate of local freshwater trout, accompanied by garlic prawns, roast potato pieces and wilted spinach. I was unsure how the two seafoods would work together but the trout was robust enough to hold its own and the chef had used the garlic lightly. A promising start to dining in the region.
The following night, we were advised that fresh supplies had arrived and we would be able to order the specialty of the house – roast pork knuckle, including a generous layer of crackling. One plate, at $39, including smashed potato and sauerkraut, was more than enough for the two of us. The dish proved to be all it was cracked up to be!
As a wine region, King Valley is best known for producing table wines from Italian grape varieties, eg sangiovese, arneis, barbera; this is hardly surprising, given the Italian heritage of so many of the region’s families. The greatest success-story, from a commercial point of view, has been prosecco, the grape that is grown in the north-east of Italy to produce a sparkling wine.
We bought three bottles of prosecco, including one from Dal Zotto wines, the first winery to make prosecco in Australia. Interestingly, the next time we visited one of the ‘barns’ that dominate the liquor retail trade here, we noticed that there were as many as 20 different brands of prosecco on display. Some were from Italy, several from the King Valley, and some were being offered by labels that have hitherto been associated with low-cost bubbly in a pseudo-French style. The prosecco band-wagon has left the station!
On our second day in the region, we set off from Whitfield on a round trip that would place us in Beechworth at lunchtime and then in Milawa on the way back. In the former, we had a light lunch at a local pub – adequate but nothing to write home about – and then we visited one of the two premises of Beechworth Honey, a business that is known for its commitment both to producing fine-quality commercial honey and to the Australian bee-keeping and honey industry. No imported honey crosses their threshold! There were at least 20 different varieties available for tasting and, with help from the staff, I found one that will be just right for the raw muesli I make.
Milawa is little more than a village set along the axes of two crossroads but it has become known as something of a gourmand’s destination and Milawa Cheese has been one of the pacesetting businesses. We were able to taste a generous number of cheeses (and we learnt that there had been long queues during the preceding long weekend). We bought a piece of three of the cheeses and looked after them in our hotel room fridges and a cool bag equipped with ice bricks. Two of the cheeses are being saved for the imminent festive season.
Before we left the King Valley on our third day, we walked over to the Whitty Cafe for some fresh coffee and a bite to eat. We shared an egg, bacon and lettuce sandwich; my short macchiato was so good that I ordered a second – a very rare event. The cafe’s vibe was relaxed and colourful; its product was quality. Another milestone in this area’s emergence as a wine and food destination?
Now, for the last event in this tale of two greedy travellers – lunch at Ceccanti Wines, in the Kiewa Valley. Italian cuisine and typical Italian ingredients are the biggest factors in the reputation of north-east Victoria as a region where you can eat well. You can choose from a range of Italian cooking classes, in King Valley or in Bright. You can enjoy fine dining – Patrizia Simone blazed the trail, others have followed. Or you can go to Ceccanti Wines, where you will experience fun dining.
Angelo Ceccanti hails from the city of Lucca in Tuscany and the menu prepared by his wife and himself is much as would be served by a Tuscan nonna after church on a Sunday. The setting is simple and rustic. The wines are idiosyncratic and food-friendly. And each course is cooked just the once. So, if you only want the main course, you will have to wait while everyone else is served their antipasti, followed by a bean soup.
The complete menu of five courses is priced at only $45. An irresistible bargain, our stomachs told us. Three hours and way too much delicious food later, we bad a fond farewell to the Ceccantis. In the interest of protecting the guilty parties, I have omitted photos of the last two courses.