(THE BUSINESS TIMES) - In today's dining scene, it has become a cliche to hear chefs around the world boasting about the bountiful produce they harvest from their own restaurant garden, or from some farmer nearby who supplies them with fat organic vegetables and happy meat from tenderly-raised, grass-fed livestock.
Compare this to Singapore, where the quality of our cuisine is determined by our chefs' importing skills. As in, "my seafood can get here faster from Tsukiji than so-and-so's restaurant". Or, "Ze is a farmer in my hometown in France, he is only doing the baby quails for moi".
That's why a deep sense of jealousy and resentment always sets in after you return from an eating trip in Australia, where in just a few days, you've gotten used to the pure flavours in a simple salad, or seen even a sandwich elevated into a gourmet meal. You're convinced that the moment their produce leaves home to come to Singapore, they are forced to leave all flavour, integrity and soul at the customs checkpoint.
We feel this way particularly after a trip to the Bellarine Peninsula in Victoria, which seems to have recruited a population of nature-loving artisanal producers to live on its fertile land and along its seafood-laden waters. It's especially telling that many of them are also ex-city dwellers who've made the conscious decision to set up home in semi-rural areas, tending vineyards or farms, raising cattle and sheep for meat, or opening cafes and restaurants serving clean, healthy food. They are also warm, hospitable and generous people who make you believe that there's something about fresh air, chickens in your garden and working with your hands that makes you a happy person.
Bellarine is an easy hour and half's drive southwest of Melbourne, so there's no chance of suffering city withdrawal symptoms. It's not as pretty as, say, its more famous and rich cousin, Mornington Peninsula, which sits on the other side of Port Philip Bay. But the latter's popularity brings with it more people and higher property prices, which are sending more country-minded folk to the less commercialized arms of Bellarine. In fact, one of the most famous 'migrants' to the area would be Dan Hunter, the acclaimed chef of Brae in Birregurra - not exactly in the Bellarine but not too far from it.
The recent gentrification has added a hipster feel to Geelong, the waterfront city that acts as the gateway to the Bellarine Peninsula and the famed Great Ocean Road.
A prime example of this would be Igni, a contemporary eatery back-to-back with a Bikram yoga studio that would look perfectly in synch in downtown Melbourne. But here, it sticks out in a drab alley with its uber-cool front door which opens to reveal a buzzing eatery with a rustic charcoal pit at its heart. This is where chef Aaron Turner risks setting his very bushy beard alight as he tends the burning embers and pushes out progressive, slightly Noma-esque cuisine that has earned him rave reviews from the Aussie food media.
Even at lunch, he lays out an elaborate spread of snacks comprising: grilled zucchini flowers stuffed with smoked pickled mussels; crispy chicken skin crackers smeared with taramasalata and scampi caviar; crisp, juicy cos lettuce; saltbush leaves that taste like salt-vinegar crisps; self-explanatory oyster leaf; house-cured wagyu jerky and terribly salty grissini wrapped with lardo. He does pretty food like potato ribbons and pippis under bright orange egg yolk and brighter purple flowers, as well as designer caveman plates such as slow roasted beets and beautifully charred Queensland squab. Yet the whole caveman-meets-haute-cuisine trope works well in this unconventional setting.
Like Igni, Oakdene Vineyards adds a quirky twist to the laid-back, vineyard-cum-cellar-door equation. Opened in 2004 by then-newcomers to the area, Bernard and Elizabeth Hooley, the place is a veritable wonderland of fantastical art installations created by Mrs Hooley. At the cellar door you're greeted by 'dogs' fashioned out of rubber boots, while a walk through the grounds will reveal giant rusted metal ants swarming over a brick dome, or an installation made of rusty chains, wheelbarrows and other discarded metal. These and cheerful teapot displays in the garden of the charming B&B - with themed bedrooms that include a dramatic Marilyn Monroe room and a soothing Water Room ensuite - make this a whimsical getaway .
Oh and there's wine too. Award-winning cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot noir and the like. We even stumble across owner Bernard Hooley out in the vineyards, driving his own tractor harvesting jewel-coloured grapes - sweet, ripe and juicy to taste. Ask him casually about his best vintage pinot noir, and he sends word to the cellar door to give you a bottle of 2008 from his personal stash - as a gift, waving off all attempts at payment. It must be the water - or wine - they drink in the Bellarine. Across the board, we meet people who just want you to enjoy the fruits of their labour.
Over at Advance Mussel Supply, a vague disappointment that there are no fresh oysters in season to sample quickly disappears when a plate of steaming fresh mussels appears on the table in its Little Mussel Cafe - cooked in its juices amped up with a touch of wine, garlic, tomatoes and chilli. It's a family-owned operation that's been farming mussels in Port Phillip for over three decades. Good luck figuring out how to lug a kilo of the fresh mussels home. Or, failing that, check out its chilled selection of mussels is every form - pate, smoked, pickled or cooked in tomato chilli or curry sauce.
If chilled foodstuffs is too much of a logistical challenge, then stock up at Wildings Pantry Essentials, owned by the warm, hospitable Anna Wilding, a wizard home cook who moved to the countryside and started out with catering and a café before having five children. She now puts her skills to work at her namesake gourmet store. Everything in the shop from jams and granolas to sauces and salad dressings are all home-made, using either local produce or specially sourced spices from overseas. There's a little kitchen behind where you can see her assistants baking fresh cookies and cakes. It's like a fairy tale food shop where things are literally made with love.
If by now you're contemplating giving up the city life for an idyllic existence on your own farm, take a leaf out of Chris Balazs' book. The former scientist packed up and moved to Bannockburn with his family to start SageChoice Farm, rearing purely grass-fed cows and sheep with complete traceability. Mr Balazs set up a co-op of like-minded farmers in the area to sell ethically-raised meat under the Sage Farm label. His resident and award-winning butcher Tim Woller is on hand to make sure there is no wastage, in line with the thinking that every bit of the animal is used out of respect for its life. His kids have the run of the place, raising chickens and doing chores, and Farmer Chris is the first to tell you that while life is good, it's not easy having to wake up before dawn to tend to the farm. He also offers farmstays for people - a good chance to find out if the farming life really is as idyllic as you hope.
Otherwise, you can get a taste of the meat at the House of Sonny, a tiny café in the equally small village of Inverleigh, where chef-owner Shaun Petty fills you up with beautiful salads using 100 per cent organic greens from the area. The leaves are so fresh and sturdy you can't imagine eating something this good at home, where a simple wash leaves you with sad, limp spinach. Sit down, enjoy a hearty bowl of greens or add salmon and avocado for extra heft, and you're ready to head back to Melbourne and the aiport. Try not to cast a downcast eye behind you as the challenge of recreating your memorable salad days back home looms ahead.
The writer was a guest of Tourism Australia.