Divine little boxes - free range pork belly with kipler potatoes, cabbage, fennel and apple cider jus
What if you could leave town and reach a special little vineyard with French grape varieties and exquisite French cuisine in around an hour? And once there, have an unpretentious gourmet experience.
I set the cruise control and headed out on the M3/Eastern merged onto the M1/Monash, before turning off for Cannibal Creek Vineyard. The drive is even snappier if you happen to live on that side of town. For residents in Dandenong, Narre Warren or Beaconsfield, this gem is like finding a precious diamond in your own backyard.
From asphalt and bizarre freeway sculptures, you are soon meandering down a country lane to rows of green vineyards edged with pink roses.
Change the city road for a country laneway
On our arrival, French-born Karine Saille welcomed us with excellent coffee and madeleines - still warm from the oven. She explained that the mulberry centres were so richly coloured because the berries were plucked from the garden only an hour before.
Freshly picked mulberry centres
After morning tea on the sunny deck, we walked along the track leading to the vineyards where we met Patrick (Pat) Hardiker on his tractor and he pulled over to give us a bit of a tour.
Pat and wife Kirsten are the owners and winemakers at Cannibal Creek Vineyard and since starting the French restaurant on the property to complement their wines they have become restaurateurs too.
Tucking back a few errant vines, Pat filled us in on the beginnings of Cannibal Creek Vineyard. 'Kirsten and I were in WA but my parents like most landowners in Gippsland were dairy farmers. They were keen for us to return and live on the property. We had the soil tested for grape growing and planted the vineyard twenty years ago
Pat Hardiker talks passionately about the growing conditions for their vines
Pat is laconic and laid back but passionate when it comes to talking about their12 acres of grape growing soil. 'We believe our granite soils, there are granite quarries nearby, are responsible for the mineral and flinty characters in our wines, both reds and whites.
'We have stopped the common practice of using Round Up to keep the weeds down. Imagine what that's doing to the grapes and the wine quality. We are moving down the line to becoming a completely organic winery.'
As we are not far from their shed, he shows us the wines in their giant, French-oak barrels. He even syphoned off a little, so we could have an authentic tasting experience.
One senses this shed really is his special place and that his favourite part of his day is relaxing with guests and seeing their looks of pleasure as they sample the wonderful wines.
We were lucky to have this wonderful tasting experience from this passionate winemaker
We are joined by Kirsten and she also exudes genuine warmth and rapture about what they are creating in this tucked away corner of Gippsland.
The Cannibal Creek line includes a Sparkling Blanc de Blancs 2013, Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2016 and Chardonnay 2016, Cannibal Creek Pinot Noir 2015 and Cabernet Merlot 2015. James Halliday gives it the thumbs up here
and Cannibal Creek Vineyard's wines took out nine awards, including wine of the show at the annual French-Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry Wine Show Le Concours des Vins de Victoria in 2014.
Life through a glass
French inspired wine deserves equally inspiring food created by a French chef. Philippe Desrettes was Michelin trained under Pierre Koffman @ Tante Claire (a top-notch London based, French restaurant).
Our lunch was in the French provincial style with Philippe making most dishes from scratch. Ingredients were sourced as locally as possible with many fresh items picked from Cannibal Creek's insecticide-free kitchen garden.
When we poked our heads in later to thank Philippe for the stunning meal, he said that what he loved about Gippsland was being able to drive and chat to regional producers, whether it be local spud farmers or organic meat suppliers, such as Jindi Pig Butchers.
Michelin French chef Philippe Descrettes - Facebook Cannibal Creek Vineyard
We started our meal with thick slices of wood-fired sourdough bread from Cannibal Creek Bakehouse. The plate held a golden pool of Tarago Olive Oil
and a decisive signature of balsamic.
Hearty Cannibal Bakehouse bread with Targo olive oil and balsamic. A great start to a fine meal.
Our feast followed. There was a free-range pork and duck terrine, served with Phillippe's own baked brioche and house-made pickles. Then a pretty dish of vodka cured NZ salmon, topped with a coriander dressing, radish, and samphire
and Australian native greens that had again been picked from the garden.
Free range duck and pork terrine with housemade brioche and pickles
Vodka cured NZ salmon
We shared mains that included free-range duck, cauliflower, broad beans and a mandarin sauce and then perfect little pillar-boxes of pork belly accompanied by kipfler potatoes, fennel and apple cider jus. Our salad was a wholesome meal in itself and included beetroot with chickpeas, sweet potato, quinoa, beans and feta.
A hearty healthy salad
Desserts were showstoppers. We tried to share a coconut creme caramel decorated with dried blueberry halves. The only tension of the day was who would get the last piece as we had cut the dessert in quarters and there were only three of us. We all coveted that last slice but felt obliged to say. 'No, you have it. No, go on it's yours.
Coconut creme caramel - Amazing!
There was also a wedge of baked lemon tart, topped with passionfruit syrup and Chantilly cream. An enticing, velvety and towering wedge of perfection.
Baked lemon tart with chantilly cream
To enjoy a few more sips of Pat's fine wines we also shared a plate of local Gippsland cheese (for which the region is justly famous) with a local quince paste, pickles and crackers.
Local Gippsland cheeses beautifully presented with quince paste and crackers
While it was hard to take one's eyes off the picture-perfect dishes of food, there were also fine views over the countryside through the floor to ceiling windows
The cellar door and restaurant only opened late 2016 which is why you may not yet have heard of it yet. Local architects, Nathan and Emma Creen of Enarchitects
, designed the restaurant / tasting room. While modern and streamlined, the woodwork and cosy open-fire reflect the unpretentiousness of this winery, where the couple's beloved shed next door served as the tasting room for many years.
Great long table for a group on this beautiful polished wood table. Picture window view.
With the new building, there is the relaxing feel of being able to sit on a couch near the two-sided fireplace or you can share the long intimate dining table on the far side as part of a larger group. There is a sleek wooden bar for tastings and airy vaulted ceilings. Patrick Hardiker built and pretty much outfitted the building himself. Talk about a jack-of-all-trades but master of all of them.
Beautiful cathedral ceilings
After scaling that delicious wedge of lemon tart, we didn't take that walk up Mount Cannibal
but perhaps you might like to factor in the 45-minute hike to the top.
Cannibal Creek Vineyard is presently exhibiting a selection of Anne Middleton's paintings - Left the very lovely Kirsten Hardiker- Photo Cannibal Creek Vineyard Facebook
And while Cannibal Creek Winery is only an hour from town, it is on the border of Gippsland, so there is much to do in the region. It would even be worth using this area as a base for further adventures. There is lovely Art Deco-inspired accommodation with spa ensuites nearby at the Haven Country House
, where you can also organise bush food tasting experiences.
A new attraction in the area is Gumbuya World,
Australia's newest theme park, which is opened late in 2017. It is only six minutes drive from Cannibal Creek Vineyard & Restaurant. If the kids are old enough, you could drop them off and then go and enjoy a great lunch nearby at Cannibal Creek.
For more things to do in Gippsland, click here.
Or if you want to continue on with the fine food and wine theme, then follow the Gippsland Food Trail. Click here.
Or as Philippe Desrettes uses fine local producers, he or his partner Karine Saille, who handles front-of-house, will have some great suggestions for you.
If you are only in Gippsland for lunch, the restaurant also has a back wall where you will find local gourmet food items for purchase. There are perfect selections to take home and enjoy with a bottle of one of Cannibal Creek's award-winning wines.