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Published January 28th 2013
The day dawned a sad grey.
The south-westerly winds brought the unwelcomed chill and drizzle as I stepped out the Melbourne Apartment building. My day trip to Mornington wasn't off to a cheery start.
Flipping through pages of tourist guides on Melbourne and Tourism Victoria's website triggered an urge to just get out of Lionel's Melbourne and answer the call of the surrounds. I was already on the road of regret for that decision.
A pale blue vintage Mercedes Benz pulled up against the sidewalk and a matured fellow of farming linage stepped out to introduce himself as my personal tour guide. My cheery meter just dipped another bar. With shrugged shoulders, I entered the car and left my day's fate to Mr Jeffrey Richardson.
Deciding on a private tour of Mornington Peninsula was an easy decision. Firstly there is no direct train service from Melbourne to Mornington. Your best option is to take a 55 minutes train to Frankston, then hop on an irregular bus into Mornington. Secondly I wasn't incline to break any drink-driving laws in Victoria after rounds of wine at the vineyards so hiring a car and self-driving was out. Thirdly, the available tours to Mornington Peninsula were either wine-centric or rushing between the 3 sights of a strawberry farm, maze and lavender farm priced around AUD150 per person. For less than AUD300 for the entire trip, Jeffrey promised me a full day of sampling the best of Mornington's sights, produce and wine, and a chance to discover the real Mornington as seen through his eyes.
Farmer Jeffrey" made some quick comments about the fickleness of Melbourne's weather but with no promises of sunshine except his best attempt to speak with the powers to be about the dreary matter. The prospect of an enjoyable day in the Mornington Peninsula was looking pretty bleak as we headed out of Melbourne. Noting my lament, he quickly proceeded to distract me with cheery chit chat. Perhaps there was more than meets the eye with "Farmer Jeffrey".
As we sped southwards Frankston, I learnt that Mornington was a popular day-trip spot with Melburnians who frequent the area's wineries and bay beaches. Within easy reach of an hour's drive from Melbourne, it combined the allure of a breezy coast dotted by seaside villages with a hinterland rich in gourmet delights. Its history of fishing and farming provided an abundance of fresh produce from seafood to berries, apples, vegetables, olives to aged meats and free-range eggs.
We took the scenic drive passing through all the bay side suburbs of Melbourne, heading towards the Mornington Peninsula. It took 30min longer then the freeway but it provided additional photo opportunities to my trip by way of picturesque scenic views around the bay.
Arthurs Seat, rising from the seaside town of Dromana, was our first stop and the highest point of Mornington Peninsula. As we stood at Murray's Lookout scanning the relatively flat Peninsula, partially clouded by the misty rain, I could image the myriad sunsets that kissed the bay and its inhabitants every day – the layers of deep orange and blue hues on a clear, cloudless day and the hazy fingers of yellow between cloudy greys slowly revealing a reddish orange yolk after the rains. I understand Arthur's Seat is also a favourite of cycling climbs in Victoria where the steep incline poses an enjoyable challenge for cycling enthusiasts. As I head into the car and out of the rain, I noticed the effects of weathering on the Murray's Lookout Plaque have replaced "Arthur's Seat" with "thur's eat". I guess many sandwiches have also been commemorated at this elevation.
"Farmer Jeffrey" was starting to shed his unassuming rural guise and transforming into a true tourism professional. Mum was right. Never judge a book by its cover. Jeffrey who has been working the private tour circuit for 5 years, prides himself in knowing the hidden local gems of Mornington and Victoria's surrounds. Added to that is an absolute focus on customer experience and satisfaction. Having personally worked in the travel and hospitality industry many moons ago, I know it takes a certain character to thrive in the tour business.
I could tell from Jeffery's demeanour that he loved meeting different people from around the world and learning about them. He added that his maxim was offering 100% customer satisfaction and personalised service that shined. Now that's a pretty difficult motto to adhere to when customers come in all shapes and sizes. His typical customers range from young honeymooners to families with kids to retirees. 70% are interstate and 30% are international visitors. He gets his fair share of very difficult customers but he continues to deliver his services with a smile. Driving customers around all day is also exhaustive. And Jeffrey is no young sapling. I would describe him as a matured gentleman because I know the word "senior citizen" or "elderly" would offend his youthful spirit. However tough the work, being a private tour guide allowed him to achieve his duo dream of owning his own business and doing something which he loved. How many of us actually get to do what we really love?
The sun peeked into the car as we arrived at Sunny Ridge Strawberry Farm. Sunny Ridge is a family owned business which operates a 'you-pick' strawberry farm popular with tourists and locals alike. I don't know what ancient Aussie pastoral sun-dance Jeffrey applied at Arthur's Seat but it definitely moved those rain clouds along. In addition, we arrived ahead of the tour buses which meant we had rows and rows of strawberries to ourselves.
Pushing aside the watered-down coffee and strawberry milkshake, I made a beeline for the strawberry picking area. Sunny Ridge grows the Albion, Cal Giant and San Andreas varieties of strawberries, all of which are known for their strong aroma and juicy sweet flavour. While children under 3 years enter for free and children up to 12 years pay only AUD4 for 250gm of strawberries, I get to pick 500gm of the reddish delights for AUD8. Armed with a punnet and plastic bags encasing my shoes, I was ready for some serious harvesting.
Picking strawberries looked pretty easy but I realised there was science to all the madness – 1) Gently move aside the foliage when searching and select plump and completely red fruit that is firm to the touch. 2) While cradling the fruit in your palm, apply pressure with your thumbnail and index finger to sever the stem about one half of an inch above the berry. This method prevents any unnecessary bruising to the plant and keeps the fruit intact. Unfortunately it pained to see visitors yanking at the berry stems and traipsing on the plants when crossing rows.
While it was fun, the repeated action of bending down to pick each strawberry and walking the rows was back-breaking. I highly recommend it for families with a well-trained team of kids who can do all the picking while the adults enjoy the fruits of their labour. Despite the deep all-over redness of my strawberries, they did not make good eating compared to the ones I had purchased in Queen Victoria Markets. As most were inclined towards a sour note, I finally transformed them into an aromatic sauce for my pancakes and crepes.
All the picking made me thirsty and what better to accompany fresh strawberries than the elegant wines of Mornington Peninsula. And Jeffrey had arranged tastings at a couple of first-class boutique vineyards. Although wine production in the Peninsula originated in the 1880s, modern commercial viticulture flourished only from the 1970s. Mornington's climate is too cold for Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon but the cool maritime conditions and long ripening season are ideal for key varieties of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Today 50 boutique wineries call the undulating hills home with approximately 75% growing the medium bodied red and the well balanced white on sandy soils, duplex clays and red volcanics. Its proximity to Melbourne has also spurred the development of wine tourism in the Peninsula in addition to the city's demand for the wine.
I was licking my parched lips as we drove into T'Gallant, renowned for their signature Pinot Gris. Managed by winemakers Kevin McCarthy and Kathleen Quealy, it was a rustic, European influenced, artisan winery nestled in a rolling vineyard, surrounded by large fig trees.
The air was scented with crisp baked bread of pizzas served piping hot on large timber slabs from the restaurant, La Baracca Trattoria, as I made my way to the cellar door. I enjoyed the 2008 T'Gallant Tribute Pinot Gris where I was rewarded with ripe pear and peach on the nose and a fruity velvety finish.
The next tasting was award winning Chardonnay and Pinot Noir at Montalto owned by John and Wendy Mitchell. With only 30 acres under vine, most of its wine is sold at the estate. I also noted a range of own-brand olive oils in the cellar door. The flagship 2009 Chardonnay delivered a subtle spicy and citrus aroma and finish that I found both elegant yet easy to drink. The deep purple 2007 Pinot Noir achieved the right balance of plums and cherry fruitiness and oak earthiness. Such premium quality of Pinot Noir had allowed Mornington Peninsula to build a strong reputation for this red in Australia and internationally, with its own international Pinot festival.
If you are heading out to Mornington, the region is hosting a 3-day Winter Wine Weekend between 9-11 June at Red Hill Showgrounds to celebrate the Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Shiraz, and a range of other lesser known wines matched with regional food and gourmet cuisine.
The morning rain had eased into scattered showers dispersed by the sun as we made our way into the village of Flinders and home of Australia's award winning chocolate atelier operated by Isilda Caldwell and Milton Laycock. Mornington Peninsula Chocolates combines Belgian, French and Swiss couverture to create their local flavours of exquisite hand-made chocolates. Their awards include the Chocolate Champion trophy for 2008 at the Royal Melbourne Fine Food Awards and for 2011 at the Royal Sydney Fine Food Award.
I sampled a few of the handcrafted delights as I watched professionals at work in a show-kitchen putting the Peninsula's best produce into their couverture chocolates including limes, lemons, oranges, grapefruits, strawberries, honey and cream. The triple temptation of the perfumed scent blending with the creamy melt in my mouth and the myriad shapes and colours waving seductively from the counter sped my downfall into caloric sin. I particularly enjoyed the creamy minty flavour of the Freezing Mint, the molten centre of the Raspberry Granache covered in milk chocolate, the sharp citrus of the Lime Delight, and the explosion of brandied nectar from whole cherries and Kirsch in the Cherry Bomb.
The lingering aftertaste of sweet cherry liqueur was an excellent appetiser for the main course. With the sweet carmine fruit in mind, we headed towards Ripe 'N' Ready Cherry Farm run by 2 generations of the Easy family. The biggest pick-your-own Cherry Farm in Mornington Peninsula, it boasts over 70 varieties of cherries on 24 acres of beautiful Red Hill countryside. The costs were AUD10 entry and AUD8 per kilograms for the cherries.
Unfortunately I arrived out of season and was only greeted by pre-picked cherries at the farm gate alongside silvanberries, raspberries and blueberries. I was surprised when the owner discouraged me from purchasing any of her season leftovers for consumption, and directed me to her cherry ice cream instead. Thank you Mrs Easy for your honesty and for the delicious cherry sweet creamery. The farm also contained a trout farm where you can fish for 800gm rainbow trouts in the dam by appointment. I'm looking forward to trouts leaping out of the water on my next visit.
The nagging reminder of a near-empty food tank drove us towards Mornington shopping centre where Jeffrey delivered me a slice of Italy. D.O.C. Mornington by Tony Nicolini was a restaurant scene straight out of rustic Italy.
Crowded, boisterous and overflowing with Italians, it reminded me fondly of my time as the part-time son and general help of Mama and Papa Lapenna who ran a Florentine restaurant. A couple of Buon giorno and Scusi later, we had a simple Italian fare of thin crusty pizza topped with prosciutto crudo and antipasti of cured meats, olives, mushrooms and various Mozzarella. I couldn't resist an extended tour of the produce store stocked with an impressive array of Mornington Peninsula produce and Italian imports. (Reminder to self to check out Tony's outlets in Carlton).
As we headed back towards the evening sparkles of Melbourne, I was surprised at how much we'd experienced in eight hours. And we still managed to sneak a stop at a local egg farm to pick up fresh oversized eggs large enough to accommodate a double yoke. Tomorrow's breakfast was going to look real sunny. Jeffrey had combined my love for rolling hills, fresh local produce, wine and food into a first rated day out that was entirely designed for me at a fair price. I was looking forward to check out Yarra Valley for more world class wines and the Great Ocean Road for the sheer beauty and spectacular beaches in the vintage Mercedes Benz.
Wonderful times unfortunately do come to an end. But not without first filling another page of Lionel's Melbourne with a rich montage of Mornington Peninsula through Jeffrey's eyes. We'll just have to find time for another visit.