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Published March 3rd 2018
What a delicious day's outing
Len of Rayner's Orchard sits proudly driving his tractor around his forty-acre property.
When he started forty years ago it was all bush, but now it is a veritable Garden of Eden with every temptation of fruit known to man or woman. Not just apples, but numerous varieties including limes, plums, peaches, elderberries, tamarillos, apricots, pomegranates the fruit of the gods and Chinese quinces as big a footballs - and all in bountiful supply depending on the season.
There is a real holiday spirit as Farmer Len drives you along. His gorgeous little Jack Russell dogs, Spot and Pepi, also catch a ride or run along beside or weave in and out of the fruit groves. They will do this run several times a day, as there are a large number of available tours. Pet paradise. No city leashes or poo bags for these free-ranging pups, just open spaces and pats from adoring visitors.
There are flying ducks overhead instead of on a wall and a piercing Australian blue sky. The distant view is like a watercolour painting with the smudgy horizontal lines of bluey-green from eucalypts and the purple allure of distant hills.
Len Rayner's cargo is tourists rather than fruit. We all sit in a carriage as he ferries us long. Some of us have come from the city and suburbs to the Yarra Valley to soak up the beauty of the surrounding countryside. Others hail from further climes such as China, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia and are here for a unique Australian experience and air that is as clear and crisp as biting into a perfect apple.
In common, we are all here for the pleasure of the freshest and juiciest fruit imaginable.
We can pick the fruit ourselves as the trees that are only slightly taller than we are. And because this orchard is open to tourists 364 days a year and offers 450 varieties of fruit, there are endless possibilities of choice with at least 8 varieties available for tasting and picking every time you visit.
He whips out his knife and cuts up generous samples for us. We are there in late summer and enjoy the glorious flesh of sun-kissed apricots, sweet nectarines and round sugarplums, which we pop into our mouths like lollies.
At each stop, we are given time to forage. Kids, of course, love this. Len shows up where the best fruit grows, which is usually towards the top of the trees, but often the best finds have just fallen at our feet, like a gift from the gods and can easily be picked up from the carpet of grass.
You are free to eat as much as you wish on the tour, as everything you eat is included in the price of your ticket.
But return visitors load themselves up with kilos of fruit. Especially as there is a loyalty program where on a return visit your first kilo of fruit is free. They have the rest weighed after the tour and it costs $5 a kilo. Taking home large supplies means the fresh fruit experience can be extended to the coming weeks, especially if you are a home cook who enjoys baking fruit pies, making jam, or bottling and drying fruit.
At each of our stops, Len tucks into fruit just like the rest of us. He says he never tires of eating his delicious fruit. He also offers titbits of information. Yet despite doing his talk several times a day on every day, except for Christmas, Len's commentary is never forced.
Rather it is a combination of answering his guests' unique questions and chatting naturally about life on the land and his fruit crops.
Sometimes it is about how the orchard is run without insecticides, with netting to protect against birds and his use of compost. This is one of the places your Council collected garden waste ends up all mulched and ready to spread to promote healthy growth in plants.
At other times, his chats are about some of the more unusual fruits you stop off and see along the way. Again, this depends on the season. It might be the arthritic looking Buddha's fingers (fingered citron) or fresh finger limes - a native Australian fruit with jewel-like seeds known in the culinary world as lime caviar.
I really enjoyed hearing the story of how Len began his business. I am not sure if he shares this on all his tours but he seemed happy to talk about it. Apparently, years back, his orchard was under all kinds of financial stresses.
"I had nightly dreams of driving backwards,' Len said. "We sold our fruit to the big supermarkets and they just kept beating us down on price until it just wasn't viable to sell to them anymore. We were going broke fast."
Then came the advent of farmer's markets. 'It was a wonderful time. You could go to a local market and sell up to $3000 worth of fruit in just one morning. And you met such great people,' says Len.
Some of his customers started visiting Len's orchard to pick their own fruit supplies, which is how Len got the idea of opening up his orchard to the public.
But just letting people pick fruit randomly wasn't tenable in terms of their experience and his, so he went down the path of running the tractor tours.
There are lots of advantages for the consumer. One is the lack of endless walking and searching for fruit in all the wrong areas. I don't know about you, but some of my fruit foraging experiences in the past, especially at berry farms, have been dismal as while they charge people an entrance fee, the crops have been totally exhausted.
Instead at Rayners' Orchard, you are always taken to areas that are literally dripping with ripe fruit.
After your tour, you are 'tractored' back to where you have parked near to the aptly named Peach Café. This modern building has huge floor to ceiling windows, so you almost feel as if you were outside in nature.
You can enjoy lunch such as quiches, country-style pies, and warm chicken and peach salad as well as smoothies made of pure fruit. There are cookies, biscuits, cakes and muffins and Devonshire teas with homemade jams and sensational looking scones.
We were pretty full after all the fruit we had eaten, but couldn't resist sharing one of the homemade slow-roasted peach and blueberry pies. We had this with a side of house-made plum ice-cream.
Slow roasted peach and blueberry pie in Peach Cafe with home-made plum ice-cream photo Nadine Cresswe
Make sure you try the ice-cream here or bring a freezer bag to take some home as it's blended with up to 70% fruit. The intensity of the fruit flavours is because they place the naked fruit in the oven on a low heat, where it cooks for many hours. Just fruit. Nothing else.
The café also has a shop with take-home produce. If you don't want to go on a tractor tour and collect your own fruit, you can simply call in here to buy pre-picked fruit. I saw the supplies replenished a couple of times while I was there so you can be assured the fruit is always freshly picked.
One feels that nothing is wasted here with any seasonal residue turned into something yummy. Therefore, there is also a range of fruit straps and bottled items such as peaches, plum sauces, various jams and chutneys and large jars of tomatoes.
There are no preservatives used and I noticed that with the jars of tomatoes, the only other ingredient was a tiny bit of water and the rest was all whole plumped up red beauties.
Len mentioned that all the preserved fruits were as low in sugar as possible. "We have resisted doing fruits in honey or alcohol because of not wanting other tastes to distract from the pure and honest taste of the fruit".
The business model here is quite remarkable and inspiring to others who may have found living off the land difficult. Instead of driving backwards, Len is certainly cutting a fine figure as he drives his tractor and his family fortunes forwards.
His business employs his adult children, such as Cam and Andrew, who also take some of the tours and the whole set up if very much built on family values.
As for our family. Small family groups do not need to book visits as tours leave on demand. If you wish to avoid leaving with larger tour groups, however (word is out and tourists are coming from all over the world), you could ring ahead to find out what will be the quieter times.
If you are coming for a meal, then Peach Café is open seven days a week from 9 am and closes at 4 pm in winter and 5 pm in summer.