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The little inland township of Timboon is perched above the Great Ocean Road. The area is now known as a foodies' haven with names such as Schulz Organics and Timboon Fine Ice cream sung loud and proud all the way back to the Big Smoke.
What is the best route to take to incorporate the "best of the best" food stops? What places are open on which days? Will you get to meet the owners and find out how a product is made? If you have a special interest in a particular food and knock on a farmer's door will they invite you in? If you taste all the whiskies at the distillery after visiting the winery will you be over the limit and unable to drive any further?
The answer to the last question is "yes." After a few tastings of 40% per cent proof, you'll soon be calling "taxi!"
Which is where the Timboon Taxi comes into its own. Except they have more than a pick up service. Instead they now run gourmet food tours where you are driven around in a beautiful old Jag on a route where you can make the most of this foodie paradise in an organised but leisurely fashion.
The tour can be tailor-made to your interests. They can ring ahead and do all the organising for you. For example, making sure the owners will be there so you can meet the makers or pre-checking on the supply of strawberries at Strawberry World so you can pick your own. And there is a good chance they can get you into places that are not normally open to the public such as Simpson Snails, a free-range snail farm producing fresh snails for French and other gourmet restaurants and Great Ocean Ducks that cultivate free-range Allesbury ducks for some of Melbourne's best restaurants.
But their biggest asset is their driver Dave Snibson. Not only is Dave a local but he has worked as a cheese maker for a number of businesses in the area. In fact he got his start at Schulz Organics when he was still a teenager, with the legendary Hermann Schultz (now in his 90s) as his mentor and from there Dave went on to study a Diploma in Dairy Technology at the University of Melbourne. Now he is one of Australia's youngest but most experienced cheese makers.
We went on Dave's inaugural tour for this start-up enterprise and loved every sip, slurp, bite and bit of information.
The stunning sky reminds me of the Hay Wain a painting by John Constable,
We began at Berry World a picturesque pick-your-own berry farm. Owner Heather Nicholls, with grandchild on hip, took us down the rows of luscious looking plants. For me, a strawberry has always been a strawberry so to discover eight different varieties (the majority you won't find in a supermarket) and hybrid blackberries (that grow to twice the size of your normal blackberries) was a delicious surprise.
And unlike the over picked strawberry fields closer to Melbourne these rows of verdant green plants were simply dripping with ruby pendants of luscious fruit. Heather said that the berry plants are not netted. "The birds swoop in but there is plenty for all of us. We see them later washing their sticky red beaks in the dam."
No shortage of berries. Source Facebook Berry World
Schulz Organics and its outlet the Mouse Trap Cafe is a delight with its surrounding gardens of 40-year-old shady trees -- the scene of many a wedding and family gathering. Hermann Schultz founded this complex as the first organic farmhouse cheesery in Australia and a third generation family member, his grandson Simon, now runs it. This is the place for rich and seemingly decadent but healthy indulgences.
We tasted the pasteurised but un-homogenised milk with its rich layer of cream on top. The delightful Jess organised our cheese tasting for us with gems such as Brie, raclette, and Gruyere from the L'Artisan cheese range. From the moment she said "How do you like our bipolar weather. Sunny one minute raining the next." it was evident this young woman had a unique and fun way of describing things. It wasn't simply that she knew her cheeses but that she was a walking compendium of fantastic recipes. "Our tubs of quark which are mixed with dill tips, onion garlic, and bell peppers and crushed chilli makes for a great dip and are delicious served over nachos instead of sour cream. Add a drop of this rhubarb vinegar to your strawberries and it is divine in cake with yoghurt icing."
While on site we couldn't resist sharing a plate of freshly baked scones served with a pot of rhubarb and strawberry jam and bowls of pure organic cream.
While Jess had been a lot of fun it was Dave who could give us the low down on the cheese making process while we scoffed our scones. The original owner, Hermann Schulz, had once given him a whole lot of books (when he was only 15) on how to make cheese. When Dave got home he discovered they were all in German. When queried Hermann replied, "to make good cheese you must first learn to read German!"
Somehow Dave managed to get the knowledge he needed as he explained the cheese making process to us right through from ripening times, fat content, the adding of cultures and the meticulous way some cheeses are hand rubbed with oils or salt every day. Dave's mother is also a local cheese maker and one of the pastimes Dave shares with his six kids is making cheese at home. "It is amazing what you can turn a bucket of milk into," he said.
He was also able to give us an insider's view of the region. How the area is rich with rainfall and has excellent volcanic soil but how the small producers don't want to sell to the vast supermarket chains and be undercut but rather want to keep their small concerns and band together to encourage epicurean tourism in the region.
As if life could not get any more decadent we then visited G.O.R.G.E Chocolates owned by Jason and Melanie. This is not just a business but a lifestyle. The couple have their home here and have planted a vast garden overflowing with herbs and sunflowers and even trellises with large overhanging gourds. There are lots of animals for the kids to pat such as ponies and pigs.
The couple use only fine Belgian chocolate and sell around 70 varieties of sweets including chocolate covered aniseed rings, raspberry liquorice coated in milk chocolate and kids' favourites such as freckles and chocolate frogs. But it is the lure of Jason's hot chocolates that are pulling people off the highway. There are many varieties but I had a dark chocolate and mint hot chocolate and it tasted like molten chocolate gold.
Apostle Whey Cheese is a great place to take the kids as at 4-5pm every day they can watch the milking of 250 Friesian and Jersey cows. The place is owned by Diane and Julian Benson's and I rather suspect it is Julian's quirky sense of humour that is responsible for some of the oddities in the place such as a gigantic cow serpent sculpture called Nessie the Lochness Mooster.
Dave, who had previously worked at Apostle Whey, had specifically organised for us to meet Julian who proudly told us about his many gold and silver award winning cheeses such as the Grotto with its pungent flavour and the rich and creamy Southern Briez.
But he seemed equally proud of the fact that the property was involved in the City Kids Experience Country Life Program, which gives students the chance to learn more about dairy and agriculture industries. You can also really learn about the cheese making process here with large viewing windows so you can watch the whole process.
Newtons Ridge Estate Winery has a quaint cellar door and it was lovely to meet one of the owners, Carla Falk, with her warm and friendly personality and big smiles. This winery creates cool climate, boutique wines that are bottle fermented between 4 to 15 years--some in French oak. There is no mass production with bottling done four at a time and then hand labelled.
Again you gain a glimpse of this wonderful sense of community. Newtons Ridge Estate Winery is off the beaten track (this is not a major wine region) so the local community including scout groups, various sporting groups and the local CFA handpicks the grapes. These events normally end up with a community barbecue enjoyed by all. And such a harvest results in some great wines for the rest of us. James Halliday rated this winery 4 stars and the 2008 sparkling received a remarkable 91 points.
We finished up at the Timboon Railway Shed Distillery that is inside a 1910 shed that has been converted into an attractive, spacious and mod-con building. There is a huge retail area with cheeses, and other gourmet goodies brought in from the surrounding region. And of course because we were being driven by Dave we could afford to taste all the alcoholic delights on offer. We tasted the knock-your-sox off single malt whisky but it was the spirits that really took my fancy such as the coffee cream, chocolate cream, nocino, strawberry schnapps and vanilla vodka. My favourite was the apple liquor that tasted like crisp granny smith apples but this granny had a real kick coming from under her petticoats. Unfortunately we weren't hungry for lunch, can't imagine why, but the menu looked amazing with lots of local produce, home-baked desserts and a fine selection of Timboon Fine Ice cream.
Timboon Taxis not only run the township's taxi service, and Dave's great foodie tour in their Jag, but also rent out bikes through their other business the Crater to Coast Bicycle Hire (0438 407 777). These bikes are housed in a shed just outside the distillery where you will also find the start of this 34km rail trail that will take your past farmland and through wooded grasslands and forests. You can do the whole trail or just take the 5km flat ride to Curdies River Bridge (about 30 minutes) that passes through some lovely verdant countryside. This bike riding adventure can also be incorporated into one of Dave's tours.