Between the bays – a gourmet guide to the Mornington Peninsula - Australia

Where to stay

Graceburn House Adjacent to Tedesca Osteria, Graceburn provides secluded, luxury agriturismo-style accommodation in a beautifully renovated house and outhouse, sleeping eight and two respectively. Breakfast is provided and includes freshly baked goods from the woodfired oven and just-laid eggs from the property’s chickens. Outhouse from £247pn. 1175 Mornington-Flinders Road, Red Hill,

Jackalope This 46-room exotic hybrid of original 1876 homestead and statement geometric extension in dramatic black metal, charred timber and glowing neon offers some of the best food, service and facilities on the Peninsula, including limo service and beauty therapy treatment rooms. Doubles from £357. 166 Balnarring Road, Merricks North, 00 613 5931 2500,

Lancemore Lindenderry Red Hill Set amid 14ha of landscaped gardens and well-tended vines, this boutique country hotel is for those after an old-school experience, complete with luxurious public lounges with open fires and discreet, friendly service. Doubles from £192. 142 Arthurs Seat Road, Red Hill, 00 613 5989 2933,

Port Phillip Estate The accommodation offering at this modern wineryrestaurant complex consists of six contemporary high-spec suites with spectacular vineyard and coastal views, private terraces and big bathrooms with eggshell tubs and Aesop products. Doubles from £469. 263 Red Hill Road, Red Hill South, 00 613 5989 4444,

Travel Information

The Mornington Peninsula is located south of Melbourne, Victoria, in Australia. Currency is the Australian dollar (AUD) and time is 11 hours ahead of GMT. Flights from the UK to Melbourne take around 21 hours 45 minutes with one stop. The drive from Melbourne to the Mornington Peninsula takes around one hour and public transport options include train, bus and ferry.

Etihad flies from London Heathrow to Melbourne Airport with one stop in Abu Dhabi.
British Airways with Qantas offers flights from London Heathrow to Melbourne Airport with two stops.

Visit Mornington Peninsula is the official regional tourism website. It offers lots of information to help you plan your trip.

Where to eat

Jetty Road Brewery One of the newest, best and most innovative breweries on the Mornington Peninsula also has a bustling 220-capacity dining area that offers quality beer-friendly food (burgers, fried chicken, steaks, fish and chips) made with meticulously sourced local ingredients. From £44. 12-14 Brasser Avenue, Dromana, 00 613 5987 2754,

Merricks General Store The original timber grocery store at Merricks is now one of the best-loved diners on the Peninsula, offering breakfast and bistro lunches that showcase local goodies. Booking essential. From £55. 3460 Frankston-Flinders Road, Merricks, 00 613 5989 8088,

Montalto Eating options at this busy vineyard, winery, olive grove, restaurant and sculpture garden include a pizza oven-centred piazza, a casual restaurant and catered picnics in various locations around the beautiful property. Much of the produce comes from Montalto’s extensive kitchen garden. From £55. 33 Shoreham Road, Red Hill South, 00 613 5989 8412,

Point Leo Estate There are no bad options in the three tiers of dining at Point Leo, from casual wine-focused snacks on the Wine Terrace to intricate multi-course degustation in Laura. Point Leo Restaurant treads the middle ground and might feature Port Phillip scallops with cucumber butter and fried mussel sandwiches. From £115. 3649 Frankston-Flinders Road, Merricks, 00 613 5989 9011,

Port Phillip Estate The dining room at this striking rammed-earth building affords one of the most spectacular views in the region, overlooking vineyards and then out to sea. Local produce including caught-that-day Flinders mussels, Red Hill cheese and farm-fresh lamb is presented in simple but sophisticated combinations paired with the estate’s renowned wines. Don’t miss the excellent Red Hill pinot noir. From £132. 263 Red Hill Road, Red Hill South, 00 613 5989 4444,

Rare Hare The luxury Jackalope hotel’s casual diner is a choice place to experience the Peninsula’s charms, from the mix of indoor and outdoor dining overlooking vineyards to a menu that celebrates the best vegetables, fish and meat of the area, much of it cooked in a wood-fired oven. From £66. 166 Balnarring Road, Merricks North, 00 613 5931 2501,

Tedesca Osteria Modern Australian diner meets traditional Italian trattoria in this gorgeously designed restaurant where the kitchen and its wood-fired hearth is part of the glamorous but relaxed dining room. The set five-course meal always includes handmade pasta and vegetables and fruit pulled from the garden. The seasonal cocktail is a good way to start the journey. Tasting menu from £137. 1175 Mornington-Flinders Road, Red Hill,

Ten Minutes By Tractor A stalwart of local produce-driven fine dining on the Mornington Peninsula, Ten Minutes is a winery restaurant that applies European style and technique to cooking fine ingredients sourced from local growers and foraged from the shores and forests of the region. Think slowcooked goat teamed with beetroot and goat’s cheese paired with an elegant estate pinot noir. From £90. 1333 Mornington-Flinders Road, Main Ridge, 00 613 5989 6455,

Food Glossary

Blue mussels
The only species of local mussel sold in commercialquantity in Australia, native to the southern coastal waters
Native lemongrass
A blue-green, citrus-scented edible grassy plant,indigenous to northern Australia but now common all over
Purple sea urchins
Considered a pest in Port Phillip Bay becausethey devastate local fish habitat, these urchins are also delicious andare increasingly finding their way onto Peninsula restaurant menus
A grey-blue bush common in salty maritime climates withsavoury, herby leaves. An excellent accompaniment to lamb
Also known as the Australian monkfish, this is a succulent,pink-fleshed fish with a delicate taste, similar to ling

Food and Travel Review

Chef Brigitte Hafner is standing in a paddock in Red Hill, a dramatically beautiful and rich-soiled region of native forest and rolling farmland on the high central ridge of the Mornington Peninsula, an hour’s drive from Melbourne. The paddock is adjacent to her restaurant, Tedesca Osteria, a recently renovated former café and art gallery now centred around an immense eucalyptus wood-fired hearth built by Hafner and her team, and is currently being transformed into a biodynamic market garden that will become the ‘menu’ for her restaurant.

‘I’ve always wanted to grow my own produce and doing it biodynamically fits with the whole philosophy behind Tedesca,’ says Brigitte, who lives next door to her restaurant on a property with its own orchard of heirloom fruit trees and thriving vegetable garden. ‘The difference in the flavour of a pea that’s been pulled from the garden that morning and one you buy in a shop is phenomenal, and I can allow the peaches on my trees to ripen to a point where you can hardly handle them but the sweetness is at its absolute peak. This garden will guarantee that I’m always cooking with the best-possible produce.

‘Alongside our hot houses, the smokehouse, the wood oven, the beehives, the chickens and the flock of Wiltshire Horn sheep we’re raising for meat, it means that pretty much everything we’re feeding people in the restaurant will be sustainable and come from just metres from where our customers are seated.’

This meticulous attention to produce and provenance is part of a food revolution the Mornington Peninsula is currently undergoing that’s making it one of the best dining and drinking destinations in Australia. Driven by the completion of a freeway from Australia’s second-largest city that has reduced travel times to the region and attracted more day-trippers and creative Melburnians like Brigitte, the transformation is seeing an explosion in the number of growers, producers and restaurateurs in the region.

This new wave of distilleries, breweries and cideries, cheesemakers, honey makers, coffee roasters and bakers, mussel farmers and growers of heirloom tomatoes, potatoes, cherries, mushrooms, radishes, avocados and asparagus is expanding the reputation of a region that was once mostly known
for its wine. But the winemakers are embracing change, too, and the once all-conquering pinot noirs and chardonnays are sharing the limelight with varieties like shiraz, pinot gris and vermentino.

Surrounded by Port Phillip Bay in the west, Western Port Bay in the east and Bass Strait to the south, ‘the Peninsula’, as it’s known colloquially, packs a lot into 724sq km. It’s easy to find yourself on an unmade road winding through thick bushland and then suddenly be in deep-green pine forests sharing the elevated spine of the Peninsula with fertile farmland. At times it’s difficult to remember the proximity of Australia’s second-largest city. Further south, around St Andrews and Gunnamatta, tangled scrub surrounds pounding surf beaches. In towns like Sorrento and Portsea and from the Peninsula’s highest point, Arthurs Seat, there are spectacular views of Port Phillip’s sandy bays and bathing huts.

Over on the more rugged Western Port Bay side, rocky cliffs give way to sleepy towns like Flinders and Somers that manage to maintain their fishing-village charm even as the summer crowds descend and their jetties swarm with recreational anglers and swimmers leaping into the cool, clear water.

The Peninsula has long been a fertile food bowl.

The musselshell middens at Point Nepean National Park were formed over thousands of years by the seafood-loving indigenous Bunurong people, while the extensive patchwork of orchards and farms started when Europeans, particularly Scottish immigrants, moved into the area in the early 1800s, and then expanded to meet the demand of a population explosion caused by Victoria’s mid-18th-century gold rush.

Until the 1970s, it was a quiet, sparsely populated fishing and farming region with a few horse studs and a summer influx of tourists camping alongside the sandy beaches of Port Philip Bay. Then the wine people began to appear, recognising the winemaking potential of the mild, maritime climate.

A handful of vines then has led to more than 200 vineyards and 50 cellar doors now. At Point Leo Estate, a clifftop vineyard and cattle property with far-reaching views over Western Port Bay, a recent £27.4m upgrade has brought a restaurant and cellar door complex and a sculpture park bristling with names like Klippel, Gormley and Plensa.

The sculptural building, with its sloping roof planted with vines and views of the ocean though a wall of glass, offers three dining options: the casual Wine Terrace, featuring the estate’s wines, bistro-like Point Leo Restaurant and fine-diner Laura, a serene, high-ceilinged space with a set-course menu highlighting local produce. Dishes like cold smoked Flinders’ mussels with dried heirloom tomatoes and seaweed butter, and meringue filled with local figs cooked in the estate’s own pinot noir have brought Laura acclaim as one of the best regional diners in the country.

Executive chef Phil Wood, a New Zealander by way of Sydney has become something of a zealot for Peninsula produce. ‘The Mornington Peninsula is like a little breadbasket of superhigh- quality produce,’ he says. ‘I get the most amazing tomatoes from a farm called Daniel’s Run, where they grow more than 200 heirloom varieties in beds layered with seaweed and kelp. Then there’s the cherry farmer I use, who also grows incredible passion fruit, which he grew originally just so he could train the vines to keep the kangaroos and wallabies out of the orchard.

‘There are so many people down here growing diverse produce and they’re talking to the chefs, asking us what we want them to grow, so there’s a real conversation and real specialisation going on. In such a small rural area, you form real relationships with the producers, like with Harry, who grows some of the best mussels I’ve ever tasted.’ Everyone with an appetite on the Mornington Peninsula seems to
be aware of Harry (Michael Harris). He’s been farming blue mussels off Flinders since 1999, a mussel native to southern Australia that grows fatter and sweeter as the season progresses. His mussels appear on the menus of the region’s most renowned restaurants in many forms – pickled, smoked, fried, preserved, fermented – but the chefs still buy their mussels like everybody else, from the man himself, who sells them by the kilo from his boat, moored to Flinders Pier most days from December through to midwinter.

‘They might need to wake me up, though,’ he says. ‘As a snooze between customers sometimes beckons.’ Flinders mussels are a feature on the wine-friendly tasting menu that runs monthly at the cellar door of Avani Winery. At Avani, the mussels are served in a coconut broth, reflecting the heritage of the vineyard’s owners Shashi and Devendra Singh and their son Rohit.

The Singhs come from a farming background in India, so when they migrated to Australia they moved to the Mornington Peninsula with plans to one day buy farmland. In the interim they opened a restaurant and, after discovering and serving local wines, decided to buy an established vineyard. Shashi, who has a chemistry background, enrolled in winemaking and viticulture courses, and gradually converted it from a conventionally farmed mix of pinot noir and chardonnay grapes to biodynamically-grown syrah that’s now considered among the Mornington Peninsula’s best wines.

‘I originally wanted to make pinot noir,’ says Shashi. ‘But we discovered that our microclimate and soil was well suited to growing cool-climate syrah. I take a very minimal approach to making wine because I want most of the work to happen in the vineyard. I don’t want to make a certain type of wine, I just want to make the kind of wine that comes from our vineyard. People are really waking up to the great diversity of microclimates across the Peninsula.’

Over in Merricks North, Willow Creek Vineyard is renowned for its award-winning pinot noir, but also makes excellent pinot gris, rosé, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz. But the vineyard, planted in 1989, has taken something of a backseat since, two years ago, a 46-room luxury hotel called Jackalope became part of the winery’s equation. The hotel – with its black-tiled infinity pool overlooking the vineyards, treatment rooms and neon-lit hallways – was a gamechanger in terms of accommodation in the region, but is equally acclaimed for its two restaurants, where executive chef Guy Stanaway keeps the focus on local produce.

The hotel restaurant Doot Doot Doot, with its 10,000-globe, fermentation-themed chandelier overhead, is a more experimental affair, with tasting menus of intricate food featuring hard-to-get ingredients like heirloom beans and rare-breed spring lamb. A second diner, Rare Hare, is a more raucous affair, pumping out simple, big-flavoured dishes like charred broccoli with cheese custard and chargrilled squid, served with an ink-dyed romesco sauce.

For a region surrounded by water on three sides, it can be surprisingly tricky to get your hands on local seafood unless you’re willing to fish for it yourself.

Government regulations to preserve fish stocks, particularly in Port Phillip Bay, are the reason for the scarcity, but there is still some good stuff from the sea available. At Montalto Estate, Matt Wilkinson, a transplanted Yorkshire chef who’s been living in Melbourne for nearly two decades, has a knack for getting his hands on the local seafood, seeking out some of the by-catch from mussel farms, including abalone, cuttlefish and sea urchins. The urchins he cooks bisque-style, to serve with Dauphinoise-style local potatoes. He’s also a big fan of stargazer, a monkfish that’s caught in Western Port Bay, which he brines in seawater before baking in a wood-fired oven.

Matt is also experimenting with his own cheese, combining it with herbs grown in Montalto’s market garden. He sources the milk from Main Ridge Dairy, a goat dairy that, he says, ‘produces some of the best goat’s milk I’ve ever worked with’. ‘It’s also a treat to go and visit,’ he says. ‘Particularly when there are all the kids jumping about all over the place – that in itself is enough to make you feel better.’

There are other simple pleasures on the Mornington Peninsula, including Hawkes Farm, a thriving 16ha market garden that does a great line in potatoes and has a stall that sells thrice-cooked hot chips. Then there is the Sunny Ridge PYO Strawberry Farm, and the numerous farm gates that sell
everything from free-range eggs to hydroponic tomatoes. Better still, there’s always someone growing something new, so that the possibility of discovery in this beautiful maritime food bowl is always just around the next bend in the road.

Words by Michael Harden. Photography by Ewen Bell. They travelled to the Mornington Peninsula courtesy of Visit Mornington Peninsula.

This feature was taken from the January/February 2021 issue of Food and Travel.

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