Call me an ignorant Melbourne cityfolk, but Bendigo wasn’t on my radar as an exciting weekend away. I was recently invited to a road trip to Bendigo which changed my point of view! After spending 36 hours in Bendigo, I ended up eating one of the top 10 meals I’ve ever experienced and developed a new found respect for a destination I would definitely label as a gourmet foodie region. Go Bendigo!
Interestingly, I discovered some other Bendigo claims to fame during the road trip, which include:
- Francis McEncroe invented the “Chiko Roll” in Bendigo after being inspired by a Chinese chicken spring roll
- Bendigo has the oldest Chinese restaurant in country Victoria
- Bendigo has a long history of winemaking, with the first vines planted in the Bendigo region over 160 years ago
- The very first Myer department store was opened in Bendigo by Russian immigrant Sidney Myer in 1900
- Bendigo has the oldest vintage tram fleet in Australia
- The Hazeldene Bendigo Easter Festival is Australia’s longest running community festival (almost 150 years!)
- The Bendigo Art Gallery is Australia’s largest regional art museum, founded in 1887. Currently the Marilyn Monroe exhibition is running until 10 July 2016.
36 hours in Bendigo, Heathcote and Marong
Despite my initial thoughts, there was actually a lot more than I expected going on in Bendigo. The weekend was so much fun, with lots of food, wine and activities to keep us busy around Bendigo, Marong and Heathcote. Here were the highlights:
It all started on a Saturday morning in May. Within a comfortable 2 hour drive from Melbourne, Thanh (@ieatblog), Angie (@feedmeichi), her husband Ronnie and I were standing outside the Bendigo Visitor Centre. We had gotten up early in time for the Bendigo Food Fossicking Tour. In my head, I was almost imagining foraging the forest floor for mushrooms, digging up white truffles and maybe even climbing some trees. While it wasn’t quite that adventurous, it did involve shovelling copious amounts of food in our bellies while visiting some of Bendigo’s foodie hotspots.
First stop was Bendigo Wholefoods, a gourmet one-stop food shop with a greengrocer, delicatessen, kitchen nursery and providore. If that wasn’t enough, there was a machine that turned roasted nuts into fresh peanut butter!! This was my type of place. The tasting spread at Bendigo Wholefoods was impressive – breads, cheeses, condiments, pickles, olive oils and these organic, vegan, whole grain crackers called “Mary’s Gone Crackers”. Seriously, these were like a vegan’s version of pork crackling – so incredibly crunchy and tasty. When I thought it couldn’t get better, the Wholefoods kitchen next door brought in something I didn’t expect – a sample of their vegan and gluten-free zucchini bolognese. Put a blindfold on me, and I would be hard pressed guessing this dish didn’t have meat or dairy. The bolognese was a mushroom and lentil sauce with fresh tomato, kale, cashew cheese and roasted almonds served on top of zucchini “spaghetti”. It turned out to be one of their famous “wholebowls”, and is one of those dishes that make me think becoming Vegan is certainly achievable (yes, Brando The Pig just wrote that).
Next stop was The Epicurean Delicatessen, an authentic Italian inspired delicatessen. A butcher’s display fridge with a large selection of small goods and imported cheeses greeted me as I walked in the door. After a coffee and donut, I was transported back to memories of my last holiday in Italy. The Italian style donuts served at The Epicurean are called “Zeppole”, and we were told the secret ingredient was potato! As we moved onto the next stop, I left with my eyes firmly fixated on the hams, which were local, free range and nitrate free.
A few minutes walk away, I thought I was looking at a either a funny shaped chef’s hat, or a giant helicopter landing pad. It turned out to be The Good Loaf Sourdough Bakery – the company that brought local sourdough to Bendigo. The bakery was set up in a circular shaped heritage listed site that was a former Beaurepaires Tyre building. And it was no gimmick, the baked goods here are award winning and tasted delicious! The Pumpkin Semi-Sourdough was my favourite – a fluffy corn and wheat based dough with a touch of sweetness from roasted pumpkins. Respect to The Good Loaf bakers who endure 1:30am starts to produce these baked goods for Bendigo!
On to the next stop – an artisan chocolate shop called Indulge Fine Belgian Chocolates. Having worked in a confectionary company for almost 10 years, I always get excited about local chocolate offerings. To my surprise, my picky tastebuds were very impressed! The chocolates at Indulge are made using Callebaut Belgian Couverture Chocolate and skillfully transformed into the various flavours sold in store. I fell head-over-heels in love with the Indulge Salted Milk Chocolate block and ended up eating so much my stomach started hurting. No regrets. I had to force myself to walk out before I ate the whole store.
The Famous Masons of Bendigo
25 Queen St, Bendigo VIC 3550
The last stop of the Food Fossicking Tour, was the recently hatted restaurant in the 2016 The Age Good Food Guide – Masons of Bendigo. Set in a former glass factory and run by husband and wife couple, chefs Nick and Sonia Anthony, I had no idea what I was just about to experience.
Warialda beef carpaccio with black pepper, candy cane beets, smoked aioli, fried onions and kipfler potato chips
The first dish served was Warialda beef carpaccio with black pepper, candy cane beets, smoked aioli, fried onions and kipfler potato chips. The dish was plated beautifully, and it tasted as good, if not better, than it looked! The depth of flavour was impressive considering it was carpaccio, and the dish was well balanced, with elements of texture, smokiness and an acidic finish. I rated the dish 10/10 and honestly can say it was one of the best dishes I’ve eaten this year.
What was even more fascinating was the most of the elements of the carpaccio dish were sourced locally within 100-150kms of the restaurant. The grass-fed beef was sourced from Warialda Belted Galloways in Clonbinane, the herbs from B&B Basil in Bendigo (Victoria’s largest micro-greens grower), olive oil from Salute Oliva in Boort, eggs from 400 Acres Paddock Eggs and salt flakes from Pyramid Salt. It was beginning to dawn on me that the food here wasn’t just about the flavours or the chef. It was about sourcing the best available produce locally and bringing them to life on the plate.
Mcivor Farm Berkshire pork belly skewers, green mango, macadamia, coconut caramel and lime
Mcivor Farm Berkshire pork belly skewers were next, served with green mango, macadamia, coconut caramel and lime. The pork belly was so tender, delicious, and surprisingly not greasy, which prompted me to ask Chef Nick how he did it. The pork belly was braised in master stock and twice cooked. I quickly scribbled this tip down for future reference. Mcivor Farm is located in Tooborac, in between Melbourne and Bendigo, where the Old breed Berkshire pigs live in a free-range, chemical free environment.
This drew our Food Fossickers tour to an end, but we stayed for lunch to try and plough through the rather large menu. Approximately 70 locally grown products are showcased at Masons and I wanted to try as many as my stomach could fit!
Pheasant terrine, pate, sourdough wafers, pistachio, charcuterie garnish, raisin puree
George’s Fried “Cauliflower Cheese” Zucchini Flowers with smoked paprika mayo, pickles and lemon
These stuffed zucchini flowers were just stunning. Biting into the crunchy exterior opened a whole new world, with delicious Taleggio cheese and buffalo mozzarella oozing out. It was balanced with pickles that added zing and tasted amazing. Together as a whole, the dish was delicate, flavourful and harmonious – it was so beautiful I felt like I was going to shed tears of joy even though I hardly ever cry! Incredible.
Sweet and Sour Mcivor Farm Pork Hock, spring onion and peanut salad, lime
This is on par with some of the best pork dishes I’ve ever tasted. It reminded me of my favourite pork belly dish in Melbourne that I liked so much I ended up hosting my wedding reception at that restaurant. After eating the reshaped Pork Hock at Mason’s, I was tingling with how good it was. The charred edges added depth and crunch, with a clever use of peanuts accentuating this. The pork surprisingly wasn’t greasy, and was kept fresh with a good amount of acidity from the lime and cabbage. A well balanced caramel just elevated the dish to Heaven. Foodgasm material. This is an absolute must order dish from the menu. Another 10/10.
Mcivor Farm Berkshire Pork Fillet, Pork Belly, milk braised breaded shoulder, morcilla and crackle pinwheel
Roast Wanbi Plains Lamb Loin with crispy belly, rolled shoulder, beetroot, black olive caramel, fromage and beetroot crackle
Dessert Tasting Plate – Creme brulee, Holy Goat & lychee pannacotta, choc-hazelnut delice, macaron, strawberry ice cream sandwich, chocolate pot with coffee soil, Opera Cake with orange curd, Favourite Flavours ice cream & Persian fairy floss
The Dessert Tasting Plate closed out one of the top 10 meals I’ve ever eaten. After the meal, I wanted to stand up, start a slow clap and give the chefs a standing ovation. The depth of flavour, the textures, the presentation, the concept, Masons had it all. Additionally, I could feel the love in the food, and the whole meal paid respect to the local, seasonal produce. Truely great and a very memorable dining experience that will bring me back to Bendigo.
305 View St, Bendigo VIC 3550
Simply Green Tomato & Quinoa fritters
The Bendigo Corner Store Cafe was a bustling little cafe situated in a former neighbourhood milk bar. Beautiful full bodied Clark street roasters coffee and a delicious sounding menu greeted us as we sat down for breakfast. I decided to take a bold risk and ordered the Simply Green Tomato and quinoa fritters. It turned out to be a great bet – they were incredible! It was unique, crunchy and flavourful, with delicious pickled onions bringing the whole dish together. I’d highly recommend ordering this dish!
The Big Breakfast hit the spot with free range eggs and bacon, Otway Irish pork sausage, hash brown, balsamic roasted cherry tomatoes, spinach, sourdough and a very memorable tomato relish that took the dish to the next level.
Ocean breakfast with free-range poached eggs with smoked Atlantic salmon, wilted spinach and hollandaise, dusted with sesame seaweed, on organic sourdough.
A modern breakfast wouldn’t be complete without a sweet element to it, and that’s exactly what Angie ordered – House made ricotta pancakes with blueberries, lemon syrup and citrus sugar, house made coconut yoghurt, lemon balm, a grilled lemon cheek and vanilla Persian fairy floss. It certainly rounded out a satisfying feed.
32 Tuscan Court, Heathcote VIC 3523. Open Friday to Sunday.
The stars aligned for us to have a family style Sunday lunch on the Heathcote Harvest 20 acre working farm, about 40 minutes outside of Bendigo. Boris the Berkshire boar greeted us in the carpark, along with a number of varieties of chickens as we walked into the restaurant.
We feasted on locally produced prosciutto, hams, salumi, local cheeses, house made terrine, spicy snags, pickles and condiments. And ofcourse a side of free range Berkshire bacon. What a spread! Then came a pork schnitzel with creamy mash and red-cabbage sauerkraut. I still remember the crunch. Turns out the batter was house made sourdough that was blitzed and used to coat the schnitzel. It was one of the highlights for me, and a dish that almost didn’t make the menu.
Overall it was a lovely paddock to plate experience, and I couldn’t leave without buying some of the fresh free range eggs. Not bad for a couple who came to Victoria to retire.
26 High St, Marong VIC 3515
I loved the beautiful community feel to the Marong Family Hotel. It felt like more than just a pub, so I think it is well described as a “Family Hotel”. A variety of areas cater for a broad crowd, where you can catch up with mates over a drink, keep the kids entertained in the games area, all while with a dining area serving delicious local fare.
As we scanned the menu for food, we drank some Connor Park wines, with grapes grown on the owner’s property 10km away. I could almost picture the farm-to-table lifestyle as I drank the wine, thinking I hope one day I can grow my own grapes and turn it into wine. My attention moved to the part of the menu with the signature range of dishes – specialty paddock-to-plate lamb which the owners source from their farm at Connor Park.
After much debate (sign of a good menu), we ordered the Dukkah Spiced Lamb Backstrap which came out in a generous portion – literally a mountain of food! The lamb was served with smashed potatoes, honey Dutch carrots and sauteed spinach.
We also tried the lamb shank special and couldn’t leave a country town without trying the Chicken Parma. Lovely service and experience.
BIG4 Bendigo Marong Holiday Park
We stayed at the BIG4 Holiday Park in Marong. Marong is a small township about a 15 minute drive west of Bendigo, and despite a population under 500, it has been identified as one of the next growth areas around the Bendigo region. I have to say I enjoyed my stay outside of the busy built up areas more than I thought – waking up to wide open spaces and gum trees surrounding Marong was certainly different for me and made me feel like I was on holiday.
Staying at the BIG4 Bendigo Marong Holiday Park also opened my eyes to the world of BIG4 Holiday Parks. My impression of “Big 4” prior to my stay in Bendigo was that it was budget accommodation for families. After a night at the BIG4 Bendigo Marong Holiday Park, I found the accommodation much higher quality than expected. The room I stayed in was clean, modern and comfortable. While we didn’t stay long enough to fully enjoy the facilities, we did have a quick burn on the peddle cars on a man-made go-cart track. I felt like a kid that wanted to stay and play all day, but my parents (or in this instance, travel buddies) were trying to remind me of the schedule and to get in the car.
I enjoyed my time at the BIG4 Bendigo Marong Holiday Park to the point that I have subsequently used BIG4 for accommodation for a weekend getaway and have even signed up as a BIG4 Loyalty member.
Both Heathcote and Bendigo are two of Victoria’s 21 distinct wine regions, and while I was excited to dive into the Heathcote Shiraz tastings, I never really knew Bendigo had so many wineries until this visit. Bendigo’s Mediterranean style warm, dry summers and mild, wet winters make it well suited to producing full-bodied wines and I wished we had more time to explore more.
- Balgownie Estate – considered one of the pioneers of Bendigo’s modern wine industry with a larger estate in the Yarra Valley
- Sandhurst Ridge – A welcoming winery founded by an Italian family and now run by two of the brothers who live on site. There are also two luxury cottages available for guests to stay the night. Interestingly the vineyard is named after Sandhurst, the former name of Bendigo!
Heathcote is blessed with a microclimate similar to France’s Rhone Valley, combined with a distinguishing spine of Cambrian rock that runs north-south through the region. The breakdown of this rock creates the mineral rich, red soils which give Heathcote wines their unique character. Driving through the Heathcote township, I was surprised how big the town was – there were even wineries on the main street! It turns out that Heathcote has Australia’s longest country town main street, and is surrounded by the largest remaining Box-Ironbark forest in Victoria.
- Downing Estate (Heathcote) – A friendly cellar door in a modest garage setting. Downing Estate is a 5 star James Halliday rated winery with 100% estate grown wines. Also has hours of entertainment playing fetch with the wine dog.
- Flynn’s Wines (Heathcote) – My favourite wine of the weekend was a Heathcote Shiraz from Flynn’s. The Flynns Multi Clone Shiraz 2012 was full bodied and I could distinctly pick out the blackberry notes. The wines are made on site, and while the winery was built from scratch in 1999, the Shiraz’s score well in the 2016 James Halliday Wine Companion.
Bendigo was alive with the youthful film star buzz of Marilyn Monroe. The famous capture from the 1955 film “The Seven Year Itch” can’t be missed as Marilyn’s giant white skirt lifts high into the trees of Rosalind Park, with the 8m high Forever Marilyn sculpture making a statement that Marilyn is in town!
Giant Marilyn Monroe
In collaboration with Twentieth Century Fox, Bendigo Art Gallery presents Marilyn Monroe in one of the most comprehensive Marilyn collections in the world. Even though I didn’t know that much about Marilyn, I was in awe and even a little inspired seeing this time lapse of Norma Jeane Baker’s transformation from an orphan into one of the most recognisable film stars of her time, Marilyn Monroe. There were some tempting moments where I wanted to whip out the camera to snap a quick picture but photos weren’t allowed. Marilyn’s wardrobe was pretty amazing, along with some interesting personal artefacts. There were several points in the exhibition with quotes by Marilyn, and the one that stuck with me was her quote “Creativity has got to start with humanity and when you’re a human being, you feel, you suffer”.
Our Marilyn themed weekend continued on the Sentimental Journey on Tram 880, one of Bendigo’s famous vintage trams which was converted into a special evening ride of sipping cocktails, munching on charcuterie boards and getting lost in the soothing tunes from Jazz legend, Ella Fitzgerald. The Sentimental Journey explored the friendship between Marilyn and Ella, and was a unique way to spend a Saturday night unwinding with friends.
For something different, away from Marilyn hysteria, we visited the calming environment of The Great Stupa of Universal Compassion. A stupa is a Buddhist religious monument and The Great Stupa in Bendigo is the largest Buddhist monument in the western world (more than 6 times bigger than the Forever Marilyn sculpture!). The Great Stupa will also hold the largest gem quality Jade Buddha in the world after carving is finished by master carvers in Thailand.
I was really quite pleasantly surprised by this excursion. The weekend in Bendigo and Heathcote convinced me we have some of the best quality food, wines and experiences in our Victorian backyard. There is certainly a lot more that meets the eye in Bendigo, and it’s a place I’m keen to explore further in future trips. Good to know also that there are V/Line trains from Melbourne just in case my car breaks down and I need to sneak in another trip to Masons of Bendigo. Seriously so good. Thanks Bendigo, I’ll see you again soon.
Brando attended this trip as guests of Bendigo Tourism and BIG4 Bendigo Marong Holiday Park.