Last year, we day-tripped to Daylesford – brunching at Breakfast and Beer, riding the sleepy steam train that runs to and from Musk, and lunching at Cliffy’s Emporium. Read all about it in Part 1 of our touring guide. Then in the afternoon, we sipped yummy red wines at Passing Clouds and bought up big at temple of all things meaty and cured, Istra Smallgoods. This was followed with a visit to the Daylesford Cider Company, a couple of glasses of wine and a read of the weekend papers at the Perfect Drop (recently changed hands) and dinner at the Farmers Arms Hotel. All this and more is covered in Part 2.
Phew, you would have thought we had seen it all. While we had ticked a lot of things off the list, we were keen to return – and this time we were doing it in style. Checking into Peppers Hepburn Springs, dining at the hotel’s onsite restaurant The Argus, and taking time out of our busy eating and drinking schedule with spa treatments at The Mineral Spa.
But first, breakfast – and this was no ordinary breakfast. We leave Melbourne early to meet hotel manager David Ryan and a group of guests as they embark on a tour of nearby Birch Estate farm in Smeaton – home to Chris Malden and Wayne Cross (the co-owners of Peppers and founders of Dayget, a one-stop booking service for holidays in the region) as well as Wilma the dog. Oh, and several herds of heritage breeds – including Highland and British White cattle – that happily wander the surrounding 350 acres of farmland sprawling across the region’s volcanic hills.
As you can imagine, the property has stunning views – on a good day you can see the Grampians – and sits among 10 acres of landscaped grounds that are home to enough trees and bushes to keep The Argus self-sufficient in citrus, quince and pomegranates.
There will be even more demand for their homegrown produce when the pair launch a bistro-style dining room at the historic Club Hotel in Clunes, where The Argus head chef David Willcocks will also oversee proceedings once they get underway.
We start with Captains Creek organic sparkling wine alongside foamed yoghurt studded with freshly picked elderflower blossoms, slivered almonds, sunflower seeds, strawberries and dried fruit.
Next, hot-smoked salmon (from the aforementioned Istra Smallgoods in Musk), slow- poached egg, avocado smash and miner’s lettuce (a reminder of the region’s Goldfields heritage, it’s also known as winter purslane) on a square of freshly baked rye bread.
To finish this three-course breakfast we are served glass tumblers containing a thick layer of mango mousse, a quenelle of passionfruit ice cream and a scattering of passionfruit seeds. It’s delicious, and a light and refreshing way to finish a lazy, long breakfast – although we did feel guilty that none of us had managed to touch the fruit and cured meat platters, and pastries on the table.
Back at the hotel, all is peaceful. Our room – well, I say room – the Garden Spa Villa is spread over two levels, has a two-person spa bath and a huge living room area that contains an antique table (a repurposed bed) that once was put to service in an opium den – the black scorch mark and Chinese characters are clear for all to see.
Downstairs, the kitchen and bathroom doors open onto private little terraces, upstairs the pitched roof is dotted with skylights. It’s fresh and light and looks best from the huge, crisp- white bed. To say it was a home away from home is not only a cliche, it’s wildly untrue. It’s better than that and we had to regularly stop ourselves from thinking up fantastical plans that might result in us being able to stay here forever.
It’s raining outside, and it’s hard to leave such relaxing surrounds, but the open fire in the Tipperary Bar and Lounge beckons. The room is a little bit Mad Men, with its dark wood tones and leather sofas, but also stylishly modern – the collection of white lampshades hanging from the ceiling strike a good contrast.
We have pre-dinner drinks while reading the papers and wonder why we have never done this before. It’s a gloomy spring day but it doesn’t matter – we have everything we need right here, although running through the stunning Italianate gardens because we forgot to bring our umbrella wasn’t the perfect way to take in the well-manicured flower beds and miniature maze.
Opting for the degustation menu, with matched wines by recent appointment sommelier Jeremy Shiell, the evening begins with a selection of three ‘nibbles’ that can only be described as a lolly bag for adults: a mini tumbler of ginger beer with lemon foam, strips of rhubarb dipped in raw sugar and cracked black pepper – pulled fresh from the garden the rhubarb is intensely tasty and resembles a strawberry shoelace – and truffle popcorn. It’s a fun opener, and immediately puts diners at ease. The dimly-lit dining is smart, but not serious and the service is competent and friendly. It’s a pretty big space – but a few well- placed dividers and large service station table in the middle of the room help to make things feel more cosy.
Next – a delicate dish served in an egg cup – a half shell filled with egg custard and warm tofu, and studded with orange Yarra Valley salmon roe that release a salty burst of flavour. Egg custard and tofu? We weren’t expecting this, but we are delighted when these hints of Asian cuisine, specifically Japan, are carried through to the rest of the menu.
Smoked rainbow trout with rhubarb, fennel, sorrel and licorice bubbles is matched with Domaine de Bellevue Muscadet 2012 – it’s great with the fishy and aniseed flavours. But what else would you expect from a winery sitting next to the Atlantic at the mouth of the Loire Valley?
Deliciously meaty Western Australia marron continues the seafood theme, paired with smoked eel and silken tofu in an XO consomme. The components come to the table ‘undressed’ so that the unami-laden broth can be poured from a teapot over the chunks of salty eel and rich marron. Fine shreds of red chilli impart a surprising kick. The verdict, it’s like a posh cold and flu remedy. We mean this in the best way possible. It was matched with a Palo Cortado style (dry) sherry, specifically with the broth. It’s by Sanchez Romate.
We are certainly not complaining, but are surprised to find another seafood dish served for the fourth course. Snapper, calamari (insanely tender), Asian greens, puffed grains with pretty green cucumber and pea squares. The black bean sauce has a great salty-savoury characteristic – it’s thick and viscose, and the globs of soy butter and egg hollandaise add a soothing richness. It’s matched with 2012 EVT Best Great Western 51 Riesling for him and Curly Flat Chardonnay 2010 for her. The Alsace-style riesling is a real standout – finished in oak it is full-flavoured and utterly addictive.
We move onto reds – Macedon Ranges 2010 Domaine Epis Cabernet Sauvignon from the Williams Vineyard, as well as a southern Heathcote Shiraz by Chapter Wines – to accompany the Hampshire Down lamb with blackened eggplant and sheep’s milk yoghurt. Here’s the hearty red meat we had been expecting. And thankfully – the previous courses have been so well-judged we aren’t too full to enjoy it. And suddenly, Asia is swapped for the Middle East as the eggplant imparts smokiness and the yoghurt offers a refreshing palate-cleanser. It all works.
We end as we started – the half shell returns for dessert and this time is filled with egg yolk custard, salted caramel and baked passionfruit. There is a foam yoghurt on top, too.
But actually, it isn’t over at all – next is sweet and sticky caramelised bananas, peanut and chocolate ganache with an avocado puree. It’s all a bit too much for our taste. A little too sweet and cloying after such a well-measured menu. But I am sure it could be a lot more successful if the person, unlike us, actually likes bananas and peanut butter. The avocado does help freshen things up a bit, but this is easily the heaviest dish of the night and seems to have come from nowhere.
Dessert wine – we get a tasty take on sherry – a blend of PX and Oloroso, aged for up to fifty years. It’s while sipping this deliciously warming digestif that we find out that David Willcocks has a Korean sous chef. Given the Asian influences on the menu it makes sense and we would love to see some kimchi and bulgogi-style flavours creep into the offerings.
We manage one more late-night drink before sloping off to bed. After all, we had breakfast in The Conservatory to think about the next morning – homemade bread, meats and cheeses, pastries and a selection of cooked-to-order dishes in the pristine white surrounds of this colonial-style space – think large white cane chairs and a shaded verandah out front.
As if we could leave without heading to The Mineral Spa and immersing ourselves in the deliciously warm pools (avoiding the cold plunge pool) and relaxing in the steam room, infrared detox box and sauna. The view from the pools and sun loungers on the terrace are really lovely, and it’s almost a shame to have to grab our plush bathrobes and head to one of the dual treatment rooms (via tea in the chill-out area, of course) for a mineral flout.
Forget visions of wallowing around in some lukewarm water – there are only a handful of these beds in the Southern Hemisphere and instead of being submerged the ‘floatee’ is cushioned and supported from head to toe by a water-filled pillow. The result? A dreamy sensation of weightlessness – so much so that we both fell asleep once our face masks were applied.
With another day ahead of us, we managed to squeeze in a few more Daylesford destinations, including Wombat Hill House.
We returned to Melbourne relaxed, revived and desperate to return. And that’s exactly what you want from a luxury mini break.
124 Main Road, Hepburn Springs Victoria 3461
*If you want to find out more about the organised breakfast tours to Birch Estate, contact the hotel.