There’s a city in Victoria that’s famous for its food and wine.
It has good coffee and laneway bars and trams and lovely old buildings, and it’s just been declared Australia’s first UNESCO City of Gastronomy.
No, it’s not Melbourne.
Step into the foodie spotlight, Bendigo!
And if that seems surprising, this is all you need to know: Of UNESCO’s Creative Cities categories, from film to literature to design, only gastronomy takes in the region around the nominated city.
Thus Bendigo’s successful application was backed by nine local government areas, covering a vast swathe of the historic goldfields area around it.
So when travelling to this newly-minted City of Gastronomy, where to start?
I spent three days on a taste test.
As a regional city with a talent for luring Melburnians on cultural breaks to exclusive exhibitions at the Bendigo Art Gallery (currently featuring Mary Quant), Bendigo has developed a quality restaurant and bar scene.
One of the best is Masons of Bendigo, housed within a former glass factory of the same name.
The night I visited, the excellent “chef selected roaming menu” comprised five courses for $85 which included such dishes as McIvor Farm pork hock, kohlrabi, hairy melon, snake beans, pickled chilli, cashews, and yellow bean dressing (and that was just one course!).
Another local favourite is The Woodhouse.
The emphasis here is on wood-fired cooking, via the red gum chargrill (for beef dishes) or the applewood oven (ideal for pork and seafood).
Chef Paul Pitcher says the charcuterie platter is a firm favourite, with lots of local ingredients.
One of Bendigo’s best bars is Wine Bank within a graceful old bank, stocking wines from across the Bendigo and Heathcote regions.
“It’s like an enoteca,” says owner Mark Coffey.
“You can have a meal and a glass of wine, then buy a bottle or even a box of wine to take away.”
As for urban food producers, The Good Loaf bakery is situated within an outlandish circular building and turns out the city’s best sourdough.
On the edge of town, Peppergreen Farm is a social enterprise on the site of a historic Chinese market garden, selling its own produce and serving cafe meals.
Heathcote and Bendigo Wine Regions
In the Heathcote region, a good place to start is the spectacular cellar door of Peregrine Ridge Wines with its sweeping views of the Goulburn Valley, and its weekend tastings of its excellent shiraz – including a popular sparkling version.
Silver Spoon Estate is another standout, a “totally off-grid” winemaker which uses no irrigation and is fully solar-powered.
For the taste of a vineyard with Italian heritage, visit Vinea Marson, whose output employs unfamiliar grapes such as picolit and friulano, and includes an old-style cloudy prosecco.
In the Bendigo region, try a tasting at Balgownie Estate then stay over in its glamping tents, with the sun setting on a view of the vines from your private deck.
Bridgewater and Inglewood
Northwest of Bendigo, Bridgewater is home to Bridgewater Bakehouse, the latest winner of the Great Australian Vanilla Slice Triumph.
I can attest to their magnificence, being impressed with the fluffy custard filling and pastry with just the right amount of crunch.
“I’m a real believer in the vanilla flavour,” says co-owner Pat O’Toole.
“So we use a really good quality vanilla bean.”
A short walk from the bakery is the Bridgewater Hotel, a beautiful old Art Deco pub with views of the Loddon River.
Its most popular dishes are its lamb roast and pork belly, with meat sourced from Fat Butcher in nearby Inglewood.
“Our pigs are vegetarian so the pork is sweet, melts in the mouth,” says co-owner Deb Hancock.
Talbot and Castlemaine
My final day in the region takes me southwest to Talbot, blessed with gold rush architecture and the accomplished Talbot Provedore and Eatery, which sells regional produce and uses it as ingredients in its dishes.
The third Sunday each month sees the Talbot Farmers Market take over the town, with stalls selling food, drink and crafts.
My last stop is arty Castlemaine, south of Bendigo.
Lunch is at stylish Das Kaffeehaus, inspired by the grand coffee houses of Vienna.
But I am sated, and heading home to Melbourne I admire the passing scenery and reminisce fondly on Bendigo’s gastronomic delights.
Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Bendigo Regional Tourism. Visit the official site of Bendigo UNESCO City of Gastronomy at bendigogastronomy.com.au.