There’s a moment as you’re driving into Daylesford when the towering eucalypts of Wombat State Forest give way to fields of Christmassy pine trees. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting entrance to this central Victorian town, where a history of immigration has created a seamless blend of archetypal Australiana and European tradition.
From Swiss-Italian immigrants who came in search of gold, to Russian families who sought mineral water and mushrooms, Daylesford and the neighbouring hub of Hepburn Springs have long held a very real allure. With more than 80 per cent of the nation’s mineral springs coursing underground, these storybook towns form the spa capital of Australia, and today draw crowds for decadent weekends of fine food, cool-climate wines and indulgent day spa sessions.
Mineral and mushrooms
No-one has done more to change the face of Daylesford than Alla Wolf-Tasker. Executive chef and owner of Lake House, Alla first came to Australia as an infant when her parents fled post-war Russia on an assisted passage. 'My mother and I were housed in a migrant camp in Tocumwal [NSW, on the Victorian border] while my father worked off the passage in a tannery in Sydney," Alla recalls. "He was a writer and spoke several languages. Unfortunately, English wasn’t one of them."
The family eventually moved to Melbourne and lived in a series of crowded boarding houses with other displaced Russians. As they became more financially secure, some of the migrants bought cars and took day trips to the country. "With its mineral waters and forests, Daylesford resonated with these displaced Europeans," says Alla. In the mid 1960s, her parents bought a run-down miner’s cottage on the hill overlooking the lake. "It was a very Russian thing to have a dacha, or a summer house," Alla explains. Her parents set about repairing the place and planting an orchard and vegetable garden. 'Most of the food for our table was grown here; much of it was pickled, preserved and stored for cooler seasons."
Alla recalls there was always a pot of her mother’s sour cabbage on the back stoop, dill-pickled cucumbers and plum or elderberry wine in the pantry. Many of these homemade products were bartered with other local Europeans. "We’d swap some of my father’s pickled mushrooms for smoked eel from the Ukrainian gentleman in Central Springs Road, or exchange jams for fresh curd cheese with the Yugoslav priest who lived in Trentham."
On weekends, the house filled with visitors who enjoyed a seemingly endless array of Russian salad and piroshki or pelmeni (small dumplings). "In the evening, the banquet continued, followed by singing, piano-playing and poetry-reading," Alla recounts. "These will remain as some of the best memories of my childhood, and I have no doubt they had much to do with me becoming a chef and restaurateur," she says. "Hospitality and expressing love and care through the sharing of food was bound to be part of my DNA."
For Alla’s parents and their friends, the health-giving effects of drinking and bathing in the local mineral waters was as much of a drawcard to the area as the fertile soil, the distinct seasons and the 'Europeanness’ of the landscape. "Each morning, my father would take his string bag and several empty bottles, and walk down the hill to his favourite spring at Central Springs – I eventually came to love the pungent, slightly gassy drinking water," she explains.
Back then, the Hepburn Bathhouse in neighbouring Hepburn Springs was a far cry from the luxurious, multi-million dollar complex it is today. "It was a fairly scary place, full of steam and rusty baths," she says. Alla goes on to explain that the local community was quite bemused by these goings-on. "Just as they were by our mushroom-gathering expeditions"¦ Every autumn, as the first slippery jack or saffron milk cap was found, it was as though a bush telegraph communicated to the European community, and pickers descended on the area by the carload."
In the 1980s, inspired by the great regional restaurants of France, Alla and her artist husband, Allan, began building their weekend-only restaurant on the shores of Lake Daylesford. Today, the two-hatted Lake House restaurant attracts diners from around the world to sample Alla’s French-, and increasingly Russian-accented fare. 'After considerable training in fancy-schmancy French technique, and a denial of my roots, I’ve almost come full circle with the sorts of flavours that resonate most with my palate," she says. "Smoked fish, beetroot, mushrooms, chestnuts, quinces, slow-cooked lamb and wild berries were all part of my childhood table but also feature on Lake House menus."
The rituals of foraging and feasting that first drew Alla’s family to the area are still played out, but these days, instead of staying in a dacha, you have the option of world-class accommodation on-site, from chic lodge rooms to the luxurious two-bedroom retreat, the most recent addition to what has become known as the Lake House village.
Gourmet weekends, masterclasses hosted by guest chefs and the Producers’ Day, a celebration of local produce held in the grounds every February, ensure Lake House is still at the very forefront of this fabulous food lovers’ scene.
Smallgoods and smokehouses
Russian immigrants weren’t the only ones to feel a natural affinity with the area. When Livio and Lidia Jurcan arrived in Melbourne from Croatia 35 years ago, they planned to stay for a year or two, but friendships were formed, sons were born and Australia’s laid-back nature convinced them to set down roots permanently.
"They felt at home here," son Bernie explains. "There were a lot of similarities between the areas around Daylesford and their hometown of Istra, on the Adriatic coast near Italy."
Although Livio was a boilermaker by trade, once he arrived in Australia, he continued the generations-old tradition of preparing whole pigs for the winter. "We grew up with Dad and his mates curing pork and making sausages every year," says Bernie. "His prosciutto was always so popular that eventually, his friends suggested he turn it into a business, so he started Istra Smallgoods 15 years ago."
Today, their smallgoods are revered in food lovers’ circles throughout Australia and since Livio retired a few years back, his sons Sebastian and Bernie have stepped up to the plate. Though Bernie studied sports management at university, he’s swapped supervising muscles for curing them, creating a knockout range of prosciutto, pancetta, sausages and salami.
There’s no shortcut for these time-honoured curing techniques, which have been passed down through generations of Jurcans.
"We make a prosciutto on the bone, which takes about two years to mature, but we also do a boneless version that’s ready within 12 months," explains Bernie.
Both are available wholesale and through their unassuming shopfront in the small town of Musk, just south of Daylesford. The fridge boasts close to 20 different types of cured meats and sausages, as well as a swoon-worthy selection of mustards, pickles, ajvar (spicy capsicum relish), sour cherries and continental sweets. Most days, you’ll find Lidia at the counter and Bernie out the back, preparing the free-range Western Plains pork.
Predictably, their family celebrations are porcine-rich affairs, as Bernie indicates with a broad sweep of the hand. 'Whenever we get together, we have platters of prosciutto and salami, spit-roast pork, Mum’s cabbage rolls and chargrilled seafood – just as it would’ve been back on the Adriatic coast."
While the classic recipes and methods remain unchanged, Livio’s retirement has allowed Bernie to build upon the family’s repertoire with the help of another local food legend, Michael de Jong, the one-time head chef of the Farmers Arms. 'Michael comes in a few times a week and we test out new products. At the moment, we’re experimenting with rolled pancetta, Lyonnaise sausages and bresaola (air-dried, salted beef)," he says.
Up until recently, Istra also produced a Daylesford speciality, the bull-boar – a strongly flavoured sausage people either love or loathe. This distinctive mix of beef, pork, red wine, garlic and aromatic spices has been nominated for a spot on the Slow Food Ark of Taste (a list of foods from around the world that are considered endangered), as fans fear it may soon cease to exist. A uniquely local creation, the bull-boar’s name dates back to the first Swiss-Italian settlers, when families came together to break down the beasts for winter (one side would bring the bull, the other the boar). Though this tradition is dying out, you can still find fine examples around town, including at Albert Street Butchery and Spa Centre Meats. These aren’t any old bung-’em-on-the-barbie snags, though – you first need to boil them, then remove the skins and thickly slice the meat before grilling, pan-frying or roasting. Serve them with spiced tomato chutney or pickled red cabbage.
Inspiration and industry
It was the promise of gold that first enticed workers to Hepburn Springs in the 1850s and, though few got rich from prospecting, they discovered a fertile land that was ripe for farming. The town became home to thousands of Italian-speakers, including a large contingent from Ticino in the Swiss Alps.
Among those to settle in Hepburn Springs were brothers Pietro and Giacomo Lucini. Age-stained ledgers show that an enterprising Pietro offered 'grub stakes" to settlers, giving them two shillings, a spade, a large salami and a loaf of bread each week in exchange for a portion of their mining profits. When Pietro tapped into the fact that most preferred pasta to pane, he built Australia’s first pasta factory in 1859. The Old Macaroni Factory still stands today, along with the surprisingly vibrant ceiling frescoes that were handpainted by the more artistically minded Giacomo in the 1860s.
Today, Maria Viola, Giacomo’s great-granddaughter, is only too happy to share the history of the building and her family with visitors.
Every weekend, she opens the doors to the factory for guided tours, nonna-style dishes and chianti-fuelled singing. A fourth-generation Italian, Maria grew up in Melbourne’s Brighton East knowing little of her heritage, and it wasn’t until she visited a family friend’s farm in Eltham that she experienced something of a light-bulb moment.
"As a child, I didn’t even know I was Italian, but when I walked into that cellar, which was full of homemade salami, cheeses and wine, the sights and smells really struck a chord. I thought: 'Wow, this is me.’"
Maria became fascinated by her heritage and its culture, leading her to meet and marry Italian-born Claudio Viola, when she was 19. They went on to have six children together.
When The Old Macaroni Factory was handed down to her following her father Joseph’s death, the building was close to derelict. 'It took 14 years to get it to a usable state," Maria reveals.
Today, she draws on handwritten 100-year-old recipes found in her grandfather Cosmo’s faded ledger to produce crowd-pleasing plates of spaghetti Bolognese della nonna ('the authentic Northern style", naturally), minestrone and salsicce (sausage) in Napoli sauce.
Her son Matt helps out with front-of-house on the weekends, while Maria wears many hats. "I’m the cook, cleaner, bookkeeper and gardener," she says of what has become a labour of love.
Fresh herbs are sourced from her half-hectare garden and a wander through the sprawling grounds turns up typical Italian munificence: chestnuts, walnut and fig trees, zucchinis, tomatoes, artichokes and languidly draping grape vines. Maria plucks sprigs of sage and geranium, gently urging you to 'taste this, smell that", but shows her true tricolours when asked about the source of her sausages, invoking the code of silence on Cosmo’s closely guarded recipe. "One of the local butchers makes it for me, using pork and a few herbs and spices - but that’s all I’m going to say."
Though Maria’s family is now scattered around the world, from Melbourne to Finland, when her children and grandchildren do come together, food plays an intrinsic role – though it’s not as stridently Italian as one might think. "Everyone visited last Christmas, and although we started off with some antipasti, we had a typically Aussie spread of cold ham, prawns and seafood," she laughs.
Just down the road, one of Hepburn Springs’s most striking examples of Italian architecture also bears the mark of her ancestors, the Lucini brothers. The duo helped Lombardy-born butcher and viticulturalist Fabrizzio Crippa construct the stately Villa Parma in 1864.
Now part of Peppers Springs Retreat & Spa, this lavishly restored heritage-listed manor offers four bedrooms with ensuites, sumptuous living areas and a fully equipped kitchen – perfect for cooking up a storm after a day on the farmgate trail.
The hit list
Daylesford is home to a host of restaurants, cafes and wine bars. Lake House (King St, (03) 5348 3329), the grand dame of the local dining scene, is not to be missed for Alla Wolf-Tasker’s exceptional seasonal fare. Perfect Drop (5 Howe St, (03) 5348 3373) boasts smart share plates and a stellar line-up of regional wines. Chef/owner Richard Mee handles the classics with aplomb at polished Mercato @ Daylesford (32 Raglan St, (03) 5348 4488). At the Farmers Arms Hotel (1 East St, (03) 5348 2091), choose from comfort food in the front bar or elegant modern Australian dishes in the restaurant. Frangos & Frangos (82 Vincent St, (03) 5348 2363) offers contemporary plates of food in stylish surrounds, while neighbouring Koukla ((03) 5348 2363) has excellent pizzas. At Hepburn Springs, head to La Trattoria at Lavandula (350 Hepburn-Newstead Rd, Shepherds Flat, (03) 5476 4393) for relaxed Italian dishes served alfresco, or The Old Macaroni Factory (64 Main Rd, (03) 5348 4345) for old-school pastas. At Red Star Cafe (115 Main Rd, (03) 5348 2297), take your pick of bacon and eggs or a classic steak sarnie, as well as 120 whiskies by the glass.
At Glenlyon, Ellender Estate (260 Green Gully Rd, (03) 5348 7785) serves chardonnay, rosé and pinot noir, plus pizzas on weekends, while nearby, Fontanella (1225 Malmsbury Rd, (03) 5348 7908) pours Italian drops, such as pinot grigio and nebbiolo. To taste your way around central Victoria, visit W.I.N.E. is a 4 letter word (6 Howe St, Daylesford, (03) 5348 2333).
Cliffy’s Emporium (30 Raglan St, (03) 5348 3279) is a gourmet bazaar filled with the best of the region’s bounty. On the first Saturday of the month, shop for fresh produce at Daylesford Farmers’ Markets at the primary school on Vincent Street, and at the railway station on Raglan Street, the Daylesford Sunday Market offers fruit and vegetables among the bric-a-brac. There’s no shortage of meat and smallgoods in the area. Set course for Istra Smallgoods (36 Wheelers Hill Rd, Musk, (03) 5348 3382); Albert Street Butchery (Shop 3, 22 Albert St, Daylesford, (03) 5348 2679); Spa Centre Meats (37 Vincent St, Daylesford, (03) 5348 2094); Spa Venison (Shop 3, 9 Howe St, Daylesford, (03) 5348 3551), and Fernleigh Farms (1070 Daylesford-Trentham Rd, Bullarto, (03) 5348 5682), which also offers organic vegetables along with rare-breeds of pork and lamb.
Lake House is the luxury option in town, with accommodation ranging from the chic Lodge Rooms and Waterfront Suites, to the two-bedroom retreat. King St, Daylesford, (03) 5348 3329, lakehouse.com.au. Villa Parma is a heritage-listed Italianate manor with four large double bedrooms that’s perfect for groups. 124 Main Rd, Hepburn Springs, (03) 5321 6200.
Photography by John Laurie