"Now this," explains second-generation Croatian-Australian Mate Batarilo as his knife slices along the underbelly seam of a freshly caught rainbow trout, 'is what the Europeans love." Dexterous fingers sluicing through fish gut, he removes a three-inch long cluster of apricot-orange fish roe. At $35 per kilo, it is priced at more than three times higher than the actual trout. Of course it’s not the monetary value that the Croatians prize, but the taste.
There’s a gleam in his eyes when he talks cooking methods: beautiful doused in a little vodka for a kind of fish roe ceviche, or quickly dipped in flour seasoned with salt before kissing a frying pan slicked with a sizzling combination of butter and olive oil. Whichever way takes your fancy, Mate assures, 'It’s incredible."
This push-through of European culture is there to be found all across Gippsland’s verdant expanse. From the Croatian winemakers bringing their parents’ talents to the region’s gently sloped hills and valleys of the west, to the organic sensibility and generosity of the Franco-Italian farm gates and cafes occupying the Bass Coast to the south, this idyllic corner of Victoria is stamped with the culinary footprint of those first- and second-generation immigrants who have come to call the area home.
Here at the Alpine Trout Farm that Mate owns and runs with his brother Dave, you can literally taste the heritage. Nestled in a beatific valley forming a cradle for the Latrobe River, the Batarilo brothers possess some 1.5 million trout in their 58 freshwater pools. While doing a roaring trade in the supply of fresh fish to Melbourne’s market scene, it’s the trout smoked on-site to their mother’s Croatian family recipe that pulls the locals in for more. 'I can’t tell you that," Mate laughs when I ask him to reveal the recipe that has a region hooked. He does offer a taste, though. Slicing open the vacuum seal, he prises off a corner with the touch of a pocketknife’s blade. The flavour is intense: woody, smoky, buttery and rich.
The brothers bought the farm three years ago on an impulse after happening upon the auction while out fishing. The farm was well known to them. 'It’s been here for 34 years. Dad used to drop us off and we’d go motorbike riding and then come here and go fishing," he recalls, reflecting on the dishes his mum would whip up from the freshly caught trout that spoke of her former life in coastal Croatia.
These types of culinary recollections are a theme this day, as I make my way to the nearby wineries of Piedmont and Meriz. Nestled side-by-side, they are both run by first-generation Croatian immigrants drawn to the region by a rolling landscape that feels like home. 'All the inlanders live here," smiles Piedmont Wines’s Ljubica Juric of the 20-or-so Croatian families she estimates live in the surrounding region. 'We just love the hills. It looks like home."
Ljubica, known to locals as Lubi, arrived in Footscray in 1969. Her husband moved to Australia a year later and the two met soon after his arrival. 'Language is what brings you together," she muses, 'it’s the community." The same community that exists here: from the neighbours on one side who make their own grappa to fellow boutique vintner Rudy Rzounek, helping out on his daughter and son-in-law’s vineyard on the other. Both Lubi and Rudy confess theirs are winemaking skills learned at the knees of parents and grandparents for whom making the family drop was as natural as breathing.
That sense of the European table is one they both maintain. For Lubi, it is found in the annual Croatian festival they host as part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival celebrations, bringing together others with the glue of traditional Croatian food and hospitality oiled by copious pours of Piedmont’s prize-winning cool-climate chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, sparkling, merlot and shiraz. Next door, 67-year-old Rudy brings his heritage to life with the venison spits he hosts for the gaggle of family and friends keen to enjoy a taste of his homeland come grape-picking time.
We share a glass of riesling on the front porch before a tour of the property, taking in the 6000 vines, his grove of chestnut trees ('petrol money", he says of the small profits made from selling the nuts at local markets) and the delicious black walnuts fallen from their branches and scattered at the head of the driveway.
Both he and Lubi are right in claiming this as a small slice of land with a gentle European feel. It’s the same sense I experience the following morning, pulling into Jjaras in Inverloch some two hours’ drive south. Fruit trees and a multitude of carefully tended raised vegetable beds frame this farm gate-cum-cafe buzzing with activity.
Inside, the Aiello family are busy with their crush of locals: Swiss-French mother Josette shares a recipe for lemon curd with a chatty regular as her son Joseph pulls coffees and Susannah, her Australian daughter-in-law, gathers the organic produce grown on the family’s four-acre growing space. In the background, Josette’s Italian husband, Albert, continually restocks the shelves with celery as fresh as it is green.
Theirs is a story I hear often in these few days experiencing the Gippsland and Bass Coast regions: that of a family whose love for the area is married with a natural affinity for produce and cooking, to form the basis of a thriving business.
'This basically started as a farm gate, but people used to spend so long chatting in the driveway that we started having the idea of creating a place where people could come and catch up and eat beautiful food," explains Susannah as she rings up a head of Italian broccoli. She and Joseph moved from Melbourne to resettle alongside his parents in Inverloch. Today they are responsible for making the delicious jams, piquant relishes and vibrant fruits and vegetables that are sold at Jjaras.
It is her mother-in-law who brings a classic European touch: from the Italian-style apple cream cake made with almond meal to the beautiful pizzas and frittatas selling like hot cakes in the display case. 'You give me a zucchini and I will make you zucchini spaghetti. You give me snow peas and I’ll make you snow peas and potatoes," she laughs in her beautifully accented English in an attempt to explain her abiding food philosophy – a love for fresh produce and nourishing food learned from her French parents.
'It’s just a way of life," explains Marie Riccardi later that morning at La Provincia, her Italian restaurant, farm gate and winery in nearby Corinella. On this lush patch of Australian soil, Marie grows olives for their own oil, produces house-made balsamic vinegar and cooks the kind of Roman food modelled upon a traditional upbringing bestowed on her by her immigrant parents, Gina and Ben.
'As a child, I remember my mother doing her own sundried tomatoes and polenta. It’s just the way we’ve been brought up: the things you grow, the things you make. We were taught to cook and grow, not even by measurements, but by feel and sight."
This is a heartfelt message I hear again and again in this part of the world; a place where rugged Australian beauty and European culture meld in a sympathetic embrace of the other: the result being a region offering the very best of two worlds.
THE HIT LIST
The spot for rustic Italian fare. 105 Corinella Rd, Corinella, (03) 5678 0382.
This farm gate and cafe brings an organic philosophy to its produce and cafe offerings. 69–77 Cashin St, Inverloch, jjaras.com.au.
Churchill Island Farmers Market
Running on the fourth Saturday of each month on Churchill Island, this market sells local produce from the Gippsland region. Churchill Island, off Phillip Island, (03) 5664 0096.
San Remo Fisherman’s Co-op
Stop for freshly caught fish and a beautiful view. 190 Marine Pde, San Remo, (03) 5678 5206.
Alpine Trout Farm
Fish for fresh rainbow trout, and use the barbecue facilities provided to cook your catch in scenic surrounds. 115 Mt Baw Baw Tourist Rd, Noojee, (03) 5628 9584, alpinetroutfarm.com.au.
An elegant B&B housed in a historic home on manicured grounds near the rural township of Warragul. 240 Williamsons Rd, Nilma North, (03) 5627 8060, springbankbnb.com.au.
The RACV Inverloch Resort
The property blends into the dunes behind Inverloch and offers rooms and self-contained villas that are great for families. 70 Cape Paterson-Inverloch Rd, Inverloch, (03) 5674 0000, racv.com.au.
Photography by Julian Kingma