If you have a free day in Melbourne I can thoroughly recommend taking a tour with Gippsland Food Adventures. I was fortunate to have a “Paddock to Plate” tour included as a study tour as part of a conference I attended and was excited to explore a region I had never been to before. Gippsland is south-east of Melbourne and is farming country.
Jenny and husband Paul of Malabar Farms set up Gippsland Food Adventures to share with visitors what happens behind the scenes in food production and some of the wonderful produce from the region. Tours can be tailor-made to suit the interests of your group; ours was looking at innovation.
Our bus departed central Melbourne at 7.45 am and we made good time heading out of the city. Our first stop was Peppermint Ridge Farm where owners Julie and Anthony have set up an education centre and nursery to showcase Australian native plants that are edible and medicinal. We see and smell many of the fascinating range of plants and try Anise Myrtle tea and Lemon Myrtle tea. Then we go into the re-purposed old school house for a magnificent morning tea with breads, herb butters, pinwheels, and cookies all flavoured with different plants. My favourite were the Lemon Myrtle Anzac biscuits, which went well with my Rivermint tea.
Next stop on our journey was Trevor Mills’ Robotic Dairy Farm. Trevor and wife Annemarie have automated the milking of their nearly 200 cows to free up 6 hours each day that they can now spend improving the health of their land and therefore the nutrition of their animals. The cows come up to the shed by themselves when they want to be milked; the smart ones have worked out when the gates will be opened to a fresh paddock and come up to be milked 10 minutes beforehand and then they can be the first to the fresh feed. The cows we saw were certainly very keen to get in to be milked, and the machine reads their ear tags and records all their details including information on milk production and health. The Mills (and all the farmers we meet today) are Landcare farmers dedicated to environmental sustainability and replanting of native plants to attract wildlife diversity back to the area. We are taken off to see the spectacular farm on the back of a tractor (as many of the tracks are very muddy), and this includes a big dam that attracts wildlife as well as providing water for the farm.
Then we head to Prom Country Cheese where Burke and Bronwyn have a dairy herd of a different kind: they milk sheep in order to make sheep’s milk cheese (which is apparently great for people who are lactose intolerant with cow’s milk). We are treated to a ploughman’s lunch: a platter of different cheeses (with home-made bread and sausage) in a combined cheese tasting and lunch – served with local wines. We learn the story of how they came to be in the business and watch as some of the maturing cheeses are wiped and turned. Then we have a chance to walk around the farm a bit to see their ‘girls’ and the milking shed. We hear about the protected Giant Gippsland Earthworms that occur only in a very small area and can grow up to a metre in length and to the thickness of a man’s thumb. Apparently you can hear them moving through their tunnels under the ground.
Finally we drive through a spectacularly beautiful valley to our final destination for the day: Malabar Farm. This is a beef and lamb farm and is a great comparison with the dairy cattle and sheep that we have learned about earlier in the day. We arrive at the shearing shed and have some locally grown apples to munch on (and then share the cores with the horse). Although it is a very different operation to the others we have seen, they share the desire to get the very best nutrition and treatment for the livestock to get the best possible quality product; and to sustainably manage the environment for both farming and equally importantly to attract and support a wide range of native birds and animals. We are taken out to explore their farm (some in and on the ute and others on the Gator) and see wombats, wallabies and kangaroos. Jenny shows us some very different types of vegetation that are fenced off and protected: one a wetland area complete with ferns, and the other a prehistoric looking ‘hidden valley’ full of grass trees (some of which are 200 years old).
Darkness falls very quickly but when we get back to their farmhouse Paul has lit the fire and a barbeque, and bubbles and a cheese platter are ready waiting for us. They (along with a friend who has come to do the cooking) host us to a delicious dinner with their own beef and lamb and freshly grown vegetables (and a wonderful chocolate and berry dessert) all served with local wines. They certainly share with us the amazing hospitality that country communities are known for.
After dinner, our bus driver has the unenviable task of a two and a half hour drive back to the city – while we snooze in the back. We get back into Melbourne at 10.30, tired but having enjoyed a wonderful day.