A taste of the High Country

Delve deeper into Victoria’s High Country in Part 2 of our Q8 escape.

We saddle up the new Audi Q8 and go in search of bushrangers, beef and craft beer on a gourmet gallop through the Victorian High Country.

Ged Bulmer

Bill Bachman

19 July, 2019

The thriving rural hub of Mansfield is the epicentre for our High Country adventures on this leg of the trip, the handsome Audi Q8 once again our chariot of choice. A mecca for holiday-makers and outdoor enthusiasts – Mansfield is just far enough from Melbourne to feel country, but close enough to benefit from the food and wine culture that emanates from the Big Smoke.

Here at the Mansfield Coffee Merchant – a trend-setter and leader in the town’s thriving coffee scene – lycra-clad cyclists rub shoulders with bow-legged bushies and mum’s in active wear at the sun-drenched tables outside, while a steady stream of locals drift in and out for their morning pick-me up. 

Owner Matt Picone is busy grinding beans and banging out coffee dregs while keeping a watchful eye on the two espresso machines that are hissing and steaming up a storm. 

During a break in hostilities Mat pulls up a stool and explains how he learned his roasting skills in Melbourne, where he also came up with the idea for developing the Coffee Merchant, which uses only ethically-sourced beans roasted in-house.

From here we head out of town on the Old Tolmie Road for something completely different at our next stop, Stringybark Creek. Students of Australian history will immediately recognise the place name as the site where Ned Kelly’s infamous gang bailed up and killed a posse of mounted policeman. 

Stringybark Creek, a place name synonymous with infamous Australian bushranger Ned Kelly and his gang

It’s strangely beautiful, a lonely, peaceful place where birdsong resonates through the towering gum trees, but where 130 years earlier the quiet was interrupted by the shattering boom of Ned’s Snider-Enfield carbine. 

In the space of a few hours on Saturday the 26th of October 1878, the Kelly gang went from being horse thieves and brigands to murderers and cop killers, an event that sealed their fate and eventually led to the killing or capture of the entire gang. 

Ned is said to have learnt his bushranger craft from another outlaw of the period, Harry Power, whose eyrie at Power’s Lookout, is reached via the nearby Tolmie-Whitfield road. This sinuous stretch of tarmac has long been a favourite with enthusiast riders and drivers and more recently included as a stage of Targa High Country. 

The countryside around these parts is inextricably linked with the history of bushrangers like Harry Power and the Kelly Gang, but also with the tales of hardy mountain cattleman who moved their herds up into the High Country each spring to graze the rich, alpine pastures. 

Free-range alpine grazing is no longer permitted but this is still prime cattle country and, as we head back towards Mansfield, we pass paddocks flecked with herds of contentedly-grazing Angus and Hereford.

The countryside around these parts is linked with the tales of hardy mountain cattleman who moved their herds up into the High Country each spring to graze the rich, alpine pastures

The area is renowned for its rich produce and the many artisan business that produce everything from dry-aged beef to craft beers

Back in town we meet Chelton Crow, a larger-than-life local with a background in hospitality and a passion for prime beef. Chelton’s family are credited with having brought Melbourne-quality pub grub to Mansfield and he and wife Jane are determined to build on that legacy with their Bos Taurus bistro, bar & grill. In a few short years the contemporary restaurant has brought a new level of dining sophistication to town, developing a reputation with visitors and locals alike as the place for great steak. Chelton runs a small herd of first cross Angus-Wagyu at his farm just outside town and personally handles the butchering and dry-ageing in the restaurant’s artisan butchery. 

In keeping with the artisan theme, just down the road is the Social Bandit micro-brewery, with its impressive selection of craft-brewed beers. The brewery is located in a modern industrial estate but shakes off that vibe the moment you walk in and see the stunning Austrian-made copper lauter tun, which holds pride of place in the centre of the room.

Owner Jeff Whyte is away but son Sam shows us the ropes, explaining how his dad acquired the eye-catching copper brewing equipment from a defunct brewery in Japan, and uses hops sourced from nearby Myrtleford in some of his beers.

Just 10-minutes-drive further on from Social bandit is another, older and more established enterprise that also specialises in fermentation, although in this instance of fruit, not grain. 

Set on a picturesque rise overlooking the surrounding vineyard and with unimpeded views toward the High Country ranges of north-east Victoria, Delatite is a small, family-run winery first established in 1968.

While that might not make it ‘old’ by the standards of the Hunter or Barossa, it was the first vineyard established in the Mansfield region, helping pave the way for the now thriving Upper Goulburn cool-climate wine scene. David Ritchie runs the vineyard first established by his parents, with the assistance of winemaker, Andy Browning, formerly of Mad Fish Bay fame. 

David explains that his wine making philosophy is informed by the family's history of working with the land for the past 170 years. He’s passionate about producing outstanding wines, of course, but also about developing sustainable vineyard practices and adopting biodynamic principles. 

We could linger at the cellar door all afternoon with a glass of David’s delightful Gewurztraminer in hand, but we still have one more stop to make on our whirlwind culinary tour.  

Throughout our journey the name Howes Creek Farm has been popping up on menus at the cafes and restaurants we’ve visited, so we’re eager to know what all the fuss is about. We arrange to meet owners Matt and Jackie Merchant at their micro-piggery about 10km outside of Mansfield just off the road from which it takes its name. 

Matt explains that he’s descended from a line of pig farmers in the UK and it was this experience that encouraged him to try his hand at raising free range Berkshires, renowned for their marbling and sweet-testing meat, at Howes Creek. 

Throughout our journey the name Howes Creek Farm has been popping up on menus at the cafes and restaurants we’ve visited

A whirlwind tour of a stunning region that could be a million miles from the big smoke

From there came the idea to establish a farm gate shop, a café with indoor and outdoor dining, and a full industrial kitchen where he makes his products and hosts courses in making nitrate-free salami, prosciuttos and hams. 

With just 35 pigs on the 16 acre farm Howes Creek is decidedly low volume, with Matt proud of their ethical methods of breeding and raising the animals, and the fact his nose-to-tail philosophy means nothing goes to waste. 

All the produce is nitrate free, with Howes Creek’s limited weekly output of highly sought after bacon, hams, sausages and pork pies snapped up from the farm gate within a couple of days. 

We grab some deliciously plump-looking English sausages and old-style thick cut bacon for a slap-up breakfast back home, before bidding Howes Creek farewell and setting our sights for Melbourne. 

The Q8’s exterior is covered in trail dust but inside its clean, comfortable and impressively quiet. With the suspensions set to comfort, the seat heaters turned up to ward off the evening chill and the city plugged into the sat-nav, we reflect on a couple of fun-filled days exploring this fabulous corner of north-eastern Victoria and head back to the bustle of the big smoke.