Spotted by Locals
Paul Mercurio, The Murray
Dancer, actor, foodie
When Paul Mercurio returns to his birthplace of Swan Hill, he feels a special connection. "I think there's something in you, whether it's in your DNA or whatever," he says. "And local people stop and tell me stories about my dad. It does give me a sense of place and of being centred, which is nice."
Paul's father, Gus Mercurio, was an actor, boxer and boxing promoter, and on Paul's recent holiday along the Murray River with his wife, Andrea, he made a very personal discovery.
"I was catching a taxi to the excellent Java Spice restaurant in Swan Hill, and the driver looked at me and said, 'I know who you're named after.' He proceeded to tell me this story about Paul Taverna, a boxer who was great mates with my dad, and that I was named after him. I didn't know that until I got into the cab."
At the start of his trip, Paul stayed at the Murray Downs Resort, across the river from Swan Hill's town centre. "Nice rooms, great service," Paul says. "If you want to stay there and walk next-door to the country club, you can eat, drink and be merry."
On this trip, Paul opted for an Asian dining experience. "Java Spice would be packed if it was in Sydney or Melbourne," he says. "An amazing setting and the food is unique. We've eaten Thai and Indonesian everywhere, and theyre doing it better here than a lot of people elsewhere." Another Swan Hill restaurant worth a visit is Spoons Riverside – its deck has a beautiful view over the curves of the Murray River. It's also next to the Pioneer Settlement historical village, where the historic Gem paddle steamer, built in 1876, is moored. "Typical country generosity," says Paul of the portion sizes at Spoons, having ordered the breakfast bruschetta.
As viewers of the Mercurio's Menu TV series know, Paul's gourmet expertise is extensive. On the drive from Swan Hill to Mildura, Paul called in at Robinvale Estate, where olives are grown and pressed on site to make a range of oils and dressings.
"It's bloody gorgeous!" says Paul, after a tasting of the extra virgin oil. "Even 10 years ago you wouldn't buy Australian olive oil because it wasn't so good, but now there's no reason to buy anything but Australian olive oil."
When Paul reached Mildura, he had lunch at the Mildura Brewery, owned by renowned local chef Stefano de Pieri. Housed in the interior of a former 1924 cinema, its art deco pillars contrasting with the brewing vats visible behind a glass wall, it's a memorable location.
"I came here just after it opened and I've come back several times. The beer's always good, the company's always good and the food's always good," Paul says, having enjoyed a dish of home-made pasta with ragu, along with a glass of the brewery's Desert Premium Lager.
Other dining highlights along and near Mildura's Langtree Avenue, nicknamed "Feast Street", include Seasons, The New Spanish Bar and Grill, the Pizza Cafe at the Grand Hotel, and the elegant Rendezvous, one of regional Victoria's oldest ﬁne dining restaurants.
Paul also took the opportunity to sample the local drops at Trentham Estate winery. "I've been to plenty of wineries and I'd certainly say the Trentham wines I tasted – the Heathcote Shiraz is a famous one – were beautiful." From the winery, the Mercurios cruised back to Mildura on an All Seasons houseboat and spent a night on the river. "Andrea really wanted to sleep aboard," laughs Paul. "If you're going to stay on a houseboat, this is a good one to choose. It even has a spa and a barbecue."
On their last morning in the region, the Mercurios had breakfast at the Dockside Cafe, at Mildura's Dockside Marina, a great place to bring a vibrant holiday on home ground to a relaxed close, says Paul. "There's beautiful birdlife there, and the deck of the cafe is extended so it's almost like the bow of a boat."
Where to stay
The first night of his holiday, Paul Mercurio and his wife Andrea stayed at the Murray Downs Resort. Across the river from Swan Hill CBD, it has spacious motel-style accommodation in a peaceful green setting, next to a country club and surrounded by a well-kept golf course. "This is the second time I've stayed here," says Paul. "The only thing I don't like is that I don't have time this visit to play golf."
The Mercurios also stayed overnight on a two-level houseboat operated by All Seasons Houseboats. "We moored off Mildura so I bought takeaway and we dined on the boat. Really lovely," says Paul.
A star attraction is the river. "Whatever you do, you've got to get out on the Murray or at least go for a walk along its banks," says Paul. "There are all sorts of places you can pull off and experience the river. "Go down there and listen to it. There's such a peace about it, with the water rippling and birds' wings flapping."
Paul's houseboat experience offered more than a place to sleep. As the Murray is such a wide, stable waterway, it's possible to navigate up to 50 kilometres in each direction from Mildura, stopping along the way.
Fun places to tie up include the Gol Gol Hotel, Trentham Estate winery, Lindeman's winery, the Riverside Golf Club and the Coomealla Golf Club. You could even cruise to the junction of the Murray and Darling rivers, and check out the galleries and pubs of Wentworth. "You could do anything on a boat," agrees Paul. "Share it with a group of friends, go for a cruise for a few days, maybe catch some Murray cod."
Back on land, Paul taste-tested freshly-pressed olive oil at Robinvale Estate. Because the olives are grown and pressed on the property, the bottles sold at the cellar door contain the freshest oil possible. Even the verjuice used in the dressings is made from the property's own grapes.
After trying a few samples, including the extra virgin olive oil, the chili garlic and verjuice dressing, and the lemon and verjuice dressing, Paul was impressed. "It's good, really good. I'm taking all of them. I like the way they combine fresh fruit like lemons with the olives, so they go in the press together from the beginning."
Fruit stalls dot roadsides along the Murray Valley Highway, selling tree-ripened fruit, home-made conserves and, outside Swan Hill, pheasant, guinea fowl and partridge.
Paul's also a fan of Swan Hill's Pioneer Settlement historical village and says it's mind-blowing to consider how much things have changed in regional Australia in the past century. "Maybe I'm getting older, but I love to imagine what it would have been like back then." In Mildura, cultural attractions include the Mildura Arts Centre, which melds old and new buildings to present an acclaimed art collection including works by Streeton, McCubbin and Drysdale. The city centre is also home to the impressive Art Vault, a private gallery housed in a former bank, in which visitors can meet the artists who live and work in the studios above.
Food and wine
"What's nice about this region is finding something really unexpected and surprising, such as Java Spice in Swan Hill," Paul says. "We had some lovely little skewers of goat's meat with satay sauce there. It wasn't your typical kind of peanut butter taste either, it was unique. With the pork braised in stock and star anise, or their prawns, you could taste they were using fresh spices."
Paul is also keen on the food and drink at the Mildura Brewery. "I'd love to have my own little brew pub," he says. "I love the craft of beer and the symbiotic relationship between that and food. When I was making movies in America I loved going to brew pubs. You always meet great people and you can be a stranger, but you're a friend very quickly.
"This is a great microbrewery, more so now chef Stefano de Pieri is here doing food. He understands flavours and how to match beer with food. So it's a place I like. I came here just after it opened and I've been back several times."
A quirky entry on the brewery's lunch menu is the Smoked Poor Man Lamb Ham Sandwich. It borrows the technique once used by folk in the Mallee area of using lamb to create a substitute version of ham when they were hard up.
Outside Mildura, the Trentham Estate winery, with its beautiful gentle hills running down to a gumtree-dotted riverbank, is a highlight. "We had a great pinot grigio there," says Paul. "What I look for in a wine is the taste of the grape, its freshness, cleanness and clarity, and I've got to say the two wines I tried had all of that in abundance."
Breakfast at Mildura's Dockside Cafe also won Paul's approval. "The chef's very accomplished, and I ate the best eggs Benedict I'd had in a long time there. Great free range eggs, perfectly softly poached. Good quality bacon too. He did a great job."
This article first appeared in The Age and is reprinted courtesy of Fairfax Media.