Stephanie Alexander, Spotted by Locals
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Spotted by Locals

Stephanie Alexander, Mornington Peninsula

Chef, restaurateur, food writer

The Peninsula is chock-a-block with places to go, places to stay and plenty of excellent eating and drinking. My advice to prospective visitors is to carefully peruse the internet, decide just what takes your fancy and plan an itinerary. Don't try to do too much. Some of the loveliest drives are along rather narrow roads and at times it takes longer than you think to arrive at your destination. And, after all, the aim of a weekend away is rest as well as stimulation. Well, it is for me. 

I began a recent weekend break with a wonderful sculpture discovery walk at the McClelland Gallery & Sculpture Park in Langwarrin. I am somewhat ashamed to admit it was my first visit. What a wonderful place this is. There was so much to admire, to be intrigued by, to be puzzled by. A family with three young children were wandering along the sculpture trail at the time and it appeared the children absolutely loved the experience. Sculpture is a very appealing art form for children to relate to. Many of the works were monumental in size, others were intriguingly textured and there were some fun pieces as well.

Having spent my childhood dashing through thick teatree scrub I found the twisted, tangled teatree here very nostalgic. It being autumn, I notice in the thick mat of leaf mulch under the trees a suspicious lifting. In my day that would have been almost certainly a large field mushroom pushing through. I resolve to return here with friends and have a picnic on the public lawns before taking another sculpture walk. Visitors should also try to see the nearby Australian Garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne.

After the sculpture park we lunch at Merricks General Store, where my friend and I share a charcuterie platter. "Sophisticated country" is the house style. Soft wood, cushioned bench seats, windows that look onto a grapevine turning to red-gold and a barrow of brilliant pumpkins set the scene and the season as one enters.

My friend and I share the charcuterie platter – a smooth duck liver pate, chunky terrine with pistachios, slices of prosciutto, cornichons and assorted pickles. We could have stopped there, but we had ordered mains. My sweet and sour pork was accompanied with a cauliflower puree and a delicious salad of crunchy croutons and assorted green leaves. We also share a peach trifle with moscato jelly. All this and a glass each of Elgee Park 2011 Chardonnay.

Our accommodation tonight is at Sorrento. For old times' sake I pause to take a photograph at my old school, now called Rosebud Secondary College. Totally unrecognisable of course, but the school motto is still 'minds conscious of right'. I also feel a pang of nostalgia as we sweep past Melaleuca Avenue in Rosebud West, once my childhood home, now a fully developed residential area. I see the curve of the drive, and a large banksia tree and remember how as children we would round that curve and be home.

We pause at Blairgowrie to buy a whole flathead at Cornell's Blue Fin seafood. I have come prepared, travelling with my oval copper fish pan. I have tried to cook fresh fish in too many terrible stainless steel frying pans in my time to risk it! We have bought olive oil produced at nearby Red Hill, a couple of potatoes and the makings of a leafy salad and resolve to rest for an hour or two.

Ocean Blue Coastal Retreat is delightful: three double rooms, two sitting rooms, a sunny deck and a barbecue (had I forgotten the copper pan). We tuck lemon leaves inside the fish and I sautee it in a mix of olive oil and butter with tomatoes. In the early morning we pause to admire the sunshine on nearby casuarina trees, then set off for Sorrento's main street to have breakfast.

The peach and macadamia muffins at Stringer's Stores are excellent. Sorrento's main street is crammed with boutiques, gift shops and a truly astonishing food store, Scicluna's Real Food. Someone there has an artist's eye and the shelves reflect an extraordinary autumn, with ripe figs, pine forest mushrooms and fat local tomatoes all in perfect condition.

Later, we set out for the Red Hill Market, held on the first Saturday of every month on Arthurs Seat Road. Our car's GPS directs us along unknown back roads, some bitumen, some gravel, through the magnificent Mornington Peninsula National Park. My only quibble with the Peninsula is the lack of signposting of roads, especially if one is travelling cross-country. It's a beautiful drive among tall gums with hardly a car on the road until we near the market. I see young people on horses and assume they are taking part in a Horseback Winery Tours' ride. Red Hill Market attracts a lot of craft lovers. I buy crocheted coat hangers for a couple of slippery shirts, watch a woman spinning, buy local honey, oil and fabulous strawberries from Sunny Ridge Strawberry Farm and then visit Gordon Studio Glassblowers on Red Hill Road, where Eileen Gordon and Grant Donaldson have their studio and showroom.

It's an ideal day to admire their shimmering pieces, as the sun shines strongly and the colours are perfectly backlit. From a glass bangle to a major work there is something here for all budgets.

Lunch today is at the Ten Minutes by Tractor vineyard and restaurant on the Mornington Flinders Road at Main Ridge. It's a pleasure to be in a restaurant that positively hums and where everything is excellent. The environment is beautiful and the views over vineyards take in an old quince tree needing a prop to support its laden branches. The restaurant's service is perfect, the wine appropriate and the food outstanding. I have a cauliflower entree, followed by butter-soft wallaby with slow-roasted grapes, parsnips and crispy kale, and share a dessert of white chocolate and lemon verbena, lemon curd and foaming blackcurrant syrup. Spectacular.

How fortunate we are to have regional restaurants of this quality and to see them packed with happy diners. Chef Stuart Bell's food is inventive, delicious, interesting and never overly fanciful or ridiculous.

Our final night's accommodation is at Tussie Mussie Vineyard Lodge. This spacious lodge is an ideal location for a friends' retreat and I have filed it away in my address book. The lodge has a large sitting-dining room, well-equipped kitchen, four comfortable double rooms and lovely outdoor seating with long views over forested hills that look violet-blue in the morning. In the foreground are rosemary, lemon verbena, tumbling cherry tomatoes (they make a delicious breakfast), a trickling fountain and more. One night was not enough to enjoy Tussie Mussie.

We dine at The Long Table on Shoreham Road in Red Hill South, where Andrew and Samantha Doughton offer an a la carte or a tasting menu of often-surprising combinations. As with the best restaurateurs, they allow the season and local produce to influence the dishes, and our autumnal dinner includes heirloom tomatoes, buffalo curd, lightly smoked mussels and poached local cuttlefish, quail, crispy kale (could this be the ingredient of the month?), king salmon, apples and rhubarb. I enjoy a glass of One Block Pinot Gris and, later, a glass of 2011 Allies "Merricks" Pinot Noir (and I notice I could have ordered a gin and tonic with rhubarb, or an Aperol and vodka spritzer with elderflower).

I come home with a bursting bag of olive oil, goat milk cheeses, wine from Ocean Eight Vineyard and Winery, chocolates from Mornington Peninsula Chocolates at Flinders, a glorious apple-green handblown vase, and coathangers. It's a weekend of delight at the diversity and quality of the gourmet offerings. I will be back.

This article first appeared in The Age and is reprinted courtesy of Fairfax Media.

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