Posted by - 20 May 2010 - No comments

Wine, food and art on the Mornington Pennisula

Beautiful scenery, wine, art & food in the Mornington Pennisula

After a nine hour flight from HK, we finally make it to Melbourne.  The AB's home town.   And for the first couple of days my head is spinning, as we cram in meet and greets with friends and family, and a breathtakingly scenic, but long drive along the Great Ocean Road.   By day three, the jet leg which we'd starved off since leaving London six days ago finally kicked in.  We were both so pooped, we could have quite happily slept for the rest of the trip.

Merrick's General Wine Store

But alas we couldn't we'd travelled too many miles to spend it sleeping.  So we wake on day three tired, but genuinely excited about spending the day with the AB's Dad (ABD) and Granny (ABG).  The itinerary included a visit and lunch at a winery on the Mornington Peninsula, followed by a visit to Phillip Island to watch the penguin parade.

Located South East of Melbourne, the Mornington Peninsula is a beautiful stretch of country filled with green lush olive groves and vineyards.  Driving through the Peninsular, with its abundance of gourmet food and farm stores and antique shops, it is easy to forget that we're in Australia and not the South of France.

First stop of the day is the Merrick's General Wine Store, for a coffee and cake.  The store is housed in a renovated heritage building from the 1920's, on the Hastings-Flinders Road and also features a smart bistro, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.

I love the look of the store for its simple, pine and farm shop interior.  There's a large blackboard, shelves of wine and olive oil, a vast counter filled with freshly baked bread and cakes, wooden barrels displaying local produce and freshly picked flowers in water cans - it's the picture of idyllic country life from a bygone age before the introduction of large, and bland retail experience that is the standard metropolis supermarkets.   Or it would have been if it was not for one member of staff, who was so rude and unwelcoming it tainted the whole experience.  It really riles me when people working in the service industry are unnecessarily rude to customers, I mean, how hard is it to do your job and answer a simple question about sitting outside?    Despite this we enjoy a good cup of coffee and cake outside on some picnic benches at the side of the shop, and the picturesque rural views before moving on to our next destination - Montalto Vineyard and Olive Grove.

A family-owned business, Montalto Vineyard and Olive Grove is home to a Chef's Hat restaurant, which is essentially the Australian equivalent of the Michelin star, awarded by the Australian Good Food and Travel Guides.  The only difference is that they also take into account the opinions of the public who have dined in the restaurant as well as an appointed inspector.   This and other accreditations has made this a must-visit destination for people visiting the Peninsula.

On entering the restaurant, the first thing that will strike you is how incredibly light and airy it is.  Floor to ceiling windows flank the far side of the restaurant, taking full advantage acres of rolling green vineyards and olive groves that form the estate.   It certainly makes for an impressive backdrop for the simple, French-inspired menu.

Creamed onion soup

The menu changes daily, depending on what is available locally.  I'm a true believer in making the most of what nature provides you with and eating seasonally really should be the norm, unfortunately it's not so it's refreshing to see restaurants like Montalto working with nature rather than against it.

It's a varied menu - there's lamb, pork, steak, duck, veal and fish, but pleasingly it's not overwhelmingly long that you feel overwhelmed by the choice, which is a good job as all the dishes sounded absolutely mouth-watering.

The freshly baked Molto Italian sourdough bread rolls are served warm with delicious extra virgin olive oil from the estate.   To start we're served an amuse bouche of "creamed onion soup" in an espresso cup and saucer tastes incredible - it's the perfect balance of sweetness and creaminess.  It's just the right size and portion to get the taste buds going.

Pan-fried scallops on puy lentils

The AB and his gran started with pan fried scallops on a bed of puy lentils with pancetta and cauliflower purée - the dish is perfectly cooked and incredibly meaty.   I opted for the tomato and buffalo mozzarella salad drizzled with basil oil, it's simple dish but tastes sensational.  The tomatoes are the ripest and juiciest tomatoes I've tasted outside of Spain and Italy.  The ABD is equally pleased with his crab souffle served on a bed of leeks and red cabbage.

Buffalo mozarella salad

The main courses are as a good as the starters.   The beef fillet I order is served on a bed of pomme fondante, with mushrooms, lardons and a jus, is cooked a perfect medium and juicy but there's just so much of it, that I struggle to finish the dish.  There's just so much meat.   It's the same with the other dishes - the duck and the pork ordered by the AB and his dad - the portions are humungous.  It's no wonder the ABG opted for a starter for her main.

Juicy beef fillet

To complete our meal we share a perfectly cooked crepe filled with apples, at the insistence of the ABD who has a sweet tooth.  It's light and fruity, but we're all too full that we can only muster a full mouthfulls, before making our way to the outdoor gallery.  The owners of the estate host annual sculpture competition, and the grounds are used to showcase the works and it's certainly well worth factoring in some time to wonder about the ground when dining here.

Verdict: Montalto is a must-visit for anyone visiting the Mornington Peninsula.   The dishes may be French inspired, but the portions are not so come with an empty stomach because the food is so expertly cooked and the produce so fresh, that you'll want to savour every mouthful.  Also make sure you visit the tasting room to do some sampling to help you choose your wine before your meal.
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