08 May, 2010

Full-baked: The bakeries of northeast Victoria

A bakery tour. That's what I'd like to do. Drive from one country town to another, lunching on pies, snacking on slices and indulging on cakes.

At its best, a country bakery leaves you with an impossible choice of goodies. At the other end of the scale, you can start wondering why you left the city and find the dry spread of baked goods on offer as appealing as whatever's been sunning on the back seat.

Why not a bakery blog? One must exist - if you know of any, leave a comment with a link. Some existing blogs cover relevant content. Stickyfingers, for example, branched out from Deep Dish Dreams to dream up the Vanilla Slice Blog, a commendable addition to the blogosphere ('I'm eating this pastry purely for the purposes of research!').

A consortium of bloggers got together in 2007 to set up PiEcon, 'dedicated to an Australian icon', and a blog that took pastry and filling very seriously, nation-wide.

While planning for recent travels through the high country and alpine area of Victoria, I'd made note of several bakeries that we would encounter along the way. Every such trip sees me dreaming of early morning bakery visits to worship at the freshly filled glass cases, of picking the perfect morning treat to the backdrop of milk-steaming and tea-mug tinkling. Or pulling into a one-street town bang on the point of lunch, and elbowing through unexpected crowds to pick between the pies crowned with semaphores of triangles, bows, squares and cuts.

It doesn't always work that way, of course. Sometimes the bakery doesn't keep bakers' hours, thwarting early morning calls; sometimes it's just a re-seller for mass-produced bread and buns, uninspiring as a city franchise; and hunger has an annoying habit of calling when you're hours from a planned pie stop, and they're not the best things to buy for later.

But then again, sometimes it does. On this trip we managed some happy bakery moments, visiting some of Victoria's most famous.

Our first bakery was Marysville's, one whose story was forever changed on Black Saturday 2009. The re-opened bakery is now a symbol for the town's regeneration, and a beacon for travellers lending support. It's a broad, well-stocked space, offering fuller lunches along with the sweet and savoury baked goods. We were on our way to Tea Rooms at Yarck, so stuck with goods that could be consumed later that day: apple slice for me, and blueberry pie for SG.

Our lunch proved more than adequate to see us through the rest of the day, so the sweets ended up serving an unexpected purpose. The next morning, I bought some Greek yoghurt and crumbled the apple slice in. I pinched some blueberry as well - wonderfully tart - for a superb Mansfield breakfast.

Mansfield itself offered a decent high street bakery, where a plump, oniony sausage roll filled a food gap while our car was having a new alternator fitted. The Mansfield bakery offered the Ned Kelly pie - beef pie with egg, bacon and cheese - a specialty of the region made famous by the local area's bakery monolith in Beechworth.

Beechworth Bakery has become something of a business model that also bakes a bit. Well, it still bakes a lot, but put it this way: have you heard of another bakery that sells its own merchandise next to the family quiches? Tom O'Toole founded the company in 1984, and has since opened another five shops around country Victoria. Tom has set himself up as a motivational business speaker, as someone who both 'knows the taste of deprivation and despair' and how to turn a 'failing little bakery' into a $12m a year business. Not quite the family-run shop you might expect (it's even licensed, and has live music on Sundays!).

But it's still an experience, and a well set up one. The flagship Beechworth shop is enormous, spreading over two storeys, with ample supplies of cutlery, serviettes, water and everything you could want to put into a bottomless cup of tea or coffee. The wraparound counter proffers everything from pies to biscuits to cakes to quiches to slices to filled sandwiches and more.

We'd just ridden 16km uphill, and a meat pie sounded like a pretty fitting reward. Beechworth's steak and mushroom delivered a fine pastry, one that held its filling without sagging or sogginess. The mushrooms were clearly identifiable, though the steak was minced rather than diced (a chunky steak pie was also on offer - guess you've got to be specific about these things).

We popped back to Beechworth later in the day for sweets: caramel slice for me, which wasn't too thick, but with an oozingly rich caramel; and an apple pocket. They're open til around 7pm each night, but I noted they'd sold out of a lot of stuff by the time we got back there - disappointing if you were after a date scone, but good to see they're not unpacking the freezer to keep punters happy.

Bright's bakery only scored a cursory glance, before we headed over Hotham. It was an occasion when the bakery didn't offer that item between sweet and savoury, between plain and indulgent, that would fill up the holiday-specific time between a cooked breakfast and a bought lunch.
The Omeo High Plains Bakery and Cafe has a grand name, and sits across from Omeo's grand Golden Age Motel, a building rebuilt from the 1939 fires into an art deco dream. This bakery gets kudos for being an early opener, even on a Saturday. It offers fine coffee, plenty of bread, and even does bigger dinner dishes in addition to the standard baked goods, such as slabs of lasagne - handy if you're staying at the caravan park and have access to cooking facilities.
The bakery highlight of the trip came 25km down the Great Alpine Road from Omeo, at Swifts Creek. This little wonder is so understated it's not on the main road, but plenty of friendly baker cutouts make it hard to miss.
Their pies are superb. The pastry is firm, buttery and with a flavour all its own. I had a meat and veg pastie, and from the moment I bit into it I could smell the veg - wafts of the peas, celery and carrot nestled amongst a coarse mince. SG went the apple and berry pie - bursting with fruit and liberally dusted with sugar, it was a benchmark piece for the cusp of autumn.

2 comments:

  1. And may I say. A benchmark piece for the bakeries of northeast Victoria. Wonderful stuff. I can literally taste that meat and veg pastie. One of my all time favourite indulgences.

    I am heading up to Hepburn this weekend and possibly via Castlemaine on the way back home. Any foodie tips to share? I have my eyes set on a bakery I know in Woodend.

    Other than that I am a wide eyed kid from the big smoke with a hankering for some oven baked country lovin'!

    Luke T.

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  2. Woodend has some good stuff to share - a decent sized bakery, the Holgate Brewhouse, and I always choose to eat at the cafe in the bookshop.

    A bakery in those parts that would have fitted well into this homage is Malmsbury's. Proper country style pies, and I can vouch for their caramel tart and vanilla slice.

    By Hepburn do you mean Hepburn Springs? If so, don't leave without popping into the Grande. I've never written it up, but it would have to be one of my fave regional spots to sup or sip.

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