Daylesford and Shepherd's Flat

Time to head out of the city again and explore another part of Victoria. We'd missed Daylesford during a couple of previous trips in that vicinity so it was time to rectify that. Only proviso was we had to be home by 5.30pm to watch our Kiwi rugby team, the Hurricanes, do battle with our second team, the Crusaders for the Super 14s honours.

We managed an uncharacteristically early start for us and were soon hitting the highway and heading northwest. The traffic thinned out once we were out of the city and it was a pleasant drive through the countryside to our destination about 90 minutes away. Hills and fields that had that dry summer look last time we were out that way had returned to green.

In the 1850s prospectors were lured to the area in search of elusive gold. Many of them, Italians and Swiss Italians, stayed on and settled in there, farming or starting small businesses. And while the gold may have petered out, there was certainly gold in the gullies when we visited as the last of the autumn leaves clung to the trees.

This is spa country and features, according to The Food and Wine Lover's Guide to Melbourne and Surrounds (ISBN 9 781740 663731 Hardie Grant Books $39.95) Australia's biggest cluster of mineral springs. This became a fashionable place to stay, though the Depression and World War II put a damper on such hedonism and Daylesford and nearby Hepburn Springs went into decline.

Things are much brighter these days and the place is bristling with bed and breakfast places, renovated heritage guesthouses, little cottages and luxury retreats. Something for us to bear in mind when we have a couple of days to spare. There's certainly no shortage of accommodation.

Our son Ben visited Daylesford during the summer and was enthusing about the town's little shops, particularly the secondhand bookshop, so that was on my list of things to do.

The gift shops in Daylesford are worth a visit. They have a nice range of goods and we did our bit for the local economy. We found Ben's bookshop, Avant Garden, and I came away armed with The de' Medici Kitchen, and Sophie Grigson's Food for Friends.

While I can generally walk past a cake shop without being tempted, the sight of a million calories neatly assembled in a display demands more than a cursory glance.

As I photographed the awesome tray of large meringues, the lemon tang slice, the caramel hedgehogs, plum roll, the Viennese, yo-yo and vanilla biscuits, the rum balls, apple cakes and three sorts of "madira" cake, the dreaded "memory full" warning flashed on my trusty camera. I'd cleared all the pictures off before leaving home, but had omitted to empty the trashcan on the computer. Talk about sloppy housekeeping!

The old weighing machine in the main street could probably tell a few tales about local eating habits. There was no shortage of eating places. Today's grazer's must be a bit more flush. Inflation has driven the cost of a weigh from the humble penny of times past up to a $1 coin.

I saved my dollar towards lunch and we visited Della's. The Spouse was soon tucking into one of their signature dishes, a chicken and leek pie, while I settled for ham, cheese and tomato nestled between a couple of slices of toasted sourdough from Stellas. I don't know if the sourdough starters go back to the early settlers, but it was good bread.

There are plenty of foodstores and producers in the locality but I thought I'd save them for a more leisurely visit.

I was keen to visit Lavandula, a lavender farm at Shepherd's Flat, just 10 minutes north of Daylesford. While the lavender was harvested in January, the lavender bushes still had charm on a brisk autumn afternoon. They looked like big cushions, ready to be bounced on.

 

I had to switch to the camera on my phone for some random shots round the farm. The golden stone buildings date back to the 1850s when the original Italian Swiss owners moved in. The same family owned the property until Carol White bought it in the 1980s and restored the rustica and established a European garden to complement the golden stone. There are wonderful cobbled courtyards, little paths leading to hidden gardens and everything is dripping with atmosphere.

This is a working farm and we were encouraged to walk around exploring the place. We passed by La Trattoria, the cafe which serves produce from the garden and where numerous visitors were eating and imbibing on the terrace. There's also a petanque court nearby for those requiring some post-prandial exercise.

One of the neighbouring paths led past some grazing animals down to an old refurbished caboose set in a field. Inside we found artist-in-residence Peter Minko. Peter has made pottery his life’s work since 1986.

On display is a collection of his exquisite porcelain. He told me he makes the lamps, vases, plates, pots and other objects himself from Australian porcelain clay - the same sort used for electrical conductors. The hand thrown article is dried to a 'leather hard' state, then re-centered onto the pottery-wheel and trimmed with various tools which have been crafted to suit the specialized nature of the turning process. The work is then finely burnished (compression of the surface particles) again using specially designed tools. The resulting burnished piece is then completely dried and receives its first firing (bisque) at 930°C. This prepares the piece for decoration.

Peter decorates the works using the sort of old-fashioned nibs many of us used at school in the days before ballpoint pens. He dips the nib in colours based on metallic oxides and carefully draws the delicate patterns. The articles are fired to a temperature of 1285°C. This fuses the colours with the unglazed surface. On most pieces luxurious gold or platinum decoration is applied and a further firing is required at 780°C.

He has built a national and international reputation for himself with his work being sought after by many private collectors as well as being commissioned for presentations and awards by Government and corporate bodies within Australia.

Fortunately I had made space for a couple more photos on the main camera, so i was able to photograph Peter holding the beautiful little vase I had decided to purchase. It looks very delicate yet Peter hit in on the work bench a couple of times and told me it was very robust.

We headed back to the Lavandula shop where I was hoping to buy some edible lavender flowers for a recipe I am working on. My luck was in and I bought a packet of organically grown pesticide free flowers. (Here's the recipe I subsequently used the lavender for).

Shepherd's Flat has a unique connection with Australian cricket. It began with the 1902 MCG Test Match between Australia and England. Test umpire Robert Crockett and English captain Archie MacLaren were casually chatting during a break in play. MacLaren was surprised that Australia did not cultivate its own bat willow and Crockett idly suggested that MacLaren should send some cuttings to Australia upon his return to the mother country.

Six months later the cuttings arrived sealed in a steel tube, but only one had survived. Crockett rushed this precious cutting to Shepherds Flat where it was nurtured by his younger brother James. From this single cutting grew thousands of willow trees at Shepherds Flat and the Crockett brand of bats became a household name amongst cricketers. In the 1960s the firm of R M Crockett & Son came under the control of the Slazenger Dunlop Group. The trees at Shepherds Flat were felled, except for a handful along the banks of the Jim Crow Creek that were saved by Aqualino Tinetti.

Aqualino Tinetti had a dream that one day Australian cricket bats would again be produced at Shepherds Flat. In recent years the Tinetti family have set about bringing this dream to fruition. They have been busy propagating and planting and the Shepherds Flat landscape, just down the road from Lavandula, is once again dotted with willow trees. It is home to Cricket Willow, created in recent years by the Tinetti family as a tribute to this unique part of Australian cricket. They have transformed their rocky front paddock into a picturesque cricket oval. The pavilion is a recreation of the Shepherds Flat General Store and houses a museum, licensed cafe and billiard hall.

The latest project has involved an expansion of the bat factory and the creation of the Cricket Gallery. Cricket Willow is now the only venue in the world where visitors can follow the complete process of cricket bat manufacture from 'bud to bat' - from planting the bud to hand-crafting the bat to hitting runs in the middle of the picturesque field of dreams. We'll probably return with our cricketing sons to have a look and maybe test leather against willow. But for us the rugby beckoned so it was time to head home. We had barely scratched the surface of this interesting area and plan to return for a more leisurely visit and to "take the waters", as they say. (And the rugby wasn't anything to rush home for...)

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