A good autumn in Victoria is hard to beat. The sun has lost its savage summer edge, hot northern blasts and the cool changes that follow are replaced with a settling stillness, and the state’s rural regions blush with turning deciduous leaves.
March and April is one of the best times of the year to visit Melbourne’s surrounding regional gems, especially if food and drink is your singular purpose, but while the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula and Great Ocean Road are perhaps the more obvious directions to head, Gippsland is often overlooked.
Head east out of Melbourne for less than two hours and you’ll find out, as I did, that this pearl deserves more recognition.
Click on the gallery above to view segments 1 & 2 of Farm to Table with the Porsche Cayenne
If you do, you’ll also need the right car to take you there, and while large luxury SUVs may be a more frequent sight in suburban environments, Porsche’s new Cayenne could be the perfect fit.
Under its handsome exterior it has a decent 210mm of ground clearance and four-wheel-drive for tackling farm tracks or even more serious terrain, there’s up to 1610 litres of boot space so you don’t have to leave behind a single case of red and, most importantly, this version is a plug-in hybrid, which means environmentally you’ll tread lightly wherever you go.
While one eye will be kept on the fuel gauge, I’ll also be hoping to debunk the perception that hybrids sacrifice fun in the name of frugality.
Until Porsche offers an autonomous Cayenne I’ll need a guide, and Gippsland food and drink ambassador Alejandro Saravia would appear to be a choice as perfect as the Porsche. We hit the road early.
Not content simply running a pair of bustling restaurants – Pastuso in Melbourne and Uma in Perth – Alejandro, or Ale to those who know the Peruvian-born chef, is nearly ready to launch his latest venture, Farmer’s Daughters, a food and drink institution in Melbourne, with a focus on bringing Gippsland’s finest from ‘farm to table’. And he knows this part of the world like the back of his heavy Tasmanian leather apron.
Our job today is to visit a selection of his favourite suppliers that provide the first class ingredients you will find on the menu. Today, however, the produce we gather will not head to Melbourne; instead, the day will conclude at a very special venue with an equally special banquet.
The first stop couldn’t be more quintessentially rural. A winding lane cuts through the first misty light of day and impossibly pretty hills, before leaving the asphalt and climbing to a micro dairyoperated by Rob.
Surprisingly well travelled – he has another trip to Canada planned soon – Rob’s initial gruff reception quickly defrosts into friendly, humorous banter. Then we are met by Rachel, who sources the dairy’s milk to provide the key ingredient in Butterfly Factory un-homogenised milk, cultured butter, cream and yoghurt.
Decanting 200 litres of milk into 20-litre drums twice a week seems unnecessarily involved, but Rachel explains with a chuckle “everything I do is labour-intensive”. The business was born when one day her milk separator broke and the resulting ‘whole’ milk was irresistibly good. A sample of the finished products, accompanied by honestly the best sponge cake I’ve ever had, confirms it. Absolutely delicious.
As we stroll the pasture along a small dam, Ale says that he insists on working with suppliers who share the same vision of community and small scale industry, ensuring unbeatable quality, just like Rob and Rachel. We bid farewell with heartfelt thanks and a mental note to return with more time.
After cruising the relatively short trip (100km) east out of Melbourne, the Cayenne still has half of its lithium ion battery ready to send pure electric power to all four wheels, and it seems prudent at this hour of the day to creep out of the dairy under silent, emissions-free propulsion.
But this part of the world also offers some spectacular roads that are largely deserted apart from the odd quad bike. Give the Cayenne a prod and it needs little encouragement to drop a cog and devote electrification to a different cause - something I intend to revisit later in the day.
There’s something satisfying about flicking to pure electric power and cruising into someone’s property in silence. Like taking off your shoes before entering a home, it seems like the polite thing to do.
We glide stealthily into The Grove to pick up a cracking drop of peppery, deeply green olive oil and a crusty sourdough that Ale assures me is essential, and we take a few extra minutes to wander the old olive grove now that the sun’s warmth is building towards the middle of the day.
Executive chef Anthony and manager Tracey have just completed a new educational facility that’s bolted on to the end of the beautifully appointed restaurant, and they will soon start a series of workshops that will spread the notion of sustainability and the virtues of a food community.
I’m not sure how they will get any students to concentrate when the views out of the large glass windows are almost impossibly distracting, but there are worse problems to have. More excellent things get loaded into the boot and we are off again.
Aesthetically pleasing, and a pleasure to negotiate, these roads are a little known secret to foodies and petrol heads. Yes, the Cayenne is a large SUV, but it shares DNA from the company’s range of coupes and convertibles and it would be downright strange if it didn’t perform as impressively as the rest of the Cayenne range. I’m not disappointed.
And for those that think the word ‘hybrid’ is a synonym for ‘soporific’, the Cayenne E-Hybrid’s turbo V6 is out to obliterate that misconception. With the drive mode dial flicked from Electric, through Hybrid to Sport, the combination of petrol and electrical power is scintillating.
With a battery in the boot and the accompanying electric bits, the E-Hybrid carries a significant 300kg ballast over the ‘standard’ entry-level Cayenne, but it hides its extra bulk incredibly well. Chuck the big SUV into some challenging corners and it responds with typical Porsche precision steering and surprisingly little body roll. It’ll even lift an inside front wheel if you really try - very un-SUV-like.
Get your line wrong, and the hefty kerb weight will make itself obvious with a dive onto the outside front tyre, but with a more careful entry to corners, the Cayenne demolishes good driving roads with enthusiasm.
To cap it all off, zero to 100km/h acceleration in five seconds is more than enough to enable our arrival at the Loch Brewery and Distillery comfortably before lunchtime.
Its founder Craig is part of the booming Australian gin industry and has been meticulously crafting spirits here for seven years.
The cellar is part business, part pool room complete with a turntable, an eclectic selection of vinyl and some Australian-made cooper’s tools. Instead of posters and old metal signs as is typical of many others, this inner sanctum is lined with oak barrels containing aged spirits of different vintages. Swing by this beautiful building soon and you’ll be able to sample the company’s early whisky.
Like everywhere Alejandro has lead me, the personalities are infectious and the fascinating stories long outlast the tastings, but the Cayenne is an enticing distraction and there are a couple more stops to make.
If you don’t have the time to visit individual suppliers, then the region is scattered with a number of retail outlets that condense the amazing produce under one roof, including the Meeniyan Store. Ale wastes no time trawling the range of fresh fruit and veggies, filling his bag with purpose that I daren’t get in the way of.
Instead, I distract myself with a spectacular Earl Grey tea and browse the range of local beers. This tidy little food and drink hub doubles as a café, and is yet another outlet that’s hard to tear ourselves away from… but our destination is almost in sight.
Ale asks if he can stay behind the wheel for this next leg and it becomes clear why he went easy on the gin sampling.When he flicks the dial to Sport Plus and blasts off seeking not the most direct route, it’s obvious the Zuffenhausen bug has bitten again, but before we know it (not sure what the speed limit is in Peru, but at least Ale knows the roads) we arrive at our final stop and collect one more ingredient.
Paul and Sam’s Gippsland Natural Angus beef farm overlooks Corner Inlet with views of Wilson’s Promontory which are breathtaking in every direction. The cattle assemble about the Porsche before our drone scatters them, and Ale has already started a fire, prepped dinner and cracked a beer.
The ensuing banquet of ridiculously local produce, prepared with the same passion and care as its producers, is, as you might expect, divine but Gippsland’s incredible fruits are not just exceptional in quality, they are the ethical choice, too.
Rachel’s incredible dairy products travel just a few kilometres from the cows that produce the milk to the point of sale, Craig’s ornate gin still runs not on coal power from the nearby Latrobe valley but exclusively on solar energy, and Paul and Sam’s beef is such a successful part of the carbon-neutral beef initiative that they are considering trading credits.
And so it goes that a large SUV with plenty of room for five adults, the performance you’d expect from a Porsche and an almost teetotal appetite for fossil fuels might also seem like a paradox, but like the often-overlooked Gippsland region, the Cayenne E-Hybrid is a gem just waiting to be discovered.