Australia's most-popular food blogger Not Quite Nigella, aka Lorraine Elliott, visits Daylesford's Lake House hotel.
"That is Mother Nature giving us the finger,” laughs Alla Wolf-Tasker, doyenne of the food industry and one of the key people that helped make Daylesford a foodie destination. She is of course talking about the snow that fell gently but persistently last night and this morning. I do have "pinch me” moments, quite often in fact and this is one of them. Mr NQN and I have checked into the Lake House in Daylesford, a luxurious hotel which is famous for its restaurant as much as its view and lodgings.
Alla’s daughter Larissa heads up the marketing here at the Lake House and she warns, "Mum can talk under cement so I’ll have to stop her.” Alla, along with her artist husband Allan, have built what was a single building fronted by a swamp into a luxury foodie and travel destination (her mother wept when she saw the property saying, "You’re building a restaurant where?”).
She also set up Daylesford and Macedon Produce which is a collective of artisan producers and farmers that allows them to truly stake claim to the word "local”. Things are not 100 miles away, they’re only a few kilometres. Now the Lake House has five organic farms within 10 kms that supply to them and the Daylesford Macedon Producers collective (DMP) has 126 members.
But it wasn’t always that easy.
Alla recalls where it all started. She was studying cooking in France and the places that resonated with her were the French countryside restaurants where they really had a sense of place. That is, "You knew that you were dining in a country restaurant and not a city restaurant... We’re talking two and three Michelin star country restaurants. They had farmers that were selling them vegetables so fresh that they were being delivered in the morning with dew still on them.” So her dream was to open up a country restaurant. However Australian farming was not like European farming and everything back then was mono-culture so a farmer grew only one type of food.
When she came back to Australia she told her husband Allan that she wanted to open up a country restaurant. "Luckily he said ‘why not?’ instead of giving me reasons why it wasn’t a good idea which numbered plenty."
"We had no business or marketing plan,” she remembers. "I dreamed of a discerning clientele, rosy-cheeked farmers and white suited waiters. But it was shit when we opened,” she said with her characteristic honesty.
It took four years to build the first building and when they first opened it was only open Friday to Sunday as they had to keep their jobs in Melbourne to help support the business. "People just wanted scones and toasted sandwiches,” she recalls with a grimace. "I put on a prix fixe meal for $24 a head which was never heard of here. I had shiraz glazed squab on the menu.”
Despite this resistance from the people, she persisted. I ask her whether the customer’s desire for scones and toasted sandwiches put her off and she says, "No I’m stubborn”. "Crazy,” interjects Larissa. Alla adds, "I’m not going to glamorise it, there were plate throwing incidents. We had to do things like send laundry back to Melbourne because there was no-one to do it here so on a Sunday night we’d take off all of the linen.”
There were also huge issues with growers supplying food and she recalls putting ads two weeks in a row for farmers to supply local produce. At the end of the second week a single bag of potatoes were left at their doorstep. But it’s not just having farmers selling to locals, they needed to create a market for the farmers to do this.
Now things have changed and now there is a farmer’s market every week. And for Alla, even though she has organic food, local always trumps organic. If given a choice between an organic product from overseas or a non organic local product, she’ll always choose the local product.
So what is for dinner tonight? "We aren’t harvesting anything at the moment,” Alla explains. Their altitude and the colder climate means that they harvest a little later than everyone else. She tells us that she is excited that some of the farmers are growing her some black and watermelon radishes as well as amaranth. We leave with a signed copy of Alla’s gorgeous hard cover book The Lake House which gives a fascinating background story to the hotel.
We follow the trail of wooden cockatoos and our room is facing the lake which sparkles right outside. It is furnished in a modern style with a large outdoor deck, Lake House goodies in the mini bar (we particularly liked the fruit and nut biscotti which was chock full of plump apricots and pistachios), Natio products, a lovely mud soap, heated tile floors (oh bliss!) and a huge spa bath.
Mr NQN takes a nap and I do a bit of work and before you know it, it is dinner time! We take the short walk from our room to the main building and are greeted with a warm welcome. We are shown to our table by Tom who looks after us for the evening and the room is large with a stunning view of the lake.
The menu has a painting by Allan Wolf-Tasker of Alla showing her asleep holding a whisk and cradling a bowl – it's called "Rousseau’s Sleeping Chef” as a testament to how devoted she is to cooking and how she dreams of it. An eight course degustation is $130 and $80 extra for matching wines or three courses a la carte is $98.
Inside the menu is a note from Alla about the spring produce and explains how spring is a slightly slower season here because of the cooler weather. Farms plant then rather than harvest in this region and she explains that spring Lamb is six weeks later here than in less cool climate areas. While Mr NQN and I are figuring out what to order Alla breezes in and sits next to me and tells Tom, "They only had 15 minutes for me before so I’m going to talk now!”
With two hats in The Age Good Food Guide this year, we’re excited to try the cuisine. I’m torn between the degustation but then I also see the Gaytime dessert. "Oh no problem, we’ll swap it around for you if you’d like," Alla says. "How much can you eat? I don’t want to kill you! We can just keep sending out the food.”
"We don’t have to feed our geese,” she says laughing. "They love the leftovers and they’ll eat themselves into a foie gras state by themselves!”
We decide on the degustation for Mr NQN and a la carte for me, with my a la carte based on Alla’s recommendations. Mr NQN chuckles at the note on the menu, "If you would prefer some simpler fare, please speak to your waiter. The Kitchen will be happy to oblige”.
So tell me Dear Reader, what is your dream? What have you always wanted to do?
This is an abridged version of the original blog post. To read on click here.