Why Melbourne Loves Regional Victorian Produce

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The terms ‘paddock to plate’ and ‘farm to table’ have surpassed being trendy, to the point of being overused, but it says something about the feeling in the market that adding those labels (authentic or not), purvey value to a consumer.

The theory behind the words is basically one of; love local, and popularity aside, it’s a valid stance to take. The benefits of choosing local produce are many, from supporting your nearby, independent growers, to embracing (and understanding) seasonal produce, to simply enjoying fresher—and therefore tastier—food on your plate.

While it is such a drawcard, and a definite promo-worthy phrase, you’d actually be hard pressed to not find regional Victorian produce amongst some of Melbourne’s best restaurants and cafes. From edible flowers and micro greens, to free-range livestock, to absolutely delicious dairy, we looked into why Melbourne is lucky enough to have some of the best produce around.

Susie Young and George Bobin are a father daughter team that run B&B Basil, a micro green specialist based out of Bendigo. Starting out in 2000, their hydroponically grown basil was a huge hit, leading them to expand not only in size, but into the micro green market, too.

So what are micro greens? A lot of emphasis is put on the way a meal looks now, especially in some of Melbourne’s most popular dining spots. While this doesn’t always speak for the flavour of the dish, in regards to micro greens, it sure does! If you get served up a plate of almost-too-pretty-to-eat food, you may notice small leaves and perhaps edible flowers sitting on top. The great thing about these little add-ons, Susie Young tells us, is that they don’t lack in the flavour department. ‘I think that’s why micro greens have gotten so popular and they’ve stayed popular,’ she says; ‘because you’re not missing out on anything. They’ve even got all the same vitamins and minerals of the larger plants.’ In fact, some of the herbs and greens in their micro format actually provide a stronger flavour, Young tells us, such as; ‘rocket and radishes, which can get a bit more peppery as they get older.’

B&B Basil grow their plants in hydroponic sheds, which are undercover and protected. This means no pests, and no spraying. ‘It’s a very controlled environment’, Young tells us, from the water, to the temperature, to the organic soil that’s placed in the pot. About 80% of the B&B Basil business goes through distributors to eateries in Melbourne, with a production quantity of around 30,000 units a week! The popularity of the micro green market—and Melbourne restaurants’ desire to stay local—has enabled the business to grow and expand over time, and also discover new ways to innovate. ‘We’ll keep dabbling on growing things in the dark and looking at different grow lights, as the innovation changes out in the market’ says Young, as well as focussing on different sources of heating and solar options.

What B&B Basil offer will also be expanding, with the team looking into a more mature leaf and devising specialty salad blends. Young tells us, ‘flowers are in such high demand, everybody is loving edible flowers at the moment.’ But there are also a few very unique flavours that seem to be increasing in popularity; lemon balm and red shiso. Part of what makes the business so successful, is sussing out the movement in the market according to Young, who’s next step is to; ‘Get out into the marketplace and talk to more chefs, finding out what’s next, what could they possibly want us to grow.’

In the case of B&B Basil, they’ve found an area in which they can develop a superior product, and become experts in it. The success shows through the massive reception Melbourne restaurants and cafes have shown the micro green product, and it’s ongoing. A trend we’ve found consistent amongst regional producers, is often they specialise, and their products hold a unique point of difference that makes them so attractive to the city dining destinations.

McIvor Farms in Tooborac, Victoria, are proud to farm old breed Berkshire pigs, with a holistic farming outlook they tout as ‘beyond free-range’. The system is devised around utilising the pigs’ natural behavioural tendencies to roam dig, and disturb the soil, with the result being regenerating the land. Husband and wife duo Jason and Belinda Hagan inherited the farm from Jason’s family (three generations in Tooborac), along with a passion for pigs and sustainable, environmentally friendly farming.

Belinda Hagan tells us that maintaining the beyond free-range philosophy; ‘can be a challenge when seasons are difficult’, but that the priority is around farming the soil, and managing the animals as best they can. Essentially the view is this; if the soil is respected through farming, Hagan tells us ‘it’s not about taking the most out of it. It’s actually putting back into it.’ This means that healthy plants will grow, followed by healthy animals, ergo healthy food. The process of rejuvenating the soil is a slow and careful one that they manage through the pigs’ natural behaviour. Hagan tells us that on McIvor Farms, priorities have developed into bolder statements; ‘[What] Began about the animals and giving them a better life, and having a system that was very high in ethics and welfare, has become so much more than that now.’ The Hagan’s biggest passion is bringing life back to the land and building an ecosystem from the ground up—literally. ‘Both Jason and I are fortunate to do what we love,’ Hagan tells us. ‘We are not saying it’s easy… it’s actually bloody hard work! But McIvor Farm and us can only do what we do with the support of customers.’

McIvor Farms are big believers in local produce on local plates, which is why 100% of their perfect pork ends up in Victoria. It can be found across Melbourne and the central Victoria region at markets, butchers, providores and even restaurants, with the likes of Grossi Florentino and Ombra Salumi Bar putting the paddock to plate statement into practice. Popular dishes are pork belly, Belinda Hagan tells us, but they’re also seeing a rise in pork cheek, advising us to check out Masons’ in Bendigo. ‘[They] do this amazing ‘crackle pin-wheel’’, she says, stating that she loves seeing the full circle, resulting in ‘great produce, from great chefs’.

Great produce on Melbourne plates is becoming more accessible by the minute, and Yarra Valley Dairy is a name you’re probably familiar with living in Melbourne. Not only is it a well known brand and locally celebrated, but it’s also an easy drive out of Melbourne into the Yarra Valley—a must stop on your next winery trip! Yarra Valley Dairy uses fresh cow’s milk from nearby dairy farms, and goat’s milk from Gippsland to create their artisan cheeses. ‘Winemaking and cheesemaking have a real similarity, because it’s about the terroir, about the land, about what the cows are eating and how well they’re looked after,’ Yarra Valley Dairy Brand Manager Catherine McCarthy tells us.

McCarthy informs us that the produce used to create the cheese is important, but a lot of credit goes to the cheesemaker. ‘It’s one thing to make the cheese, but it’s actually in what you do with it and how you treat it and how you mature it that will really contribute to it’s flavour profile.’ She says. Head Cheesemaker Jack Holman is a forager from way back, experimenting with Australian ‘bush native’ flavours, such as eucalyptus and wattle during the cheesemaking process, as well as collaborating with nearby Four Pillars Distillery to create a botanical flavoured rind. Restaurants are innovating in their own way, producing stunning savoury and sweet ice creams and dessert with Yarra Valley Dairy curds.

If you take the short trip north of Melbourne, you’ll be met with an unassuming tin shed, that modestly hides a stunning interior and breathtaking views. Boasting a cellar door featuring twenty independent wine makers in the area, it’s not all about the cheese at Yarra Valley Dairy (but it is, mostly about the cheese, and we’re more than fine with that, too.)

Yarra Valley Dairy have become so popular in Melbourne, you can purchase their craftfully creamy products at delis, grocers and even some supermarkets around town. The brand is thriving, stocking internationally in the United States, and makes a cheesy appearance on Emirates and Qantas domestic and international flights. Although Melbourne and greater Victoria still embrace it as one of their favourites, with some of Melbourne’s best restaurants such as The Press Club approaching them to make some unique cheesy delights. Again, the lure of local is well-loved in Melbourne. ‘The value of people eating locally is kind of a no brainer really,’ says McCarthy, and we couldn’t agree more!

If this article has left you feeling hungry, you could always cook up a decadent McIvor pork cheek, sprinkle some stunning B&B Basil micro greens on top, and serve with a creamy Yarra Valley Dairy goat’s cheese salad. Just a thought. #Paddocktoplate

Megan Osborne

Megan Osborne is a freelance writer, but more importantly, a foodie. How can you not be living in a city like Melbourne? Every day holds an opportunity to find a new gem, and in between uploading photos of her cat on Instagram and generally making a mess in the kitchen, she’s on the lookout for the next tummy-satisfying diamond. Or goldmine—she’s not fussy.