The Grampians in Victoria are abundant in gourmet produce and vibrant vineyards. With both the Pyrenees and Grampian wine regions, there is so much to see, experience and taste, that the three-hour drive from Melbourne is definitely worth it. Indeed, it’s such a wine and food destination, the recent Grape Escape wine festival was held in Halls Gap. But when someone mentions ‘The Grampians’ in the same sentence as ‘food’, there is one inevitable conclusion a foodie’s mind jumps to: The Royal Mail Hotel.
Robin Wickens—head chef at the Royal Mail—recently made the trip back to the inner city (pressure), and cooked up a grand gastronomic dinner at iconic Melbourne metro restaurant, Eureka 89. We took the chance to talk to him about flavour, farming and fresh produce.
Wickens started working at the Royal Mail in 2013, after an impressive career cooking in London and Australia. Originally hesitant to step back into the kitchen, Wickens changed his mind upon seeing the resources available at the Dunkeld destination. Keen to put his own stamp on the kitchen-garden concept, Wickens sought to instil a philosophy of a truly honest kitchen garden. ‘Kitchen gardens are a very trendy thing right now, and a lot of PR spin goes into them sometimes’, says Wickens. ‘I wanted to be able to say we do actually get 85 – 90% of the produce from our garden.’
The garden has grown considerably in the last three years, now taking up just under a hectare, complete with geese that act as the organically-friendly pest control, and with some newly implemented snail farms and mushroom cultivation—not to mention livestock, too. Even given its epic size, the menu still comes second to what’s happening in the garden, and ends up being reliant on the success of produce. ‘It’s very dictated by what the garden does, rather than what we want to cook’, says Wickens. ‘If we can’t grow it, we won’t use it, so there’ll never be mangoes, or tropical fruits’. While this seasonal cooking approach can at times be limited, it also depends strongly on a chef’s ability to be imaginative, he continues; ‘Coming into winter when there’s not that much around, you have to be pretty creative, lots of stinging nettles,’ Wickens laughs.
The other downfall to a seasonal kitchen is the regularity—or lack thereof—of ingredients the Royal Mail are reliant on using for each season. Wickens loves to cook ‘whatever’s new’. He says, ‘We’ve got so many quinces at the moment—which is great—but I have a very low attention span I think, so in another week I’ll be bored with quinces.’ It’s not just the poor quinces that get a bad rap, Wickens jokes, telling us; ‘We hang out for the first tomatoes of the season, and then by now we just can’t look at another tomato.’ The Royal Mail menu changes weekly, sometimes even more frequently, relying on a truly flexible and inventive cooking style. The term ‘seasonal’ is thrown around a lot in relation to cooking these days, but Wickens believes his team take it to the next level. Their kitchen-garden ethos renders them unable to shop around for what they want at farmer’s markets, but to have to wait until produce is ready to be harvested. ‘At the start of spring you see all the Instagram shots of people using asparagus and broad beans, and we don’t have any! We’re just sitting, waiting for it, going “come on, come on!” So we are whatever the next stage from seasonal is,’ says Wickens. There are however loads of benefits that come with growing your own food, such as access to ingredients that many chefs pay a premium for, says Wickens:
‘We have things like zucchini flowers which in a normal kitchen are quite expensive, but we have so many that we’re making soups and sauces, and you can get quite extravagant with things like that.’ Using a zucchini flower to create soup seems extreme, but it’s these leaps of creativity that lead to mind blowing dishes, such as the chestnut ice-cream we were able to taste at the Eureka 89 dinner. This smoothly rich and nutty dessert was created using chestnut leaves—believe it or not—resulting in a memorably unique flavour. Wickens mentions another popular dish—also ice cream—that has been ‘a real hit of late’, the eggplant ice cream sandwich appetiser (so visit when you know it’s eggplant season!).
The menu served up at Eureka 89 was packed full of intriguing tastes, from a rich (as in ‘I’m a billionaire that owns ten Maseratis, not just one’ rich) pork jowl served with acorn puree, fig compote and beans, matched with a 2014 Mount Macleod Pinot Noir from Victoria, to a tender and soft lamb with nutty and unique sunchoke and sunflower seeds, paired with a 2013 Masssolino, Langhe Nebbiolo from Piedmont in Italy. The standout was absolutely the aforementioned chestnut ice cream, served with blood orange and chestnut puree, and matched with a decadent 2012 Disznoko ‘late harvest’ Tokaj from Hungary.
The metropolitain backdrop was a stark contrast to the regional produce on our plates, but it worked well, as Wickens states, to celebrate the juxtaposition: ‘The Eureka tower is an iconic destination in Melbourne, and the Royal Mail Hotel is an iconic destination in regional Victoria, so it’s great that we have an opportunity to bring two exciting landmarks together in such an innovative way.’
As the Eureka Tower in Melbourne is a tourist hot-spot, The Royal Mail Hotel is in itself a destination. There are some pretty great things about The Grampians, Wickens tell us: ‘I think The Grampians is a pretty amazing part of Australia, and especially Victoria—it’s not everyone’s first idea of a place to go. They all go to the Great Ocean Road or they go to the snow, it’s almost like this forgotten area that people don’t even know exists. It’s really such an iconic place, amazing scenery, and you can have a really good meal too.’ The offering at the Royal Mail is set to get a whole lot more exciting in the near future—we didn’t realise that was possible!—with a plan of becoming completely self-sustaining, a collaboration with Yarra Valley Winery, and the workings of being able to harvest honey, truffles and pork soon, too. While we jumped at the opportunity to skip out on the three hour drive, but still enjoy the sensational offerings of an amazing kitchen—and its garden—it’s safe to say that team GRAM would not hesitate to jump in the car next time, and make the well-worth-it trip along to Dunkeld, in ravishing regional Victoria.