Napoleon said an army marches on its stomach. The same holds true for tourists. Food is a significant factor in the decision-making process when tourists choose a destination.
A 2013 report from the American Culinary Traveler found 77 percent of leisure travelers in the United States are food tourists. I march along to the beat of the same drum as nothing imprints a destination on my mind more than local ingredients and regional dishes.
We have a burgeoning food scene in Australia, so I don’t have to travel far to find excellent food. But some of the best food is outside the city limits. As is the case with Bendigo, a city 90 minutes from Melbourne, where the food culture is so strong, the city was deemed a UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2019.
Only 36 cities worldwide share this coveted title. Brazil and China have four UNESCO Cities of Gastronomy, and Italy boasts three. The United States has two: Tucson, Arizona, and San Antonio, Texas. Bendigo is Australia’s first UNESCO City of Gastronomy.
The UNESCO award recognizes more than a city’s vibrant culinary scene. The designation rests on four pillars: 1) how an area recognizes and celebrates First Nations culture, 2) the creativity, innovation, and diversity of the local food scene; 3) the health, well-being, and social connectivity the food scene provides and 4) sustainable food production.
1. An Innovative Culinary Scene
Bendigo has a rich gold mining history and grand heritage buildings. Bendigo Art Gallery, founded in 1887, is one of Australia’s oldest and largest regional art galleries. Melbourne residents visit the gallery in droves because, for over a decade, the gallery has worked closely with London’s V&A to offer blockbuster fashion exhibitions. I recently visited to see the Mary Quant exhibition, the English designer synonymous with the mini-skirt and the freedom and verve of 1960s swinging Britain.
During my visit, I noticed how well Bendigo’s hospitality scene supports the city’s key cultural attraction. Bluebird Patisserie created “Quant-Sant” pink patterned pastries.
Chocolatier Hayley at Indulge Fine Belgian Chocolates took Quant’s color and bold designs to create confections in her “Quant-itful” chocolate experience. Cafe Essence offered Mary High Teas with handcrafted petite sweets, and The Dispensary was serving 1960s swinging cocktails. I could see why the UNESCO judges were so impressed with the creativity and innovation in the local food scene.
2. Food Connecting Community
PepperGreen Farm is a tourist and social-enterprise precinct with a cafe and 5 acres of gardens. These were Chinese market gardens in the gold rush era. Today the complex employs 100 people with disabilities. The enterprise grows vegetables and promotes social connection, following the motto of “growing food that’s not only good for us but good for the community.” I noticed groups of locals coming in to support the venture. They chatted over Devonshire teas while their children enjoyed a scavenger hunt outside. The waiter told me attendants would pick vegetables for me if I saw anything I wanted in the garden. I left with a huge pumpkin and stalks of rhubarb under my arm. It felt good to help out a worthwhile cause with my tourist dollars.
A search for lunch took me to Harvest Food and Wine, a local institution run by the husband-and-wife team, Lincoln Riley and Marsha Busse. Marsha is a Michelin star-trained pastry chef who has worked for the likes of Heston Blumenthal. Lincoln is a sommelier-turned-winemaker.
My lunch was simple but wholesome. A seasonal mushroom tart with a buttery short-crust pastry served with a grain salad enlivened with the tang of goat’s cheese. I ask Lincoln to choose my wine, and he brings me a glass of Fleur Rose. The apricot color is so magical I spend minutes twirling my glass in the sunlight to watch the glow. The store here stocks products from other local producers. And Marsha runs croissant-making masterclasses passing on her knowledge and skills to others.
3.Tucked Away Gems
Thinking I’d walk off lunch, I headed to Bath Place, a trendy area of boutique shops. Was it my fault that I also discovered The Good Loaf, an award-winning sourdough bakery, and its vine fruit and rosemary bread? I added it to my collection of goodies. Or that directly opposite was Brewhouse Roasters offering coffee beans from all over the world. By afternoon tea time, I’d located Indulge Fine Belgium Chocolates. Trying not to succumb to all the beautifully crafted chocolates, I settled for a cup of dark Callebaut chocolate. The smoothness and joy of that first sip is a moment I shall treasure. Even when I returned to my hotel room, I found a complimentary packet of Bendigo Brittle on my pillow. A resident, Greta Donaldson, tweaked her late grandmother’s recipe for peanut toffee to create another local food tourists can’t get enough of.
Bendigo is a walkable city. Most of the food experiences I discovered were down interesting laneways. The Gastronomy Guide Map means tourists can be strategic in their planning. Don’t miss tucked-away gems such as Chancery Lane with its coffee aromas, inspired pocket-size eateries, and brilliant street art. The Lyttle Eat Street food precinct offers global food initiatives such as Slow Smoking Saturdays, focusing on Asian street food.
My favorite haunt in Lyttleton Terrace is Bendigo Wholefoods with its edible garden nursery, shop, and cafe. Most of the food is sourced within 93 miles of the city, a mindful alternative to the traditional supermarket. My car trunk was getting fuller by the minute.
Pro Tip: Book a Food Fossicking Tour where a local guide takes you straight to the heart of the best food experiences ending with a meal of local produce from the award-winning Masons restaurant.
4. Fine Dining Is Key
In Australia, we call it destination dining: driving miles from a major city to lunch in a regional center because a restaurant is famous for its food.
Masons of Bendigo is a chef-hatted restaurant (one that receives a chef’s hat from the Australian Good Foods Guide) that pays homage to local producers and has a paddock-to-plate ethos. One of its tasting menus is a way to enjoy the region on your plate.
A meal might begin with Great Ocean duck, ginger and garlic chive steamed dumplings, gailan, white radish, taro, and drunken duck broth. It could end with a dessert of Vietnamese Coffee Ice Cream matched to an Opera Cake, with hazelnut and figs from the Gravel Hill Community Garden.
The Salvation Army’s Gravel Hill Community Garden is a fundamental part of Bendigo’s Grow Cook Share community initiative. As Mason’s chef and co-owner Sonia Anthony explains, the gardens are only a quarter of a mile away. “Not sure we could source lower food miles than that,” she said.
Teas made from Indigenous spices and herbs, including river mint, lemon myrtle, and ginger native lemongrass, are possible palate cleansers between courses. Dja Dja Wurrung’s young entrepreneur Sharlee Dunolly-Lee created these blends drawing on age-old wisdom from Indigenous Elder Aunty Julie Mchale.
Woodhouse, a hatted chef restaurant is ranked the best steakhouse in the Victoria-Tasmania Savour Awards and the 3rd best in Australia. This Bendigo institution also showcases central Victoria’s best local produce. Owner and head chef Paul Pitcher grills free-range dry-aged steaks and F1 Wagyu over burning red gum, imparting a special flavor and caramelization to the steaks. Leave room for one of his signature desserts of wood-roasted Harcourt Pink Lady apple, dulce de leche, cinnamon palmier, nutty crumble, caramel glass, and vanilla bean ice cream.
5. Women In Wine
The Bendigo region is home to over 130 wineries and breweries. Sip many of their creations at Wine Bank on View, a wine merchant and wine bar housed in a heritage-listed former Bendigo bank.
Head to some of the idyllic vineyards and enjoy the sweeping views and relaxed pace.
A group of female winemakers who banded together to support each other during COVID lockdowns became friends, and continue to empower other women in wine. They created the Heathcote Women in Wine Cellar Door Trail only 30 minutes from Bendigo. Their family-run boutique wineries include Sanguine Estate Wine, Munari Wines, Vinea Marson, Silver Spoon Estate, and Farmer & The Scientist. All are within 10 minutes of each other.
Tastings are relaxed and showcase award-winning Shiraz, ranging from Italian, French, and Spanish varieties. Silver Spoon is solar-powered and off the grid with no power lines to mar the area’s scenic beauty. Vinea Marson won the Gourmet Traveller Best Cellar Door Award for tastings. In true Italian-style, tastings are around the family table, over antipasti plates of cured meats, Italian cheese, and estate-grown extra-virgin olive oil.
Pro Tip: Trail bookings through Heathcote Information Centre or via the website.
6: A Regional Food Bowl
When UNESCO awards the title City of Gastronomy, they include the whole region that produces the local food. The greater city of Bendigo takes in an area of 116 square miles. The surrounding towns are food and wine getaways with stunning accommodation, nature walks, and spa experiences. The Daylesford/Hepburn Springs area is a getaway for gourmands. The Old Mill at Castlemaine houses makers, including a chocolatier, a Viennese coffeehouse, and an artisan cheesemaker. Harcourt is one of the best apple-growing areas in Australia and home to a serious cider culture.
Even if you don’t get to visit these towns, the rotational farmers’ markets give you a taste of their produce. I visited the Bendigo Community Farmers’ Market outside the Good Loaf but could have caught a similar market in Castlemaine, Maldon, or Talbot. My basket overflowed with black truffles from Black Cat Truffles, organic potatoes from Sandors Harvest, new season walnuts from Husk and Harvest, honey from Collins Honey, and bottles of rhubarb and apple cider from Harcourt’s Darraweit Valley Cider.
Before taking my bounty back to Melbourne, I detoured to Bridgewater for Australia’s Best Vanilla Slice in Australia. A vanilla slice is thickset creamy custard wedged between two flaky pastry layers topped with a sweet white fondant. I also hunted out Simply Tomatoes in the tiny hamlet of Boorat. Marilyn Lanyon and her husband hand-pick green tomatoes, pickle them using a traditional Italian method in salt and vinegar before dousing them with virgin olive oil, oregano, and garlic. I’m cursing myself. I only bought one packet! Back to Bendigo, I go for more great food tourism.
Australia is noted for its wildlife and natural resources, but its food scene also gets worldwide recognition: