The Fleurieu Peninsula is a South Australian food and wine region that embraces the idea of slow food and doorstep produce pulled from local surrounds.
By Max Anderson
Cockling is no laughing matter, yet hoteliers Deb Smalley and Juliet Michell can’t help giggling about the fearless blokes who supply fresh bivalves to local restaurants and cafes.
“They still harvest them the old-fashioned way,” says Deb. “You know – feet in the sand, twisting from side to side.” She tries to look serious: “Apparently they get RSI of the ankles.”
Deb is referring to what’s sometimes called the ‘cockle twist’ or ‘the pipi shuffle’. It’s where you repair to the massive beaches of Goolwa and Middleton on the Fleurieu Peninsula, south of Adelaide. You plant your feet in the shallows and grind yourself into the sand, exactly like you’re doing The Twist – and before long your toes hit a seam of shells at which cockles obligingly surface on the wet sand.
The shellfish from the like of Goolwa PipiCo end up on local menus, including at the fine boutique hotel The Australasian Circa 1858, where Chef Juliet likes to give them a signature Asian twist.
“I might steam them in sake with garlic, ginger and some spicy togarashi,” says Juliet. “They go pretty well with miso too.”
The hoteliers and the ankle-weary cockle harvesters sum up the essence of the Fleurieu, a South Australian food and wine region that embraces the idea of slow food and doorstep produce pulled from local surrounds.
And what surrounds they are – a near irresistible proposition of coast, hills and some of the most celebrated vines in the world.
Star of Greece Cafe, Port Willunga, Fleurieu Peninsula
The McLaren Vale is famous for its big bosomy red wines. To Adelaide, it’s the ‘wine region next door’, the place where you call into your favourite cellar door and invariably find food that’s equal to the reputation of the wine.
A case in point is d’Arenberg winery, home to the well-loved d’Arry’s Verandah Restaurant. This is where you’re seated beside views over trellised vines, topped up with a Dead Arm 2011 Shiraz and served the like of chocolate and chilli-braised roo saddle with mint labneh. It just begs you to cancel all plans and hang out. (And in case you need more persuading, there’s the new Blending Bench where you can test your skill at blending wine.)
But the wine region isn’t standing still. At last count there over 80 cellar doors, many of them around the town of McLaren Vale. Newcomers like Ekhidna Wines has all bases covered, producing wine, cider, beer and ginger beer; they’re also garnering plaudits for the Kitchen restaurant, keeping it local with the like of Willunga beetroot truffle pasta with caramelised onion, olive salsa, Hindmarsh Valley goats curd and salted macadamia. Alpha Box & Dice is also striking out in all directions: it’s where the hipsters come to play in a funky shed while drinking the like of Rebel Rebel Montepulciano and Zaptung Prosecco.
If you prefer to keep on the straight and narrow, try the McMurtrie Mile where it’s all laid on for you. Buy a $15 McMurtrie Mile Passport and you’ll get into Wirra Wirra for a tour and private tasting, Hugh Hamilton for a varietal tasting, Sabella Vineyards for a barrel tasting and Red Poles for a two-course lunch plus a beer-tasting paddle of heavenly Vale ales. Which should put a dent in anyone’s afternoon.
As if the McLaren isn’t enough, the Fleurieu is also home to two cool climate regions – the burgeoning Langhorne Creek and smaller Currency Creek. With 7000ha of lake and river floodplain under vine, these offer country that’s strikingly different. Try the beautiful Bremerton cellar door, an 1866 stone barn serving gourmet pizzas as well as premium wines. Or head for Angas Plains Wines, an off-track delight which relishes rustic home comforts and the simple pleasures of soup made from the winemaker’s pumpkin patch.
Finally, it’s not all wine in the McLaren. Goodieson Brewery in McLaren Vale makes a wheat beer that’s being called Australia’s best. And the McLaren Vale Beer Company in Willunga is slowly spreading the name ‘Vale’ across the country.
The pastures and paddocks of the Fleurieu cover the gullies and escarpments of the southern Mount Lofty Ranges, and they look good enough to eat.
For a taste of just how fertile this region is, head to the pretty town of Willunga where the Farmers Market is held every Saturday in Willunga Town Square, 'rain, hail or shine’. Among some 60 stallholders you’ll meet local dairy farmers, bakers, butchers and vegetable growers as well as the producers of exotica such as almond milk, carob and lean alpaca steaks. They lay on an extraordinary country experience but you’ll need to get there early to beat the local chefs and restaurateurs snapping up prized goods for their seasonal menus.
Willunga itself is well-served with good eating. Take lunch at the Elbow Room for a gorgeous vineyard locale as well as soft shell mud crab and Macanese suckling pig. At The Farm Willunga you’ll discover a quirky compound that’s part licensed cafe, part providore, part art gallery and part bio-dynamic farm. (The owners conduct regular farm tours to illuminate the complex business of ‘just-so’ composting.)
For more local menus in action, head to any number of highly regarded restaurants within this green and pleasant land. Under new ownership, McLaren Vales’ historic Salopian Inn is very much back in the fold of top-class establishments, with Karena Armstrong offering a tasting menu to show exactly what she can do with seasonal produce.
The Currant Shed in McLaren Flat has a strong local ethic and still delivers first class plates. And Leonards Mill – a beautifully restored flour mill near Yankalilla – has a huge garden to provide the freshest accompaniments to dishes like slow-cooked beef short rib.
South of the wine region you come into lush dairy country around towns like Myponga, Mount Compass and Yankalilla. Look for local heroes like Alexandrina Cheese and the Fleurieu Milk Company.
Narrow lane wayfarers will also discover farmgates selling everything from seasonal berries to olive oil and fresh trout.
Myponga Market, held at weekends in the old Cheese Factory, is well worth a look for local producers; next door is the Smiling Samoyed Brewery serving its craft beers along with gourmet pizzas on a deck overlooking the reservoir.
The coast of the Fleurieu surprises out-of-staters with its beauty and with the fact South Australians have managed to keep it to themselves for so long.
Of course the coastal waters also keep menus loyal to the ‘locavore’ thing: fishermen supply blue swimmer crabs, shellfish, squid, octopus, kingfish, snapper and the prized King George whiting.
The west coast of the Peninsula looks onto the Gulf St Vincent. Upper beaches service Adelaide’s empty nesters and holiday home owners, but don’t spurn them for that.
Sea breezes and fine dining are to be had at the Victory Hotel, a coastal go-to for gourmands since 1989; and Hortas still serves Portuguese tapas in Port Noarlunga.
Port Willunga is aligned roughly with the McLaren and houses one of the most rewarding eating experiences in the state. The Star of Greece perches on a bluff overlooking shallow waters and a beach that still has fisherman’s caves carved out of the cliffs. After triple-threat meals like sashimi of kingfish, Coorong angus and burnt marmalade ice cream with citrus curd, it’s not unusual for diners to try and walk (or swim) it off.
Further south it quickly gets more remote, with steep hills running down to empty beaches. However at the small seaside town of Normanville you’ll find the Court House Cafe keeping holidaying crowds happy with tapas and live music.
Around the point is the south-facing coast, which is wild and beautiful, and visited in winter by strong winds and whales. Gathered around beautiful Encounter Bay is a string of four historic towns.
The first of these is Victor Harbor, the Fleurieu’s biggest town and a seaside escape for over 150 years. As you’d expect, there’s no shortage of pub food and eat-me-quick temptations, however it too is home to an excellent farmers market held on Saturdays and a fine diner in the shape of the newly rebooted Eat@Whalers. The latter’s contemporary Fleurieu-centric menu sees crispy skinned mulloway with Brick Kiln Shiraz butter sauce being served at tables overlooking Encounter Bay.
Next door is Port Elliott, a town that has gentrified greatly and shown a new-found love for food that tells a story. Take a walk up the Strand for an eclectic array of cafes as well as the Hotel Elliott, a lively local that does simple seafood very well.
The Flying Fish Cafe is an institution on the sands of gorgeous Horseshoe Bay. The No 58 Cellar Door is a newcomer with savvy decor, fresh local menu and a beautiful garden setting.
On monstrous Middleton Beach you can do your own foraging (look for signs indicating cockle beds and get someone to show you how to do the ‘cockle twist’). Alternatively have your cockles served to you on a coastal platter at Blues Restaurant, along with crumbed soft shell crab, seasoned lantern squid, tom yum prawns and slipper lobster.
End your food fest in Goolwa, the old paddle steamer town located where the Murray River ends its trans-Oz slog and meets the southern ocean. Among a surprising array of food champs, you might construct the perfect day with breakfast at Hector’s on The Wharf; lunch at the savvy beachside shack that is Bombora (perfect after a session in the lively surf).
And finally there’s dinner with Juliet and Deb at the enchanting Australasian Circa 1858. Locals and visitors alike make a bee-line for Juliet Michell’s set three-course menus, devised from whatever local produce is taking her fancy at the time. So will she be tempted to put cockles on the menu?
For the sake of the ankle-weary artisans of the local cockle industry, let’s hope so.