The Fleurieu Peninsula is a hive of creative culture. Discover unique food, wine, art and craft around every corner.
You get a good vibe about a breakfast place when a woman named Dolores from down the street wanders in to donate a handful of eggs, freshly laid by her backyard chooks.
We’re at The Court House in Normanville on the Fleurieu Peninsula and owner Bruce Gordon tells me Dolores is one of several ladies in the small coastal town who supply him with the freshest possible local eggs.
Today’s mission is to scratch the surface of this region’s rich artistic culture but with a good dose of history, food and wine thrown in. You’ll find that, when exploring the Fleurieu, these interests meet at almost every turn.
The Court House and adjoining Calaboose Grill and Smokehouse occupy the town’s historic police lockup. Completed in 1855, the walls, slate and timber floors, tiny rooms and exercise yard remain largely intact. A set of old wooden stocks might normally seem rather morbid for a decorative piece but they look safely quirky among colourful flowerpots, birdcages, tapestries and assorted artefacts.
“I always look at that spot where the slate doorway floor is so worn down and wonder about the men who first walked through that space when it was still level and new,” Bruce muses. Since that time, the building has lived many lives – it’s been a maternity hospital, brothel, boarding house, doctor’s surgery and divers’ hostel.
Bruce’s wife Christine is the in-house artist, whose studio, gallery and shop space shares the premises. She works predominately in lino prints; her current exhibition is influenced by fashions of eras gone by. “She’s a bit nuts about shoes,” Bruce explains (perhaps unnecessarily).
Work by other local artists also covers the walls, benchtops and rear courtyard. Although it’s been dormant for hours, we can still smell Bywater Bessie – the solid cast iron meat smoker custom built to bring a taste of Southern America to Normanville. This is a piece of machinery that clearly gets a good workout in the evenings.
Bruce excuses himself to pump out some fresh coffee for a few members of the Court House Chain Gang – a group of local cyclists who fit into the retirement and leisure category yet look admirably athletic in their branded kit. They’re having a “park up” out the front as we wander out.
“Did you get Bruce’s Big Brekkie?” they ask. Alas, we did not and we are reprimanded for missing out. “This place has brought so much to this town; we love it,” they say. “But don’t tell anyone – it’s our secret!”
Our morning drive takes us further down the peninsula, winding between the huge mound-shaped hills. We skirt the coast where the rocking waters of Investigator Straight carry the ferry to Kangaroo Island. The scenery is bold, majestic and isolated, and commands that the car radio be silenced for full appreciation.
With great anticipation, we arrive at Leonards Mill in Second Valley. The restaurant has a strong, consistent reputation and we’re excited to see how the property’s former stables have been converted into a studio space.
"The food is plated (extremely thoughtfully) on handmade platters, bowls and jugs from Yankalilla artist Mark Pease."
It’s immediately clear that this is a place where you could – or perhaps, should – invest a whole afternoon. The historic stone mill sits on a two and a half acre property that rolls gently down the hillside. We wander the garden paths, under old oaks and elms, past the veggie garden and apple tree heavy with fruit.
‘Stable Studio by the Mill’ is a contemporary gallery space housed within the crumbling stone and greyed wooden beams of the old stable. It is run by artists Judith Sweetman – a painter, inspired by the local water and sky-scapes – and Gilbert Dashorst – a graphic illustrator who spent 30 years drawing natural history for the Adelaide Botanic Gardens.
Gilbert’s passion for botanic life is overflowing as he leads us further up the property. “This is either the oldest or the second oldest mulberry tree in the state,” he says, gesturing towards the gnarly set of trunks and branches sprawled down an embankment “… and it still produces wonderful fruit!”
Returning to the restaurant, the art/food interplay continues. Works by local artists hang on the textured, whitewashed walls in the dining space. It’s cosy but well lit and manages to appear bright while retaining the original dark timber bar and ceiling beams.
The food is plated (extremely thoughtfully) on handmade platters, bowls and jugs from Yankalilla artist Mark Pease. They are robust and handsome pieces complementing the finessed dishes.
In the kitchen, partners Brendan Wessels (Head Chef) and Lindsay Durr (Head Pastry Chef) have both arrived from South Africa via the esteemed Lake House in Daylesford. There are traces of African influence on the menu but generally the dishes simply showcase fine technique and quality ingredients.
We start with an award-winning dish of kingfish sashimi, presented under a cloak of gentle Applewood smoke. It’s a banquet of textures – slippery dashi pearls, crunchy daikon and nori crisps, creamy octopus balanced by gentle acidity from the yuzu (an Asian citrus). The colours are striking, with tiny dark purple leaves and flecks of kombu and silver and white decoration.
A goat brik is more vibrant, with tagine-style spiced meat coated in fine pastry served with a sweet date puree and a bitey bulghur salad. I like the appearance of the tiny radish shoots – roots’n’all – and they add a nice piquancy to the dish.
The mulloway and cauliflower main is inspired by the spices of Cape Malay and we can smell the fried curry leaves and turmeric as the dish lands on the table. Again there is detail in the composition, with the vegetable in pickled, fried and fresh form and a smear of dried scallop.
Along the way we also see house-made rye bread, green olive rice crisps, tarragon infused olive oil and the choice of an all-South-Australian wine and beverage list. Dessert is sweet, fresh summer – compressed watermelon and strawberries (sorbet and dried), hibiscus and rose essence with sprinkles of coconut marshmallow, honeycomb, Turkish delight and mint.
In retrospect, perhaps we should have opted for the full degustation and then dozed off on the lawn under one of the big old fig trees… (or made use of one of the two cottages on site).
Bellies full, we cruise back along the coastline before turning inland towards Mt Compass – a nice little town with a somewhat quirky reputation thanks to the annual ‘Compass Cup’ where competition includes milk skolling and dung flinging. Today however we’re heading to the studio and gallery of renowned artist John Lacey.
Green Tank Gallery is not hard to find thanks to the enormous, square, green rainwater tank propped up on stilts in the neighbouring paddock. The building itself is quite a work of art, blending contemporary and rustic elements of stone, corrugated iron and geometric touches of red. Rusty iron sculptures by another local artist, Rod Manning, sit within the manicured gardens.
We’re warmly welcomed and invited to watch John work. His style looks fluid and abstract yet he produces works of great mood, light and depth that reveal a well-crafted technique. He has been painting impressionistic landscapes since the 80s when he made the shift from drafting to painting via graphic design.
“Everyone wants to learn contemporary art, but they must have a sound base of technique first,” John smiles. “It’s like the rock guitarist who is classically trained.”
“Some of my work interprets the landscape more than directly represents it but, to learn a subject, I’ll paint it truthfully before I move to abstracted styles,” he explains.
He shows us some pieces based on photos he has taken which are then sketched into geometric shapes. He completes a colour study before taking to the canvas where he works not just with brushes but also knives and trowels to layer, splice, blend and scrape away the vibrant colours.
John’s warm and relaxed nature is typified by the fact that, in visiting his gallery and workplace, you are also visiting his home. The family cat, Ally, weaves through our feet as I admire the paintings, recognising nearby beaches, cliffs and country roads. He catches Ally’s eye as we’re leaving and warns her “don’t you go outside – you’ll get the birds!”
We’re keen to make one more stop before we head home and we toss up the options. We could easily stretch this trip into a long weekend, taking in the galleries and studios of Goolwa and Victor Harbor. I’m also enticed by treasure hunting at Myponga market. For now though, we opt to call in on a quiet little cellar door that we haven’t been to before.
Mt Jagged Wines is on the road to Victor Harbor and the cellar door site atop a hill with panoramic views of vineyards and fields. Owners Suzanne and Tod Warmer bought the property in 2013 and offer a full range of estate grown wines.
But this is no average cellar door! Once a milking shed, it has been fitted with full length windows and decorated with a collection of trinkets, antiques and artworks. Suzanne is an artist herself and, when not pouring wine for visitors, she works from one corner of the big space. Her colourful paintings and mosaic works pop out among the rusty iron and timber, along with the bright, flowering potted plants.
A man and his elderly father wander in, keen to taste a few wines after a hard day working on a renovation project. I like that they look in no way out-of-place here in their plaster and paint splattered clothes – it’s about as unpretentious as a wine experience could get. These guys are after some big, bold reds and they’re in luck. Personally I rather like the Chardonnay. I could quite comfortably sit outside with a bottle and take in the view for an hour or two. Mt Jagged also offers a platter of local produce including goodies from the neighbouring Alexandrina Cheese Company and, if I hadn’t already stuffed myself silly today, I would be a taker.
It’s a great end to the adventure – a surprise discovery of wine, art and food. That’s what these trips are all about and I feel smugly contented as we venture back towards the city.