A Taste Of The Good Life

Spa Magazine – October 2005

It was a historic sausage. It was so good that at the risk of contradicting medical fact, I will say that this particular lamb and fennel sausage -that snapped perfectly to the tooth, burst fresh and juicy, sparked with a flame of garlic, and was almost certainly high in cholesterol- opened my heart. It wasn’t just delicious, but euphoric. Here, I thought, was a sausage with the power to heal. And rightly so as I ordered and ate this life-affirming sausage at a spa in Daylesford, Australia.

There is a common presumption that spa kitchens are supposed to serve the ne plus ultra of diet food, be it macrobiotic, ayurvedic, raw or vegan. In other words, there was always a good chance that a spa restaurant would be unsatisfying. Not this one. Granted, it wasn’t low-cal food, but this dish, this restaurant, made me feel very well indeed.

Australia overflows with food as impressive as its jaw-dropping natural beauty, aboriginal legacy and bourgeoning spa industry. Australians know this to be true and they revel in it so deeply that it roots them into their homeland. This isn’t mere patriotism. Aussies burn with regional passion and are quick to consume and compliment their locally grown produce, meat and wine, and tout their neighborhood forests, beaches and bays. Spa restaurants depend on this regional bounty for their unique gourmet menus, and there will always be local wine. Before I sat down to an innocent sausage, however, I knew none of this. But while visiting spas in three distinct Australian regions (Daylesford, Byron Bay and North Queensland), I was enthralled by the provincial pride, culinary spirit and can-do entrepreneurship that pulses throughout the country.

The Lake House, nestled on the shores of Lake Daylesford (a little over an hour’s drive from Melbourne) is, first and foremost, a restaurant. It seems impossible that in 1984 what are now six pristine acres of eucalyptus trees, spring flowers and a rambling, shabby chic inn was a desolate field. That’s when Alla Wolftasker, a Melbourne caterer, arrived with dreams of creating Australia’s first destination restaurant. Looking at the barren property, she envisioned a country bistro with a seasonal menu, serving locally grown produce, locally crafted wines and cheeses and locally raised meat. Despite the fact that area farmers were, at the time, shipping all of their goods out of the region, the location actually made perfect sense.

Daylesford is the center of an area known as Spa Country on account of the more than 40 natural mineral springs that bubble to the surface throughout the 25 square-miles of the surrounding Wombat State Forest. Generations of aboriginal communities valued the region for its healing waters and trout-filled streams. When Australia’s gold rush hit in 1852, Daylesford was overrun by fortune seeking homesteaders, forcing out its indigenous population. Thankfully the springs were protected by Parliament, so when Swiss, Italian and Russian immigrants came to Victoria state decades later, and heard about the mineral water in Daylesford, they arrived in droves. They bathed in and drank the funky, effervescent water to cure rheumatism and digestive disorders, and they restored the landscape that had been scarred by miners.

Once she bought the property, Wolftasker asked local farmers to eschew exportation dollars and grow specialty crops, like French green beans and spring asparagus, for her restaurant. “The whole point is to limit food miles, to bring the food from paddock to plate efficiently.” Of course, the farmers had to make a living, so she trucked the surplus to the Melbourne Central Market and sold it there. Impressed, the farmers gradually came more and more under her influence.

The Lake House opened to sensational reviews and has grown over the years from a 48-seat capacity to 300. Meanwhile, urban refugees flocked to the area to take up farming. Historic farmhouses were restored. Gourmet crops were turned out by the bushel. Fine wines were corked. Local trout and lamb were no longer exported. It’s not a stretch to say that in 20 years, Alla Wolftasker turned a backwater hamlet into a foodie’s paradise.

The inn opened in 1989 and has recently been expanded. The rooms have romantic lakeside views, luxurious bathrooms and Tempur-pedic beds. Last year they added the full-service Salus Spa, highlighted by six adjacent Zen-style bathhouses. When I arrived in November, it was unseasonably cold and wet, but as I sunk into the frothing tub filled with heated, natural mineral spring water, I opened the louvers and let the cool air rush in. Steam poured out into the eucalyptus canopy, renegade raindrops splattered my palms. This was the kind of bliss I’m used to from a spa.

Still, the restaurant makes the Lake House. Wolftasker remains the Executive Chef, and everything is prepared in-house, from fresh breads, to smoked fish, to the unforgettable sausage, just one star in a succulent galaxy. Alongside it was a deliciously tender roast rump of spring lamb, mineral-rich sea-green spinach and braised baby peas. The warm spring salad appetizer drenched in asparagus velouté was perfect and for dessert, light and creamy lavender honey ice cream faded into a rich chocolate fondant.

Naturally, the menu changes with the seasons. In April, Wolftasker and her daughter, Larissa, wander into a corner of the Wombat forest to harvest wild mushrooms, as locals have for generations. They fill basket after basket with Saffron Milk Caps and Slippery Jacks (a.k.a. chanterelles and porcinis), and turn out mushroom soup, blintzes and a wild mushroom ragu served in a stuffed brioche. This isn’t the typical spa kitchen but Wolftasker is far from apologetic. “Our food is prepared with the best, all-natural ingredients. Plus, I believe something that tastes fantastic will always be good for the spirit.”

Todd Cameron, head chef at the just opened Gaia Retreat & Spa in Byron Bay, would agree. Cameron says, “I never skimp on flavor. Deliciousness is very important.” But that’s where the similarities end. Cameron’s style, mission and menu are unique to the setting and region in which he cooks.

In Northern New South Wales lies a stretch of coastline that seems a perfect blend between Malibu and Maui. The water is refreshing but not cold, the air warm but not oppressively hot, and the rocky landscape, great surf, and wide beaches make Byron Bay Australia’s hippie-chic hotspot. Just over a year ago, Olivia Newton John and old friend Gregg Cave happened upon a defunct spiritual retreat in the hills above Byron. Although they had never imagined opening a spa, they were immediately inspired by this unique 20-acre property with its Samoan longhouse and outlying bungalows, and, within a few months, refashioned the place into an elegant and tranquil escape.

At Gaia, there are no televisions, phones or internet service in the private bungalows. Instead, the only sound to be heard is the ocean breeze pouring through melodic wind chimes. Daily yoga, exercise and art classes are encouraged and, to have the full experience, spa treatments in Gaia’s Amala Spa are an absolute must. Staffed by gifted local therapists – Byron Bay is a mecca for mind-body healers of every ilk, the spa’s body masques and polishes, including one made with native lemon myrtle and macadamia nuts, are homemade. I had an invigorating organic coffee scrub. Couples often choose to get cocooned in organic dark chocolate.

The spa is the only place you’ll find coffee and chocolate at Gaia, however, because its kitchen is geared to provide meals that support healthy restoration. But that doesn’t mean they’re boring. Cameron grew up in Malaysia and trained as a chef in Australia’s tropical north. “Those tropical spices and flavors are in me now,” he says.

I had the pleasure of tasting his locally caught blue-eyed cod accented with a tangy nouveau-panang curry. The next night he coupled a contemporary Japanese cabbage and rice flour pancake with a traditional Chinese mushroom and chicken hot pot. Both were sensational, as was the tropical fruit sorbet topped with sour plum puree. Cameron’s secret lay in the fertile hills that surround Gaia. Sitting on the longhouse deck, he examines the pastureland and says, “I can point to all the farms and orchards where my food comes from.” Often his produce is picked and delivered the morning he prepares it. Gaia also grows herbs and veggies in its organic garden. “The proximity of our ingredients gives the food an edge. It’s full of flavor, bursting with life,” says Cameron. And though the meals sound simple, my fellow diners were in awe. One said, “The food has been such a beautiful journey.” Another responded, “You could call it, culinary therapy.”

I seemed to taste the tangible flavor of life when a tart ryberry exploded in my mouth while lunching on the Rainforest Salad at the Daintree Ecolodge & Spa in North Queensland. Set on 30 acres of pristine rainforest that borders the steamy, jungle wilderness of Daintree National Park, this family-owned resort is a collection of 15 stilted tree houses shrouded in a lush canopy that is home to 135 tropical birds. Their exotic, entrancing calls echo through the canyon. Across the road, lies the Daintree River, a wide, muddy swath of still water that is home to dozens of crocodiles. Follow the river to the sea and you’ll be in a turquoise bay protected by the Great Barrier Reef.

Daintree’s isolation invites unwinding and its multi-award winning spa is expert in that department. I signed up for the signature Wabul-Wabul treatment that began with a traditional aboriginal ritual during which the smoke of burning paper-bark is wafted over me for purification. Afterward, my skin is scrubbed to smoothness with salt and oil, then caked with a native ochre-colored clay. Finally, I am washed from head to toe on a handcrafted Vichy table, carved like an oval ylang-ylang leaf – complete with veins and ridges, before a full body massage. Let’s just say, I understand what all the awards are for.

The magic conjured by Daintree chef, Chris O’Reilly, is remarkable given that the location is not blessed with an abundance of organic, specialty farms. Instead he relies on ancient aboriginal knowledge to remain faithful to the rainforest setting. While many indigenous nations in Australia have been destroyed, the Ku Ku Yanjali people in Daintree remain intact. Their language is spoken, and their songs are still sung. “Singing is how we pass knowledge on to our children,” says Kili, a local aboriginal woman who leads forest walks on Daintree’s grounds. During the walk, she describes how her people lived off of this forest for generations by harvesting fruits and nuts and catching local fish. Kili also works with O’Reilly to develop recipes that blur the line between ancient tradition and modern fine dining.

Ryberries, rosella flowers, munthari berries, quangdong (a local peach) and macadamia trees are all found on or near Daintree and tossed with mesclun, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, red onion and sweet gum vinaigrette to create the Rainforest Salad. Each mouthful is a symphony of flavor. O’Reilly uses these native fruits in sauces for fresh barramundi, caught locally, and tender cuts of beef, as well. Native curry made with a pungent wild ginger and other endemic spices will soon be on the menu. But he is loathe to discuss it much. He just gives me a glance, brimming with regional pride that seems to say, “No one in Australia will have a dish like this.”

The most pleasurable meals are those in which you can identify -or at least sense- every flavor. Like pure notes that merge into perfect harmony, they blend into something greater with each bite. That is Australia’s character as well, so geographically diverse that every region is singular, yet each accentuates the other. Australia is not simply a verdant, gourmet countryside or a replenishing coastal retreat or an exotic jungle hideaway. It’s all of that and more. It’s a land of fertile soil, creative minds, aboriginal echoes and damn good food.

ADDRESS BOOK: Australia

Daintree Ecolodge & Spa, Queensland, (831) 335-5238, daintree-ecolodge.com.au

Gaia Retreat & Spa, Brooklet, New South Wales, +61 2 6687 1216,gaiaretreat.com.au

The Lake House, Daylesford, Victoria, + 61 3 5348 3329, lakehouse.com.au

 

Leave a Reply