For Jaci Hicken, Gippsland is her happy place. The talented chef runs a cooking school and food studio celebrating Gippsland’s best produce, making pastries, pasta, home-made preserves and fermented dishes at Jacican in Mirboo North, along with garden-to-table vegan cooking classes.
“Gippsland is about a third of the state of Victoria, so I have to drive to many of my favourite places,” Jaci says. “I’m always on the lookout for new places to eat in Gippsland. I love going out and about eating at the places that serve the best local Gippsland produce. There are too many restaurants, cafes and farm gates to mention, but here is five of my favourites.”
1. LUNCH… Healing Leaves
71A Ridgway Mirboo North
As a chef, there are days that you don’t really want to make your own lunch. In Mirboo North, where I run Jacican, one of my favourite places is Healing Leaves, which specialises in gluten-free and vegan food. I love the coconut chickpea curry with green rice for a quick bite, finishing with a piece of Persian love cake with coconut yogurt and a turmeric latte, with a choice of dairy-free milks.
The café has a lovely community feel, and you can always find a chat at the communal table. I had to tell the ‘what’s going on in my life’ story more than once, but that’s one of the benefits of living in a small country town.
2. DATE NIGHT… Tinamba Hotel
4-6 Tinamba Seaton Road, Tinamba
I love a gastropub and Gippsland has one of the best, the Tinamba Hotel. Long-time restaurateurs Damien Gannon and Brad Nelson know how to set the scene for a fabulous date night. Well worth the drive from my place, this gastropub serves the freshest Gippsland produce on their ever-changing seasonal menu.
On my last date night, we started with a selection of Japanese oyster shooters with house-made Worcestershire, topped with fresh micro herbs snipped fresh from the onsite kitchen garden. The Tinamba Hotel has had a long relationship with its local cheesemaker, Maffra Cheese – the key ingredient in their signature dish, twice-baked Maffra cheese souffle. I had mine with heirloom tomatoes and house-made smoked tomato relish.
My other half went for the coffee rubbed Gippsland pork loin, with pine nut wild rice spätzle, local grilled stone fruit and finished with a jus full of the flavour of fresh garden herbs. The pork was cooked perfectly, with a layer of crispy crackling. And I would go back just for the dessert, a white chocolate brulée with garden picked berries, edible blooms and Sarsfield Estate gel
3. FARM GATE… Prom Country Cheese
275 Andersons Inlet Road, Moyarra
All produce at my restaurant and cooking school is sourced in Gippsland, and my go-to for cheese is Prom Country Cheese. Over the last few years, I have built up a friendship with Bronwyn and Burke and watched their on-farm cheese factory grow, winning many awards for their sheep’s milk cheese. They are also the only farm gate selling Jacican preserves, stocking my Sweet Black Tomato chutney and Green Tomato Relish.
All of Prom Country’s cheeses are fantastic, but my favourite is Venus Blue (as I love blue cheese). It’s a delicate, creamy, soft blue mould sheep’s cheese made with vegetarian rennet. I serve Venus Blue on my tasting plate with my house-made zucchini pickles and some Oak & Swan sourdough. We also finish our fresh pasta dishes with Prom Country’s cheese.
4. COFFEE… Saltbush Restaurant + Café
148 Commercial Road, Morwell
Part of living in a country town is taking an active role in your community. This means many meetings over lunch and coffee, and my go-to meeting place is Saltbush restaurant and café in Morwell. Situated on the main drag, opposite the government buildings, they are the go-to for many a coffee meeting.
Manny Able’s Maltese inspired Australian menu has gems like Dad’s chicken curry rice balls with garlic and saffron mayonnaise – perfect as a meeting snack. For something a little more substantial, I like the Korean braised beef ribs with house-made cucumber kimchi and pickled radish.
The specialist brew from Zest Coffee is always on point. If coffee’s not your thing – or like me, you’ve had too many in a day – there’s a full bar with a selection of Australian craft beers, wines, and cocktails
5. PET FRIENDLY… The Stables est1889
58 Service Street, Bairnsdale
My fur babies are very important to me. I am always looking for pet-friendly places. On a short visit to East Gippsland, I found myself and the fur babies at The Stables est1889 in Bairnsdale. There is shade, water, and places to tie on leads at the tables. The friendly staff are happy to give pats and the doggie treats are on the house.
Most of the menu uses produce direct from the producers. On the day I visited, I had the house-made crumpet with whipped Tambo Valley honey. The other half had the benedict made with local butcher David Luke’s smokehouse ham and Forge Creek free range eggs.
The Stables source local fish directly from the fishing fleet at Lakes Entrance, so the market fish on the menu changes regularly. I am looking forward to my next trip to East Gippsland to sample the fish and chips for lunch, no matter what local fish is on the menu that day.