The author waits for Tony Bilson's magnificent repast at Trevor Knaggs' La Dolce Vita lunch at King River Estate
by PHILIP WHITE - A version of this story appeared in The Independent Weekly on 28 NOV 08
Horsham, drought, late afternoon. The sky is spectacular with thunderclouds: thousands of tonnes of water, stubbornly refusing to fall. Well-dressed farmers sit at footpath tables, glimpsing up, drinking coffee. There’s not much else to do. For hundreds of kilometres, every farm gate has a tractor or two for sale; a harvester; a favourite ute. There is no stock other than the odd scrawny sheep gnawing at what was supposed to be wheat, and a few bony cattle.
The roads have run down. Every village building needs paint. All those Wimmera streams that run north into the Murray are bone dry. I ask for more chilli on my chook burrito. The disbelieving lass produces a bowl of slightly mustard-coloured powder which rips the nose apart. Monosodium glutamate sprayed with Mace. It takes two beers to erase. Where’s the butcher? I ask, dreaming of edible food. Where’s the fruitaveg? “Coles”, she says.
Shops which once housed the butchers and greengrocers now brim with bric-a-brac: home-made artworks, trinkets, and useless caucasian artefacts that householders have chosen to live without.
On the hilltop west of St Arnaud, a quick thunderstorm has left one puddle. I report this to the nearest publican. “Fair dinkum”, she says. “You shoulda took a photograph of it. We coulda used it on a postcard!”
Further east, the Goulburn looks almost hearty. And so it should, if Melbourne’s new pipeline is to deliver. Across the Hume Highway the countryside turns lush green. We wind up the King Valley to Edi, where the tobacco farmers were, but now spread shooting vineyards, ash trees, oaks; creeklines thick with willow and hawthorn. Out of the car at King River Estate. “Jeez mate, this country’s looking good”, I say to winemaker Trevor Knaggs. “We get forty inches”, he says.
Perversely, the purpose of this journey is the annual La Dolce Vita Lunch. Trevor’s beautiful King River Estate wines, and a repast cooked by the great Tony Bilson, who makes the annual pilgrimage from Bilson’s at the Radisson in Sydney to King River, where he cooks for 120 in an old cowshed.
“Talk to Tony”, Trevor says. “Choose the wines. We’re proud of them. We’re going biodynamic.” A sexy tenor sax tootles away as the first diners arrive; waiters don shirts that say “Conserve water. Drink wine”. The first dish is from ancient Rome: almond gazpacho beneath a thin layer of oil. It comes with a croüton smothered in foie gras. Trevor’s 06 verdelho does it perfectly, with its faint hints of kernel supporting rather than contrasting. The duet’s ravishing.
“Now” says Tony. “This lobster tail will come out with fresh shelled oysters and seawater jelly”. The fumé, fennel and cream cheese of the 08 sauvignon blanc does the oysters and salty jelly perfectly, once again supportive rather than contrasting, just as the carambola and drying tannins of the 08 vermentino wrap that hearty lobster.
Somebody had promised to shoot some deer. No deer volunteer, and the 40 kilos of fillet Tony rattled up at the last minute in Sydney gets lost, so local venison turns up anyway. Tony roasts it and serves it in a sauce poivrade with chocolate, foie gras and juniper berries, with asparagus and a purée of potato and celeriac. The mighty King River Reserves, an 06 cabernet sauvignon and 05 merlot nail that dainty: in their different ways, both wines are chocolaty to some extent, and while the maturing chicory greens of the cabernet suit the celeriac side of the dish and the asparagus, the mossy, earthy, merlot nearly brings that Bambi back to life.
The Milawa Cheese Company presents a cheeseboard that just a decade back could be found only in Burgundy or Champagne. So we serve two unusual reds: a sweet 06 merlot, the result of a stuck ferment and some inspired tidying up, and the dry, unfortified - but tawny - 99 Nancy’s Shiraz, named after Trevor’s deceased Mum. “We gotta have this” Trevor says. “Mum’d love this”.
Tony’s mousse of chocolate with walnut cream, red berry salad and balsamic vinegar is a dryish, very adult affair, so we throw the dry 05 barbera at it. You oughta hear ’em slurp. This is one of the most utterly beautiful meals.
Coming home along the River, we first traverse hundreds of open channels gushing with water. They’re about the same width as the roads, and they’re using the new government grants to rubber-line them, but not enclose them. The chandlers are doing well in the drought: every fifty metres, there’s a neat little steel cable mariner’s ladder so critters can climb out if they slip on the rubber. But there’s only a glum puddle of a River at Echuca. From there to Swan Hill the anabranches are all dry, and there are millions of dead trees. There are no birds left on the road to Ouyen, and at Pinnaroo they’re irrigating potatoes with overhead sprinklers.