Hopetoun House Hotel, Jeparit. The Jewel of the North-West.

Good food is hard to find out in the little wheat district towns of the Wimmera. No, that is an understatement. Any food is hard to find in the Wimmera, a district in the north west of Victoria. We were caught out badly one Sunday during our drive around the tiny towns of Brim, Beulah and Rainbow. All the pubs were closed. Most, in fact, were for sale, and in desperation, I resorted to a Chicko Roll, a peculiarity of Victoria dating back to the 1950s. For those not in the know, a Chicko Roll is a large spring roll made from cabbage and barley, carrot and green beans, beef, beef tallow, wheat cereal, celery and onion. The filling is mostly pulped and enclosed in a thick egg and flour pastry and then the whole fat roll is deep-fried. My purchased version bore no relationship to the above description. There were no discernible vegetables, the inside tasted like clay, the outside resembling some form of edible cardboard. It may have spent 5 years in a deep freezer before hitting the deep frying basket of the Rainbow take- away. I told you I was desperate.

snapper stack
Snapper stack on smashed potato, pesto, rocket. $18

So you can imagine how delightful it was to find a pub in this remote area serving lunch and dinner 7 days a week. Jeparit’s Hopetoun House Hotel re- opened a few weeks ago, having been closed for some years. With new owners and energetic staff, is has become a little oasis in a food desert.

Spinach and Ricotta tortellini with a rich sauce and fetta. Large serve, $22.
Spinach and Ricotta tortellini with a rich sauce and fetta. Large serve, $22.

When we visited, the staff, who live on site, hadn’t had a break for 10 days or more, given that the menu needed to be trialled and put into place before Christmas. Talk about dedication. The smiling Mel greets all patrons warmly: she is the business manager, bar attendant, and raconteur. She knows the locals by name and makes every one feel at home, including tourists like us. Steven, the chef, is a foodie by inclination. He comes from Tullamarine, a suburb of Melbourne, and talks fondly of his mother, a Montessori teacher, who encouraged his cooking passion. Steve originally came from Sri Lanka. Other kitchen staff hail from the Punjab in India. It is so refreshing to see our talented new Australians ready to embrace work in these isolated towns. I hope they stay.

Steven the chef. It all depends on him.
Steven the chef. It all depends on him.
Sticky Date and Pear Pudding. $10
Sticky Date and Pear Pudding. $10

The weekend we visited, at least 4 times, they trialed their first Sunday roast dinner. Mel mentioned that they sold out at lunch time, (15 serves). She was thrilled. During one of my lunch visits, a mixed gender and very polite bikie group of 12 arrived for lunch. They were on a mystery tour of the Wimmera. I bet they were delighted to find these offerings bordering the desert.

Beautiful sides.
Beautiful sides.

I was also pleased to find a quality house wine at a reasonable price. The Harcourt Chardonnay, a local wine from near Bendigo, a top pick at around $20 a bottle.

Mel the business manager, and Steven, the chef. Two key players in the success of teh Hoptoun House Hotel.
Mel the business manager, and Steven, the chef. Two key players in the success of Hopetoun House Hotel.
Mel bought this sweet concoction over to show us what Steve had been up to.
Mel brought out this sweet concoction over to show us what Steve had been up to.

The tiny town of Jeparit ( population 550)  is situated 370 kilometers north-west of Melbourne. It is a long drive and one I doubt you, dear reader, will be ready to do on a whim. The success of this venture does rely on visitors dropping in for a meal. If you are out west, loitering through that open silo- towered wheat country, exploring the ancient little towns clinging to dear life, remember that the food choices are thin. Hopetoun House is your place.

Cool dining room, good linen, efficient service.
Cool dining room, good linen, efficient service.
HOPETOUN HOUSE HOTEL
31 Roy Street, Jeparit
Ph. (03) 5397 2051 AH 0487 926 888

http://jeparit.com.au/

Open Daily. 11 am to 11 pm

Way out West. Postcards from the Wimmera.

It’s Sunday morning and the small town of Jeparit seems deserted. We walk towards the centre and do not see a soul. There’s one car parked outside the Lutheran Church along the way. ¬†Old time religion lost its customers long ago. The only remaining cafe, an annex of the supermarket, is closed as are the other two businesses in town. There are two pubs, the grand looking Hindmarsh, which opens from 4 pm a few days a week and the other, the Hopetoun, recently purchased by enthusiastic new owners, which opens from 11 am daily. Two years ago, neither pub was in operation. Business fluctuates in Jeparit. Welcome to the heart of the the Wimmera District of Western Victoria. Not many tourists bother to make it here. The vast bleached plains seem too flat and monotonous to the untrained eye. After a few visits though, the stark¬†beauty of this rural, dry and at times, inhospitable landscape, leaves a stirring impression. I am called back annually, leaving my own claustrophobic hills and valley behind.

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Corellas in the sunset sky.

Jeparit, with a population of 632, clings to survival. Each year another business fails and more large Edwardian and Federation houses fall into disrepair, crying out for new owners to love them. But while the school, post office and bank remain, there’s some hope for the town. Situated 370 kms north-west of Melbourne, it takes a brave soul¬†to re-settle here. The physical isolation is palpable: cheap real estate, pure air and austere beauty comes at a price.

The Wimmera river flows through the town.
The Wimmera river flows through the town. The river and nearby Lake Hindmarsh often run dry.

I have been visiting a friend here for around twenty years now and with each visit, the beauty of the environment unfolds: I am often overwhelmed by the silence and majesty of the vastness of the land. On one occasion, we were tempted to buy a solid 1920s red brick mansion on a thousand acres. It was a dream house begging to be cared for, with a crumbling earlier house from the 1880s out the back, beautiful handcrafted sheds, wild almond trees growing in the sand dunes, and rusty old harvesters lining the driveway. The property was going very cheaply. We resisted. The property still haunts me, such was the strength of that particular fantasy.

Flowering gum in bloom. Jeparit Camping Ground.
Flowering gum in bloom. Jeparit Camping Ground.

There is a sadness about the town, a melancholy that hovers under the mantle of continuance. This year, the rains have been good: the wheat crop is the best on record. Other crops such as lentils, peas and green manure crops have also been abundant, making the local farmers more optimistic. The newly re-opened pub, the Hopetoun Hotel, managed by smiling Mel along with an enthusiastic young chef and assistants from Sri Lanka and the Punjab in India, offers a cheerful gathering place for the locals. Our new Australians are breathing life into these isolated communities.

Harvesters busy at work on a Sunday.
Harvesters busy at work on a Sunday.

The first thing you will notice in the Wimmera is the sky. It seems overwhelming, surrounding you in blue clean air above and right down to the ground: even during winter when the mornings are crisp, the skies seem to be perennially blue. The landscape is entrancing and after a while, you begin to see slight rises in the flat, bleached plains, where old sand dunes rise and may contain ancient water springs, as old knowledge about water sources was passed down long ago to the farmers by the traditional owners, the Gromiluk aborigines.

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Old abandoned railway station, Hopetoun. The train lines still function for goods trains throughout the wheat-growing belt.

Another appealing hallmark of this wheat-growing district are the silos dotted along the horizon at each small town. At sunset, white silos turn pink against an azure sky. The silos at Brim have become a tourist attraction thanks to the amazing artwork by Brisbane artist, Guido van Helten. They are now a tourist landmark and have put the tiny town of Brim ( population 100) on the map. Nearby small towns are gearing up to get their silos painted also.

Famous painted silos, Brim, the Wimmera, Victoria, Australia
Famous painted silos, Brim, the Wimmera, Victoria, Australia
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Silos at Brim, painted by Guido van Helten

Other buildings, many falling into disrepair, dot the main streets in Brim, Beulah, Hopetoun, and Rainbow. It’s worth a drive around the circuit in this lonely land, to visit the real country, the heart of north western Victoria.

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Old Anglican church, Brim.
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Attractive rural shed opposite the Brim pub.
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Old shed, Rainbow.
Towers of straw bails follow the wheat harvest.
Towers of straw bales follow the wheat harvest.