Ballarat’s food revolution

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The miners who flocked to Ballarat in its very early days survived mainly on a bland diet of damper and mutton.

However, as the settlement grew and prospered on the back of its golden wealth, other sources combining food and profit were soon discovered.

Ballarat’s rich loam soils proved ideal for growing potatoes while grain, meat and dairy industries also flourished.

However, early settlers would find it hard to recognise the food revolution that has overtaken modern Ballarat.

From local wines to truffles, venison to garlic, olive oil to artisan cheeses, Ballarat producers are branching out.

However, our agricultural industries haven’t been immune to the vagaries of nature – or price wars.

Back in 1875, The Courier reported “crops in the Ballarat district are progressing favourably during the present genial weather”. But “Black Bill” of Gordon took exception to this description. “A more wet, cold and backward spring I have never known.”

Fast forward to the 2000s and one of the worst droughts on record is taking its toll on local crops.

In 2004, The Courier reported: “Ballarat City Council has formed a united front in a bid to declare the region drought declared. All nine councillors are backing a new push for Ballarat's application for Exceptional Circumstances funding to be granted.”

However, it hasn’t always been mother nature that has threatened our agricultural industries.

While for years, local potato producers supplied McCain Foods, a substantial drop in the price per tonne caused potato farming in the region to become largely unsustainable.

In 2011, Springbank farmer Greg Toohey told The Courier his generation would probably be the last in a long line to grow the humble spud.

“Traditionally it has been a potato growing area for 100 years, but if push comes to shove you have to look at your options to diversify,” Mr Toohey said.

Similarly, the dairy industry has been hard hit by recent events, with big milk companies slashing the price of milk solids.

It led Ballarat Grammar student Chloe Scott to launch an online petition taking aim at the “greedy” milk companies, which led to meetings with then Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce.

“What has happened is wrong, ethically and morally, but instead of complaining (Dad) has always said to decide ‘this is what we need to do’,” Chloe told The Courier.

But while our agricultural industries ride the unpredictable ups and downs of both weather and economical decisions, Ballarat’s restaurants are simply on the up and up.

Restaurants celebrating food from all over the world have been quietly establishing Ballarat as a culinary place of excellence.

It’s a far cry from 1972 when the Eureka Pizza restaurant, spearheaded by Italian born Charlie Tarquino, first opened its doors in Sturt Street and lunches at the Myer cafeteria were a shopping treat.

To this day, Eureka Bistro is a Ballarat icon that has stood the test of time as other restaurants have come and gone.

In four decades, the menu hasn’t changed, though manager Brett Christensen told The Courier in 2014: "In the 1970s, the food was a lot simpler. It was harder to get spices or flavourings to add to your recipes and there were a lot of food enhancers. We don't use any additives these days, the flavours are fresh."

In the same year, Murray and Joy Dyer founded Dyer’s Steak Stable in a laneway off Bridge Street, now the Bridge Mall.

Manager Campbell Dyer said the restaurant was renowned for attracting large crowds for lunch, with business people claiming their meals on tax.

"You could get a decent cut of steak for $1.20," he said. "Some people would stay 'til 4pm, it was a different culture back then."

The Dyers also haven't changed their menu in 40 years.

"We like to stick to our guns and do what we have always done, which is steak."

Gus Raschilla opened his first restaurant, La Terrazza, with business partner Dino Cudia, in 1974, serving authentic Italian dishes until the pair parted ways in 1979.

Gus then opened Agostino’s on Bakery Hill before launching Table 48 in Humffray St in 2010.

"(In the 1970s) there were only three major players in the pizza industry," Gus said.

"Eureka, the Log Tavern and us."

However, times have certainly changed.

"What has changed in Ballarat is we have every culture of food," Gus said.

"We have Indian, Chinese, Mexican, African and Spanish... we are evolving nicely."

In 2015, Catfish Thai broke a 20-year drought and was awarded a chef’s hat in The Age Good Food Guide, and food writer and chef Suzi Fitzpatrick told The Courier Ballarat had the potential to become the “food destination of Victoria”.

“We’ve got a great climate in Ballarat for growing. We’ve got beautiful soils, a huge amount of space and really good infrastructure – everything we need is here.”

But it’s not just our food industry that is growing but also our wine and craft beer reputation.

Peter Parry of the Athletic Club Brewery said: “The region has had a good acceptance as a quality provider of wine and food for some time now and now with beer alongside to compliment food and a strong alternative to wine at the table, I feel that Ballarat provides a high-quality experience for not only its local residents but a reason to attract others to our region.”