Howqua Dale Gourmet Retreat is much more than a cooking school, and much more than a luxurious weekender. And Marieke Brugman and Sarah Stegley's lives are also just that - much more.
They are involved politically and domestically in the Mansfield region; they work actively in local government; they design cooking courses for the school kids, the old, for non-cooking men and others equally difficult to motivate. And they are also both involved in the Victorian Womens' Trust, while Sarah devotes considerable time and energy to the Stegley Foundation, her family's philanthropic trust.
The menu that Marieke designed for Mietta's reflects their lifestyle. It is, in Marieke's own words, "not a restaurant menu - it's about cooking in the Australian countryside. It's about being authentic, about being rustic, but having some finesse. It is what cooking passionately in Australia is all about. It's very much about substance rather than image or fashion. It's also my own response to that new and troubling phenomenon - the bistro-bashed palate."
Those words are typical of Marieke: she has never followed the crowd. She and Sarah have always been determined to find their own way, to do those things in which they believe. Their life at Howqua Dale has survived an all consuming fire, an escape from Australia to sort themselves out, and a re-building of their home and business which now includes bicycling tours around wineries in Australia and, shortly, Portugal.
In the midst of all these activities, Marieke continues to think and to battle. She talks about the dangers of relaxing restrictions on imported foods, and allowing products such as "diseased" European salmon into Australia.
"We must protect and enhance our abundant food sources, and their economic viability," she insists. "Unless we preserve and educate our most deep-seated connection with what is on our plate and how it came to be there, we run the risk of losing the richness and diversity we've achieved in such a short time. I live in a rural community, and I see the kind of complete divorce of the city from rural agricultural practices.
"One of Australia's opportunities is for us to become a really high quality food bowl for other parts of the world that are overburdened by population, or that are carving up their agrarian bases, often because they've decided they need more freeways and motor cars."
She is a mine of startling information. She points out, for example, that although we, as ordinary Australians, appear to eat and drink relatively well in a global context, we manage to consume $130 million dollars worth of corn chip products a year.
"Food courts are ubiquitous. Ordinary consumers need to be incredibly discerning, and need to develop really good relationships with their providors; they need to insist that the meal they have every night, however simple, must be good."
Marieke also criticises the role the food media has played in diminishing standards.
"A few years ago, they sounded the death knell for fine dining," she claims. "And now, they are catering to the lowest common denominator. We have been sold short by the media. They might have been more dynamic, and contributed more to the debate instead of being simply another arm of marketing. Twenty years ago, there was a sense of excitement about food. Eating out was an occasion. But now it seems people eat out in bistros five nights a week, rather than eating out once or
Marieke wonder what those of us who have helped to shape the culinary preferences of Australians can do now; how can we pass on a sense of heritage to a younger generation without stifling them?
A sense of style and a sense of place are essentially what Marieke suggests: that the emerging generation of young cooks should understand the origins of what they are working with; that they should understand the place, its geography, its climate, the style of wines grown locally; and that they should cook food which suits all of those elements.
A visit to Howqua Dale shows clearly how Marieke Brugman and Sarah Stegley have imposed that sense of style and place, and how much their working lives embody the qualities of passion and thought which are their great contribution to Australia's
A review of Howquadale Gourmet Retreat