In many ways, Steve Earl is the ultimate face of the farm-to-table concept. When he opened his restaurant La Bimba 11 years ago in Apollo Bay, located midway along the breathtaking Great Ocean Road stretch in the Australian state of Victoria, local produce wasn’t as accessible as it is now.
So Earl decided to take matters into his own hands and started Otway Farm, a working farm which produced Welsh Black cattle, vegetables and black truffles (at one point, he was the largest producer in Victoria).
“I grew up on a farm, my father was a farmer and my grandparents were farmers so it felt pretty natural,” he says, on a recent trip to Kuala Lumpur to highlight Great Ocean Road’s epicurean delights.
A few years ago, Earl decided to give up the farm as the exhaustion of running both a farm and a restaurant proved too much. Since then, he has built a working relationship with local farmers and fishermen, and sources his produce directly from them.
“There’s not too many places in the world where you get a text message from your fisherman saying, ‘I’ve got a snapper and some octopus, do you want it?’ And I can be like ‘Yeah’. And by the afternoon, it’s in the restaurant and that night, it’s on a plate,” he says.
Since the fresh ingredients are the show-stoppers at La Bimba, Earl does little in the way of enhancement, preferring instead for the produce to shine. So you’ll find that dishes like his lobster paella pay great focus to the delicate flavours of the crustacean with the rice acting as an amiable supporting act, while his fish ceviche highlights the glorious freshness of the fish.
“We let the produce speak for itself and use fresh, zesty flavours almost like a condiment to go with it, rather than playing around with it too much,” agrees Earl.
Earl’s restaurant is just one of the gastronomic pit stops for travellers headed to Melbourne this year-end via AirAsia X. From Dec 5 onwards, the low-cost carrier will transition its twice daily Melbourne services from the Tullamarine Airport to the Avalon Airport. This makes the Great Ocean Road – one of the world’s most scenic coastal drives – far more accessible to Malaysians and visitors as it is now less than a two-hour drive from the Avalon Airport.
So what sort of fresh produce can you look forward to eating in the Great Ocean Road area? According to Earl, the options are limitless.
“We have beautiful clean waters, there are crayfish and abalone – they’re the two hero species. There are a lot of other seafood species, like flathead and snapper. It’s quite diverse, there’s Otway Coast Regenerative Farmers which is a little farming cooperative and they have a little market every weekend in Apollo Bay, so there’s lamb and beef, and the practices they’re using are focused on trying to improve the soil and improve the environment rather than deplete it, so that’s a great movement that’s going on there,” he says.
Another local producer that Earl strongly champions is Great Ocean Ducks, which produces paddock reared, free-range ducks and is run by husband-and-wife team Greg and Jodi Clarke. Earl only uses their ducks in his restaurant and swears by the quality.
“Everything they grow, they sell, and they’ve got a waiting list. So if they wanted to, they could get bigger, but they choose not to because they care about quality. I think when you’re in the Great Ocean Road, you have to try the Great Ocean duck. If you see that on a menu, you gotta try it,” he says.