On the weekend of 25-26 October 2008 I got very lucky. While visiting the Heathcote wine region in central Victoria on my way to Echuca on a weekend away with my girlfriend, we accidently found ourselves invited to a sensational regional gourmet foodie event – the Tooborac Rabbit Ramble in the tiny town of Tooborac (on the southern edge of the Heathcote region, population 277 according to the 2006 census).
Organised and sponsored by McIvor Estate winery, Shelmerdine Vineyards, the Tooborac General Store and the Tooborac Hotel, the 2 day event showcases rabbit dishes on the menus of each of these venues on Saturday and a rabbit cookoff on Sunday. The cookoff featured 13 European and Asian style dishes prepared by local residents including this divine rabbit sausage roll.
Held in the Tooborac Hall, the cookoff dishes were judged by representatives from two local wineries and chef Matthew Wilkinson from Circa at the Prince Hotel in St Kilda. Television chef and artist Peter Russell Clarke was also there and the competition was friendly but genuine. The meat was from wild rabbits caught specifically for the weekend by a local hunter that was shared amongst the cooks, and contestants were required to cook enough for six people.
An Italian or Spanish style stew with tomato and olives.
The event filled the hall and a great afternoon ensued. It was somewhere between a progressive dinner (albeit one where the food came to the people rather than the other way around) and a themed degustation. I’ve never been to anything like it and it was wonderful. The locals were extremely friendly and welcoming, especially once they learned we had come to the area to buy wine.
Rabbit risotto with spinach and lemon.
Lunching in the Tooborac hall.
The weekend started with a visit to the McIvor Estate winery, where we met Cynthia and sampled and bought some excellent sangiovese and cabernet merlot. Cynthia told us about the Rabbit Ramble and we thought the chance to taste a variety of dishes at the cookoff would be brilliant, so we booked space for two. We didn’t ask how much it would cost and were not sure how big an event it would be.
We then went to Shelmerdine and the staff there were also so welcoming and enthusiastic that we were convinced it would be fun. We thought we could easily alter our schedule to be back in time for lunch the next day and that was all that mattered.
Rabbit Vietnamese spring rolls.
When we arrived promptly at the Tooborac hall at 12.30pm the next day, we found it full of people and the food was just starting to be served. We greeted the man at the entrance and said we had a booking. He said it was $5 a person; we paid and went in, and found seats at the end of a long table. Yes, you read correctly, $5 for an all you could eat (there was plenty of food to go around) gourmet degustation of wild game and local produce. Food was plated and passed around so you could serve yourself from these, and you could also go the the cook and talk to them while they spooned you some of their dish from their pot on the table.
Rabbit dumplings in broth with bok choy and mushrooms.
The food was all excellent and we would have happily paid $5 per serve, or $50 overall for such a unique and exceptional meal. Wine from McIvor Estate and Shelmerdine was also included in the meal. The proceeds go to the Tooborac youth group. We were embarrassed to have received so much for so little, and were glad that we had already bought a decent selection of wine from McIvor and Shelmerdine.
Velvet rabbit pasta sauce.
Rabbit terrine with pistacchio and witloff.
I’d like to thank the people of Tooborac for their charm and hospitality, particularly Cynthia whose sales expertise had us hooked immediately. As a blogger with an interest in place and also food, this was not only a pleasurable experience but a rare opportunity to attend and thus be able to write about and report on a wonderful event with local character.