Great Ocean Road - Steve Earl - La Bimba
The Great Ocean Road is one of the most used tourist roads in Australia, I've heard it's the second busiest tourist road in the country. To me, it's more than just a road, it's loaded with personal nostalgic value. It think is was 1984 when my folks bought an old onsite caravan at the then original Anglesea caravan park. It had a canvas annex, bunk beds and a familiar smell of BBQ food. I remember playing mums cassettes like 'Born in the USA' by the Boss and 'All the Girls I've loved before' by the heartthrob Julio Iglesias. I remember swallowing lego and watching the series 'V' on a tiny portable television, scared out of my wits. I remember Goonies, Return of The Jedi and Alby Mangles movies played at the old shed that was the holiday cinema. I remember kangaroos on the local course and fishing for bream off the pier, and how could I forget the endless hot days at the beach, boogie boarding until my chest was covered in rashes, then falling asleep to the soothing sounds of a day night match being called on the radio. Some of my best 80's memories are from time spent on the GOR.
For decades I've been drawn back to this coastline for the beauty, fun and food. Each year for many years I've returned to the beach surf fishing for Australian Salmon and Mullet, two of my favourite eating coastal fish. But there are many culinary facets to this coastline to enjoy and that's why I returned, to visit a old mate that feels the same about food as I do.
There's a few sections of this road that I really love. It's like when you're looking for a new house and you set out a list of things you want, a fire place, garage, a good oven, 12 person spa and a walk-in freezer. For this road I want high cliff faces, ocean views, tight corners and a close proximity to salty water, so much so that I can taste sea-spray. There are some sections of this road that tick all these boxes, but I have to get to the road first. I'd packed fairly light as I had a bed waiting for me on the coast, the Little Ripper was nimble on the road, it all helps, let's face it, the 600cc donk has to carry me, itself and the rest of the bike up and over hills, and that can be a challenge with a headwind. Torquay is almost perfect due south from our highland town, and it's downhill all the way to sea level which is a good thing, because silly old Ro made a bad choice on waiting a little too late for a petrol fill up. Luckily for me an old mate has a farm nearby and I managed to score a litre of gas to get me to a fuel stop (Thanks Tommy). I pulled into Anglesea relieved to see a petrol station and to stretch my back. Riding with a bulging disc probably isn't a great idea but my Chiro had instructed me to go live my life as I normally would, so I took his word for it, literally. With a quick fill up and a gulp of icy cold service station water I geared back up to begin the ride that I had been excited about for a long time. This is where the road gets fun.
Immediately as you leave Anglesea, heading west along the GOR you go up a little rise, the ocean to your left, and it's as blue as the ocean (did I just say that?) On a good day, of which this day was, the sky and the ocean are both a magnificent blue, one rich and dark, the other bright and light. There's also a magnificent green colour to the water around here, just where it meets the land and the water isn't too deep. I am very colour blind so I hope green is the right description. Whatever the colour may be, it's beautiful like a naked siren demanding your attention (that's if you like staring at naked sirens) but I was riding a dirty little chopper so my eyes where on the road, of course.
It's at this early part of the road where you see some ominous road signs that'll keep any rider and driver on their toes. Due to the high traffic of international tourist drivers, there are road signs reminding people to drive on the left when in Australia. Jeebers, you think they'd have figured that out, but obviously not, enough to necessitate instructional road signs. On full alert, I dropped down gears as I entered the first of the corners, the pipes on the bike growling, the sound bouncing off the earthen walls of the land side ensuring a permenant smile on my face. The road takes you through Aireys Inlet to Fairhaven past 'Max Rockatanskys' house from the original Mad Max movie. You can see why they picked this area to film, it oozes such great Aussie beach vibes. After the relatively straight section exiting Fairhaven, the road closes in with eucalyptus woodland as the road heads up and around cliffs that mask a perfect view of the ocean. Every now and then you'll get a momentary glimpse of blue water in the distance, it's the combination of bush and ocean views that's a winning formula. It has prehistoric vibes, and for place that's populated with visitors and locals it's an amazing feature for it not to have been ruined yet, it's the drawcard for many of us GOR lovers.
Lorne is the next big town, and it's the Surfers Paradise of the GOR. It's geographic location means it gets a lot of day trippers that can't be bothered going the extra mile to the next place, so they stop here. I know some people that have been here for a long time will not like this situation, but Lorne now has a tacky tourist vibe about it, it's much different to the Lorne of my childhood. I'll often just stop for the toilet or fuel then keep going as I did on this trip. Just outside of Lorne you enter the best section of the GOR. It ticks ALL the boxes, and on two wheels on a fine day, it's pure magic. I putt along happily at safe Dad driver speed (the actual speed limit) as idiot riders scream past me, taking the corners like it's a race track, and missing out on what the road is all about, the vibes, not the race. By now it was late afternoon and peak day heat had arrived, continuing to raise that big old smile of mine. I was happy that it wasn't getting dark and cold, like an afternoon in the long drawn out Daylesford winter, instead it was perfectly hot, and even though I was wearing my old leather jacket I was comfortable putting along in the warm breeze (although by now I was starting to think a great deal about that first cold lager waiting at the end of the ride).
I've driven these corners for over 23 years (eek!) and every time is different. The weather, my mood, the conditions, it's always different. This ride I will remember for a while, it's my first time doing it on a bike and it's a totally different experience. Winding around the curves of the bushy oceanside hills, over many creek crossings, I reach the first of the lush green paddocks that cover the road all the way into Apollo Bay. I passed through the cute holiday village of Skeanes Creek and I finally enter my favourite town on the GOR and my stop for the night, Apollo Bay. A town sleepy in winter, a crazy busy town in summer. A place just far enough away from Melbourne to have retained some of those classic Aussie coastal town feels without getting too touristy, although sadly this too is changing. I pull into the main drag, it's pretty quiet for a warm Saturday night, which I was pleased with as I got a park right out the front of my mates Steves place, La Bimba. A restaurant of my liking, the food is quality, it's local where possible, the menu seasonal. I walk up the stairs to give old mate a bear hug hello. The weekend has started.
I've not only been a friend to Steve Earl for years, but I've also been an admirer of his work. His approach to food aligns closely with mine, I don't think there's been a conversational point about food we haven't agreed on, we're also deer hunting mates. Generally we're both obsessed with food and that's why I'm here. Steve IS La Bimba, he's the head chef and owner, and he sources a lot of the food himself, he used to raise some of the livestock on his farm and he grew some of the food. He's much more passionate about wine and beer matching than I am (and does a better job at it too) and you'd be hard pressed to find anyone else with a work ethic like his. Over the peak summer season I hardly hear boo from him as he's working everyday, I mean like everyday, seemingly for months. Then he collapses and we go deer hunting in Autumn for recovery, which really is an oxymoron because when we hunt we also indulge with plenty of good food and wine. Life is to be celebrated after all!
Steve has a simple and realistic approach to food. He's travelled around the world enough to have developed an appreciation and understanding of the importance of a culture that cherishes it's food as an integral part of daily life. He believes in what should be the basics of good food consumption, local, ethical, seasonal, but he's also realistic. It's like the concept of self-suffienccy, which is total bullshit, not everything is possible to be done by one person, instead you're better off being realistic and just doing what you can. Steve is the ultimate opportunist when it comes to ingredients. He knows you have to be able to change things quickly in order to take advantage of the occasions when an ingredient presents itself. This is how you cook to the seasons and to the availability of produce. It's how I cook most of the time. I remember once Steve telling me a story about his local fisherman that sends him text messages with his daily catch and sometimes apologies for the lack of Snapper but offers a catch of another non-target species with a comment like "I'm sorry that's all I caught". Steve's not disappointed, instead he's excited and jumps at what ever is available, he'll cook what ever comes off the local boats, which is a far cry from most of the other food on the strip in the bay, with most of their seafood coming from the Melbourne or Adelaide seafood markets, and more disturbingly, asian fish markets (the food miles are unbelievable). There's a few 'famous' seafood items available on the main street where the shops have large signs promoting their famous food item, and tourists flock to buy and consume it. The sad truth is that the main ingredient isn't local, it's from Asia. I reckon this is pure deception and if most people knew, they'd be as pissed off about the situation as I am. I mean, a city person visiting a coastal town and paying money for food would love nothing more to know that what they're eating is from the little fishing fleet parked in the marina. I would, but maybe I'm wrong.
Steves menu at La Bimba changes seasonally, and there's always great specials when the produces comes available. Like any good chef he makes use of cuts and produce that might otherwise be destined for pet food, but have great culinary offerings, roast pig head and duck hearts? Yes please. There's also an non-apologetic appreciation of the fine things like sexy oysters and passionately crafted wine. In a way, he operates on a simply formula, to be opportunistic and use ingredients when they come to light, to prioritise seasonal produce but also to be realistic with the balance of what the customer wants and what he wants to serve. The paella for example does not have Mekong delta slave prawns or imported frozen calamari but does feature seasonal Victorian seafood. No one is perfect and Steve is under no illusions that he is, but what's important is the effort he puts into passionately serving food driven by his ethical principles. In the scheme of things, this should be the standard approach.
After a few post bike ride beers alone at Steves beach shack I walked in the evening light into town for a feast. I walked slowly along the beach, most of which was deserted, that's what I love about this place. Sometimes you can get those quiet moments on a beach, after the crowds dissipate for the evening. The beach here has so much to offer, the beauty of the native coastal flora on the dunes, the washed up ocean debris to explore, the still freshwater creek and ancient rocks formed thousands of years ago, smoothed with eons of tidal water slowly forming them into unique boulders and rock pools. I sat on the beach, a few minutes taking it all in. it's as close to meditation as I get.
When I got to La Bimba Steve was still madly busy with peak service so I settled down with a wine looking out at the bay taking in the vibes. After the service rush had backed off a bit, Steve joined me we and had our normal conversation about recent meals and our scores of beautiful produce and what we did with them. We talked food politics and the bullshit that people and companies spin on the daily to make a buck with cheap food. The wine flowed like wine, and we endured a plate or two of oysters, Guanciale with pickled turnip, fish ceviche with tiger milk and squid ink crackers, some Venison Tartar with beach mustard, pickled allium and walnut puree, house made sourdough, baked local snapper with paprika and fermented garlic scape, grilled duck heart with coffee glazed chicory and desert lime, amazing baked carrots and creamy potatoes.
By the end of the night with a full belly I headed back home with Steve and his partner Holly for a few nightcap vinos on their beach shack veranda, the smell of the ocean and cool night air made for a perfect ambience to close the night. I slept well, happy to have been able to catch up with friends, to talk to people that love food as much as I do, and of course, in the morning I would ride that fantastic GOR back home. I drifted to sleep with the sound of waves crashing in the distance and the breeze visiting through the open window. I was content and exhausted. Another great adventure to remember, until the next time.
Thank You to Steve and Holly for accommodating my two wheel food adventure.