There comes a time in every Instagrammer’s life when he or she dreams of working - in some capacity - with the likes of Broadsheet (or maybe that’s just me).
So, when I received an email from Ballarat’s official tourism department asking whether a weekend getaway – hosted by Broadsheet Melbourne - would be something I’d be interested in, I covered my mouth with both hands, squealed audibly, regained composure and then replied to express my enthusiasm.
(Wow. That was a long sentence).
I could barely recall the last time I’d visited Ballarat. I remembered visiting Sovereign Hill’s gold mines during a school excursion (very) many moons ago, but had since only ever driven through the town whilst on my way elsewhere.
The tourism department reassured me that Ballarat had changed a great deal over the *cough* twenty- something *cough* years since I’d last visited, but I hardly needed any persuasion. Not only was the @visitballarat team offering to organise an action- packed itinerary, they were also sending me away with two of my dearest friends (Lilian of @realfoodhealthybody and Melanie of @naturally_nutritious) – I had no reason to decline!
The trip up to Ballarat flew by. I had volunteered to drive us up on the condition that I got to choose what music we listened to, and the girls expressed their thanks by feeding me with healthy homemade snacks. Just between you and me, I’m pretty sure I won in that negotiation.
When we arrived at our place of accommodation, I breathed a sigh of relief. Despite a love of travel, I’ve watched far too many scary movies to fall asleep easily anywhere away from home. Fortunately, our Twelve Errard apartment was newly- renovated, light- filled, spacious and warm (I mean that quite literally – Ballarat is frickin’ freezing so the owners had thoughtfully left the heating on). In other words, it wasn’t at all scary.
As soon as we had settled in, we made our way to our first activity: A private cooking class at the newly- hatted Catfish Thai with owner and head chef Damien Jones. Over the course of two hours, Damien patiently guided us through two recipes: A red- curry encrusted barramundi fillet wrapped and char- grilled in banana leaves, and perfectly- seared squid with freshly- made nahm jim dipping sauce.
We watched in awe as Damien demonstrated how to make fresh coconut milk and cream from scratch (the luxurious result of which is in a COMPLETELY different league to that of any canned product you’ll ever find); how to create the most extraordinary red curry paste from otherwise ordinary ingredients; and how to balance the salty, sweet, spicy and sour components of an authentic Thai dipping sauce. The smells in the kitchen were intoxicating – I swear I could have drank the coconut milk neat (and eaten the entire batch of red curry paste with a spoon) (all by myself).
Now, as somebody who has grown up eating South- East Asian food every day (and whom recently co- founded an Asian meals delivery service), I wasn’t expecting to be stunned silent by our lunch. But, I kid you not, the meal that Damien had cooked for us was – and still is – the best Thai food I have ever eaten in my life. Every bite was packed full of flavour – but in the most elegant and thoughtful of ways. No words can really describe how incredible our meal was. Suffice to say the three of us agreed that Catfish Thai alone was reason enough to visit Ballarat time and again.
After we had eaten every last bite, we thanked Damien profusely and then made our way to our next activity: A floristry workshop at the well- known Stems Flower Market.
Under florists Richard and Ellie’s careful instruction, we used ivy berries, wattle, rose hip, gum nuts and other locally- foraged foliage to create a beautiful 9 metre- long tablescape. The task wasn’t exactly my forte (I was only a third of the way through my 3 metre- long section when Mel and Lil both finished theirs), but it was surprisingly therapeutic. Working with and being surrounded by plants is so calming.
After our workshop, we went back to our apartment to prepare for dinner. We all changed into warmer clothing (did I mention how cold Ballarat can get?) and then our taxi dropped us off at the Restaurant Ballarat pop- up at Housey Housey; a gorgeous warehouse- esque space with exposed brick walls, concrete floors and candlelight.
The room was magical. A long communal table spanned the room and our beautiful tablescape served as table runner. Tall candles cast moody shadows on the walls and laser- cut resin names indicated where we were to sit. As we waited for our three- course dinner to commence, live music played in one corner, smart wait staff offered us drinks and canapés, and we met and mingled with other guests.
The dinner was, of course, beautiful. Each meal was created by a Ballarat great, matched with a local wine and showcased the best of Ballarat’s produce. We were given the option to visit a local bar afterward, but the three of us were all so full (and admittedly, so tired) that we decided instead to go back to the apartment and call it a night.
The next morning, still full from last night’s dinner, we stopped by Eclectic Tastes for strong cups of coffee before making our bittersweet way home.
The @visitballarat team was right - Ballarat has changed a lot since my primary school excursion days. Thankfully, it really isn’t far from Melbourne so I can confidently say, See you again soon.