Cool Piper calls the tune
All tastes ... Little Swallow Cafe owner Steven Rogers. Photo: Eddie Jim
IT'S a windy, rainy night, yet one street in this wee country town is buzzing with a crowd sipping sparkling wine and snacking while making dinner plans. Obviously country Victoria has changed since I last stuck my foot past Melbourne's city limits sign.
The town of Kyneton likes breaking the rules. Sure, while half the town has raided Videoworld and ordered pizza, the other half is in happening Piper Street for the latest shop opening, Prunella, a Gothic-chic florist that wouldn't be out of place in Paddington. The sales till is ringing as wellwishers snap up buckets of orchids (68 Piper Street).
After half an hour, we turn away from this buzzing spot for the Royal George Hotel's truffle degustation eve (24 Piper Street). At $220 a pop, you'd have to be asking yourself which country gent's got the cash for seven courses of truffle, including truffled oxtail jelly and truffle panna cotta. But the dining room is full and the 2006 Puligny Montrachet premier cru is flowing, interspersed with a tongue-loving chardonnay then a spicy pinot noir from local boutique producer Bindi Wines.
I confess I'm daunted by the prospect of serious truffle overload but chef Patrick Dang has balanced the menu beautifully, interspersed with talk of the truffle's arrival in Australia and tips from the locals for must-visit wineries.
On the after-dinner stagger through the rainy streets to our massive, warm bed at the newly opened Mollisons, we pass the Hotel Shamrock. It's pumping.
Forget truffles and pinot, it's parmas'n'pots and the locals are in good voice, doing back-up for the Violent Femmes. The signs outside tell the story - bistro, bottle, bar and counter meals. "Yes, Kyneton's a bit town and gown," says one blow-in, likening it to the English university cities that you'll find divided into the workers and the academics.
Ironically, it's the mix of utilitarian and luxury that saves the town from turning completely into a tourist trap. Twee, Kyneton is not. Piper Street's antiques - including on-the-money Kabinett (66 Piper Street) - are sleek, the window displays artful and there's not a hint of an air-dried bouquet but it's still a working country town.
"I like the fact there's still an Elders farm agency and a tractor shop on Piper," local artist Jason Waterhouse says. "They're what holds any country town together."
And the food is seriously good. As locals are only too happy to remind me, Piper is the only street in country Victoria that can boast two hatted restaurants from The Age'sGood Food Guide; Annie Smither's bistro (72 Piper Street) and the Royal George Hotel.
It's universally agreed Piper Street's renaissance kicked off with Annie's arrival, back in 2005. The Stephanie Alexander-trained Melbourne chef tells how she was "peddling jam at farmers' markets and one thing led to another 'til I had a little restaurant to run".
And for the record, her handmade, homegrown raspberry jam is truly wicked.
Melbourne would like to think it's the last bastion of good coffee but the truth is that in this town of just 4300 people, cafe aficionados suffering affogato withdrawals outside the city limits have a holiday home. The cafes vie with each other on the wholesomeness stakes - expect your coffee to be organic, hand-roasted, fair-trade and quite possibly single-estate.
On a Saturday morning, a few black-clad blow-ins from Melbourne's inner-city stand blinking in the raw sunshine as they cruise the menus, arms full of weekend papers. Breakfast ranges from eggs and Istra ham to divine handmade baked beans at Little Swallow (58A Piper Street) to steaming bowls of organic porridge at Inner Biscuit, an patisserie and cafe (34 Piper Street).
Newcomers to the scene also include Frenchified Flouch's (12 Piper Street), an all-day dining room and a charcuterie - what every country town needs - in the form of the Piper Street Food Co (89B Piper Street).
It's all fuel for rummaging through the town. There are two main drags - utilitarian High Street and funky Piper Street, connected by the upcoming Mollison Street. We admire the delicately beautiful inked native flowers by the talented Sarah Gabriel, whose studio-cum-shopfront is packed with a drawing class (37B Piper Street).
It's only after class is dismissed that I'm able to fit inside to admire the framed drawings, lust bubbling to the surface. But Sarah's still busy, off to a gig playing country and western at the pub.
"What's the name of the band?" I ask the ethereal artist.
"The Bucking Fogans," she replies with a red-lipped grin, as she dashes out the door.
"It's a spasmodic thing. I don't know if they'll have us back, yet."
She hasn't left me in a void: Stockroom is groovy right down to its hand-knitted organic wool pants (98 Piper Street).
Directors Jason Waterhouse and Magali Gentric are the new breed of artist: wired into the media, yet unwavering from their ideals of supporting local artists and artisans. Stockroom is a compendium of artist studios, gallery space and a retail space that sells locally designed and manufactured jewellery, ceramics, homewares and fashion, from pure linen smocks to chunky knits worn by the couple's buoyant toddler, who weaves madly through the beautiful works, reminding us that art doesn't have to be worshipped from afar. It's the sort of space that would put Kyneton on the map, if Kyneton wasn't already there, with an embarrassment of riches in the form of top-flight restaurants and cafes.
Yet Jason's laid-back attitude is what this strip is all about: owner-operated businesses just doing their own thang.
And they all seem to genuinely like each other - a tall order in small towns that are notorious hotbeds of gossip. "In the two years I have been here, I have made more friends than I've had in all my life," says Jessi Singh, owner-chef of the maniacally busy Dhaba at the Mill, a gorgeous Indian restaurant set in the town's old flower mill. And it's not just the easy prices nor the Sunday $20 all-you-can-eat ''locals special'' that's making the town love the family.
It's rumoured even High Street stalwarts make the transition to Piper Street for Jessi's home cooking and relentless charity work. The mill is pumping, with Bollywood films projected on a rough stone wall and a wait at the bar for a table.
Kyneton was surveyed as a township in 1849, two years before Victoria would separate from NSW and only 15 years after John Batman put down roots in latter-day Melbourne. The town punches well above its weight in the history stakes: home of the Light Horse Brigade, it sits on the Campaspe River, named after Alexander the Great's mistress. Caroline Chisholm, she of the five-dollar note, stayed here.
Explorers Burke and Wills camped here and the expedition's lone survivor, John King, stopped in at the pub on the way back. A clear-eyed, 15-year-old Ned Kelly was photographed in Kyneton in 1871.
The region's goldfields churned out the world's largest nugget, ''Welcome Stranger'', and nearby Hanging Rock, a popular bushranger haunt, hit fame in a novel and subsequent Peter Weir film about schoolgirls who left their virginal corsets and skirts behind when they disappeared.
There's a Men's Shed for blokes to practise their carpentry, mothers' clubs and every second Saturday there's a farmers' market at St Paul's on Piper Street.
Astonishingly, Sunday morning in Kyneton is all a-go and not just in the Baptist, Catholic and Anglican churches, but also among the Assembly of God followers and the small-but-active Exclusive Brethren, a secretive breakaway Christian group who settled the town at the turn of the 20th century, dubbing it the ''Holy City''.
On Piper Street, all pay homage to the espresso machine and I drop in to Mr Carsisi for coffee (37C Piper Street). I know from yesterday's lunch how awesome the Iskander kebab is, perfectly seasoned with nutmeg, cumin and cinnamon, so it's time to cruise owner-chef Matthew Fegan's breakfast menu for free-range eggs, organic sourdough, Moroccan semolina pancakes with honey and whipped butter. Fegan, who took the Royal George to chef's-hat fame, now revels in cooking modern-Middle Eastern-inspired food in Kyneton's old ice store.
Thus fuelled, I want to visit the artist-owned gallery of former Icehouse drummer John Lloyd but a handwritten sign on the window tells me, "Jetlag - sorry try tomorrow". Instead, a nearby staircase lures me off the main street and into The Vintage Yard Sale, a tight little space packed with old homewares, or ''kitchenalia'' as it's dubbed by its owner, Tara Pearce, who loves her crazy-beautiful fish moulds, wooden fruit boxes and retro Danish furniture. There are kitsch kettles interspersed with copies of Frankie magazine, pieces of tooled leather and Oroton bags, and we muse on the idea of boomer guilt fuelling the recycling craze.
Above Tara's little pad sits musician Matthew Sigley's Long Story Short - a bookshop selling pre-loved vinyl and boasting palm-reading manuals and the story of Bill Gates and Microsoft in Japanese, as well as the regular run of Maeve Bincheys and Cold War thrillers. There are thousands of LPs, from which Matthew selects thoughtfully, filling the space with the Crusaders' Street Life.
I leave the shop smiling as I hold a gift from Matthew - a badge with the message: ''I *heart* KY''.
The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Victoria.
Kyneton is 75 kilometres from Melbourne on the Calder Highway heading to Bendigo, an hour's drive from Melbourne airport.
St Agnes Homestead is an unpretentious heritage estate on the outskirts of town, historic without the fustiness. Rooms from $180 a night, 30 Burton Ave, (03) 5422 2639, saintagnes.com.au.
Mollisons, 116-118 Mollison Street has six rooms and apartments in gorgeous all-white style and the most divine beds, housed in the old Bank of NSW building. Double rooms from $265 a night, 0419 001518/ 0412 384056, mollisons.net.au.
The Stables at Highbank, formerly a Clydesdale stud, is a cooking school with a lushly furnished two-bedroom apartment set among historic rose gardens. Rooms from $110 a person a night, (03) 5422 2308, toniatodman.com.
More information visitvictoria.com; piperstreet.com.au.