For the last month or so I have been living the country life in Horsham, Australia’s tidiest town in 2001. Things really are pretty tidy for me here; I’m living next to my place of work and when I’m not working everything I need is a mere brisk walk away – the gym, the cinema, fried pumpkin cakes at the local fish and chip shop. The sky is tidy too, it is so refreshing to look up at night and be greeted by the Milky Way, wave hello to Orion and chuckle at the Moon. Yep, that old Moon is quite the joker; he keeps me from going stir-crazy while I’m away from Baby Chino and the rest of my life. Ahem.
Anyway, to fully experience life out on the frontier, I have endeavoured to visit some cafes and bravely order the muesli. What follows is my account of the state of Wimmera cereal in 2015.
Café Jas – 37 Robert’s Place, Horsham
Café Jas is convenient because it is right opposite Coles, a locale that I visit almost daily due to not being disciplined enough to plan to have enough food when I need it. It is deceptively large inside, with a clean, simple dining décor and almost no pretensions. I say almost none, because there is a stock of T2 products at one end that looks suspiciously upmarket, and gives the place not quite an air of sophistication. So what I’m saying is by Horsham standards Café Jas is a bit pretentious. It is accordingly expensive, and table service is not included in that bill, which I shouldn’t complain about but it sure makes ordering stressful. Only joking, ordering is never stressful when you know you want:
The muesli, please.
Here is what that was quite literally translated into:
Simple fare. No, there were not any fruit hiding under those oats unless you count a few tiny sultana afterthoughts. There were more oats hiding under those oats, some bran for good measure and the obligatory raw nut for crunch. The beige-ness of this meal was startling, there is something to be said for a touch of brown cinnamon, a dash of pink strawberry or green kiwi fruit. The yoghurt was a thick, creamy vanilla which suited the plain muesli well. I would recommend this muesli if you are in the days following a bout of gastroenteritis, and are starting to get sick of buttered toast.
Natimuk Café – Natimuk
I must admit the visit to this dear little shop along the main street of Natimuk, a tiny town about 20 minutes out of Horsham, was a blur as my night-shift addled brain was screaming for sleep on an impossibly bright and cheery morning. I refrained from screaming in person and was thus able to join waking society and sit for a pleasant breakfast with my colleagues, who at that time were also creatures of the night. Natimuk Café is colourful and eclectic. The computer used to take orders is embedded in a large rock, there are postcards and drawing adorning the walls, as well as corrugated iron in parts. Shelves stacked with nick-nacks are seemingly everywhere and are illuminated by light streaming in from the large front windows. It is a homely institution and the staff are warm and friendly.
Although I had been eating dinner at 5am for the past few days, I thought I’d treat myself and still give the muesli a try:
Like the muesli of Café Jas, this was quite a plain breakfast with little in the way of garnish or spice. However the Natimuk muesli wins over by virtue of a sliced banana and natural yoghurt mixed with honey on the side. I suppose the bar wasn’t set particularly high, but it also had small slivers of desiccated coconut and prisms of dried fruit so that excited me. There wasn’t much to this muesli, but it tasted fresh and contained some actual fruit so it was the best I had had so far. If you do find yourself in Natimuk, bypass the muesli and grab a big slice of one of their cakes and use it as energy to go on to climb Mt Arapilies (or as a reward for doing so).
Chic Pea – Pysnet Street, Horsham
You can take the strong, independent woman out of Melbourne but you cannot take the expectation for quaint, homely chic out of the said empowered adult. Basically, Chic Pea is as close to home as it gets; light timber furnishings, water in glass vessels of various shapes and sizes, pastel walls and even a wall papered with simulated raw bricks. There are various locally made jams, chutneys and preserves for sale, and the staff wear a uniform of jeans, casual shoes and country-cool. Like Melbourne, men with beards are frequently spotted lining up for coffee; unlike Melbourne this hair alights the ruddy faces of farmers, whose hands are large and calloused, and whose utes are muddy and filled with tools and whatever else people use to run farms – border collies?
I unashamedly love Chic Pea, and have been known to visit twice in one day, and five times one particular week. The problem is that muesli is not a fixture here! They did, for some reason, make it especially for Mother’s Day which I scoped out when I dropped in, motherless, to grab a coffee. Luckily, Lady Grey came to visit the day after and I eagerly asked after the muesli I saw on display the day before. The staff said they had some left over and, no doubt seeing the look of desperation and longing in my eyes, humoured me:
Serving it in a jar – why, oh why? This level of impracticality, however only endeared Chic Pea to me further as really going for it in terms of trying to create a hip café vibe, in a place where no such vibe previously existed. This breakfast was packed with juice-soaked oats, bran and puffed rice which created a solid cereal vehicle for cranberries, plump sultanas and pepitas. Finally, fruit, glorious fruit! The strawberries and kiwi fruit quickly disappeared to reveal pear nestled cosily amongst the oats. Alongside this was something that Lady Grey told me was candied citrus peel. Maybe it’s a rural thing, but the peel was just too peely so after a few chews I daintily spit it aside. Apart from the inedible faux-pas, the Chic Pea Mother’s Day muesli leftovers were the best I have had in my two months away from home.
Comfort Inn – Firebrace Street, Horsham
I have spent an inordinate amount of time at the Comfort Inn during my stay in Horsham. I visited there two consecutive weekends, the first with Lady Grey who I suspect booked a room with two beds to enable me to stay with her so she could hear my night-time “snuffling”. That would be cute, however she also remarked I managed to form the shape of a double-decker bus under the covers. Not a single-decker, but a double one. Thanks for the self-esteem boost, mum. The very next weekend Ms Sourdough happened by and decided to also stay at this motel. No second bed this time, so it was an evening of football, knitting and then a sleepy drive back to my own temporary accommodation with the promise of a continental breakfast to entice me to return the next day.
The Comfort Inn dining room was functional, and had an unnervingly large, well-placed mirror wall that initially succeeded in tricking me into thinking I was in a much larger space. The real space contained an array of pastries, fruits and cereal which included the:
Home Made Bircher Muesli
Excited to see that the Comfort Inn bother to soak their oats, I bypassed the croissants and eagerly scooped some of the wet breakfast-goop into my bowl, then topped it with pear and the fruit salad that sat nearby.
So moist! It was refreshing find a wet cereal after weeks of the dry stuff. My compliments go to the Comfort Inn for taking the concept of a continental breakfast seriously and giving their oats the Swiss treatment. Juice-soaked and mixed with yoghurt, my teeth tingled with the excitement of having to do little work to transform this mush into something swallowable. Instead I got to enjoy the soft, grainy texture with the rest of my mouth. A pleasant surprise! This did not, however, prevent me from ordering pancakes and then eating a jam crumpet. It was a buffet breakfast, after all.
Final word: There are many reasons to make a tree-change and live in the country, none of which should rationally include the expectation for better breakfast food. Come to Horsham and the surrounds for the long walks in the bush, the climbs up various large rock formations and the unadulterated (unless you count the atmosphere) view of the stars. If you want a warm cafe experience, my recommendations would be Chic Pea or the Natimuk Cafe – both have tasty coffee and cake; if only Chic Pea did regular muesli!
Room for oaty improvement, Wimmera!