In the winter months, Francesco Laera, owner of Trulli Woodfire Pizzeria in the tiny Gippsland town of Meeniyan, takes his wife and three-year-old son to visit his parents in Italy.
But, this year is different.
After being hit by drought, bushfires and the coronavirus pandemic restrictions that “chopped business completely off”, Laera’s travel plans were off and he had to reinvent his business within days.
“Our staff have families of their own and futures to protect – when our customers couldn’t visit us, we had to go to them,” Laera says. “We have no choice but to survive this.”
He bought a commercial bakery oven and converted his Wonthaggi Gusto Gelateria shop to make traditional Italian crusty breads instead of ice-cream.
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A Trulli mobile pizza oven was also rolled out with an adapted menu, including the comforting Lamb Ragu Pappardelle using locally-sourced meat and homemade pasta – a dish “no one can refuse”, as well as slow-cooked smoked chicken, described as “heaven on a grill”.
He says that might all sound easy, and even exciting, but it’s been “very hard work”.
“I grew up as a farmer and know if a big thunderstorm arrives at the wrong time of year, you will lose all your harvest,” Laera says. “No one can predict or fight against these things – you just roll your sleeves up, reset and start over again.”
He says the people of Meeniyan (home to around 700 people) are the true magic of the town and keep him positive.
“Here, one person’s success is everyone’s success – that’s not a common way of thinking and is absolutely the recipe of this town,” says Laera. “We don’t compete, we complete each other.”
One local business the Trulli mobile pizza oven has travelled to is nearby Gurneys Cidery, perched at the top of a hill overlooking an abundant garden, apple orchards, Wilson’s Promontory National Park and Corner Inlet.
The family-run business was the brainchild of Tom Gurnett, a former civil engineer who studied at the only cider academy in the world in Gloucester in the UK before starting the business with his parents and brother.
The result is authentic English-style cider that’s sure to turn the heads of even the most steadfast wine and beer drinkers with the crispest cider filled with local fruit, such as cherries, wild apples or pears.
Gurnett says the “quiet smoky days” meant the family’s third summer in business was “really strange” and the pandemic wiped out 90 per cent of business instantly.
“Fortunately, we had saved for projects, such as creating an underground cellar using concrete and steel from the iconic Hazelwood mine site,” Gurnett says. “We’re seeing it as an opportunity.”
They are also preserving orchard fruit, making passata and relishes, as well as working on Australia’s first noir cider, a collaboration with Dirty Three Wines.
Gurnett says Gippsland should be first on everyone’s travel list because it’s got everything and “more than some countries”, with mountains, snow, roaring rivers, beaches, inlets to sail, fish, as well as local producers to meet.
“Their passion is contagious,” Gurnett says. “Come to Gippsland if you want to be inspired, and I think we’re all going to need some inspiration at the end of this.”
For Meeniyan’s father and daughter duo Lindsey and Andrea Moore, inspiration during lockdown has meant adding a “Work Away” option to their Ross Farm accommodation after converting a carport into an office space.
The handcrafted, modern farm accommodation, which mixes the best of the Australian rural landscape with a Scandinavian and Japanese minimalist aesthetic, now offers an alternative environment to bring work teams or family to combine work and rest.
The appeal of this beautiful part of the world, and the resilient people within it, wasn’t lost on Tasmanian Robert Pennicott, who started a unique eco-boat tour experience in Wilson’s Promontory in September 2019.
He admits it’s been “an eventful six months” in business.
Fortunately, he had a disaster plan and a nest egg, but also thanks his partners and the Gippsland community in supporting his business to pull through.
Pennicott says returning to the Prom and immersing yourself in nature to experience its silence, space and freedom will be a beautiful thing and sure to soothe any troubled souls.
“Wilsons Promontory is a jewel in Australian’s crown,” Pennicott says. “It’s loved by so many Victorians and it holds a very special place in many hearts – including mine.”
He says the thing he’s missed most being stuck at home is the animals – dolphins, seals and seabirds are in abundance in this serene environment and soon whales we be travelling through the area.
“We can’t wait to get back out there to say hello,” Pennicott says, “and when the time is right, we would love people to put Gippsland on the bucket list and welcome them to experience the wonder of the region again.”
It may be a winter no one had planned or envisioned, but heading back to Gippsland when you can will restore your senses while rewarding the hardy small town souls reinventing their businesses to get them through – because tough times never last, but tough people do.
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