McLaren Vale – A Chef’s Guide
with Karena Armstrong

11 December 2020. Words by Karena Armstrong.

Karena Armstrong, owner and chef at McLaren Vale’s iconic Salopian Inn, has cooked in some of Sydney and Melbourne finest restaurants, but it was the magic of the Vale that captured the chef’s imagination and saw her settle down for keeps. We asked Armstrong to tell us about some of the things that make her hood so special.

We live in paradise. And loads of people are working it out and coming to visit glorious McLaren Vale. Or as I like to call it: The People’s Republic of McLaren Vale. That’s always made me giggle, but there’s also a great deal of accuracy to the statement.

McLaren Vale is the sum total of the diverse, energetic and completely awesome collection of humans that make up our community. And that energy and sense of pride in our place is tangible.

We are indulgently spoilt for choice. Rocking food and booze is abundant, and at all levels. So, to pick some of my favourites is really hard. You can’t have a bad time in my hood, but here are a few starting tips.

Get up early and go for a swim at Port Willunga Beach. It’s a truly breathtaking beach – you could be anywhere in the world. Yes, you read correctly, McLaren Vale is about a 10-minute drive from the beach, and the only known traffic jam is getting caught behind a harvester.

Grab a post-swim coffee from the Star of Greece and eye a spot on the deck for an afternoon cocktail or glass of wine. The list there is always brilliant, and the view… well, just go!

Wine tasting is abundant in the region. I think we do grenache – or as I like to call it, shiraz with manners – really well. Samuel’s Gorge and Geddes are my two grenache favourites, but also definitely hit the new multi-producer cellar door at 148 McMurtrie Rd, where Lino Ramble, Bondar and Sherrah all show some great modern versions of a Vale drop.

Samuel's Gorge and Geddes are two of Karena's favourite grenaches.
Karena also recommends a visit to the Lino Ramble, Bondar and Sherrah cellar door at 148 McMurtrie Road.

Wander around the corner to Samson Tall Winery. It’s a gorgeous building, and I love sitting out the back with a glass in hand. And for a bio-dynamic drop that’s a complete belter, head out to Gemtree. I am quite fond of sitting on their deck and having cheese and wine. (I really do work at some stage in the year, not just swan about and drink awesome booze!)

My favourite fancy lunch is at Maxwell Wines. Fabian Lehmann is a super-clever chef, and I love how much flavour he packs into some very pristine and perfect-looking plates. The art of a long lunch is well understood in these parts; you can relax and quite literally watch the Vale go past.

And if you’re looking for something a little more casual, Harry’s Deli at Wirra Wirra is just delicious. Chef Tom Boden is a very generous, lush cook; the brisket sandwich and a glass of shiraz has saved my day on several occasions.

Friday night drinks at Fall from Grace in Aldinga are a must. There is always something quirky, interesting and most definitely smashable here, and after, zip over to The Little Rickshaw for some snacks that are off-the-charts tasty. And if you’re in your shorts and thongs, you are perfectly dressed.

If you overindulge on a Friday night, fear not, Saturday mornings at the Willunga Farmers Market are refreshing for the soul. It’s a bit like walking into the pantry for the region. And don’t miss a breakfast roll from Little Acre Foods; they are epic, particularly if you’re a little under the weather.

And if you have a moment, drop into Salopian, slide up to the bar, order a G&T and let me know how you went with your McLaren Vale adventures – I’ll be in the kitchen doing my thang.

The Star of Greece. As Armstrong says, "Just go!"

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