When Patrizia Simone was invited to visit the new home town of an old friend she excitedly pictured the painted bathing boxes of Brighton beach. It turned out Patrizia was headed to the mountains instead, to Bright, not Brighton. She was far from disappointed.
On arrival, Patrizia’s friend took them straight down to the bottom of their backyard to catch a fish for lunch, fresh from the Ovens River. “I thought, how lovely,” recalls Patrizia, “that closeness to nature.”
It reminded Patrizia of the richness of life by the river in her childhood home-town of Perugia, in the mountainous Umbria region of Italy: “I remember my father fishing for these beautiful little fish and my mother cooking them up in a crisp batter.”
Only months after this first visit Patrizia and husband George had packed up their bags and re-located to Bright.
That was in 1986 and they’ve never looked back.
Now it’s everyone else who comes to visit Patrizia. People travel far and wide to dine in their restaurant “ Simone’s of Bright “ which has been awarded “Two Hats” by The Age Good Food Guide, a rare acclaim shared by a mere handful of Victorian restaurants.
But Patrizia believes that, like her, people are drawn to Bright because of the stunning natural setting of the snow-capped mountains and babbling Ovens River. “I really don’t know what Bright would be without the river,” she says.
And the river is not just a focus for tourists, it’s central to the life of locals.
It was a playground for son Anthony – who now works alongside his mother as a chef “where he spent many a carefree day with friends as a child swimming, fishing or tumbling over rapids afloat lilos.
While most will argue that it’s Patrizia’s extraordinary culinary skills that make her food so sought after, she credits the wealth of local produce. She says it’s the exceptional richness of the Oven’s environment that makes it “a little heaven to a lot of very good produce.”
Patrizia’s mission is to translate a sense of place through her food. Her dishes reflect the region’s character through the deep, earthy flavours of chestnuts, mushrooms and game, the freshness of fish from the river’s clean waters, and seasonal fruits like fig and quince.
“You can leave the customer with a taste of the region; I think it’s the only way they will ever remember an area,” says Patrizia.
In the beginning, Patrizia sourced much of her produce from Italian migrant family homes; persimmons and walnuts were plucked from backyard trees and delivered fresh to her kitchen, along with pigeons and ducks raised with care.
Italy is also home to “slow food”, the celebration of taste and quality over mass-production; it aims to reconnect people with the source of their nourishment and with how good food production should, in turn, nourish the soil, air and water it comes from.
This philosophy is central to Patrizia’s approach. Her menu reflects the seasons, cooked simply and flavoured with herbs from the restaurant’s back garden, which are grown in soil enriched with the kitchen’s veggie scraps.
Now that the tobacco growing era has ended and the Ovens valley is searching for new direction, Patrizia would love to see more commercialisation of the region’s cottage food industries: “Vegetables, for example, such as cardoons “ a type of artichoke “ and black cabbage, which would grow well in our frost-prone climate.”
It’s flavours like these that keep people coming to Simone’s and help to maintain Bright’s fixture on the tourist map, ensuring that many more visitors will enjoy this Ovens River town for years.
Story by Leonie Duncan, 2007