How I East Gippsland: Mark and Victoria Briggs

Published on 15 January 2021

Photo: Mark and Victoria Briggs, owners of Paynesville restaurant Sardine

Until recently, Paynesville wasn’t a place on the maps of diners. That all changed in 2017 when Mark and Victoria Briggs opened Sardine, a restaurant that makes the most of the lakes, waterways and ocean that surround this boating and fishing town in East Gippsland. The couple, originally from the UK and residents of Melbourne for 11 years before moving to Paynesville, fell in love with the water, wide open spaces and, most of all, the produce of this corner of Victoria. Now, Mark, a chef with experience at Vue de Monde, gets to put that produce to use in menus that change based on the day’s catch, while Victoria ensures it’s smooth sailing front-of-house.

You know you’re in East Gippsland when you see boats on trailers. There’s water everywhere in Paynesville. There’s the canal system, just opposite Sardine there’s Raymond Island. Paynesville is known for boating.

Our defining food moment in East Gippsland was visiting Forge Creek Eggs on our way home to Melbourne after our first visit to check out possible restaurant sites for Sardine. You can see the chickens at the side of the road, so we stopped, and we spoke to owners Deb and Pete Hahnemann, and they introduced us to the chickens. As soon as we walked into this paddock about 500 chickens just came running at us to say hello. That was the most amazing experience; the chickens were so happy and friendly. That was the moment we realised how awesome the produce was in this part of the world.

The best new thing Mark has found is grass whiting from Corner Inlet. It’s a blue fish, it almost looks like a parrot fish, and it was amazing. I made a terrine out of it. JB Coastal, our fish suppliers, call us up most mornings and say “I’ve got this, it’s still moving, do you want it?” I say yes pretty much every time.

When we want to dazzle friends from out of town,we like to take them out in the jet ski to go around Raymond Island and then over to Metung, a beautiful little town about 10 minutes away on the jet ski or 45 minutes by road. There’s a great little pub right on the water. And we always love to take people to Lakes Entrance, and to Lightfoot & Sons, a winery that’s set up on a hill just on the other side of Bairnsdale. It's got incredible views of the farming land in Lindenow, and a really cute little cellar door. It’s a great place to stop in for a drink.

In the mornings you’ll find us at Northern Ground in Bairnsdale. It’s owned by a friend of ours and they do a great breakfast with lots of local produce.

The most underrated thing in East Gippsland is East Gippsland itself. A lot of people don't know it's here. Before they visit us, they’ll say where’s Paynesville? Why would you move there? Then they come down and they tell us how amazing it is. All the people that have visited us have come back many times in the last few years. Another place that’s really underrated is Badger & Hare, a cafe in Stratford that’s right on the highway. It’s such a cute country-style cafe, and they do really good coffee. It’s definitely worth a stop when you’re on the road or travelling to or from Melbourne.

When we want to push the boat out on a meal, we usually make a list of restaurants in Melbourne we want to try and make a weekend of it. We love Osteria Ilaria, Supernormal, and we visit MoVida every year. And in July, we splashed out and went to Lake House in Daylesford.

The best value thing in East Gippsland is the $14 pizzas at The Local in Metung. It’s only been open a couple of months, and they’re doing really great woodfired pizza. We had the vegetarian pizza and we both loved it, which is saying something because Mark usually hates pumpkin.

The last two delicious things we drank from East Gippsland were a Lightfoot & Sons “Home Block” Chardonnay; it’s a really lemony, buttery wine. And Patrick Sullivan’s “Rain”, a unique drop that blends together pinot gris on skins and a cabernet franc that’s undergone carbonic maceration.

Our local is The Grand Terminus. It’s not our closest pub but it’s got great, big, beautiful Victorian balconies around the front.

If you looked in our fridge you might be surprised to find that it’s pretty empty, apart from a couple of beers, some wine and some tomato sauce - Mark always has to have sauce on his bacon butty. And perhaps there’ll be a mouldy capsicum. We’re not home enough to keep a full fridge.

If we could change one thing about eating and drinking here it would be more places to eat and drink, with a bit more variety in what they’re offering. There’s a lot more room for new places in East Gippsland. We’d love to see people embracing the variety of produce this region produces too, so that people doing different things find a loyal customer base.

But the one thing we hope never changes is the passion of the producers. It really shows in the quality of what they grow and make.There’s a full-time nurse who grows incredible micro-herbs and herb shoots in her spare time. There’s so much love in them. The guys at Sailors Grave keep coming up with new things. The guy from Snowy River Black Garlic, whose garlic just keeps getting better and better. I hope all these small producers keep doing what they’re doing.

You can see for yourself what Paynesville is all about by paying Sardine a visit: 3, 65-69 Esplanade, Paynesville, sardineeaterybar.com. Or take a look at what Mark’s doing with the latest catch by following @sardineeaterybar on Instagram.

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