Although far less hands-on these days, cook and restaurateur Maria Bortolotto is still very much involved in the running of her family’s acclaimed Italian restaurant, , located on Melbourne’s vibrant Flinders Lane. The Bortolotto family — 58-year-old Maria works in partnership with her mother Olimpia, 79, and sister Anne, 59 — have a reputation for great food and service that stretches back almost 50 years.
Cecconi’s current menu continues to build on this, with rustic and inventive dishes that celebrate provenance and seasonality — think calamari fritti with salsa verde, pappardelle with beef and pork ragu, and, in autumn, desserts made with quinces grown on Maria’s 2.6-hectare property in the rolling green-meets-the-sea of Lorne, two hours’ south on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road.
Establishing productive gardens was central to Maria’s vision for the farm, which she and her master craftsman partner, Don Bennett, purchased in 2000. “Here we grow an abundance of herbs, vegetables, fruits, foliage and flowers, which are picked annually and grown using organic practices,” says Maria. “It’s incredibly rewarding to forage and pick food you have grown yourself. The taste is incredible, the freshness second-to-none.”
Growing up in Melbourne, Maria spent many weekends in the Lorne region, indulging her love of surfing, kayaking and swimming. Later she lived in nearby Apollo Bay, commuting to the family’s former restaurant, Bortolotto’s Café Menis, in St Kilda. “The travel became a little tedious, so we moved back to Melbourne. But, after a while, you realise how much you miss the ocean, the air, the quiet…”
When the couple discovered this secluded plot, then an empty paddock with knee-high grass four kilometres from the town of Lorne, they knew instantly it was the one.
With Maria as his labourer, Don designed and hand-built the original dwelling then continued, over time, to tweak and change it. “Sixteen years later the original cabin is hard to discern,” says Maria of the breezy one-bedroom, open-plan timber and corrugated iron home that stands today.
As with food, provenance was a key factor in the couple’s choice of building materials. “Don spent many hours sourcing timbers at local yards,” says Maria.
We used a mixture of Australian cypress and macrocarpa recovered from power line clearings in Victoria’s western districts, the ironbark flooring was originally wharf timbers from NSW and some of the other timber used was recycled jarrah basketball court flooring.”
To create the relaxed yet sophisticated interiors, Maria stuck to an all-white palette then introduced warmth and interest through timber furniture, ceramics and textiles. “We wanted to achieve an effortless yet stylish Nordic aesthetic — the furnishings were chosen to bring modern comfort to the rural setting. What’s important to us when purchasing products is that they are handmade or bespoke, and made of natural fibres and solid timber.”
Outside, a large deck with outdoor kitchen extends the living space. The gardens — a mix of European and native plants, fruit orchards, herbs and vegetables — are nourished with compost made daily at Cecconi’s from the restaurant’s food waste (an initiative that won Maria a Banksia Award for good environmental practice in 2013).
Now offered as boutique accommodation, guests at Maria and Don’s cabin are encouraged to forage for ingredients in the gardens, providing them the essence of the Bortolotto family experience: food, life and love.
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