For decades, Daylesford has seen three visionary women work tirelessly to build iconic businesses that have helped make this region such a desirable place to visit.

Extraordinary places that have become globally renowned: Lake House, The Convent, and Lavandula Swiss Italian Farm. We meet the women who built these amazing and beautiful worlds and asked them to reflect on their life stories and the place they call home. 

Alla Carol Tina Photo by Chris Turner uai
Alla Wolf-Tasker. Photography by Kristoffer Paulsen

We saw this block of land 40 years ago, covered in blackberries, strewn with car bodies and overlooking some swampy mudflats. But it was a piece of rural property we could actually afford! Mind you, it was sheer madness even to consider opening a destination restaurant in a down at heel little town where traditional industries were in decline and unemployment was 20%. And back then, Australia’s regions were a culinary wilderness. Rarely anything more on offer than Devonshire teas or toasted sandwiches made from industrially produced bread. Allan and I spent four years of weekends constructing the first Lake House building and establishing the gardens. In February 1984, we opened with a fixed price $24 menu featuring, amongst other things, shiraz-glazed squab and twice cooked goat’s cheese souffle. Heady times!

Four decades on, I still refer to what we do here as being a work in progress. There will always be higher global benchmarks to aim for and learnings to be had from the ever-evolving world of good food, good wine, and hospitality. Evolution is good for business, for the family, the team and for me.

The recent development of our beautiful Dairy Flat Farm and Lodge is a perfect example. It provides fresh produce, good bread and baked goods for Lake House operations and the local community. But it also offers guests a uniquely immersive experience when choosing to stay at the Lodge and amongst the 38 acres of orchard, vegetable plantings, olive groves, pasture, and ornamental gardens. It’s part of a much bigger food picture for me.

What’s so special about where we live and work? We are located on the hip of the Great Dividing Range, surrounded by forest and some of the most fertile agricultural land in the country. We have a strong, creative, interesting, and caring community. There are no large brands here. This is a region of small local makers and growers. When you visit local establishments, it’s often the artist, restaurateur, the winemaker, the brewer, the baker, saying hello. It’s this rich tapestry of experience that makes living or visiting here the pleasure that it is.

Carol White Photo David Oalster uai
Carol White. Photography by David Oalster

I am here on 96 acres (39 ha) of farmland where I raise sheep and cattle and grow olives and lavender. We have extensive gardens and historic buildings, and people are free to buy a hamper or a plate of lavender scones and jam and find a place under the trees and have a picnic. You see, every one of those trees was hand planted and hand-watered by me. We have so much tree cover here now we have a microclimate. When I first bought the farm in 1987, it was quite derelict. There were beautiful stone buildings built by the (Swiss Italian) Tinetti family, originally from Ticino, back in the 19th century, but the walls were falling down. I rebuilt them – not renovated – rebuilt. There had been extensive gold mining here with mullock heaps, so I had them levelled. I love France and Italy, so I planted a European garden. The frosts killed the grapevines, but the lavender thrived. I try and replicate the old ways of those Swiss Italian settlers and make everything here on the farm. We make all our lavender cosmetics and body products. The food is cooked here, the olives are grown here. As far as change goes, I have watched Daylesford change from a town of empty shops with windows covered with newspaper. A place where people would bring their mineral water bottles to fill but with eskies filled with their own food because there was not much to eat here back then. How different it is now with so many good places to eat. It was a sleepy, frosty place, but with the likes of Alla (Wolf-Tasker), Tina (Banitska), and many others, the town has changed. The secret to Daylesford is that it is a place of individuals who are not afraid to work together but have brought something unique, beautiful, and different.

Tina Banitska The Convent Gallery uai
Tina Banitska - The Convent Gallery

This place was originally built as the Gold Commissioner’s home in the 1860s, and he sold it to the Catholic Church. They used it as a convent and teaching institution. I first saw the Convent in the 1970s. I could see the Moorish roof of the bell tower. It stood out a mile. I saw it again in the 1980s when there was tender out for its sale. It was derelict. The slate roof was missing, the floors rotted through, and the walls were falling down. They were a few holly trees and a Lebanese cedar, but there was no garden, not like there is today. I approached Father Priestly, who was six foot six with a beard down to his boots. He told me the place was already under offer from a developer who would build a bingo hall and put housing where the gardens are. I was devastated.

Then the developer dropped their tender. With an old Hillman worth $250 as collateral, I convinced a bank to lend me some money. But three weeks short of opening, the money ran out. The bank was going to foreclose. Through sheer luck and providence, I could finance the Convent, pay the builder and buy the old tables and chairs and equipment from the Grand Hyatt to start trading. That was 1991. Today this is a place for everyone. I am an artist; this is a place for artists, the artist in everyone. I have seen this town change over the years, and we are getting a lot of groups. They come here with cultural respect for what we are trying to achieve here: the art, the food, the history, the gardens. And I say ‘we’ because some of my staff have been here 30 years. Daylesford has always attracted creative people. It is a special place—a place of healing. The Europeans came for the waters – the healing mineral waters. And ‘we,’ I mean the community. Because at heart, that is what makes Daylesford different. The people. The people here help give this area its unique energy.

About the author

Cornish Richard
Richard Cornish

Richard Cornish is an award winning food writer whose love of the land lead him to explore the issues around food, where it comes from, how it gets to us and why some foods taste better than others. He writes for The Age, SMH, DMT Life and has written eight cook books including co-writing the Movida series with Frank Camorra.

Chris Turner
Photography by Chris Turner

Living and working in the Daylesford Hepburn region for five years now, this place and its people are special. It’s residents are truely the essence of what separates this region from others. The creators, the artists, chefs, furniture makers, entrepreneurs and the beautiful surrounds have inspired me to create some of my best photography work.