It was another bleak morning, an anonymous winter Wednesday. The sun was up there somewhere but you couldn't see it, which made the morning grey as well as cold. I loaded the car and slammed the door.
A stiff south-westerly was blowing as we drove west and then north-west out of town on a freeway shining steel-grey with wetness. The rain spat at the windscreen.
On this side of Melbourne, you hit green fields far sooner than you do when you're going in the other direction. Head east and you endure entire suburbs of vast furniture barns and endless homemaker centres and then you hit Ringwood. Hello, Car City.
But go north-west and the farms start as early as the airport. Directly south of Tullamarine, jumbos roar off over acres of cabbages and rhubarb and radicchio in the Keilor plains.
This road once wound through scores of towns on its way to the goldfields. They have fallen away, one by one. Keilor in the early days: imagine all of today's Bendigo traffic going along Keilor Road.
Later, Woodend disappeared, with its pretty avenue of honour exit and the Bentinck. Is the Bentinck still there? Who knows.
Eventually, the road avoided Kyneton and its dreaded T-intersection and swept an arc around a sunny north-facing hillside that is dressed in thousands of daffodils during winter.
Now, along with Taradale village in its dear little valley, Malmsbury has gone. How will the bakery survive? Malmsbury was a natural stopping place, a half-way point. The bakery was always crowded. But the freeway stops for no-one. Except for those grotesqueries they call service stations that have one of every fast food brand outlet all on the one multi-coloured site, so you can gorge yourself on the fried fat and salt of your choice. Medusas of the countryside. Call me a travel snob, but I refuse to stop at them.
We did stop at Chewton, however. I stepped out of the car to fill up the tank and the wind hit me in the face like a block of ice.
Chewton is the remains of an early gold town, a shallow alluvial goldfield originally called Forest Creek. For originality, forget Sovereign Hill and its lace and tat and bad taste. The road through Chewton sways and diverges and rises and falls exactly as it did in the 1850s. It is lined with tiny miner's houses, small because why build it any bigger? We'll be rich next week and out of here! The place grew so fast with prospectors there was no time to properly plan a town, so what was the original gold track is now the highway.
Then a few more pitted valleys - don't wander around or you'll disappear down a mineshaft - and suddenly you're in Castlemaine. Castlemaine is as full of grand architecture as most goldtowns. There are four grand nineteenth-century hotels for every nineteenth-century bank, which means that for every successful miner who put their fortunes into the bank, another four drank theirs in the pubs.
The sun came out at last. We parked up the hill from the main street outside Renovator's Barn, a vast emporium that is a virtual museum of twentieth-century architectural details and hardware. There are entire bins filled with neatly sorted items recycled from demolished houses of every era. If you need a between-the-wars door handle (I did) here's where you'll find it. There are also rooms full of crockery. I found a Grindley saucer (1969) to add to my collection: $2.
From Renovator's Barn, straight across the road for lunch. Saff's is on the south side of the street, on a rise. We sat at a window table in the warm sun and just about purred. Lunch: red lentil, roasted capsicum and coriander soup. If one dish can be so totally perfect for the moment and the place, this was it. It arrived in a large bowl, three-quarters full, and was accompanied by three large triangles of warm, fresh Turkish bread, fragrant with sesame. The soup was infused with just enough chili to create a kind of warm glow, an insinuation of heat.
Saff's is the kind of place that draws everyone. Tables of real estate agents wondering where the next listing is coming from; mothers with children in prams; tradesmen queuing for takeaway cappucinos and the local art crowd sitting on the outside tables and keeping the tofu chef busy.
Saff's: gold in the hills.