Sarah Stegley and Marieke Brugman owned and operated the Howqua Dale Gourmet Retreat, at Mansfield in central Victoria for 30 years as a gourmet retreat and cooking school. Howquadale was one of the first places to offer a pre-packaged weekend getaway based around food.
The partners had diverse backgrounds. Sarah Stegley was an agricultural scientist with particular expertise in wine, especially Australian wine, while Marieke Brugman was an art historian. At Howqua Dale, Stegley handled front-of-house, creating a country-house party atmosphere for guests, while Brugman was the chef and cookery teacher. Brugman twice convened the Australian Symposium of Gastronomy and four times chaired the Regional Food, Wine & Tourism Workshop
Howqua Dale established a reputation for its Country House Hotel Weekends, where excellent food and wine were a key part of the experience. The website at the time described a typical weekend agenda like this:
“Guests generally arrive on Friday in time for dinner. Unwind in front of an open log fire with a glass of fizz and canapes before joining guests around a large communal table for a dinner utilising the season’s best produce. Saturdays are time for relaxation and country pursuits. Lunch is often al fresco either in the wonderful country garden or by the pool. Dinner is always a degustation served in the formal dining room. Sundays conclude with a grand and leisurely brunch.”
Howqua Dale also hosted residential cooking school weekends and corporate retreats. It was among the first to focus on food that celebrated the seasons and drew on produce drawn from its own garden.
The business then expanded to offer Gourmet Tours, first within Australia and then overseas. In Australia, they specialised in wine regions. Internationally, there were tours to exotic locations including Rajasthan, South India, Bhutan, Portugal, Ireland, South-West France, Turkey, Bali, South Africa and New Zealand.
Howqua Dale operated for 30 years until the partners decided to go their separate ways. Sarah Stegley still owns the house which is run as a B&B, and both partners continue to run gourmet tours to a range of destinations.