If there’s anything good to come out of 2020, it’s working from home and by extension, the realisation that doing it from anywhere with a decent internet connection is finally a real option.
That hasn’t escaped the attention of many: in December, Infrastructure Australia reported that there’d been a dramatic 200% increase in net migration from the capital cities to regional areas in the last year. The report also identified a potential “regional renaissance” with plenty of investment opportunities. In other words, people are moving or thinking of moving to the country – including me.
But there’s a catch – I’m a vegetarian. After too many road trip pub meals of mushroom risotto and margarita pizza, running out of dining options is a real concern.
A recent trip to Mudgee and Orange laid that fear to rest. I discovered something else too. For me, the problem with small towns is that everyone knows everyone else’s business – but in these regional centres, that’s a good thing.
Restaurateurs showcase their neighbours’ food and wine, producers suggest other producers to visit and store owners unhesitatingly recommend other local boutiques for hard-to-find items. Community support is real and robust in this region, another not-so-secret benefit to country life.
Day one: Sydney to Mudgee, via Rylstone
Driving time: 3½ hours
After a leisurely drive through the rolling New South Wales countryside, we arrive at Rylstone Olive Press. Jayne and Peter Bentivoglio bought their olive farm in 1997 after falling in love with the area. She was a nurse and he is a brain surgeon, and both wanted to escape the stresses of their jobs. They’re also convinced of the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil so they decided to make their own, planting hundreds of olive trees, and building an onsite press. In the process, they’ve racked up several best in show awards too.
Jayne is now a qualified olive oil sommelier, so we sit down to the novel experience of olive oil tasting. It’s much like wine tasting, and as I swirl each of the four different blends across my mid-palate, I try my best to decipher the notes. It seems I have plenty to learn, but I remain convinced of the simple pleasures of dipping freshly baked bread into fruity olive oil.
Our next stop is at one of the region’s food highlights: the long lunch at Zin House. Almost all of the restaurant’s fresh produce comes from its organic and biodynamic gardens, so each day chef Nathaniel Destefano works with gardener Corola Kay to develop a seasonal menu. As rain sprinkles the gardens outside the restaurant windows, we settle in for a lazy five courses.
The vegetarian menu does not feel like a poor cousin here, with fresh spring flavours like chargrilled asparagus with lemon jam and a bright fettuccine with braised leeks, chilli and mint pesto.
Zin House is part of Lowe Wines’ sprawling garden grounds, so unsurprisingly the wine matching is spot on.
Local’s tip: The heritage village of Rylstone is filled with 19th century sandstone cottages and stores, plus locals’ favourite 29 Nine 99 yum cha and teahouse, where chef Na Lan serves delicate, handmade dumplings as good as any in the city.
Stay: Birches B&B Mudgee. David and Pam Stewart have converted their lovely home into an old-fashioned bed and breakfast with three elegant guest rooms, overlooking rose gardens. There’s also a lounge with a fire for winter nights and a tempting swimming pool for summer.
Day two: Mudgee
It’s been a challenging time for most farmers, but Roth family cherry orchard owner Ingrid Roth comes from hardy stock. She’s seen the orchard through the many unpredictabilities of farm life, which she explains on a Mudgee Fine Foods farm walk, where visitors meet farmers to learn more about food provenance.
After a great coffee at Alby and Esters, we stroll through the Lawson Park Sculpture Walk, which runs along the bank of the Cudgegong River. Set up in 2013, the walk features an ever-growing collection of metal artworks, which range from intriguing to quirky. Our next stop is the Warakirri bush tucker cafe, founded and run by Sharon Winsor, a Ngemba Weilwan woman from western NSW. The cafe doubles as the retail outlet for Indigiearth, a 100% Aboriginal-owned distribution business.
Native and bush food companies are growing rapidly in this country, and yet only a small portion of them are owned and managed by Indigenous Australians. Sharon works with community members who use traditional land management practices to source bush foods, which she uses to create skincare, spices, tea, coffee, chocolate and scented candles.
Warakirri’s lunch menu is intriguing: cafe favourites with a native ingredient twist. That means a ham and cheese toastie with quandong chutney, kangaroo burgers, and salt and pepper squid made with saltbush and pepperberry leaf. I choose the bush tomato quiche – creamy with a subtle tang – and a rosella sparkling iced tea.
We while away the next hour or so at Gilbert Family Wine’s tasting room. Rather than a typical cellar door, the sandstone Cellar by Gilbert is set out more like a wine bar.
The Gilbert family have been making wine for six generations, and is currently run by father and son team Will and Simon Gilbert. After training in Burgundy and Canada, Will came home and began experimenting with fashionable, natural styles like pét-nat and orange wines.
Local’s tip: If you’re thirsty, but tired of wine, call in on Mudgee Brewing Company. Established in a 100-year-old former wool store, this microbrewery makes a several beers including a locally infamous, 8.5% ABV stout called Mudgee Mud.
Day three: Mudgee to Orange
Driving time: 2 hours and 15 minutes
Pulling into Orange, we gaze out at the town’s wide streets and the large federation homes, then immediately peer into a real estate agent’s window. When we check the very reasonable real estate prices, our Escape to the Country fantasies fall into place.
We drink on it at Parrot Gin Distillery, tucked away in the light industrial part of town. “Every gin is different,” explains founder Ben Cochrane, a fourth-generation local hotelier turned distiller. The delicate flavours of their Red Silk gin – made with a hibiscus tisane – catch my attention. Perhaps there’s something to the gin trend after all?
Dinner is at the site of a former Sizzler; now called Charred. Cheese toast has been traded for exceptional food and wine, most of it from local producers. The restaurant’s hallmark is its charcoal oven, nicknamed Lucifer.
While many associate flame cooking with red meat, vegetables hold up just as well – like a smokey, fire-roasted beetroot topped with goat cheese, and a spice-rubbed baked cauliflower.
Local’s tip: Ferment Wine Centre is a great place to try the region’s wines, and assemble a hit-list for vineyard hopping. It hosts wine events and tastings, but also welcomes those just looking for a late night glass.
Stay: De Russie Boutique Hotel is comfortable, elegant and very central.
Day four: Orange
Borrodell Estate is a sprawling 75-acre farm and vineyard outside of Orange. After we park, we bump into owner Borry Gartrelle, who set up the farm with his partner Gaye Stuart-Nairne. “I’ve been growing things all my life,” he explains as we settle in for lunch at the estate’s Sister’s Rock Restaurant, overlooking the valley where the fruits of his labour are visible as far as the eye can see.
He bought the property for a song in 1965. It was in a shocking state after being overfarmed, so he spent time regenerating the soil. He started off growing apples and cherries, before planting the estate vineyards. Then, in 2003, he and Gaye started producing black Perigord truffles on the farm. They are now among the top truffle producers in the region, producing truffle salt, truffle butter and truffle honey during the season.
My roast kohlrabi matches well with the estate’s crisp sauvignon blanc.
On the way back we detour to the Mount Canobolas lookout. At 1,395 metres above sea level, it’s the highest peak between the Blue Mountains and the Indian Ocean, with views to match its altitude.
For dinner, we drive 15 minutes out of town to Tonic restaurant, for a multi-course meal including a pumpkin and pine nut pithivier for our main course. The highlight is a double serving of dessert – a creamy vanilla bean bavarois with rhubarb and ginger, followed by a zingy lime tart.
Day five: Orange to Sydney
Driving time: 3½ hours
Our final day in Orange means there’s just enough time to explore some of the local boutiques before heading back. Jumbled is housed in a former Masonic hall, which has been packed out with brightly coloured fashion, art and homewares – including several pieces made exclusively for the shop, in collaboration with Australian brands such as Robert Gordon and Kip and Co. Then we wander over to The White Place, a shop that’s set up like a beautifully styled home, with clothing as well as homewares.
On the way back to Sydney, we take a side trip to Carcoar, the tiny hamlet that proudly brands itself as “the town time forgot”. Drive up the hill to the disused railway station for a view over the historic village.
Meals and accommodation were provided courtesy of Destination NSW