Eating in the Hills – NSW’s Southern Highlands Food Scene

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Mar 16, 2017

by LYNDALL CRISP, Writer

A pretty region of rolling hills, heritage villages and country gardens, NSW’s sleepy Southern Highlands can now add “gourmet food scene” to its list of credits.

In 1867, when the Southern Railway from Sydney was extended to Mittagong, the Southern Highlands became a destination for city folk wanting to “take the air”. About 110 kilometres south-west of Sydney and rising to 900 metres, the region became known as the Sanatorium of the South, attracting genteel society, who built impressive country retreats. Guesthouses popped up in villages overlooking farms dating back to the 1820s.

Artists John Olsen and Tim Storrier, cricketer Don Bradman, musician Jimmy Barnes and authors P. L. Travers and Bryce Courtenay are among the names, past and present, to have called the Southern Highlands home. Yet, for the many restorative offerings of the region, and despite its high-profile inhabitants, the food scene had stayed, well, staid. Two-hatted Biota Dining was the outstanding exception after opening in 2011. But an influx of new residents toting their demanding palates is changing that. And fast.

Frenetic city life and escalating property prices have seen an exodus of renowned Sydney chefs to the Highlands. Damien Monley (ex-Flat White Cafe and Madam Char Char), Nicola Coccia (Quay and QT) and Nathan West (Chiswick at the Gallery and Bathers Pavilion), along with Lynne Derwin (Roundstone Vineyard) from Victoria’s Yarra Valley, are among the professional foodies who have moved to the region, which now has an impressive 80-plus restaurants.

In 2015, Brigid Kennedy (of Simmer on the Bay in Dawes Point) opened The Loch in Berrima. Kennedy felt so passionate about the area that she – and fellow entrepreneur Jill Dyson – launched Southern Highlands Food & Wine Clusters with $55,000 of her own money. The initiative involved identifying nine “clusters” throughout the region and getting local growers, artisan producers, farmstays, winemakers, cafés and other attractions to work together to promote one another.

So if you’re heading for the hills, don’t miss these food and wine experiences...

Exeter General Store

The countryside is gorgeous but, to be honest, there’s not a lot to do in Exeter. Even so, take your foot off the accelerator and stop for a bite in this delightfully quirky store. It’s the village hub where locals meet and, with parts of the building dating back to 1914, has much to offer. There’s a post office, second-hand books, gourmet treats (such as zucchini pickles, local jams, olives, honey and Hansi Artisanal Limonade) and an array of homemade cakes and pies, plus fresh vegies. The simple menu changes regularly but popular seasonal staples include whisky porridge, Greek yoghurt with sweet spiced dukkah and pancakes with caramelised apples. Owners Craig and Lauren Johnson bought the store, which is open daily, in 2008 and have slowly renovated it. “This is a great country store with a real community connection,” says Exeter resident Yvonne Crofts. “The best thing? It’s dog-friendly!”

1 Exeter Road, Exeter; (02) 4883 4289

McVitty Grove

A five-minute drive from Mittagong, this stunning vineyard on 40 hectares is run by three self-taught blokes – Jeff Aston, Mark Bourne and Ian MacDonald – using a holistic approach. “We don’t use herbicides, cattle are drenched using apple-cider vinegar and garlic, the vines are the only 100 per cent biodynamic in the area, the property is carbon neutral and we hate mowing,” says Aston. So a herd of rare short-legged Hampshire Down sheep chomp away between the vines and olive trees. The on-site café’s menu includes vegan and gluten- and dairy-free dishes made from homegrown or locally sourced produce. There’s organic Portuguese chicken with Dauphinoise potatoes and roasted tomatoes, as well as triple-layer chocolate cake with coconut cream. Try their Tractorless Vineyard handmade organic wines in the tasting room before ordering a bottle with your meal. Open Wednesday to Sunday for lunch, and Friday and Saturday for dinner; a buffet breakfast is served on Sundays.

434 Wombeyan Caves Road, Mittagong

Yelverton Truffle Hunt

When they retired from their business supplying material and equipment for the aerospace and defence industries, Barbara and Ted Smith decided to try something very different: the notoriously uncertain business of growing truffles. In 2007, they planted 320 oak trees that had been inoculated with the spores of the Périgord black truffle (Tuber melanosporum) and, as luck would have it, found their first truffles four and a half years later. Clearly, the soil conditions on their 30-hectare property were just right. Since they started offering truffle hunts and tastings in 2012, they have welcomed more than 1500 visitors. Guests go out with the couple’s two blue cattle dogs, Jet and Belle, who do the foraging. In 2014, Jet found a 1.17-kilo whopper, setting a then Australian record. Today, truffles sell for about $2500 a kilo – hence the security cameras and secrecy surrounding the location. Directions are given only to visitors who confirm a tour. The season runs from May to August. 

Robertson

Grand Bistro

Situated smack-bang in the middle of Bowral, this delightful indoor/outdoor restaurant knows how to do casual dining in smart, minimalist surroundings. The bistro is in what was once part of a hotel built in 1888 and has been refurbished by its current owners, Justine and Damien Monley. They opened their doors in June last year and chef Damien’s menu is unusual and innovative. How about Baghdad egg on toast with pea hummus, pickled red onions, sumac, mint, tahini and yoghurt for breakfast? Or lamb-backstrap chimichurri, Puy lentils and freekeh for dinner? Jo Crawley, who has lived in the Highlands for 22 years, says she comes here for the “breezy ambience”. “It has quickly established itself as a favourite with locals who were in need of a contemporary alternative to the local pub scene,” she says. Open Tuesday to Sunday for breakfast and lunch, and Friday and Saturday for dinner.

295-297 Bong Bong Street, Bowral

The Loch

While this stylish converted barn has four luxury rooms for rent all week, it’s open for coffee and lunch on Sundays only. Owners Brigid Kennedy and Kevin Nott – who bought the derelict horse shed in 2011 – have so many projects on the go, they just don’t have time to do more. Besides running the 40-hectare property, Kevin restores the silver, crystal and furniture that the duo buy at auction and sell from their renovated stables. Chef Brigid offers a sumptuous menu – slow cooking is her thing – using their own farm produce, including beef and lamb. Her jams, relishes and honey are for sale alongside vegetables, flowers and meat. “It’s an experience – not just about food,” she says. “Guests wander around the garden between courses. There’s a quality of yesteryear.” For a real country experience, without having to do the work, this is the go-to place.

581 Greenhills Road, Berrima

Rockabellas Roadside Diner

Now for something different. Ellie Di Bella bought a café in 2014 and, given the area is popular with car and bike clubs, turned it into a retro American-style diner. She hired local pal Ally Curtis as chef and the joint took off. The menu is Tex-Mex fused with more familiar dishes that cater for children through to older customers. “It’s an eclectic blend of mismatched furniture, memorabilia, preloved clothes and bizarre art,” says Sydney visitor Sue Templeman. “The crunchy fried potato skins with aïoli dip, followed by the giant hamburger, are well worth the calories.” A log fire, music from the ’50s and ‘60s, a slice of Nutella cheesecake and a piña colada served by a sweet waitress with pink striped hair will have you rolling out the door happy. Open Wednesday to Sunday.

74-76 Hoddle Street, Robertson; (02) 4885 1889 

The Robertson Cheese Factory

It’s hard to know which way to turn in this quaint, rambling building. There’s a gelato bar, where you’ll find a selection of the dozens of ice-creams and sorbets made on site from locally produced fruit and organic milk; a café serving freshly made soups, sandwiches, cakes and Devonshire teas; and a gourmet store that stocks everything from fresh local produce to seasonal jams, pickles, relishes and old-fashioned lollies. And then, of course, there are the cheeses – a comprehensive range – all made in Australia. The place operated as a cheese factory before current owners Liz and Allan Jackson bought it in 1990 and the former coolroom now houses an emporium of 45 shops with all sorts of weird and wonderful new and used items, including vintage clothing and accessories. Open daily.

107 Illawarra Highway, Robertson

Bendooley Estate

Anyone travelling from Sydney to Canberra or the snowfields via the Old Hume Highway 40 years ago would probably have stopped at the Berkelouw Book Barn in Berrima. Although the Hume Motorway now bypasses it, the Book Barn selling second-hand, new and rare books still operates in the centre of the 80-hectare Bendooley Estate. In 2015, the estate opened a cellar door where Bendooley Vineyard wines – which feature elements of a John Olsen painting on the label – can be tasted by the glass. It started as a tapas bar but was such a hit that chef Benn Troy introduced a casual menu similar to that in the winery’s main restaurant down the hall. Favourite dishes include slow-braised lamb shoulder and the Bendooley charcuterie board with pork terrine. “The combination of books, excellent food and wine, country setting and magnificent views makes an experience for all the senses,” says local Maryann Winterflood. The estate is open daily.

3020 Old Hume Highway, Berrima

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