Jun 02, 2017
Can you smell the fresh air? How about the freshly ground coffee? This wine region in NSW’s Central West blends rural charm with fine dining, writes Penelope Green.
Pick a resident of Orange and chances are they’ve left the bright lights to carve out a better life in the country – and found the grass really is greener here on the other side of the divide, just three and a half hours’ drive across the Blue Mountains from Sydney or almost two hours from Dubbo.
When Willa and Shaun Arantz opened their paddock-to-plate restaurant, Racine, at La Colline Wines in 2009, Willa says there was only a handful of good cafés and restaurants in the regional city. “Now, there are about 70 and the food has gone from decent to amazing.”
While well-established Racine and one-hatted Lolli Redini are popular stalwarts, newer restaurants (including Sweet Sour Salt, Mr Lim and Charred) and bars (Ferment and Washington & Co.) are joining the party.
The seasons are keenly felt in this cool-climate winegrowing region where elevations range from 600 to 1100 metres – the highest in Australia. The wineries are a drawcard but add a swag of great restaurants, cafés and bars, eclectic shops and modest house prices and it’s easy to understand why people want to live here.
Named in memory of a Tuscan nonna and family friend, elegant fine-diner Lolli Redini has racked up more accolades than you can poke a silver butterknife at. For those who like to dine alfresco, Saturday lunch under the magnificent magnolia tree in spring and autumn is a must. Orange-raised Simonn Hawke trained in Sydney under renowned chef Anthony Musarra before heading home to raise the dining bar with the opening of Lolli Redini in 2001. Her forte is Italian- and French-influenced cuisine. “We’re not into molecular gastronomy or short-lived trends,” says Simonn, who believes the restaurant’s success lies in its “generous, honest, consistent” cooking of regional produce. While customers have never let Simonn remove the twice-baked Heidi Gruyere cheese soufflé from the menu, the wine list is ever-changing. Curated by Simonn’s life and business partner, Leah Morphett, it includes labels from some of the best vineyards in NSW’s Central West, Australia and overseas.
Nine kilometres west of Orange, charming Racine restaurant at La Colline Wines has long been a favourite of locals and travellers. Don’t be fooled by the shed-like exterior; inside, the atmosphere is swish, with grass-green walls designed to bring the outside in. After three years in London, owners Willa and Shaun Arantz came to Orange with the aim of creating a high-end restaurant “in the middle of nowhere, as you can find in Europe”. They’ve also opened a bakery in town. The cuisine at Racine celebrates the region and the seasons. The restaurant, which is named after the French word for “root”, has its own kitchen garden, and an apple symbol on the menu signifies that a dish has been 75 per cent locally sourced. “I’m sick of Sydney chefs saying, ‘We grow it all here,’ because even we can’t do that, though we come close,” says Willa. Gourmands note: the pressed duck has been on the menu since its inception for good reason. Nearby, the Apple Packing Shed – a nod to the apple orchard that was here before the vineyard – is a popular venue for weddings and functions.
Sure, there are linen tablecloths at one-hatted restaurant Tonic in the historic town of Millthorpe but owner-chef Tony Worland doesn’t do posh. His menu is brimming with seasonal produce, some of which Tony discovers growing in the wild, such as quinces. The restaurant “reflects what we’re like: fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants types who love a beer and a good time”, says the affable chef. Tonic (a combination of Tony and wife Nicole’s names) is now in its 15th year and is one of the many reasons why people are drawn to Millthorpe, which is about a 20-minute drive from Orange.
While the small town’s 1000 or so residents might get blasé about its quaint, heritage-listed buildings, that’s not the case for the many visitors who love to explore its cosy heart, which has two pubs, as well as cellar doors at Angullong Vineyard and Slow Wine Co..
The Old Mill, Millthorpe Providore (33 Victoria Street; 0417 412 577) serves good coffee and food, while you can get your fashion and homewares fix at Tomolly and Millthorpe Blue. For all of Millthorpe’s charm, people are what matter to father-of-five Tony. “There’s a great little public school and community,” he says.
The stark white pillars of Orange’s former Masonic Hall frame the grand entrance of The Sonic, the stylish domain of petite dynamo Pip Brett. The 33-year-old completed a Bachelor of Design in Sydney before returning to Orange, where her mum, Kezz, ran a women’s boutique. “Mum said, ‘Just start small and build,’” says Pip. So she opened a clothes store, Iglou (which stocks labels such as Sass & Bide), then a successful homewares store, Jumbled. Pip was desperate for more retail space when, as luck would have it, her builder husband, Nick Luelf, noticed the Masonic Hall was up for sale; it was the perfect opportunity to put her two businesses under one roof. Melbourne architects Studio Esteta pared back Pip’s vivid, multilayered style to create The Sonic, a space inspired by concept stores such as Merci and Anthropologie in Paris. Spread across two light, interconnecting rooms, the store has an eclectic range of homewares and cool, casual fashion labels, plus a café, Nimrod’s. “I want The Sonic to inspire and excite,” enthuses Pip.
A few blocks away, The White Place and Mary & Tex showcase contemporary furniture and quirky gifts. And if second-hand threads are your bag, Frockwork Orange is a must; don’t miss the vintage room at the back.
Once a month, there’s a wonderful opportunity to buy produce direct from the region’s growers at Orange Farmers Market. The markets are held on the second Saturday of each month at the tree-lined Northcourt in summer and at Orange Showground’s Agricultural Pavilion in winter. Grab a coffee and a freshly baked pastry and soak up the scene – 60 stalls operated by honest country folk, the sizzle of bacon, interesting local banter – and wonder why the heck you live elsewhere. Whether its duck’s eggs, homemade fruit pies or the finest cut of beef, the markets have it all. You might even come across a guest chef cooking up a storm with seasonal ingredients. It’s a welcoming place that unites the community; spot the locals with their branded farmers’ market bags and a determined look to get to their preferred stalls.
An annual highlight is the Orange F.O.O.D (Food of Orange District) Week festival that enlivens the town in April. The longest-running event of its kind in Australia, it’s a veritable autumn feast. Program standouts include Forage, an amble through three vineyards that’s akin to an eight-course dégustation. Another hit at the festival is F.O.O.D HQ, where you can hear growers talking about their produce. “It’s often hard to get a seat,” says James Sweetapple, the aptly named president of the F.O.O.D Week Association. Tip: book your accommodation now.
The Orange wine region now has 60 vineyards and 40 cellar doors. Bloodwood and Canobolas-Smith led the charge but many more wineries have since sprouted on the slopes of Mount Canobolas, including Ross Hill, Philip Shaw, De Salis, Word of Mouth and Heifer Station. Naturally, several are run by tree changers.
Charlie and Loretta Svenson, of De Salis, abandoned Sydney for Orange (she was in hospitality; he was an academic) to master making topnotch wines with a “minimal-intervention policy” and without using enzymes or tannins. “The hipsters call it natural winemaking and market it as cloudy, unfinished wine but we’re not comfortable with that,” says Charlie of their ultra-premium drops.
At Word of Mouth, former Sydneysider Peter Gibson and his wife, Deborah Upjohn, also have a sustainable approach to winemaking. Their property includes two hectares of established gardens (look out for Snuggles the sheep and George the alpaca), a market garden, a cellar door, Peter’s pottery studio and a small exhibition space.
Renowned wine producer Philip Shaw’s sons, Daniel and Damian, are leading the second generation of winemakers who love talking about wine at their cellar door or at the annual Orange Wine Festival, held this year from October 13 to 22. Chin-chin.
With sweeping views to Mount Canobolas, the Old Convent at Borenore, a 20-minute drive west of Orange, offers lovely quarters and wholesome food for the weary traveller. Owners Josie (a bespoke dressmaker) and Jeffrey Chapman (a financial controller) left Sydney for Orange in 1989. When the Catholic Church put the convent up for sale, they leapt at the chance to rescue it from its then parlous state. The 8000-square-metre property has a church that’s used for small functions and three lodgings. The original convent building, which was run as a school until 1963, is now The Cottage, converted into a bright two-bedroom, one-bathroom space. Weatherboard charmer Willow House has two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a wraparound verandah. An extra bed is available in The Nun’s Room, a self-contained one-bedroom apartment attached to the Chapmans’ home. Guests can savour delicious country breakfasts; expect homemade muesli, a herb and goat’s curd omelette with roasted tomatoes and robust coffee from the Faema espresso machine. “It’s not fancy but it’s the kind of place where we like to stay,” says Josie.
Another rural charmer, also in Borenore, is the Black Sheep Inn, which offers contemporary accommodation in a former shearing shed. And if you’re craving city digs, check out De Russie Boutique Hotel Orange.
Wake up and smell the coffee
If you thought the hipster barista was exclusive to capital cities, think again. Orange’s coffee scene shows no sign of slowing but, according to locals, you have to be on your game. “If you don’t serve good coffee, you don’t get away with it,” says Katie Baddock, who moved from Sydney’s Marrickville to Orange to found perennial gourmet favourite The Agrestic Grocer (426 Molong Road; 02 6360 4604) before opening new café Groundstone (151a Byng Street; 02 6394 6386). Located in the Orange Regional Museum precinct, Groundstone has a Scandinavian feel and features a kokedama succulent garden.
Need another caffeine hit? Wander a few blocks to Lords Place and look for the grey-and-white striped awning above hole-in-the-wall café Good Eddy. Pull up a seat, enjoy the sunlight streaming in through the shop window and soak up the country-town vibe.