115km south-west of Sydney lies the town of Bowral, the largest town in the Southern Highlands. Historically, Bowral served as a rural retreat for Sydney’s gentry and consequently there exist in the area many grand historic estates and manor houses, extensively planted with gardens in the English style. Today Bowral and its surrounds still attracts visitors from Sydney and beyond, who are drawn to the beautiful countryside and thriving food scene. As well as fabulous restaurants and a rich cafè culture, The Southern Highlands is a recognised cool-climate wine region, with around 250 hectares under vine representing a total of 60 vinyards. There are a number of wineries and cellar doors open to the public by appointment or on weekends.
Mushrooms in a train tunnel
Roy and Amir’s Southern Highlands food trail begins in Bowral on a crisp sunday morning, with autumn leaves falling and Mt Gibraltar shrouded in low-lying cloud. The boys have an 8am rendezvous with Claire Cooper of Cooper Marketing and manager of the Highlands Foodie Group, who will be showing the Owl House team around on today’s excursion.
Claire has a busy itinerary planned for the day, and she starts by leading Roy and Amir to a gate along the Sydney-Canberra railway line, clearly marked ‘No Entry’. It would seem like an unusual place to commence a food tour, however this is where the team is due to meet Dr Noel Arrold of Li-Sun Exotic Mushrooms. While waiting for Dr Arrold and with great diesel coal trains rolling by, Claire tells us the story of Bowral’s mushroom tunnel. The tunnel, running under Mt Gibraltar, was constructed in 1886 as part of the Main South Railway Line, linking Bowral to Mittagong. An upgraded, two-track line was built alongside in 1919, super-seeding the older tunnel, which lay unused until the 1950’s, when it became one of Australia’s first cultivated mushroom farms. In what would seem to be a wonderfully serendipitous conflation, Dr Arrold took over the tunnel in 1987. After having completed a PhD in cultivating mushrooms at the University of Sydney in the 1970’s. Conditions inside the tunnel are ideal for mushroom production, with stable temperature (15-17 degrees year round) and humidity mimicking the conditions present in the mountainous forests of China, Japan and Korea, allowing for the cultivation of such varieties as enoki, oyster, shimeji, wood-ear and shiitaki. Li-Sun Exotic Mushrooms currently produce nine species of mushroom. Roy and Amir can barely contain their excitement upon reaching the entrance to the tunnel. Inside they enter another world, a subterranean wonderland of beautiful fungi, Roy and Amir are in mushroom heaven. There are three main cultivation techniques presently in use in the tunnel. The first that Roy and Amir encounter is in the form of black agricultural-grade plastic bags which hang from the wall. Mushrooms grow out of slits in the sides of the bags, and while in the tunnel the boys saw oyster mushrooms (yellow, pink and pearl) and shimeji mushrooms grown using this technique. The next technique that Roy and Amir encountered was developed by Dr Arrold to mimic the traditional habitat of the Shiitake mushroom, which naturally occurs on fallen logs. These logs are formed from a combination of sawdust, wheat and barley that have been inoculated with Shiitake mushroom spores. The third technique, optimised for growing Chestnut mushrooms and King Browns is the ‘milk-bottle forest’. Dr Arrold’s ‘pseudo-log forest’ gives way to steel shelving upon which sits dozens of what appears to be wide-mouthed milk bottles. Once again, these vessels contain a specialist mixture of nutrients and spores, ideal for the mushroom whose favoured nursery is the milk bottle. Regrettably, the boys have to leave the mushroom tunnel, and emerge into daylight. The early cloud has burnt off, revealing a most perfect sunny Autumn day.
Next stop: Tennessee Orchard, Yerrinbool.
Anyone who has travelled the Hume Highway south of Sydney will be familiar with the big red apple, signaling the turnoff for Tennessee Orchard.The orchard was established over 40 years ago, and taken over by Josephine, Peter and John Vella in 2005. The farm gate is open between 9am - 4pm Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, when passers-by can purchase in-season apples as well as locally grown vegetables and produce. Consequently, only apples in season are available. Nick (-farm worker) prepares a number of varieties on hand for the Owl House team to sample, while explaining the qualities of each. The flavor of a just-picked apple that has not been subject to cold storage, where carbon dioxide is used to reduce apple ripening, is immediately apparent. Roy and Amir tried;
Red Imperial Gala - available late February, this fragrant apple is juicy and sweet with brilliant white flesh.
Hi-Early - a variety of Red Delicious. Tart and crisp, with a fine texture.
Red Delicious - available early March. Thick dark crimson skin. Creamy snow-white flesh. Physically distinct from other varieties by its shape, specifically the marked crowns at the base of the apple. This fruit can grow to impressive sizes - Nick tells of a specimen picked last week that weighed-in at a whopping 800g! Broadly speaking, apple season runs from late February to early June, making apples a true autumn fruit. The farm gate at Tennessee Orchards is worth visiting, not only for apples, but also for vegetables, honey, jams & spreads and free-range eggs, all locally grown or produced. Roy and Amir are loving fraternizing with the produce, soaking up the sights and smells around them, and they take time to cavort in the orchard amongst the apple trees. Things are getting rather ‘Old Testament’, when Claire decides that it is time to shepherd her flock in the direction of Hot Canary Gourmet Meats in Bowral. Hot Canary Gourmet Meats A small, independent butcher, it was established 18 months ago. Their focus is on local ‘original’, pasture-fed meats, and all produce stocked is likewise local. As well as local grass-fed beef and saltbush lamb (the only butcher in the area to stock it), venison and spatchcock, there is a small selection of fresh fish which comes from Wooloongong, as well as prize-winning sausages which are all made on-premises.
OMG The Spud
By now, Roy and Amir are decidedly distracted by their empty stomachs, and so it is proclaimed that lunch must be the very next stop. Sadly, there is no time to bask in the warm post-prandial after-glow - The Owl House team have a date with Potato-enthusiasts Norman Gair and Robyn Jackson. Claire leads the way to an unsealed driveway in the hamlet village of Wildes Meadow, to the side of which is a tiny timber shed, complete with front porch. What? No rocking chair with Jed Clampett and a shotgun? Of course not - this is the roadside stall of Highland Gourmet Potatoes. Roy and Amir make their way onto the porch, and are delighted to discover neat little paper bags of potatoes for sale. Each bag is marked with the variety and it’s optimum use, be it for roasting, for chips, for mash or for gnocchi and what’s on offer changes seasonally. Different potatoes have different growing times. The first harvest of the year is in December, and they continue to harvest until August. Highland Gourmet Potatoes grows an amazing number of 39 potato varieties, and they are constantly experimenting with the viability of other kinds. Roy, inspired by Heston Blumenthal’s rigorous approach to something as seemingly elementary as the humble potato, begins picking the collective brains trust that is Norm and Robyn. Directing his questions firstly at Norm, Roy says:“I want to understand the effect of starch, of water content. I want to understand how they affect the final product” Norm responds; “Well, Robbie might be better to ask. I’ve got the hard job - I drive the tractor down the road...‘till I get a spud thrown at me.” Roy, to Robyn; “Ok, two questions: What’s the best potato for mash, and what’s the best one to throw at him?” Roy talks Norm and Robyn through the dish that he wants to make with their potatoes. It’s an exciting moment, as ideas are exchanged.Norm suddenly exclaims: “we have a potato that looks like a beetroot inside!”. Immediately Roy and Amir want to go and dig up this potato, but before they set off into the paddock, Norm and Robyn’s ‘potato bible’ must be consulted. A handwritten ledger of which variety of potato is planted in which row in which paddock is produced by Robyn. An extraordinary document in itself, it serves as a map to guide Norm to the ‘Burgundy Beauties’ with pinpoint accuracy. The boys follow Norm’s ute out into the paddock, where they take turns digging up potatoes with a fork. It has been quite a buzz visiting Highland Gourmet Potatoes, due in no little part to the boundless enthusiasm of Norman and Robyn. Highland gourmet potatoes are available at Bowral, Camden and Eveleigh Markets, as well as that little roadside stall in Wildes Meadow.
A bit of wine
Its been a long day, but Amir has one final destination in mind. Amir fell in love with the Pinot Noir produced by 5th Chapter Estate winery at a tasting some time ago - since then it has been included on the wine list at The Owl House. Amir is keen to visit the winery, located in Avoca, and to meet vigneron and winemaker Cindy Manassen. Claire and the boys arrive at 5th Chapter Estate Winery to find Cindy in a pickle. Their de-stemmer has stopped working, and they are desperately trying to find a solution. This situation is particularly worrisome given that 5th estate does not make wine every year - their focus is on making wines of exceptional quality, hence wine will only be produced in the years that show promise for the production of a great wine. “We haven’t had vintage for two years. Now theres 800kg of grapes up there picked and waiting to be de-stemmed” states a very concerned Cindy. Despite her worries, Cindy kindly shows us into the Cellar Door and tells us a little bit about 5th Chapter Estate. The vines were planted in 1999, the first commercial vintage was 2005. Currently there are 3.5ha under vine - previously they had planted 7ha, but it proved too much for them to handle. In the early days, they did not have their own wine making facilities on the property, so barrels had to be trucked over the Divide to be processed at Kells Creek Vinyard or Tertini Wines. The vineyard is largely biodynamic, and they concentrate on three grape varieties - Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz, from which they make Rosé. So that concludes The Owl House excursion to The Southern Highlands. Once again, Roy and Amir have returned - not only with tales of wonderful produce, but also samples on which to experiment, for their Bowral-themed dinner. Stay tuned for updates.