Not Your Usual Day In The Southern Highlands Of NSW…
By Tom Neal Tacker © 2006
It’s a rare experience to eat sun-warmed raspberries off their canes, to see a rainbow through black thunderclouds over a vineyard, to be bitten on the big toe by one of the world’s most endangered pigs and to have one of the best country meals I’ve ever eaten all in the same day.
This happened in the NSW Southern Highlands. I haven’t been there for a long time, except occasionally to pass through on the Hume Highway. Memories of too many tweed twin sets and an excess of twee souvenir shops have kept me from the new charms of the Highlands. But I thought it was time to observe the changing food and wine scene first hand in order to change my jaded old perceptions.
To eat raspberries fresh off the cane is one of life’s simple pleasures. I made an appointment to visit Cuttaway Creek Raspberry Farm at random. There are several berry farms in the Highlands but somehow I got lucky and chose well. Its owner, Dave Penn, a former music industry executive greeted us with, “You wouldn’t believe that Kerry Packer’s assistant rang me to order a case of our jams. I don’t know how he found us but he said that Kerry loved our product and wanted some. Kerry died two days later. I hope the order still comes through though.” Such are the vagaries of agricultural life.
Dave sells direct to some of Sydney’s more illustrious restaurants. The berries you eat at a fine diner are usually very different from those purchased at your local greengrocer or supermarket. The latter are often picked under ripe or worse, have begun to ferment in their settled juices at the bottom of the container. Nasty in all respects. To savour berries fresh from the orchard is a sweet revelation. Dave picks in the morning and delivers the punnets to his clients to be served less than eight hours later. If you’re not a restaurateur on his delivery list, I recommend a visit to Cuttaway Creek Apart from the fresh fruit, he also does the best raspberry jam I’ve yet to eat (Kerry was on to something here.) and a splendid raspberry vinegar.
The rainbow occurred during a visit to Joadja Vineyards and Winery. Planted in the early 80s, the district’s first winery in fact, owner Kim Moginie was most definitely a pioneer when he planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Malbec. Its 15 acres also include some Sangiovese. I tasted barrel samples of all, the standouts being the 2005 Sauvignon Blanc and Malbec, a 2004 Sangiovese and a dense but not overly wooded 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon developing in some very old barrels. I also sampled some “balsamic” vinegar composed of a blend of red varieties that in a few more years will result in one Australia’s better vinegars.
I hasten to add that though Kim is a raconteur, pioneer and quite interesting man when he discusses the Southern Highland’s vinous history, much work is being done through the assistance of Andrea Talbot, a talented microbiologist and winemaker. She is helping to lift the Joadja game into the new century. The cellar door is surely one of Australia’s most charming, reminding me a bit of Rockford’s in the Barossa Valley with its heritage appeal. The wines from the cellar door are a mixed lot, some a bit disappointing, some showing up well. I leave it to the visitor to decide, though I suspect some dirty barrels need replacement; a few wines fell flat. If they get the barrel samples that I tried into the bottles safely however, then Joadja is assuredly a winery to watch again. The Malbec is one of the best I’ve had anywhere, the same goes for the Sauvignon Blanc too.
Later that same day…
Cindy Bowman yells out, “Oink! Oink! Come here baby!” Three-month-old piglet, Oink, runs to the fence to be fed from the bottle. “He doesn’t really need this, he’s old enough to free range now but he’s a pet really. No, little Oink won’t end up at Moss Vale Butchery. I’m getting him a lead to walk him down the main street. He’s such a cutie, isn’t he?”
Rare Large Black English piglet Oink is indeed a cute little pig. I climbed over the fence to join him with his cousins. Oink immediately rolled on to his back to have his tummy scratched. While I paid attention to Oink, one of his paddock mates took an interest in my left big toe and clamped down on it. “Watch out. They love feet, “ says Cindy. Was this a revenge of the trotter? It’s too easy to make these sorts of lame jokes around pigs.
I asked Cindy, a senior recruitment officer working full time as well, “Why pigs?” She replied, “Well, they’re endangered! There are only 400 Large Black English pigs in the whole world. That and they’re slow growing, have amazing marbling and taste absolutely delicious! All my pigs are free range, are given no hormones, antibiotics, sedatives or chemicals. They live as they’re supposed to, free ranging and growing naturally.” I couldn’t think of a better reason to develop a pig farm myself.
As we toured the various paddocks, engaging with her growing herd of prized heritage pigs, I grew enamoured of this breed. Cindy has virtually tamed them all. Her first boar, a 300 K. heavyweight with 3” tusks, followed us around his paddock trying to rub against our legs. “Be a little careful around him. If he decides to go somewhere in a hurry, he won’t think twice about pushing you over to get there,” she warned me.
Cindy sells almost all of her pork to her local butcher, Graeme O’Donnell, at his Moss Vale Butchery (Tel: 02 4868 1026 for orders), though her next lot of pork will probably exceed what Graeme will be able to sell locally. Cindy is at the secondary growth stage with more sows bearing large litters and will soon need other customers. I recommend to all chefs serious about their pork to contact Cindy Bowman. Though her property is not really open to the public, with prior notice she is happy to take visitors on a tour. Be sure to say hello to Oink and to wear closed shoes or boots! Sandals provoke painful attention, I can assure you.
The Journeyman Restaurant in Berrima came highly recommended. It employs the only sommelier in the Highlands and I thought a sommelier’s advice on the local wine scene would be informative. I learned that the sommelier, Debbie Pearce-Pratt, is married to Tim Pratt, the chef and together that they are the owners of the Journeyman.
I discussed the Tasting Menu with Debbie and asked her to alter the matched wines slightly to include more of the local wines from her compendious list of over 300 wines from around the world. Delightfully, she changed her recommendations and then told me that because we were taking such an interest that Tim would probably add a “few more little sample dishes” to our degustation of seven courses.
We started with a demi-tasse of ‘Puree of mushroom soup with horseradish cream’, followed by a single ‘Hastings River rock oyster with an apple balsamic vinegar’, both accompanied by a Cantine Pra Soave Classico Superiore 2004. The wine proved a perfect match to the two brief starters, an exemplary confirmation of the versatility of the Garganega grape variety. A stunning ‘Terrine of orange-cured ocean trout, sour cream and chives with a beetroot and orange salad’ and a ‘Porcini mushroom and ricotta filled zucchini flowers, slow roast tomato and salsa verde’ were accompanied by the local Greenbriers Park Sauvignon Blanc 2004. Again a lovely match of flavours and by then I was growing increasingly enthused by Tim’s talent in the kitchen. A sublime ‘Galantine of orange and vanilla stuffed spatchcock, apple and pomegranate salad’ almost matched the St Hubert’s Rousanne 2003, the complexity of the galantine outdid the Rousanne but I liked the novelty of the pairing anyway.
After a short break we progressed to ‘Fig stuffed saddle of lamb, bubble and squeak and pumpkin puree’ with a Castello di Gabbiano Riserva Chianti Classico 2000. Match, game, set and win with this one. Tannin and fat, sweet and salty, lovely Chianti with legs performs with young lamb. My eyes started to roll back into my head. Next up was a ‘Roast rump of wagyu beef, fondant potato and Perigueux sauce’ with Wolf Blass Grey Label Cabernet Sauvignon 2003. The sauce was divine; little morsels of foie gras floating in an excellent veal reduction, the beef’s melting texture was a good marriage with the young Grey Label.
The ‘Chef’s dessert selection’ is usually accompanied by a Seppelt DP57 Grand Tokay but Debbie convinced us to try the local Southern Highlands Winery Botrytis Chardonnay 2004. I like botrytis affected Chardonnay about as much as I like over-oak-chipped cheap Chardonnay so this took a considerable amount of convincing from Debbie. I have to admit that it wasn’t bad after all. Somehow the wine retained its acidity without losing character altogether. Of course by then I was ready to like anything Tim and Debbie put in front of me. Our ‘dessert selection’ began with a spoonful each of pink grapefruit, peach and strawberry sorbets, followed by a large platter-to-share artfully decorated with a line up of: a ‘peanut butter sandwich’ consisting of a layer of peanut caramel cream, a layer of chocolate peanut bavarois and topped with an apple/strawberry jelly, a whipped ricotta cannoli with Poire William cream, an orange and cinnamon panna cotta and a steamed mango pudding with fresh mango.
After a head clearing macchiato with petit fours I had to have with a glass of 46 year old Eau de Vie de Vin de Bourgogne. Call me a pig. I really felt like Oink.
Our service was charming and attentive. The Journeyman décor is a relaxing countrified combination of plain comfy cushioned bistro chairs, retro light fittings that wouldn’t be out of place in terribly trendy-fied Surry Hills, old stone walls painted pale gold counter-pointing vintage burgundy and some outdoor seating for dining or a smoko. Adequate glassware on linen topped tables, serviceable flatware, sea salt in little dishes and your own miniature pepper grinder round out the picture. There is also a bar area with a fireplace if you feel inclined for a change of scenery during a long and delicious meal.
The Chef’s Tasting Menu is priced at $75 p/p. With matching wines it’s $110. I see value like this about as often as I eat sun-warmed raspberries off the cane, see a rainbow through a thundercloud over a vineyard and am bitten on the big toe by an extremely rare pig. In the Southern Highlands no less.
Country dining in Australia is seldom this good)
Cuttaway Creek Raspberry Farm
Old Hume Highway, Mittagong 2575
Tel: 02 4871 1201
From late January until mid-April
7 days by appointment
Joadja Vineyards & Winery
Cnr. of Greenhills and Joadja Roads
Tel: 02 4878 5236
Open 7 days from 10am
Also Andrea Talbot (Andrea is an expert on the wines of the area.)
Mob: 0438 923 676
Highlands Heritage Pork
Tel: 02 4868 2509
By appointment only
The Journeyman Restaurant
Old Hume Highway
Tel: 02 4877 1911