Our capital city abounds with cultural pursuits, from gallery hopping to touring government history, but fling four wheels off the London Circuit and you’ll soon discover that Canberra and her surrounds are also blessed with pursuits of a more prandial kind.
Interrupting grassy plains populated by nonchalant cows, are farms where beautifully fresh produce is harvested, hauled into trucks and hawked at local markets by dedicated food-lovers. From a cave of fungal treasures to the revival of a once-lively cider industry, the region is home to orchards, markets and farm gates well worth a country drive. Once you’ve taken in Canberra’s sights, follow the roads unravelling from the city and be sure to take your appetite and your market basket with you.
Li-Sun Exotic Mushrooms
Produce: exotic mushrooms
Where: Mt Gibraltar, between Mittagong and Bowral
Distance from Canberra: 1 hour 45 mins, by car
At the market: Capital Region Farmers Markets, Canberra
Beneath a hillside off the Old Hume Highway is a little-known tunnel. Cool and dark, even in the oppressive summer heat, the tunnel’s arced walls are lined with curious objects crowded with mushrooms. In this disused railway passage circa 1866 that runs between Mittagong and Bowral, microbiologist Dr Noel Arrold is busy tending his collection of exotic fungi. From creamy-white enoki standing to attention in large canisters to King Browns with bottom-heavy, velvety bulbs, the tunnel provides optimal conditions for nurturing mushrooms.
Noel first grew Swiss brown mushrooms in the tunnel in the late 1980s, but that wasn’t the first time it had fungal-friendly tenants. In the 1950s, food company Edgell grew mushrooms for canning here. Before Noel took to the cool burrow, he spent years working in major mushroom-growing centres in the USA, Germany and London.
“I was dealing with spawning labs around the world and, sometimes, someone would send me an unusual spawn out of interest,” he recalls. Colleagues from a Swiss lab sent him a spawn of the crimini mushroom (Agaricus bisporus) popular with European chefs. Noel dubbed it the ‘Swiss brown’ in honour of his mates, began growing them and, suddenly, his business, Li-Sun Exotic Mushrooms, was born.
Swiss browns are no longer considered exotic and are available in supermarkets. “We don’t even grow them anymore,” says Noel. “We can’t keep up with demand.” Instead, he supplies more exotic mushrooms to top chefs, including Sydney’s Tetsuya Wakuda and Kylie Kwong.
Three times a year, Noel leads organised tours through the tunnel, where you can marvel at blooms of coral-coloured oyster mushrooms and sigh over the cute, sunny-yellow caps of nameko clusters. But if you can’t wait for the tri-annual tour, catch Noel each Saturday at the Capital Region Farmers Markets in Canberra. “The market gives us an opportunity to get the knowledge out there – I’m able to talk to people, share recipes and let them know how to use mushrooms,” he says. “Many a customer has come up to the stall and said, ‘I’ve seen the mushrooms in the supermarket and I don’t know what to do with them.’ Once we give them a few simple recipes, they’re hooked!”
Cuttaway Creek Raspberry Farm
Produce: raspberries and blackberries
Where: Lot 2466, Old Hume Highway, Mittagong, (02) 4871 1201, cuttawaycreek.com.au
Distance from Canberra: 1 hour 45 mins, by car
At the market: Bowral Public School Farmers’ Market
Weave along the Old Hume Highway until you reach a sign that reads Cuttaway Creek Raspberry Farm. Here, you’ll find meticulously hand-weeded rows of raspberry bushes, heavy with little crimson lanterns that thrive in the Southern Highland’s cool climate. Canadian-born Nicki Penn and her husband, Dave, began cultivating raspberries and blackberries on a 12-hectare parcel of land more than 10 years ago. Soon after planting the canes they began making jams from the berries, then sauces and vinegars.
The award-winning berries are popular with chefs, including Peter Gilmore of Quay Restaurant, and have even been added to Neil Perry’s menus for Qantas first class. While Nicki and Dave now distribute their jams and sauces to local delis and gourmet shops across the country, they began by selling their wares at the nearby Bowral Public School Farmers’ Market and have operated a stall since the first jar was bottled. “We started at the market and still do it today. It is lovely to catch up with friends and locals; it’s a real community market for us,” says Nicki. Visit Nicki and Dave at the markets and pick up a bottle or raspberry wine vinegar to slosh over a summer salad or jar of blackberry jam to slick over a warm croissant.
Sully’s Cider House at The Old Cheese Factory
Produce: apple juice and cider
Where: 92 Sawyers Ridge Rd, Reidsdale, (02) 4846 1999, braidwoodmade.com.au
Distance from Canberra: 1 hour 25 mins, by car
At the market: The Old Cheese Factory cellar door
Across the Araluen Valley – close to the quaint historic town of Braidwood – sits The Old Cheese Factory on Sawyers Ridge Road. Built in the 1920s, the factory no longer turns out the product of its namesake, rather, it was revived by the Watkins-Sully family who bought it in 2007, converting it into a centre for local fruit production and a base for cheese- and bread-making classes.
English natives, the Watkins-Sullys migrated to Australia in the 1980s. After purchasing the factory, they discovered the area had once been home to a lively cider industry, thanks to the area’s annual apple harvest. They soon sourced an old apple press and now crush apples and bottle the juice – known as Sully’s Apple Juice – which they sell at The Old Cheese Factory’s cellar door. The couple also encourage other growers to use the press and transform their apples into juice or cider.
Behind The Old Cheese Factory, the family has painstakingly planted an orchard of cider apples propagated from heritage apple trees grown in the area since the 1880s. They hope to produce large quantities of the area’s original cider, returning the industry to its former glory.
Mulloon Creek Natural Farms
Produce: biodynamic eggs, beef, lamb and pork
Where: 3585 Kings Highway, Bungendore, mullooncreeknaturalfarms.com.au (for farm visit appointments, call 0408 584 900)
Distance from Canberra: 35 mins, by car
At the market: Capital Region Farmers Market, Canberra
Across the Monaro Plains, just past Braidwood, the landscape is dotted with sheep and cattle, and the sky stretches above like a blue silk awning. Edging up to Mulloon Creek are the two sister farms that make up Mulloon Creek Natural Farms. The Home Farm is nestled in a small valley shouldered by The Great Dividing Range. But it’s at the open- country farm, Duralla, where you’ll be greeted by an English Large Black pig and her litter of piglets, happily rooting around in the paddock and fighting each other for a drink from mum. In the neighbouring paddock, 12,000 Bond Brown chooks are busy scratching and fussing about, taking a leisurely wander up to the laying shed only when they feel like depositing an egg. The chooks, who are responsible for the sunny-yolked Mulloon Farm eggs, are allowed to wander all day until Winnie and Luke, two energetic Maremma sheepdogs, round them up before the sun sets, ensuring they are locked away from hungry foxes.
This 590-hectare farm uses organic and biodynamic farming practices to produce not just the eggs, but also organic pork and, soon, free-range and organic grass-fed black Angus beef and lamb under the Mulloon Creek Natural Farms brand.
Tobias Koenig is the general manager of Mulloon Creek Natural Farms and came to Australia from Germany in 1994. Having worked as a biodynamic farmer in Germany, he was keen to continue the practice here and settled on his own property, Ingelara, in Michelago, Canberra, in 2004. “Biodynamic farming is the oldest recognised form of alternative agriculture,” explains Tobias. “I believe biodynamics is the best way to create and maintain healthy animals and landscapes, to ensure the planet continues to let us produce food a little longer.”
Loriendale Organic Orchard
Produce: apples, pears, berries, stonefruit, hazelnuts
Where: 16 Carrington Rd, Wallaroo (near Hall), (02) 6230 2557, loriendale.com.au
Distance from Canberra: 25 mins, by car
At the market: Capitol Region Farmers Market, Canberra
Not content with more than 120 varieties of heritage and modern apples, Owen and Noreen Pidgeon crammed their abundant 13-hectare orchard at Loriendale with hazelnuts, pears, quinces, cherries, apricots, nectarines, nashi, loganberries, raspberries and strawberries.
The Pidgeons planted the orchard in 1982 and have a strong commitment to organic farming practices, including hosting the international WWOOFers (Willing Workers On Organic Farms), as well as agricultural and horticultural students from fruit-growing regions across France. The students have even inspired plantings of new varietals. “I’ve fallen in love with French pears as a result of the French students. Pears are to the French what apples are to the English,” says Owen, who’s planted several varieties, his favourite being the red d’Anjou – a large, rust-coloured pear that’s good for cooking and eating.
When the fruit is in season, you can arrive at the Pidgeon’s farm gate and fill your arms (or car boot) with fruit, or front up to their stall at the Capitol Region Farmers Market and chat to Owen about his prized heritage varieties. “It is important for us to be able to tell the story of where the fruit comes from and why it’s special,” he explains. “I was always keen to produce unusual, lesser known varietals and that’s what I started doing 25 years ago. It has paid off.”
If you’re lucky enough to be touring the area in March, join the festivities at Apple Day, which is hosted by the Pidgeons on their property. The family raises money for hospitals and aid projects in Nepal and Africa, as well as indigenous programs and local rural support services. “It’s a celebration we’ve been holding for 23 years,” explains Owen. “Our children are grown up now, but they all come home for it.” There are apple pies and toffee apples, a local choir, apple-dunking competitions, and Owen gives his vintage apple press a spin to impress the kids. “It’s a great way to show kids where their food comes from, and for locals to see that it’s all right here on their doorstep,” he says.
The hit list
Capital Region Farmers Market
Exhibition Park, Saturdays, 7.30am to 11.30am.
Bowral Public School Farmers’ Market
Bendooley St, second Saturday of each month, 8am to 1pm.
SAGE Moruya Farmers’ Market
Riverside Park, Tuesdays, 3.30pm to 7pm.
Italian and Sons
Bentwood chairs and warm tones make this trattoria an inviting place to enjoy a vino after a busy day of market hopping. A chalkboard menu gives you the lowdown and there’s a piatti del giorno (plate of the day), but the pull of a bubbling pizza is likely to draw you in. 7 Lonsdale St, Braddon, (02) 6162 4888.
Lonsdale Street Roasters
A sidestep from Italian and Sons, this cool roaster beckons passers-by with the burnt caramel scent of freshly ground coffee beans. Come for the custom-made coffee, stay for a sandwich, and leave with a bag of beans. 7 Lonsdale St, Braddon, (02) 6156 0975.
The Lanterne Rooms
This Asian-style bistro showcases Malay-Indian spices, Fukien and Nyonya cooking, sample Penang hawker-style satays and a spicy cassava with mantau bread – all within the atmosphere of a recreated Penang farmhouse. 3 Blamey Place, Campell Shops, (02) 6249 6889.
Riverview Homestead, Hall
Near the tiny town of Hall, Robyn and Les Beresford of Riverview Homestead share their hazelnut grove with farm stay visitors. Guests can pick nuts in season from mid-January, swim in the Murrumbidgee River, and fish for trout, Murray cod and red fin, which can be cooked in one of the property’s quaint self-contained cottages. 1173 Wallaroo Rd, Hall, (02) 6230 2637.
East Hotel, Canberra
This stylish apartment hotel is set between Manuka and Kingston. It houses OX Eatery, a cosy French rotisserie and delicatessen. 69 Canberra Ave, Kingston, (02) 6178 0041.
Diamant Hotel, Canberra
Part of the 8 Hotels group, this art-inspired 80-room boutique lodging is decorated with emerging and established artists’ work, so you can get your art fix without stepping foot into the National Gallery of Australia. 15 Edinburgh Ave, (02) 6175 2222.
Next year, Apple Day will be held at the Pidgeon family’s Loriendale Orchard, where you can purchase many varieties of apples and pears, taste the Loriendale apple sauce, and more. Saturday 29 March, 2014, 1.30–5pm. 16 Carrington Rd, Wallaroo (near Hall), (02) 6230 2557.
Photography Tom Donald
As seen in Feast magazine, November 2013, Issue 26. For more recipes and articles, pick up a copy of this month's Feast magazine or check out our great subscriptions offers here.