Mudgee’s on a roll
There are many good reasons to visit Mudgee but I’d never have guessed unearthing the world’s best sausage rolls would be among them.
On a glorious spring Saturday morning, we stroll into the Mudgee Farmers’ Market in the churchyard of the stately sandstone St Mary’s. The produce here is divine, and ots all local. There’s a pistachio grower who sells not only nuts in various flavourings but also a delicious fig and pistachio jam. There are flower growers, chilli sauce sellers, local musicians strumming guitars and farmers in Akubras, their wives in pearls, chatting to friends.
I spot a queue forming at the Mudgee Made stand for the homemade sausage rolls. Joining them, I order the pork and fennel roll. It is unbelievably good and my wife snaffles half – she too is taken. “That is the best sausage roll I’ve ever eaten,” I say to the women behind the counter. “Oh, it’s not a patch on the Moroccan lamb,” says one. “Yeah, nah,” says the other. “Moroccan is definitely better.” I fish in my pocket for coins. They are right – the Moroccan lamb of Mudgee is undoubtedly the world’s best sausage roll.
The night before, after a four-hour drive from Sydney, we’d sauntered into the welcoming embrace of Kim Currie’s Zin House. The restaurant is 17km out of town in what is a flashed-up old farmhouse. Little remains of the original fit-out except the vibe: it feels as though you’ve walked into an oversized country kitchen. Currie’s stepson, Alex Lowe, is the head waiter – he’s a solid young bloke who looks as though he may have spent the day digging post holes before showering and getting spruced-up for his night gig. He’s friendly and knowledgeable and tells us he spent his childhood in this building. His dad is winemaker David Lowe and the restaurant sits on the family farm.
The Weekend Australian Magazine’s reviewer John Lethlean describes Zin House as “pretty much my idea of the ideal regional restaurant”. And so Alex Lowe has plenty of reasons to crow and yet, like his restaurant, its food and his region, he’s wonderfully unpretentious. “People don’t come to Mudgee for one particular thing or one restaurant or one vineyard,” he says. “They come for the whole experience.” He then rattles off a list of other places we should visit and things we should do.
This, we discover, is the Mudgee way. It’s a good half day’s drive from Sydney and at least 90 minutes from the nearest decent-sized country town. This relative isolation has fostered a community in which people collaborate and celebrate each other’s successes. They all love to highlight the wares of other local producers. It’s as though the region had a tourism coach who drummed into them that to prosper they had to be a champion team, rather than a team of champions.
The Hunter Valley, another region in NSW that’s celebrated for its wines, does its best to ignore the hard-scrabble coal towns that you drive through to get to the grapes. Here, the town is the jewel in the crown. If they had a country town section in that “Australia’s Most Liveable Cities” palaver that Melbourne always seems to win, Mudgee would surely get the gong. With 11,500 residents, it’s small enough for people to know each other. But the wine industry – and the tourists and young workers it attracts – give it a sophistication and a vibrancy that many larger towns can only dream of.
Another thing: it doesn’t have any big supermarket complexes on its outskirts, so shoppers are corralled into the town centre rather than into soulless malls. People stop and chat, coffee and papers in hand. It has streets of grand old colonial buildings that give it gravitas. On this Saturday morning the town is packed and it is difficult to find a parking spot. Mudgee is pumping, and within a short drive are more than 40 cellar doors. What’s not to love?
After the markets, we head off for lunch at Cellar By Gilbert, the cellar door of Gilbert Family Wines, which sits in a church-hall-like building on the edge of town. We are greeted by fifth-generation winemaker Simon Gilbert, who generously takes us through the intricacies of his superb cold climate wines. All over town we’d been hearing about his new head chef, Pip Sumbak, and the incredible things she was doing with her Food Over Fire lunch; Pip is young and single and people were telling us of their attempts to find her a fella to keep her in town.
It is a worthwhile and honourable quest. We head outside to see the meal she is cooking over a fire in the garden. She’s designed a contraption that swings cast iron pots and hot plates over the coals. These are stacked with cabbages and cauliflowers, pots of onions and spuds and capsicums and racks of meat – all of it locally sourced, bar the fish.
You can keep your fancy restaurant degustation fluff – food, in my opinion, doesn’t get any better than this. It is interesting, hearty, flavoursome and generous. The meat is crisp on the outside and succulent within. The side dishes, such as the fennel and beetroot salad and the spuds cooked in duck fat with mushrooms, are done to perfection. Eventually we roll out, full as the proverbial fat lady’s shoe.
Laneway bars are all the rage, and of course they have one in Mudgee. Alby & Esthers is located in a charming 1870s terrace that opens onto a cobblestone laneway. It was originally built as a stock and station agency with a stable; these days it operates as a cafe by day and turns into a wine bar on Friday and Saturday nights. In the Mudgee way, it stocks the wines of smaller vineyards that don’t have a cellar door. We taste some delicious wines and pick away at a small plate of olives, cheeses and dips.
Our digs for the night are at Peppertree Hill, a 10-minute drive out of Mudgee on a 100ha cattle farm. Our cottage is cosy and romantic, with a cast-iron wood fire that crackles through the night. In the morning I wake to what I think is the sound of a mobile phone vibrating on the bedside table – and realise it’s actually the rumblings of a randy bull in a nearby paddock.
On Sunday morning we stop at Pipeclay Pumphouse restaurant at the Robert Stein Vineyard. This is another of Mudgee’s flash eating joints and we are lucky to get a seat. The restaurant, in a building best described as shearing shed chic, looks out over a dam to the vineyards beyond. I have a mushroom and scrambled eggs dish and my wife a goat’s cheese tart and poached eggs – both simple and scrumptious.
From here we drive out of town to the award-winning Logan Wines. The cellar door is located in a modern glass building with arresting views of the hills across the valley. A friendly woman named Renae pours us wine and tells us how she moved from Newcastle to Mudgee a few years ago when her husband got a job in the local coal mines. She switched from hairdressing to cellar doors and raves about how much she loves living in Mudgee.
Heading back to Sydney, several kilos heavier and with a boot full of booze, we know just how she feels.
Peppertree Hill is on Henry Lawson Drive, Eurunderee. Cottages from $170 (midweek) to $200 (Friday, Saturday); a house that will sleep 15 is $600 (midweek) to $900 (Friday, Saturday). peppertreehill.com.au