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Gaining Altitude: Orange FOOD Week
One time local girl, Catherine Russell went behind the scenes of the kitchens, farms, vineyards and experiences that make Orange F.O.O.D Week (March 31 to 9 April).
I think we know now that food was never intended to be a disconnected and remote experience – our harvests have long been celebrated, even its absence grieved, and the bounty is always for the sharing.
It seems more important than ever in this busy modern world that we need to feel the earth, and hear the crack of corn husk as it breaks from the stalk, to squish a grape on the vine while walking the rows in the crisp morning air, to see the lives lived on the land that tend the paddocks, vineyards and orchards with and against the odds of Mother Nature.
We, as Canberrans, share this paddock-to-plate sensibility with the people of Orange, who intrinsically understood a deep human desire to know the source of our food long before bearded hipsters and celebrity chefs cottoned on.
It was the early 1990s, when Australia was gripped by high interest rates and a recession, that a passionate collective gathered in Orange with an idea – to showcase the food and wine of the district in a week-long festival.
It was radical, particularly in the face of such economic turmoil. While the region had been home to orchards since the 1840s, winemaking was in its infancy and a long way from its recent comparisons to the Bordeaux region of France.
There were naysayers at the time (as there always is), yet the F.O.O.D Week event, completely driven by community volunteers, has flourished into a program of experiences that attracts notable chefs as well as 20,000 attendees every year.
They come for signature events like The Forage, a 3.6-kilometre stroll through vineyards, plotted with picnics and wine tastings every 500 metres – a concept President of Orange F.O.O.D Week James Sweetapple adapted from the Italians.
“The Italians love their food and it is such a part of their family and communities and the Orange community shares that passion,” says James.
James’ passion for good produce and the region is infectious, he started with the committee when he was 25 and today runs Cargo Road Wines, an award-winning vineyard that is also home to 60,000 bees.
“We need the bees, I have suits for my children and they come and gather the honey, tasting it straight from the hive as it drips out – that is how it should be,” says James.
“When I went to Italy to see how the Italians celebrate their harvest and food, it was a family event, where people foraged through the vineyards, families made and shared their food, preserves and cured meats along the way.
“It is a real experience of food from the source.”
It is a philosophy extended by young farmer Rodger and his wife Katherine of Carbeen Pastured Produce who returned to Rodger’s great grandfather’s property with a different approach to production.
“We are changing the whole way the land is cared for to ensure we are producing the healthiest eggs and chickens for our customers.
Rodger explains a holistic progression of herded cows, laying hens then sheep that follow each other through the paddocks, restoring and resting the land.
“It is a different approach that is more labour intensive but it has meant we haven’t used chemicals on this property in two years…if everyone in this shire cared for this land this way we would create an extra 10,000 jobs.”
And the proof is very much in the eating. We feast on a goats cheese quiche made with fresh eggs, and chicken liver pate and homemade crackers, and a juicy sage and orange chicken.
Standing on Rodger and Katherine’s 1400-acre property framed by the mountain ranges, you can see how fertile this land can be when good stewards oversee it.
Long before Europeans brought orchards to the rich volcanic soils of the region, the Wiradjuri people harvested this land and today through companies like Dreamtime Tuka and Indigenous Cultural Adventures they share their secrets of the native foods.
Local Wiradjuri woman Norma tells me that—much like a woman—the land needs our thoughtfulness and appreciation so that she may continue to be bountiful.
Perhaps the greatest representation of this abundance in Orange is the ever present Mt Canobolas – she stands with her neck adorned with neat rows of apples, figs, plums, cherries and grapes ever constant to the changing sky.
I know her well for she was a constant through my youth. On cold stormy days when she is shielded by the clouds, you still feel her presence; and then in her summer glory, backlit by an electric blue sky, or aflame with auburns, yellows and lime greens in the autumn to gowned in a majestic freshening white after a snowfall.
She is the reason that Orange—at just 40 years young in the winemaking game—is causing people to notice. This is the highest altitude for winemaking in Australia, starting at 600 metres and extending to over 1100. It makes for wine that has distinction and that is nuanced in flavour depending on the elevation and perspective of the vineyard on the mountain.
Her soils have nurtured many award-winning wines, the most recent a 2015 Riesling from Colmar Estate. Bill Shrapnel, pours me a glass and the balance of the drop is immediately clear to my untrained palette.
“I have a couple who make my wine, one is instinctive and knows by the feel and the taste of the grape when it is time, whereas his wife (as the scientist) measures the brix – it’s that combination that makes great wine.”
Bills smiles as he enjoys the produce from his own vineyard—an idea that came to him while cycling through France years before.
Further down the mountain we meet Justin of See Saw Wines in the Balmoral vineyard.
“I’ve been here for nearly 27 years and every time we had a baby on the way we planted a vineyard,” Justin says with his loyal kelpie Turbo at his feet.
See Saw owns three vineyards at different elevations giving Justin a range of grapes and flavours to work with. We squeeze the grapes and taste the flavour, you can see in Justin’s eyes that the harvest is close.
“We are in for a good season, we had a cool start to December and heat when we needed it and now cool nights—these are all good for flavour development and we should be harvesting here in late March to early April.”
Orange people are passionate about their wines—and their cider. Apple orchards have been a fixture on the mountain since the 1840s, yet cider-making really came into vogue in the past 10 years.
James Kendall could see the trend in his Sydney work with a major liquor retailer and that tempted him to take up cider making in Orange.
“In my early twenties I worked in a brewery in the UK that made cider and that led to retail, but this is a return to the making process,” says James now at the helm of his own Small Acres Cyder.
“I am producing real cider, not like the mass-produced cider that is made from concentrate or laden with sugar, and sometimes the taste of real cider surprises people–it’s crisp and different depending on the fruit.
And it seems the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, with James’ eight-year-old daughter a hands-on contributor to making the non-alcoholic cider Golden Knot.
“She came to me one day and said, ‘I think you should make a non-alcoholic cider and call it Golden Knot; ‘gold’ because of the nearby gold mine and ‘knot’ because the orchards tie the history of Orange together.
James’ daughter went on to oversee the graphic design of the labels and the sampling until the product was landed.
“I think I have two little entrepreneurs on my hands—they often bag up the plums from our trees and sell them at the cider door to our customers.
It is an idyllic life away from the hustle and bustle of Sydney and executive jobs that once dominated their days.
Jeremy Norris is another to have escaped the city for a life in the country founding the highly successful Byng Street Group, anchored by local favourite The Byng Street Café that is surrounded by federation houses in a wide tree lined street.
It is my local pit stop for coffee when I travel home to Orange and today when I visit I am greeted by golden retriever Uma ready for a pat, the long front table is a meeting point for local tradies, people at the end of their morning walk call in for coffee and local mums mill in the sunny courtyard.
If you visit during autumn, Byng St has one of the most spectacular autumnal displays best enjoyed via a stroll with a locally roasted coffee in hand.
There are plenty of tree changers in Orange like Jeremy, James and Gail, now sinking their hands in the soil and crafting something real in response to years commuting to a desk. This was the path of Rhonda Doyle, the matriarch ofF.O.O.D week, who lays claim to planting some of the first vines in the region for her award-winning Bloodwood Wines.
“Orange has always grown fantastic produce here but for a long time it was put on a truck and sent to market, now people want to understand where their food comes from,” Rhonda says between scoops of vanilla bean ice cream, burnt lavender, figs and natural honey.
We are at Charred, the latest restaurant to open in Orange, led by chef Liam O’Brien who has just prepared a three-course meal including a deconstructed Mexican tamale, raw corn salsa, chipotle sauce and sour cream.
“I had worked overseas and in Sydney as a chef and I wanted to open my own restaurant and use local produce and adapt the menu to the seasons,” Liam says bouncing on his feet pumped from a packed night…on a Wednesday.
“Returning to Orange where I was born was an easy decision, the produce is exceptional.”
As he speaks to those who have gathered to taste his creations, Rhonda nods with pride and approval – it is clear the next generation to driveF.O.O.D week has arrived.
This new generation is inventing, exploring and changing the way we experience food—like young couple Kelly and Paolo, who have settled in Orange with a love story for the ages.
When we meet, we are gathered for a Pochi ma Bouni – ‘a small but great’ dinner party at Bell Hill – a stellar house available for hire with 360-degree views of the countryside (that can be reached by helicopter).
Greeting us is a 2000-year-old Italian recipe recreated with local honey, figs, and goats cheese. It is part of Paolo’s dream to reinvent ancient Italian recipes for a modern table, with quality local produce.
We are a long way from Paolo’s Italy, yet as Kelly shares the story of how they met and fell in love in Abu Dhabi and returned to her hometown, it is clear the love of food, family and local produce is universal.
Much like Fi Hall who loves this place and what it produces.
Fi and her husband Bernard are the second generation to their apple orchard ‘Caenarvon’ and I capture a photo of Fi as we have a breakfast picnic inside an avenue of apples.
We talk about the latest apple trend for ‘wax off’ and what that means for this year’s production process. She is practical and philosophical about such an upheaval driven by the supermarket chains.
“We’ll make it work,” she says as the branches bow behind her, the apples just hours away from picking.
We have enjoyed bircher muesli with apples, honey and caramelised figs and a home baked apple turnover by Australia’s Rural Woman of the Year, Sophie Hansen, who runs a holistic deer farm with her husband nearby.
Sophie’s blog Local is Lovely and her Instagram have connected thousands of rural women through a shared love of the land, produce and food.
It is a modern take on the way women have kept the social fabric of rural and regional communities connected through drought, fire, tragedy and celebration – always with something baked or preserved from their own produce in hand.
Often the preserves are borne from necessity as Richard Dowling from Franklin Road Preserves found several years ago. After years of sheep and cattle farming, Richard had moved into town, planting an extremely productive vegetable patch.
“I reached for my grandmother’s preserve recipes with classics like Bread and Butter Cucumber and Tomato Relish and then my kids said I should sell the preserves,” Richard says.
“I’ve just bottled over 3,500 preserves this summer.” Richard is standing in his vegetable patch on a small parcel of land in the Word of Mouth vineyard telling us the story of how Franklin Road Preserves began.
He breaks a corn from the husk and then hands it me raw, to try. It is delicious, juicy and tastes like no corn I have ever known.
It is this kind of fresh produce that chefs and cooks from the 57 local cafes and over 48 local restaurants seek out directly or at local places like The Agrestic Grocer.
Many other restaurants have started their own farming operations and employ farmers as part of their staff like the Union Bank Wine Bar. Local is on show in this Orange institution with a wine selection of over 90% local dropds that you can sit and enjoy with the fresh food straight from the paddock.
As we are lunching, the farmers employed by the restaurant arrive with large zucchinis, fresh tomatoes and jalapeños bursting with colour.
They kindly give me some tomatoes to take back to Canberra and I think, that along with my fresh Carbeen Pastured Produce eggs, I’ll attempt to make into the Goats Cheese Quiche for my family. After all what is food if it is not shared?
In its 26th year Orange FOOD Week is bigger than any one vineyard, farm, kitchen or experience – what started as a celebration of produce is today very much a celebration of people – those who grow it, those who create it, those who celebrate it, who reinvent it and all of us who share it.
Visit Orange. Talk to the locals and taste it for yourself.
How to get there
Orange is just over three hours drive from Canberra via Yass, Boorowa, Cowra or 3.5 hours from Sydney. You can also fly with Rex Airlines from Sydney.
Where to stay
Great hotels and motels, call direct, or chat to the Orange Tourist Information Centre with an array of beautifully appointed federation homes such as Cadogan Central Luxury (where I stayed) available through AirBnB or try Visit my Farm to stay with a farming family on an operating property.
The author travelled courtesy of Destination NSW and F.O.O.D Week Inc but her opinions remain her own.