Welcome to Corona-Time Cocktails—bringing the bar to your place each Friday evening! We’re getting excited,…
There’s something magical about when the sun begins to set and the animal kingdom changes shifts for the evening.
The twilight call of the pink galahs before they settle for the night, the rustling of the Eastern Water Dragons as they scamper from the dwindling warmth of sun and of course, the soft concerto of crickets that grows as darkness descends.
If you’re wondering where you might be able to experience such tranquility and witness this incredible performance, you need only look to the surrounds of the Australian National Botanic Gardens (ANGB)—and its Delicious afterDARK: Rainforest to Red Centre tour—tucked at the base of the looming Black Mountain.
Meandering up the cobbled stone path to the café for what is an ‘adults only’ experience, there’s a glass of Gallagher Sparkling Duet waiting on arrival alongside shots of bush tomato gazpacho with vodka and tobacco—a rather interesting way to being the evening.
Taking a seat at tables dressed in crisp white linen scattered across the deck that overlooks the lawns and eucalypt, the creatures of twilight begin to stir as the local winery for the evening, Gallagher Wines, is introduced to a crowd of no more than 40 people.
Varying in age, the group is a rather mixed bunch dressed in low-key casuals to the more stiff summer suit (though for a summer walk it’s not recommended and to think of it neither are heels).
Inspired by the bush tucker found within the gardens, the menu showcases some wonderful Australian flavours that are very much native to the land complements by produce that is sourced locally.
On its own the Illwarra Plum does not have a particularly favourable taste. But reduced into a relish with spices that are then paired to spring rolls filled with poached prawn and Warrigal greens, well you’re in for a whole other mouthful of deliciousness.
Soft music floats from the speakers as the second wine is served, a Gallagher Reisling, and with it—topped with bush tomato and basil —bite-size mouthfuls of leek, natural yoghurt and feta that takes on a similar resemblance to that of a frittata or a mini quiche without the pastry crust.
“If you were to eat the bush tomato on its own, you’d spit it out,” says Harry Stevenson, Executive Chef of the Hellenic Club Group.
“That’s when you need to start making all your chutneys and at this time of the year all the tomatoes are beautiful with the use of dukkah.
“You take lemon myrtle and dried native thyme, and mix them together.”
But of course, energy is needed for the walk and so follows rice paper rolls with native spiced shredded pork, seasonal vegetables and quandong dipping sauce, and smoked salmon en croute with pumpkin chilli and bush dukkah jam.
“With the quandong, [it’s] actually a native peach,” tells Harry.
“If you pick it up and eat it on its own, it’s horrible. So it’s just learning about it [the quandong] and what we can do with it.”
The chefs are an Englishman (Chris Mistry-Cable, Head Chef at the ANGB’s Floresco) and Irishman (Harry) and so you find yourself asking how they are able to bring together such unusual ingredients native to a land not even we know well and that is foreign to them in more ways than imagined.
“This has been a learning curve for both Chris and I,” confesses Harry as the third course is served—a Gallagher’s Merlot with goat’s cheese and bush herbs toasted fruit bread finished with native pepper berry, and rare roast beef rolls filled with asparagus and horseradish.
“We’re not native…[but] what we’ve tried to do…is bring back some classic dishes and then bring in the [Australian] bush food.
“The good thing is we get to try the wine beforehand and then match the dishes, so the last one you tried was the goat’s cheese. If you taste the wine (the merlot) you get a really dense fruit bread and then the goat’s cheese is really, really sharp. You put the two together and then add a native pepper berry which has been made into a chutney—a little more sweetness in there but a little bite. You feed them together, drink a glass of wine and all is good.”
As the culinary creations slow to a stop, the crowd is split off into four tour groups. Each is allocated a ranger guide equipped with an industrial (spotlight) torch and a mind filled with more botanical knowledge then you poke a stick at. And so the tour through the gardens begins.
Descending into the luscious, green and serene rainforest—the lungs of the world—it’s hard to believe this is an ecosystem that makes up only one per cent of Australia despite the various pockets of rainforests throughout the country. But when they are pooled together, I guess to doesn’t compare to the vast rolling plains that make up most of this land.
Upon leaving the rainforest, it is a 60 million year old species that next greets you—the Wollomi pine—first discovered clinging to a cliff in the Blue Mountains just a couple of hours west of Sydney. Found grasping onto the last of its life, the Wollomi pines (four I think it was), were on the brink of extinction.
From the pines to the pebbles, it is on approach to the Rock Garden that we cross paths with an Eastern Water Dragon hanging out by the water, probably on the hunt for its dinner. As we walk past, it remains still and unperturbed by our visit.
But rather it is the mob of kangaroos feeding on the grass, damp from the night air, that are unhappy with our passing by and so bound off in the night.
It is the last garden of the tour that excites me the most and stirs up a little emotion—home sickness perhaps? It is the Red Centre.
Having grown up in Alice Springs, it is amazing what a little red sand and a giant thorny devil statue can do to your heart strings, but with a little tug, the incredible experiences of teens came flooding back. From the spinifex grass to small desert bushes, it is the perfect setting to finish the evening with a glass of dessert wine and handmade chocolates from Canberra chocolatier, Lindsay and Edmunds.
Besides the Telstra Tower lit up in the background, it’s almost imaginable you are in fact standing among the sounds of silence in the heart of the outback.
Note: While the evening itself is perfect for a date night or an evening with friends, it’s not recommended that dresses with heels, suits or business wear be worn. Consider that you will be walking through environments that require stable footwear such as walking shoes, loafers or runners.
What: Delicious—afterDARK tour
When: 6.45pm until 9pm, most Fridays until 31 March
Where: Australian National Botanic Gardens
How much: $75 per person
Tickets: Bookings are essential via the ANBG website.
All photography except for the feature image by Jessica Schumann.