A couple of weeks ago I previewed the Orange Wine Festival, which will be held in that city and the surrounding district from October 13-22.
Last weekend I travelled to its smaller, longer established, and arguably slightly slower paced cross-town rival, Mudgee, principally to attend the annual Wine Show dinner — a key component of the Mudgee Wine and Food Festival — but also to try some of the area’s marvellous produce and soak up some of its delightful atmosphere.
It was a bit of a coming home for me really. I’d lived and worked there during the first half of the 1980s and I have a deep affection for Mudgee and its people.
In some ways it had changed a great deal, in others not at all.
It is still very much a friendly, quiet country town at heart — with wide streets, history aplenty and very obvious civic pride in fastidiously maintained and beautifully decorated public buildings.
It’s grown quite a bit and become much busier, of course, but for me the most obvious change is in the increased sophistication of its food and drink scenes.
There are lots more wineries these days, there’s a veritable procession of reportedly excellent restaurants, and the diversity and quality of the Saturday-morning monthly Mudgee Farmers Market shows admirably the depth and breadth of the area’s excellent produce.
A couple of things leapt to our attention and gained plenty of praise from the Woman with Altitude.
Firstly, there was the hearty way that the town had embraced the concept of shared plates. Most meals we had required food to be shared with your neighbours at the table.
There’s nothing quite like metaphorically breaking bread together to encourage meaningful and genuine conversation.
Secondly, there’s a consistency in the style of food, which I guess could be labelled as hearty and rustic — dishes that centred on the quality of produce, were unashamedly Mudgee in origin and that certainly didn’t pretend to be anything more.
No big-city airs and graces here. Nothing at all tarted up. Just good honest, very tasty country fare.
It was exemplified by the main course at the Wine Show dinner prepared at Craigmoor Pavilion by Kim Currie — slow-cooked shoulder of lamb, balsamic grazed and served with roast pumpkin, zucchini and cous cous, and presented on plates holding enough for each to generously feed four.
The trend continued the following day when we shared a couple of long tables with about 40 others at Slowfox Wines, the district’s newest cellar door and already noted for the strength and flavours of its dry red malbec.
There chef Aaron Cole had fired up the barbie and was preparing a feast, starting with delicious sourdough grilled with olive oil and garlic, which was followed by some delicious wild-rabbit-and-pork terrine and a main course of roasted chicken served with slaw, roasted beetroot and chickpea salad.
And the cheeses, produced locally by High Valley, were quite simply outstanding.
It wasn’t all about dining at special functions, though, and the standard restaurant fare that we tried was right up there is the excellent category.
Alby & Esther’s is tucked away in an alley off Market Street, in the very heart of Mudgee. The emphasis was still on shared plates and we tied gamely to do justice to dishes of pork-and-fennel sliders and locally grown Leemore mushrooms, lightly sautéed and served with fresh chilli, lemon, garlic, fresh herbs and crispy sourdough. Delicious stuff.
As was lunch at Burrundulla Wines, on our way back to Sydney. Here, Rachel McCarthy from the Mudgee Catering Co had created Our Chow pop-up with dishes that included her delicious beef-and-red-wine pies, smothered in relish and served with a crisp salad.
It went down a treat with both of the winery’s dry rosés, one made from sangiovese, the other from tempranillo, both available by the glass from the cellar door of a classy operation set up by a branch of the Cox family, which helped pioneer the district in the early 1800s.
For further information about the Mudgee district, go to www.visitmudgeeregion.com.au
John Rozentals was a guest of Mudgee Wine and Food Week and Destination NSW.