The gourmet way
There is a trail in the Southern Highlands well worth exploring. Photo: Karleen Minney
Looking a lot like your passport photo is a sure sign you need to use it, but for thousands of dollars less, and a fraction of the time, Canberrans can reinvigorate and recharge virtually on their back door-step.
As the rest of the world yawns and stretches coming out of a long winter and stumbles happily into summer's warmth, the Southern Highlands gourmet trail is hitting its seasonal sensation straps.
We recently put Canberra in the rear mirror for less than two hours to cruise to the Craigieburn and Bowral regions on a quest for such an invigorating recess - not to mention the classy cuisine and quaffable cupfuls the area is renowned for.
While wine tours are the sophisticated and grown-up version of a uni pub-crawl, they are positively yesteryear in comparison to the new foodie-trend of fine food trails; and the Peppers group have been quick to get their fingers on the pulse of this idea. They've organised taste sensations that would have Nigella Lawson lip-licking for days.
A weekend sprinkled with culinary events starts with an evening of grazing delights with the fare of local producers on display. Stalls of local goodies set up like a farmers market within the walls of Peppers Craigieburn feel ever so refined if done whilst sipping the regions world-class cool climate wines. We also get to nibble small cow cheeses and chat to a geologist-turned-berry-grower who told us of the tree-change that was the best life decision ever. We watch as award-winning chefs Twan Wyers and Warrick Brook demonstrated an almost unnatural synergy. Breaking stereotypes, they cook together happily, a harmonious alliance sharing hints and tips with each other and novices like me. It's enough to have Gordon Ramsay swearing in disbelief.
Barrow-loads of food and bucket-loads of wine later, we waddle to the grand Peppers Manor House feeling like we've already yanked the gears back a cog or two.
The chillaxing continues the next day after a restful night at the manor house. We are expertly escorted after an enormous brekkie (note to self; next time get to the dining room early before all the bread and butter breakfast pudding is scoffed by those in the know) to our awaiting chariot, a comfy minibus, ready to give our tastebuds a day to remember.
A triumph and leader in local agri-tourism, the ''Foodpath'' Southern Highlands food trail begins at the Montrose Berry Farm - a pick-your-own berry favourite at this time of the year. We learn from owner Bruce Robertson of the continual experimentation with planting distances and neighbouring berries on yield outcomes, not to mention flavour output. Probably not news to most, but we learn that a boysenberry is a 75 per cent blackberry and 25 per cent raspberry cross breed. After an extensive, and surprisingly interesting, tour, we get down to business - the tastings. Tarts vinegars, jams, jellies sauces and preserves. Too good!
Another stop along the way is the Joadja Vineyard, established when there were none in the Southern highlands. Their success is testament to why there are now 60 small vineyards operating in the area. Coupled with local cheeses and local know-how and know-why, we nibble, sip and sample some more. Cheese trivia fact for that day, we simpletons learn to tell the difference between Camembert and Brie. The two cheeses are essentially identical - the main difference is size. (BTW - Brie is the big one.)
We feel like we are now in the know a little as experts share the next-big-thing in wine circles. In hushed tones, we hear about the ''Super Tuscan'' cabernet sangiovese that is soon to be on everyone's lips.
Not feeling hungry in the slightest, we plod on down to the Exeter studio restaurant for a quick and understated lunch, so we thought - wrong! The guys have taken out the winner of the ''Best new restaurant 2012'' Restaurant and catering association - Southern NSW for a reason. The food is great. Dining in the shaded glass conservatory surrounded by quirky art feels as it sounds - divine. Apparently, the big-city owners cleverly quizzed all the locals in the area about what they wanted from a restaurant before opening their venture - cleverly making sure their constant customers would be catered for, as well as the drop-ins like us. The menu is amazing. I personally can vouch for the lamb shank lunch and the date, almond and ginger pudding with butterscotch sauce and vanilla ice-cream dessert, but I didn't hear anyone complain about their choice.
A quick nana-nap is recommended before your paddock-to-plate event erupts in a degustation dinner back at Peppers Manor House.
Five courses, each better than the last, are presented, again by tag-team duo Twan and Warrick, interrupted only by clever and seriously earnest wine critic Nick Stock. Savvy Nick has a magical way of engaging all, from the most sophisticated and involved collector through to the novice wine drinker (like me, who prefers the syrupy, sweet, sickly stuff any day).
Having eaten ourselves almost into a coma and drunken ourselves into happiness, we haul our tummies to bed.
A lovely foodie weekend is rounded off by taking home locally baked breads, chutnies, jams and quiches found at one of the many local markets peppered around the region. It becomes understandable why celebs such as Nicole Kidman, Maggie Tabberer, Richard Glover and Anthony Ackroyd like to call this homey place home, at least some of the time.
Over the summer period there are similar foodie events planned for Christmas Day day (lunch and dinner), New Year's Eve, and a special barbecue on Australia Day. Not to mention a Bradman experience package including the Cricket Hall of Fame at Bowral.
There aren't many better ways to while away a worry-free weekend than taking care of your tastebuds and I'm not sure if we still look like our passport photos but, if not, it's probably because we've happily put on a couple of contented pounds.
Karleen Minney was a guest of the Peppers Southern Highlands Hosted Food Trail.