Rattle 'n' yum
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'Daddy, daddy, look at me!'' exclaims Sarah, my five year-old, overall-clad daughter as she grabs the branch of a cherry tree and shakes the living daylights out of it. Although the odd leaf is launched into orbit by Sarah's fervent shaking, only one or two cherries fall to the ground. It's a lot of effort for little reward.
''But that's what they do in Peppa Pig [a popular pre-schooler's television show] to get fruit off the trees,'' protests Sarah, in response to my half-surprised, half-''you're in trouble'' gaze.
Heck, the mind boggles how many more cherries are in her tummy!
I can't blame her enthusiasm - cherries are one of Sarah's preferred fruits and not because of their taste, rather almost entirely because they are red. That's pre-schooler logic for you - if something is in their favourite colour then it must be good!
Sarah with her freshly-picked cherries at Springfield Cottages. Photo: Tim the Yowie Man
We're at Ballinaclash Orchard on the outskirts of Young, Australia's cherry capital and just a couple of hours' drive from Canberra. This is one of a handful of orchards where you can hand-pick you own cherries. It's a lot of fun, and at just $6 a kilogram (I've seen them in supermarkets this week as high as $19/kg), you save a fair bit in the hip pocket, too.
Sarah is on a mission to pick as many cherries as she can. And, judging by the amount of cherry juice dripping down her chin, also eat as many. I reckon she's scoffing down about twice as many as go into the red (of course!) bucket.
Wondering what all the hullaballoo is about, orchard owner Peter Mullany wanders over to say hi. ''Although mechanical harvesters work by shaking the tree, when you are harvesting by hand, it's best to pick each cherry along with its stalk and not to shake the tree,'' he diplomatically explains to us.
Peter Mullany of Ballinaclash Orchard helps Sarah pluck some cherries from the top of the tree. Photo: Tim the Yowie Man
Before Sarah gets a chance to protest that ''if Peppa can do it, then why can't I???'', Peter hoists her on his shoulders allowing her to pluck the cream of this year's crop from otherwise out-of-reach branches with gay abandon.
Peter eventually heads back to his shed shop, leaving me to fill his role of a human ladder. I was once told fruit picking was back-breaking work but didn't envisage it would be because I'd have a squirming pre-schooler perched atop my shoulders.
Needing a break, I call it lunch time and spread the picnic blanket I've bought along, under the tree that Sarah's been ''harvesting''. Incredibly, despite Sarah's initial shaking burst, there are enough leaves left on it to provide sufficient shade for the midday sun.
The all-critical weigh in of Sarah's cherry-picking efforts. Photo: Tim the Yowie Man
After devouring her sandwich, Sarah is so keen to get to her freshly-picked cherries for dessert that she sticks her whole head in her red bucket. It's akin to Pooh Bear sticking his head in the honey pot; however, lucky for Sarah, she doesn't get stuck and, instead, proud as punch, bounds off with her spoils to the orchard's shed shop for the all important weigh-in. She has half a kilo. Heck, the mind boggles how many more cherries are in her tummy.
Leaving Ballinaclash behind us, next stop are Young's 'big cherries', where Sarah poses for the obligatory photo. Thankfully, this bunch of giant fibreglass cherries are far too high for even Sarah to attempt to pick (yes, even on my shoulders) and further, too well constructed for the animated shaking of a five-year-old to budge them.
Adjacent to the big cherries is the local visitor centre, where you can find all manner of cherry paraphernalia from hats, cups, mugs to jams. Ironically, there are no real cherries here and Sarah has to settle with some cherry lollies, which, having shed her overalls (''they're only for picking, daddy!'') and now resplendent in her cherry jacket, she sticks in her mouth for a yet another photo.
Bill's Cottage - a hark back to a bygone era.
Exhausted from her day of cherry picking (and with Dad still sporting the imprints of two size 5 footprints on his shoulders), we decide to bunk down nearby. To me, it always seems a bit incongruous when visiting a country town to stay in a standard motel. Where possible, I like to gain an appreciation for a town's history rather than stare at the four walls of a modular-style motel room which could be in any other town in Australia.
From the moment we drive up the pepper tree-lined dirt driveway of Springfield Cottages, I know we are in for something a bit different. Established in the 1850s, Springfield is an historic working farm producing fat lambs and fine merino wool and the seventh generation owner, Victoria Anderson, has recently refurbished three outhouses on the farm for short-term stays.
We choose Bill's Cottage, which was built around 1850 from stone quarried from the nearby Black Range nearby and was once a shepherd's cottage. Sure, it's a bit higgledy-piggledy but this place oozes character - the rafters are made from stringy bark poles and the window panes are made from small pieces of glass that were easier to transport overland on bullock drays. Further, it's very comfortable and spotlessly clean, and much to Sarah's delight the walls are decked out in Victoria's cherry-inspired artwork.
Mmm... I wonder what they taste like? Photo: Tim the Yowie Man
In the morning, for the first time since leaving Canberra 24 hours earlier, Sarah suddenly realises that cherries aren't the centre of the universe and plays with the menagerie of animals around Springfield's main stone homestead. First, she's chasing Arthur, the scruffy puppy, around the old stables; then it's a pat of Snowball, the pony in the paddock beyond the chook run. There's even a duck called Donald.
Amongst the homestead's rambling gardens are a tennis court and a circa 1920s concrete pool with a deep end measuring almost four metres. You almost need a scuba tank to reach the bottom. Victoria later tells me that the pool was dug out with horses and built so deep as her ''Grannie's sister 'Tibby' was a keen diver.''
After resurfacing from one of my attempts to touch the bottom of the pool, I spot Sarah in Victoria's adjacent fruit grove, where she is eyeing off a tree laden with juicy nectarines.
The lonely grave of bushranger John Gilbert Photo: Tim the Yowie Man
I promptly hop out of the pool and run over to Sarah, for I suspect nectarines might bruise a little easier than cherries when forcefully shaken out of a tree. But hey, at least they're not red.
National Cherry Festival: This weekend at Young - an easy two-hour drive from Canberra via Yass. Dozens of events for all the family, including the street parade at 4pm Saturday, December 1. See: visityoung.com.au or phone 02 6382 3394.
Ballinaclash Orchard & Cellar Door: 4321-4334 Olympic Highway (Wombat Road), 5km the Canberra side of Young. ballinaclash.com.au. Pick your own for $6/kg or buy already boxed $10/kg. ''Pick your own'' is not offered every day, so call ahead for availability on 0418 271 770. The cherry season usually extends from early November until mid-late December. There is also a number of other orchards which offer a ''pick your own'' experience between now and Christmas. Phone 02 6382 3394.
Springfield Guest Cottages: 2964 Moppity Road, Young. Three self-contained restored farm cottages, including a tennis court, pool and enough animals to start a small zoo. From $150 per night. Phone 0439 823 799 or firstname.lastname@example.org
On the way: From Yass there are several ways to get to Young. I went via Boorowa and returned via Harden. If travelling via Harden, check out the grave of bushranger John Gilbert (worth a visit if only to see what has to be one of the smallest roadside reserves in our region) near Binalong and the quirky ''Wombat eggs'' (don't worry - they're chook eggs) roadside stall in the village, Wombat.