Mudgee on a rainy day: museum, wine and beer tasting, fine dining.
On our second day in Mudgee we wake up to rain and thunderstorm! I mean, serious downpour that lasts for hours and has us mesmerised, watching the surrounding vineyards being drenched and very glad the plane is under shelter.
We ditch the original plan to have breakfast in town, preferring a lazy morning in bed, munching on leftover bread and cheese and sipping copious cups of tea. We have been provided with a local tourist brochure showing 4 tourist drives centred around Mudgee. I realise that yesterday’s drive south to Rylstone was one of them, so when the rain finally eases we decide to go north on Tourist Drive A for a bit of exploring north of Mudgee.
We pass at least half a dozen wineries within a 10 minute drive from the airport and I make a mental note to visit later in the day as neither of us feel like late morning wine tasting. The road takes us to Gulgong, described in its roaring days as “the hub of the world”.
This was during the gold rush era of the late 1800’s, after gold was discovered in Red Hill in 1870 and the official estimate of the district population was 20,000 people. These booming days are long gone but the town has retained most of its original streetscape and buildings, and was featured on the original $10 note.
Around 130 of Gulgong’s buildings are heritage listed nowadays, including the Prince of Wales Opera House built in 1871 and the oldest still-operating Opera House in the Southern hemisphere. Unfortunately it was close on the day of our visit, as were the couple of vintage homeware shops I had my sights on ( another reminder to schedule our next road trip for the later part of the week ! ) Still, the wander along the quaint main streets of Mayne and Herbert has its rewards. One of them is walking in a vintage shop full of colonial artefacts and a large collection of old violins, and being treated to an impromptu performance by its owner Allan Walsh.
We have a little chat, discussing the provenance of these violins, the welcomed rain and his love of country life. It is not until much later that I found out that Mr Walsh is ( or used to be ) a singer, guitarist and fiddle player who was one of the first musicians to play on the steps of the Sydney Opera House back in 1973. He also happens to be a farmer and, like most NSW farmers, has suffered from the drought that’s been gripping central Australia for a few years now. Not that he told us at the time, but knowing how spending time in the shop is his solace in these hard times, I wish I had bought something from him.
Next stop was supposed to be a short visit to the Gulgong Pioneers museum. As soon as we entered we were handed a map of the 5000sqm venue, and were transported into the distant past thanks to dozens of exhibits describing the early Australian way of life.
Over 60,000 donated items are on display, ranging from firearms to gramophones, folks bedrooms or farm machinery. Mr T was particularly taken by the military exhibit, while I could have spent hours studying old kitchen items. We ended up whiling away a couple of hours, Mr T saying that it made him feel old as he remembers using a lot of the items growing up ( like this esky or some of these phones… )
and myself arguing the case for being a hoarder! I can only imagine all the stories behind these objects…
Having worked an appetite, I let mr T pick lunch, knowing it had to be light as we had big dinner plans. Off all the trendy cafes around, he chose the one called the Gobble and Go cafe, I suspect because of the name and he knew I would have fun with it. We ordered a simple steak and kidney pie ( for him ) and a cheese and ham toasted sandwich ( for me, I know it is unusually simple, but I was saving myself for later ), accompanied by cappucinos. Service was friendly and fast, the pie was quite strong in flavour, coffees nice and warm, just what was needed on this rainy day.
We could not drive back home without at least one wine tasting, so on recommendation by Alexey, our host, we stopped at Bunnamagoo Estate Wines. The original Bunnamagoo homestead was built in 1827 in Rockley, south of Bathurst and was one of the first pastoral settlements west of the Dividing ranges. It was also one of the earlier vineyards in the colony as well as their other vineyard in Euranderee near Mudgee. The property has passed thru many owners over the years, the latest being the Paspaley family, otherwise known for its pioneering role in the Australian South Seas pearling industry. The cellar door is located next to the winery, in Eurunderee, and overlooks the expansive Bunnamagoo estate.
We are greeted by the resident pooch at the door, who kindly moves aside to let us in. Service is warm and friendly, the lady being generous with her advice and pouring…it is indeed a very civilised, unhurried tasting, during which one staff member walks in looking for a bottle of rose to try as he is asked by a customer to pair a wine with antipasto platter. I press for more details and he tells me that Bunnamagoo Estate is sponsoring a big dinner in Sydney for a private client and part of the brief is wine pairing. I sigh and tell him I want his job! If only I knew more about wine apart from the fact that a good wine is the one you like to drink! Finding plenty that I like here, we order a few cases of Sparkling, Rose, Riesling, Semillon and Shiraz. Some are ready to drink, others will be kept hidden for later. Mr T shakes his head in doubt, grateful that we have our own plane to carry it all and rushes me past the Paspaley pearls display before I get a chance to see something else I like ( yes, the pearls are for sale !)
By then, it is mid afternoon and we decide to stop by the Mudgee Brewing company so that Mr T can do a beer tasting of his own.
Lunch service is well and truly over and we pretty much have the place to ourselves. All beers are brewed onsite, and you have the option of tasting 4 signature beers for $7 or 8 beers on tap for $12. Mr T chooses the former, the servings are half the size of a normal beer, enough for him to work out that his favourite is the Anzac Pale Ale. Another round of these follow, though I can only handle a peppermint tea, as I am trying to balance the effect of the earlier wine tasting. Still, I grab the menu to check out the food offerings, to the alarm of the young waitress who runs up to me saying it is too late for food. I reply I am only looking in case we’d like to come over for breakfast tomorrow, however I think we’d need to be hungry for pancakes, big plates of bacon and eggs or corn fritters…
After a rest back at the Hangar House, it is finally time for dinner. Tonight we are eating at Blue Wren, literally a stone throw from our accomodation. We could walk there thru the vineyard, but play it safe and drive as it is still drizzling.
The property includes a small vineyard, animal farm, luxury accomodation in a renovated farmhouse, a wedding venue in the large Wisteria Hall, and of course a restaurant, The Chef’s Kitchen. Located in what was once the wine storage cellar, it is a novel dining concept where guests are invited to dine either at an intimate table or positioned at a place at the Chef’s table, not dissimilar to my kitchen bench at home, if I may say so.
We are greeted by Paul, the manager, who ushers us to a table by the window, where I have a great view of the kitchen. The space is warm and cosy, designed to accomodate 26 guests, with a long communal table running thru the centre and individual tables around. We are in for a treat tonight, as there are only 8 of us dining and it is the restaurant’s new chef Nathan and his wife Aki’s third day ( indeed the anticipation has been building up all day, as everyone we met earlier exclaimed “ oh, they have a new chef !” once we mentionned going to Blue Wren for dinner ). The menu consists of 5 course degustation ( $90) showcasing local produce. For an additional $49, you can have pairing wines and I like the fact that they partner up with their friends aka other local vineyards, no doubt out of necessity ( theirs is a boutique vineyard with a limited range ) but also allowing guests to taste other Mudgee wines ( very handy for these who can only do a couple of cellar doors in a day…)
So the feast begins with a welcome amuse bouche of creamed corn veloute in a salty popcorn rimmed shot glass with a few drops of basil oil. I am interested to see Mr T enjoy it as he normally would order a beer upon sitting down.
The first drinks come, a Craigmoore Sparkling wine shortly followed by the first course of 2 freshly shucked pacific oysters dressed 2 ways: one with soy miring gel and the other one in mignonette. One could say that there is nothing new on the plate, but we happen to love these familiar flavours and you can’t beat the freshness of Coffin Bay oysters.
The second course consists of scallops teamed with boudin noir, cauliflower puree and pears. The mix of flavours seems odd on paper but one bite and who would have thought scallops and black pudding go so well together? It is a visually striking dish, showing much restraint with the scallops barely steamed, just the right amount of black pudding, and the addition of pickled pear bits to tie it all together. Mr T initially thinks he needs more on his plate, but then agrees that sometime less is more. The matching Blacklea 2017 Shiraz Rose makes it even more enjoyable.
Next comes a salad of beetroot and witlof, with goat cheese sorbet. The sorbet is actually more like snow and the beetroot is sliced super thinly carpaccio-style while the witlof is partly shredded and top of the leaves left whole. There is a nice crunch from walnuts pieces scattered, all sprinkled with chervil and a balsamic dressing. It is delicious salad, once again bringing us back into familiar flavours territory ( though I am yet to convert the goat fetta I normally use into snow !) and the accompanying glass of Peterson’s Chardonnay a nice match.
The fourth course is meant to be the main. It is rolled chicken breast, wrapped in prosciutto, topped with fried strips of ginger, placed on a bed of enoki mushrooms and served in dashi broth. Mr T has mixed feelings about this, he finds the breast too dry and would enjoy it more if it was the thigh meat. I tend to agree with him, but the dashi broth makes up for any shortcomings in my book. Man, that broth! I love it so much I could drink it from the plate. I even offer Mr T to swap my glass of Lowe 2016 Pinot Noir, for his broth. But I am too late for it, as he’s finished it already. Funny that!
The light asian influence continues with dessert.I adore pandan flavour, and have been known to add it to pancakes, puddings, even steamed rice. Most times, I would need to head to an asian restaurant for a pandan fix so I am like giddy with excitement when a plate of pandan pannacotta arrives served with sticky rice wafer and a dollop of coconut cream. We finally taste Blue Wren Vescato, which is an unusual way of using their Verdehlo grapes in a Moscato style wine. The result is a not overly sweet dessert wine with a slight fizz, which goes ever so well with the pannacotta.
At that point I have to say that dinner features a distinct lack of carbs, which is fine by me and I barely noticed it until Mr T commented he’d love some bread with his broth. The resulting feeling is that of satisfaction rather than stuffiness.
I declare myself in foodie heaven and say so to Paul who spends a bit of time chatting with us ( as he does with the other guests ) at the end of the meal. It turns out that he hails from the Shire, like Mr T, so they both share common memories of people and places. We compliment him and the team for a very enjoyable evening with a difference. I thought that watching the husband and wife team at work would be a noisy distraction, but I was proven wrong: they are both so organised and calm, chef Nathan somehow managing to carry out a quiet conversation with guests at his counter ( sorry, table ) while plating up. Aki, in the background, tends to the “business” side with the look of a woman on a mission, I can’t see any items out of place in that kitchen. If only I could say the same of mine.
One last thing to mention is the individual cards handed for each course, with a brief description of the dish being served. I thought it was a nice touch, with a drawing of the animal farms by Chef Nathan’s mum, not only is it convenient to write notes on but also makes for a lovely personable memento.