Every so often you find a treasure of a place where you feel so contended and relaxed, that you can gladly spend a morning or afternoon simply basking in the atmosphere and offerings. The old school house café in the New South Wales country town of Young is just that kind of place, and I'm delighted to tell you about it (and share the recipe for one of the most popular cakes on the menu) with you.
We're spending time in Young for the Hilltops Wine Dinner weekend and have just visited the Lambing Flat Folk Museum, when I notice a blackboard advertising the old school house café, which is tucked in behind the museum. Despite the sunshine, it's chilly and I've fantasising about a mug of hot chocolate all morning. Ducks on the fence quack a welcome greeting our way and, as we approach the verandah, I'm taken with the flourishing bed of lavender and topiary shrubs of rosemary in pots at the steps. Owner, Sally Carson, is bent over pruning the roses and, with secateurs and gloves in hand, she bids us a friendly hello with a wide smile.
'Come in, you're just in time for some freshly baked apple cider cake,' she says. Peter's eyes light up instantly, and the aroma of apples and caramel inside the café is mouthwatering. The old school room is bathed in warmth and the charming interior is somehow made more delicious by the sultry sound of Ella Fitzgerald coming from the back room.
The café is part of the old Young Primary School, which was built around 1883. The blackboard on the main wall behind the counter is original and there are vintage school desks, some of which look familiar to Peter and myself. Gee, now that's telling our age, isn't it! Certainly, the wood framed slates on each table brought back memories from my own childhood. 'We used the same little slates when I started kindergarten in the early 1960s,' I say. Sally is surprised to hear this and says hers came from France.
Chatting as she prepares our 'real' hot chocolate, Sally tells us a bit about her background. She grew up in Melbourne and her mother is June Drijver, a name that will be familiar to Canberrans. For many years, June owned the FLAIR gift shop in Manuka. 'I originally came to Young and helped out on a horse stud and then my parents came across from Canberra to see the new foals. They saw an empty shop in Boorowa Street and had some stock left from closing the FLAIR. They planned to just do a short term lease through to Christmas and ended up staying for ten years! Meanwhile, I worked in Sydney while my kids finished school. I was the NSW State Manager for Space Furniture and then when the GFC hit I came back to Young and worked with Mum for a year. I started the café with my business partner, Jan Simmons, who is local born and bred. I had worked with Jan in the Wool Room in Young,' Sally explained.
I asked Sally what she enjoys about life in Young. 'It's a town big enough to have practically all we need, but also the arts are alive and well. For instance, the community choirs are of a very high standard, similarly amateur theatre and dance and music. We have a community run radio station, a movie theatre. and some resident and visiting art teachers; as well as dressage, tennis, croquet, golf, rugby and bowls. So there's heaps to get involved with,' Sally says. 'On the other side of the equation, Young is small enough for you to get to know lots of people easily and I have found it to be a very caring community. Lambing Flat Enterprises is a wonderful organisation which provides employment opportunities for disabled members of the community, therefore those people don't slip through the cracks like they might in a big city. The cafe is a great spot to give joy and relaxation to locals and visitors who are looking for a short break from their daily toil or travels. And I love catching up with the regular clients and meeting new people from all over the world, literally!', she adds.
A few more customers wander in and the atmosphere at the café is so convivial, we can't help but relax and enjoy the time here. 'It's like that, people come with their library books and sit for hours,' Sally, says when Peter and I pay her a compliment on the venue. And then she emerges again from the kitchen with the pièce de résistance, apple cider cake, and we are served warm slices topped with cream. 'You won't like this cake at all,' Peter says with a grin after taking a bite. It's a standing joke between us, meaning that if I don't like my serving then he gets to eat it! I nibble a morsel from the end of my fork and respond with a playful 'Um, yes I will!' Despite breaking the diet both we're on, neither of us feels an ounce of guilt, for the cake is absolutely scrumptious!
'I love catching up with clients and meeting new people from all over the world...'
We come back the next morning for a long-overdue coffee catch up with the lovely Lyndey Milan, and then stay on for a leisurely breakfast after Lyndey's departure to Sydney. To our delight, Adriana Brankovic, owner of Adriana's B&B arrives and announces she is cooking for us. Peter and I stayed with Adriana and her husband, Milan, during our Cherry Festival adventure in December 2012. Adriana has a gentle nature and kindly personality and, like Sally, is a talented cook, so we're looking forward to talking with them both. Before long, the four of us are drinking coffee and nattering about food and cooking. And then the subject turns to match-making alpacas... that is, mating Sally's female, named Hot Gossip, with Adriana's boys, Max or Fernando. There's much laughter as we wonder how on earth we ventured onto that topic.
The old school house café is the type of place Peter and I would love to own and run in retirement, if we could be bothered with all that goes with owning a small business these days. But then, what for! Once we give up work we can always travel to Young for coffee, cake and a chat with new and old friends, no?
Sally has very kindly shared her recipe for apple cider cake. It's a cake she's made hundreds of times, so her tips are included. Add it to your repertoire, dear readers, it's a cracker! If you're passing through, or indeed if you live in the Young region, make sure you stop by and say hello.
APPLE CIDER CAKE
1 cup/250mls apple cider (apple juice is ok too!)
200g dates, chopped and destoned
1 teaspoon baking soda
125g butter, softened
11/2 cups caster sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
11/2 cups self raising flour
2 large or 3 small green cooking apples
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup dessicated coconut
4 tablespoons milk
Preheat oven to 175-180 degrees C (or whatever temperature your oven cooks best for a long, slow-baked cake). Line the bottom and sides of a large (20cm) round cake tin with baking paper and make sure the paper comes up over the top of tin (as sometimes the topping can boil over the top and then you have an awful mess to clean up in the oven!).
Peel, core and quarter the apples and chop them into pea-sized pieces. Combine the chopped dates in a saucepan with the cup of apple cider and baking soda, bring to the boil and allow to cool. (Don't walk away while the mixture is boiling, as your saucepan will be coated in a black base that takes a whole day to clean off).
Beat the butter and caster sugar until fluffy, then beat in the eggs and the vanilla extract. Lower the speed of the beater and then add the flour. Fold in the date and cider mixture, followed by the chopped apple. Bake for 40-45 minutes, perhaps one hour, until the cake is firm in the middle and even a little too dark on top, or the middle has sunk a little.
Combine the topping ingredients in a saucepan over heat until smooth and well combined. (I find it best to actually start to 'boil the bag out of it' and then put it onto the top of the cake). Spread the topping over the whole cake and cook for 25-30 minutes more until the top is golden. Allow to cool in the tin. The cake needs to have a dark golden colour, even if one side is bordering on black. You can leave the cake overnight in the tin if you like, just pull out the paper edges and use a crow bar to lever the cake out of the tin. You will get it out, no problem.
To serve, warm a generous slice in the microwave for 30 seconds (Adriana's hint) and serve with dollops of cream!
Ducks on the fence quack a welcome greeting our way...
The café is part of the original Young Primary School, built around 1883...
The blackboard on the main wall behind the counter is original...
We used the same little slates when I started kindergarten in the early 1960s...
The aroma of apples and caramel inside the café is mouthwatering...
'You won't like this cake at all,' Peter says with a grin... 'Um, yes I will.'
The old school house café is located at 2 Campbell Street, Young, behind the Lambing Flat Museum. It's open from Thursday to Sunday between 9am and 5pm. For enquiries contact Sally on 0437 822 184.
Tell me, have you found places where you feel right at home. Are there little gems you've discovered on your travels? Do tell.
Hello. I'm Liz, a writer, cook and traveller based in Canberra, Australia.
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.