It's not every day that you bump into landscape architect, permaculturalist and effervescent TV personality, Costa Georgiadis, on the grounds of a grand old manor house.
A passionate foodie and supporter of 'real food heroes', Costa was (like me) visiting Robertson in the NSW Southern Highlands for the launch of the Robertson Food and Wine Cluster - a pop-up showcase of all that the region has to offer, unveiled at The Robertson Hotel (a property coincidentally owned by Costa's cousin, Con Kotis).
An initiative of the Moss Vale and Rural Chamber of Commerce, and developed by Brigid Kennedy (grower, chef, guest house owner and NSW Business Leader of the Year), together with FoodPath pioneer, Jill Dyson, the Southern Highlands Food and Wine Clusters identify nine distinct producing communities of the Southern Highlands food bowl.
Described by the Deputy Mayor of the region as 'the green between', the NSW Southern Highlands is home to towns and villages separated by important farmland and significant agricultural resources.
More than 150 small farmers and artisan producers have banded together under the banner of the clusters. The launch of the Robertson Cluster follows the successful start of Joadja and Moss Vale, with the remaining areas to be rolled out in coming months.
Members of the Robertson Cluster include producers, providores and accommodation providers - building regional connectivity and working together with the view to offering visitors a more rewarding experience of food-source.
Established in the 1860s and known as ‘the green heart of the Highlands’, the hamlet of Robertson is nestled amongst rolling green pastures, bordered by the pristine rainforest and streams of a nature reserve.
If you have not yet visited the area, think back to the lush scenery in the movie Babe, about the piglet. Yep. That's Robertson.
With its rich and productive soil, the district is the home to the much-loved Robertson potatoes - but forage a little and you'll also find snapping-fresh farmed trout, black perigord truffle, exotic Asian pears, chestnuts, organic fruit and vegetables, pure spring water, rustic sweet and savoury pies, and artisan sheep's milk cheese.
There's a strong sense of community in Robertson and food is at the top of the agenda – from the Saturday morning Crop Swap of surplus farm and garden produce to The Robertson Country Market held on the second Sunday of each month.
Signature specialties made with local farm produce are available from The Robertson Inn and Rockabella’s Roadside Diner - both of which are popular meeting places for locals and visitors alike.
Rockabellas Roadside Diner is the place to go for great coffee and conversation with lashings of fresh local produce and some Southern American spice on the menu.
Crop Swap is the place where local gardeners and growers meet every Saturday Morning at 9am outside Rockabella’s. Bring something handmade or home grown to the table, and take away as much produce as you like. The initiative is all about building community and eliminating waste.
The Dairy Store at the Old Robertson Cheese Factory specialises in tastings and sales of a wide selection of ‘off the farm’ cheeses, along with condiments and gourmet foods. The in-house gelataria makes its own flavour range with fresh seasonal fruit and organic whole milk from neighbouring farms. Next door is a cafe and lunch spot with heritage ambience, house-made country cakes and delicious soups, pies and panini with plenty of locally-sourced ingredients. And make sure you poke your head into the Country Emporium too.
Fresh local trout is on the menu at the Robertson Inn and other eateries in the region. Hobby trout farmer, Dennis, will also provide you with a fresh trout on special order if you phone him.
Yelverton Truffles produce an abundant harvest of the coveted Black Perigord truffle, highly prized by Australia’s A-list chefs. Join a hunt during the season and experience the excitement of unearthing a sizeable truffle, ending the hunt with a taste of truffle-infused dishes and the opportunity to buy direct from the farm. Oh, and Barbara's hugs are THE BEST!
The menu at this village café is dictated by what’s ripe on the trees, on the vine and in the fields of Moonacres Farm at Wildes Meadow. The daily selection might include dishes such as kohlrabi and fennel salad with lemon dressed mizuna, or a solstice soup. Farm produce is also available for sale in season.
The local watering hole, The Robertson Inn, is a surprising conversion of Australia’s last remaining fully wood constructed hotels, now with conservatory-style dining, a cosy wood fire and children's play area. The menu is a fresh take on country pub fare featuring locally grown ingredients, like Maugers beef served with truffled mash. Grower lunches are hosted at the Inn each season.
Flavour-rich, farm-fresh Robertson potatoes are available direct from the grower at Robertson Market and are also available by the bag from various outlets around the town. Varieties include Pink Fir, Dutch Cream, King Edward, Rusett, Sapphire and Kipfler.
The village market on the second Sunday of each month is a must for local small farm produce that is otherwise hard to find. Fill your market basket with Robertson potatoes, fruit leathers made with fresh local peaches, fresh raspberries in season, preserves and classic country goods like apple teacake.
The cooking of well known food personality, Geoff Jansz, is a feature of functions at Wombat Hollow - the quirky and characterful farm, gallery and rustic venue owned by former NSW minister Michael Yabsley and his wife, Susie. Specialising in bespoke lamps made with industrial artefacts, Wombat Hollow regularly hosts art exhibitions, concerts, luncheons, book launches, corporate forums and private celebrations such as weddings.
A classic 1950s farmhouse with breathtaking vistas, Laurel View offers an authentic taste of the local, pastoral lifestyle. Nestled in the rolling green pastures of a working cattle and sheep farm, the property offers spectacular views to Kangaloon and Burrawang. There's opportunity to go for a ramble and drink in the fresh country air. Enjoy the serenity and comfortable country ambience complete with a cosy wood fire, tasteful furnishings and generous living spaces with three spacious bedrooms and a large dining room and fully equipped kitchen. Breakfast provisions include chippolatas made from the farm’s own premium meats.
Pecora Dairy has Australia’s only producing East Friesian Ewes, whose outstanding milk has more solids than cow or goats milk, and results in the creamiest of cheeses with substantial nutritional benefits. The gooey Bloomy White, mould ripened fresh curd cheese and Basque-style Messa with nutty caramel character are among the vast selection of ‘off the farm’ cheeses available for tasting and sale from The Cheese Shop at The Old Robertson Cheese Factory.
Celebrated artist John Olsen is among guests to have taken creative inspiration from the tranquil surrounds of White Birch Farm. Olsen created his biggest canvas since The Sydney Opera House Mural, here. Film makers Tony and Anna Williams offer stays at their little patch of paradise in a sunny country cottage nestled amid gardens that are alive with colour year-round. Walk a track through 12 acres of rainforest (thoughtfully sign posted), or enjoy your own private picnic of cluster produce with views all the way to The Blue Mountains.
On the first Sunday of every month in season, Chiron’s Gardens are open to the public. Here you can try and buy Nashi Pears and other exotic Asian varieties, straight from the orchard. Experience this beautiful farm bordered by pristine rainforest and mountain streams and learn about regenerative farming practices with the grower and local well-being guru, Pi Wei.
A gathering place and venue for high teas, weddings and special celebrations, The Robertson Hotel was deemed ‘the most luxurious hotel in the Commonwealth’ in the 1920s and has retained its Gatsby-esque ambience, despite a contemporary refresh. Flanked by heritage rainforest, the grand manor is set on 14 acres of landscaped gardens with a grotto built by Franciscan friars. Guests are greeted by red carpet and chandeliers, towering ceilings and colossal fireplaces. Suites include family and king deluxe rooms, as well as Heritage room, a Grand Manor Suite, and dedicated Bridal Suite. There’s a salon where you can melt into oversized sofas and share a cheese platter, an art deco bar ideal for a sundowner, a sunroom looking out to the gardens, and The White Room dining experience with Tiffany chairs. Guests can also request a picnic lunch or elegant dinner be set in the grounds.
Famous since the 50s, The Robertson Pie Shop produces pies that put Robertson on the map. Classic country food is taken up a notch with 24 varieties of pie to choose from, from beef Bourguignon or bacon with red wine and mushroom to chicken leek and camembert or creamy butter chicken. Fruit pies like cherry, peach and rhubarb look delicious, dusted with confectioners sugar. You can sit outside and enjoy a picnic on the shaded tables. You can also pick up local extra virgin olive oil or a bag of Robertson potatoes to go.
And, when in Robertson, look for Southern Highlands Springs - naturally pure spring water straight from the source. The epitome of purity, this naturally still, fresh spring water is bottled at the source from a spring in the heart of the Highlands at 740m above sea level.
POSTCARDS AND MORSELS FROM THE LAUNCH...
It was a packed house for the launch of the Robertson Food and Wine Cluster, with venue owner, Con Kotis (pictured below) noting, 'It’s rare to have so many of the Robertson producers come together for a showcase like this. As boutique farmers, they are busy out in the field much of the time.'
'By working together to combine our passions as a quality producing community, we’ve made it so easy for people to get hands-on with their food source, buy direct from the grower and experience a taste of the local, pastoral lifestyle when they stay on working farms within the cluster.' Brigid Kennedy (pictured above) said at the launch.
'Today's launch is as true an example of the paddock-to-plate experience you will find,' said Larry Whipper, long-time resident of Robertson and Mayor of the Wingecarribee Shire Council (pictured above left). 'It allows guests to experience a unique taste of our Southern Highlands, country lifestyle, but it's also supporting and promoting our home grown suppliers and producers. It is as much about promoting our region, as it is supporting economic growth and community resilience.'
After the formalities, Costa interviewed a number of Robertson food heroes, including Pi Wei Lim, grower from Chiron's Garden, an Asian pear orchard. Pi Wei is also the 'leader' of the Robertson Cluster. I should mention that the budding branches in Pi Wei's hair are indicative of bare branches in winter with plump new growth, promising a fresh new season of pears to come. 'The buds turn to blossom, the fruit will come, and the fruit will be eaten fresh, but will also become cider and jam,' Pi Wei explained. I love it!
'In regard to my general philosophy towards farming, and life in general, it really centres around community and relationship. [With the food and wine clusters], Brigid has really gone straight to the key influencers and I feel my role is to keep it connected on a local level. I’m really excited about the prospect of developing this project further with Brigid and Jill,' Pi Wei said.
'I think that the idea of clustering things together in a geographical manner so that people can come and visit is so simple and logical, and is a great model that can be applied nationally - not only to food and wine, but to art and gardens and history, too,' Jill Dyson, FoodPath pioneer said. 'We are encouraging the people within the cluster to work together and that's a good thing,' she added.
'I'm excited about the idea of the food and wine clusters,' said John Mauger, farmer, butcher and co-owner of Laurel View farm stay with his wife, Vicki. 'Pushing the local product is something we've been trying to do all our lives. We grow it, we butcher it and we cook it,' he added. A long time resident of the town, John's mother came to Robertson in the 1920s, and his father was born in the area in 1922.
The Robertson list...
Robertson is a quiet village set in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, Australia - around 90 minutes from Sydney and Canberra; and 50 minutes via the Macquarie Pass from Wollongong on the coast.
Members of the Robertson Food and Wine Cluster and their telephone numbers (where applicable) are as follows. Note, use +61 2 instead of 02 if dialling from overseas:
For more information, visit the Robertson Food and Wine Cluster web site and download the touring map from the website, which also facilitates a producer 'search by produce' category.
Disclaimer: The Good Things team attended the launch of the Robertson Food and Wine Cluster as guests of the Southern Highlands Food and Wine Clusters. We stayed as guests at The Robertson Hotel, and were also treated to a stay at Laurel View farm stay a truffle hunt at Yelverton Truffles, dinner at the Robertson Inn, breakfast at Rockabella's Diner, and coffee and cakes and a tour at Wombat Hollow. We made our own way to and from Robertson by car. The watermarked photographs are my own. Other images were kindly supplied by the Southern Highlands Food and Wine Cluster.
Please stay tuned for my interviews, articles and reviews featuring The Robertston Hotel, Michael Yabsley and Wombat Hollow, John and Mathew Mauger from Maugers Meats, Laurel View Farm Stay, and more. I will also road test Pi Wei's recipe for her exquisite pear jam and share it with you. All coming soon to Good Things.
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I'm Liz, a.k.a Bizzy Lizzy,
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.