Anabel Dean joins the socially-distanced crowed of pandemic escapees to explore the streetscapes and epicurean delights of Mudgee, regional NSW.
‘Zest me a lemon?’ she asks. ‘Peel me a potato?’ ‘Roll out the dough?’
We are sitting at a kitchen counter waiting for Tamara Howorth to make lunch, but the artisan chef who runs The Little Cooking School in Mudgee is not just here to share her culinary expertise, she is making us work. In the nicest possible way.
There’s not a wine glass in sight, there’s an apron, and nine classmates are springing to prepare a feast that will soon garnish the long table under a budding wisteria in the courtyard.
The family from Sydney are old hands: ‘We’ve done paella in Spain,’ says the woman. Her husband is looking into his coffee cup. It’s empty. ‘What about the wine?’ he asks, nodding at bottles of red provocatively out of reach on the sideboard.
‘Shortbread biscuit?’ suggests Tamara.
We get back to our tasks, strangers united by an epicurean adventure that will reveal the secrets of three-ways gnocchi and lemony ricotta cake, kept simple. ‘A recipe that’s got nine billion steps or 20 million ingredients is not my favourite thing,’ Tamara declares, cracking eggs with one hand into a bowl.
Our creation is to be an alchemy of potatoes, cheese and butter melded with garlic, prosciutto, hazelnuts, pumpkin, mushroom, spinach, nutmeg and sage. Did I mention cream? We will stay warm for a long time with calories wrapped stealthily around waists after eating so many small dumplings.
It’s only 11 degrees outside but the therapy of a dining table suits every season. ‘Good food changes dynamics among people,’ expounds Tamara. ‘It fills my cup doing this for a living.’
The man with the empty cup too, apparently, since he is now inhaling the intoxicant of chopped sage. ‘Don’t forget this bit,’ he says to the woman slopping cream over a jigsaw of sliced pumpkin.’
Meanwhile, Tamara whisks around the kitchen, dolloping and dicing, firing up pots on the Ferrari of stoves – a 20 year old Zanussi – that has, in fact, turned out to be a lemon. ‘It’s a beast,’ she complains. ‘A jalopy with hard to control temperature ad it’s as if I’m cooking over an open fire. I’m a pioneer every time.’
It’s a good analogy for an entrepreneur living in a central western NSW town settled by pioneers in the 1820s. Mudgee has always been an extraordinary place: the centre for goldfields that peaked at Gulgong and Hill End in the 1870s and, when the precious metal ran out in them ther’ hills, it prospered as a wine and wool producer of the finest quality.
A pinch of this, a touch of that. Beef, wheat, fruit, honey. A kilo of wagyu will always do better with a recipe picked up somewhere along the way. ‘It’s a recipe for life,’ says Tamara.
Born in another country town, Tamara started learning the food trade at the age of 16, progressed through hospitality management and commercial catering in Sydney, before opening The Muse Brasserie in Gulgong. She was the chef who hated working nights and, with a growing family, soon recognised that ‘I wasn’t being a very good Mum and I wasn’t being a good restauranteur’. So, she and her husband Richard – an electrician who works in the mines – found a red brick bungalow on the outskirts of Mudgee.
‘The early 1900s building had good bones, perfect for a cooking school, once Richard had put his renovation skills to work. He’s a good tiler,’ Tamara laughs, ‘and we used quite a lot of white paint.’
Business is brisk and guests book months in advance for accommodation in the four-bedroom house while signing up for the cooking school out back.
‘It was a fluke of good timing,’ Tamara concludes. ‘A bit like making a Yorkshire pudding. Everything must be just right – hot oil and cold batter – and then it’s just magic.’
Everyone makes hay when the sun shines and, on a chilly morning, Mudgee cafés are full of latte-sipping cosmopolitans chowing down on smashed avocado sourdough, in what can only be described as a Covid-19 boom. The food and wine hub has struck it rich again.
There’s a socially-distanced crowed of pandemic escapees waiting for the only tour guide in town to emerge from the mist under the clock tower.
Ned Dickson is a teenage pied piper who leads visitors through 199 years of history on the Mudgee Heritage Walking Tours that he founded in 2018. He’s taking a break from secondary school studies to retell stories unearthed from years of reading books in the local library.
Enchantingly, Ned neglects to mention that he was awarded the Young Citizen of the Year Award on Australia Day this year, preferring to get straight to the point about the town that’s been home – on and off – to five generations of his family.
‘Back in the day, it took three and a half weeks to come from Sydney to Mudgee, as opposed to three and a half hours today,’ he begins, leading his flock along a line of picturesque shops on Market Street. ‘This is one of the oldest, most intact, completely heritage-listed streetscape in Australia,’ he says, stopping to point to the spot where his ancestors opened the first department store.
‘It went broke around 1900. And that’s pretty annoying.’
Not nearly as annoying as the local council decision to modernise Mudgee in the 1960s by removing the gorgeous iron lacework verandas along the main street. Thirty years later, council officers decided to reinstate the original features, and drove to a property outside Mudgee. ‘Do you have the verandah from the Post Office Hotel?’ they asked. They walked into a far paddock and found the original cream-coloured Lyrebird lacework from 1852 had been repurposed in the cattle yards.
The verandahs are now back where they belong on buildings that line Mudgee’s bustling main street. Ned’s dad says it’s a far cry from the 1970s when ‘you were lucky to see 10 cars’. Now, every weekend, there’s a tussle to find a car park or a restaurant table but, hang on, I’ve got lost in wistful reverie. Where is Ned?
He’s walked on to 1840s shoe shop that still ‘to this day’ sells shoes.
‘You could have your shoes made out of your cow here,’ he says. ‘You’d have it slaughtered out back, the hide treated in the little tannery, then fashioned into leather.’ Ned knows this because the ol’ shoemaker Mr Thomas was a hoarder who buried every receipt in a lead lined box in the courtyard.
It was nearly 100 years after Mudgee was established before people figured out they needed to look after their teeth. ‘I interviewed a woman who remembers sprinting around this corner in the 1940s because she used to hear the screams of people upstairs having their teeth ripped out of their skulls,’ Ned recalls.
And so it goes, glinting gold nuggets reclaimed all the way to the banks of the Cudgegong River, where our escapade with Ned draws to an end.
He leaves us standing beside Jamie Sargeant’s sculpture – Seed Memory – at the edge of the superb Lawson Park Sculpture Walk. It looks exactly like a slice of lemon. Skewered on a toothpick.
Discover Glass Plate Photographs of the Gold Rush Era
In the spring of 1872, photographer Beaufoy Merlin and his assistant Charles Bayliss followed the rush to Gulgong, but not for the gold. They wanted to capture life in a gold rush town. So, they compiled roughly 500 images on glass plate negatives and, in the process, caught the eye of Hill End’s famous goldminer, Bernard Otto Holtermann, who commissioned a photographic assignment to document Hill End and other towns all over New South Wales.
Holtermann purchased all the plates from Merlin’s widow and thus saved them as a record like no other town in the world at that time. The vast glass plate collection that was a complete snapshot of life (in the 1870s) disappeared until it was discovered perfectly preserved in the garden shed of Holtermann’s daughter-in-law in Chatswood, Sydney, in 1951.
Late last year, just before the pandemic hit, The Holtermann Collection was given a permanent home in the historic Greatest Wonder of the World building in Gulgong (about half an hour’s drive from Mudgee). Don’t miss it.
Anabel Dean is a freelance journalist formerly with The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, The Bulletin and Medical Observer magazine. anabeldean.com
Photo credits: Destination NSW.
Gulgong Holtermann Museum
123 Mayne Street, Gulgong, NSW
Tel 02 5858 4002
The Little Cooking School
6 Henry Lawson Drive, Mudgee, NSW
Tel 0400 417 711
Mudgee Heritage Walking Tours
Church Street, Mudgee, NSW
Tel 0467 506 273
Lawson Park Sculpture Walk
The Lawson Park Sculpture Walk is a lively showcase of winning artworks from the largest regional outdoor sculpture exhibition in NSW.
Sculptures in the Garden
Sculptures in the Garden is held every year (for the last decade) in the gardens at Rosby Wines. It will take place again this year within the Rosby vineyard surrounds.
Opening weekend: Saturday October 10 and Sunday October 11, 2020
Exhibition extended dates: Monday October 12 to Sunday October 25, 2020
122 Strikes Lane, Eurunderee, Mudgee, NSW
Tel 02 63733856 or 0419 429 918