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Yass Valley evolves into a foodie haven

AAP logoAAP 27/02/2014 Jenny Hailstone
y © AAP Image/Jennifer Hailstone y

On a sunny afternoon at Gundaroo it's easy to imagine you're in a goldrush town during the mid-1800s, when the wool industry drove the Australian economy and drovers and shearers inspired a local poet named Banjo Paterson.

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Along the wide main street is a police lockup from 1830 that may have housed petty bushrangers; an old colonial pub where a group of drinkers are enjoying the shade; and a well-preserved slab hut that was once the general store.

Further along is the Royal Hotel, now home to a sophisticated diner called Grazing. It's been renovated and extended over the years but feels like a country inn from 1865.

Back then the area was mined for precious metals - and today we literally strike gold.

Perched on a table in Grazing's front room is a gold-plated replica of the Melbourne Cup, and behind it is trainer Gai Waterhouse, who last year won the Cup for the first time and is enjoying lunch while visiting local horse studs.

Funnily enough, one of Paterson's earliest efforts was an 1886 poem called A Dream Of The Melbourne Cup. It's all about drinking beer, eating a hearty meal and conjuring up the name of the winning horse in his sleep.

And now we're being shown to a table near one of the restaurant's five fireplaces - just behind my new friend Gai.

It's hard to choose from the imaginative menu and in the end we share everything: entrees of slow-cooked pork belly and a zesty ocean trout gravlax, followed by an unbelievably good beef fillet and a crisp "Grazing Pie" of snapper, scallops and mussels.

Most of the herbs and vegetables - including the stinging nettles used to flavour the ice-cream on our dessert - come from Grazing's garden.

Even better, each dish comes with a matching wine recommendation. I'm given a peppery shiraz from the Capital Wines Epicurean Centre, housed in the original stables behind the restaurant.

Head chef Kurt Neumann aims to source semi-locally, which must be easy given the abundance of high-quality produce in the area.

"People have a stigma about Canberra," Kurt says, "but they forget there's a lot going on in the region."

I agree. With its vineyards, boutique food producers, historic villages and fertile landholdings, the Yass Valley presents a tempting package.

The region is centred around the town of Yass, about 45 minutes from Canberra, and takes in several villages located in a triangle framed by the Hume, Barton and Federal highways.

The Yass River snakes from its source in the rugged country near Bungendore past grey hills and the occasional rocky limestone outcrop before joining up with the mighty Murrumbidgee.

This diverse terrain creates perfect growing conditions for cool-climate grape varieties. There are more than 30 wineries, plus many providores who sell from the farm gate.

"It's like the Hunter Valley was 30 years ago," says Robyn Rowe, who sells her exquisite hand-made chocolates at her tasting room and cafe, Chocolat D'Or (golden chocolate), on the family property at Murrumbateman.

Her selection is inspired by local produce, such as honey from a family-run apiary, cherry port from the Hilltops and walnuts from Bungendore that are cracked as they're used so they stay fresh.

It's hard to resist tasting one or two ($2 each) with a mug of hot chocolate on the verandah.

Further along the Barton Highway on a hillside overlooking Canberra's Black Mountain Tower is another must-visit stop on the food and wine trail.

Peter and Caroline O'Clery bought their Homeleigh Grove property in 1984 and began looking at ideas for products. After reading in a CSIRO report that 95 per cent of Australia's olives and olive oils were imported, they decided to grow their own.

"Since olives tend to do well in the same regions as wines, it seemed logical," Peter says.

At their farm-gate outlet, I pick up a one-litre glass bottle of extra-virgin olive oil ($22, refills for $18), packets of Kalamata olives ($6) and smaller bottles of infused oil ($10) in intriguing flavours such as rosemary and thyme, and blood orange.

"The blood orange is wonderful in chocolate cake," Caroline says. "It really brings out the flavour of the chocolate, rather than just using a plain oil."

The O'Clery's pioneering approach to growing produce is a common theme in the Yass Valley.

Winemaker Ken Helm, a former CSIRO biologist, started his vineyard at Murrumbateman 40 years ago. Helm Wines now creates some of the district's top drops.

"I drink a bottle of wine a day," says Ken in the 1888 Toual Public School house that serves as the vineyard's tasting room.

It's easy to see why. Since small beginnings on a five-acre block that was "eaten to the ground by sheep", Ken now wins medals, and praise from wine critics, for his rieslings and cabernet sauvignons.

Experts told him the area was too cold for wine production, and local sheep farmers couldn't understand why anyone would want to turn farmland into vineyards.

So Ken successfully ran for mayor of Yass Shire - "the only way I could make a change was to get in there" - and continues to be an advocate for the region and its wines.

"The whole tone of the region has changed in the last 40 years because of winemaking," he says. "Now we run the sheep among the vines."

Things have certainly evolved in the Yass Valley. One example is the rebirth of Helm Wines' little school house, which was quietly deteriorating in a field before Ken rescued it.

Back in Banjo Paterson's day it hosted meetings of the Temperance League, where locals signed the pledge against the evils of alcohol.

Now there's got to be a poem in that.

If you go

Getting there: By car, Yass is 280km (about three hours) from Sydney. NSW TrainLink Southern has two daily services from Sydney Central to Yass Junction. Qantas (qantas.com.au) and Virgin Australia (virginaustralia.com) fly several times a day from Sydney to Canberra.

Staying there: Sundowner Swaggers Motor Inn has rooms from $155 per night, including breakfast (sundownerswaggers.com.au).

Playing there: Pick up free maps and a wineries guide from the Yass Valley Visitor Centre (yassvalley.com.au). Grazing and the Capital Wines Epicurean Centre are at The Royal Hotel, Gundaroo (grazing.com.au and capitalwines.com.au); Chocolat D'Or is at 1153 Nanima Road, Murrumbateman (robynrowechocolates.com.au); Homeleigh Grove is at 50 Wallaroo Rd, Wallaroo (homeleighgroveolives.com.au); Helm Wines is at 19 Butts Rd, Murrumbateman (helmwines.com.au).

* The writer travelled as a guest of Yass Valley Tourism.

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