I'm a freelance writer living and working in Newcastle.
Published March 14th 2014
An Unexpected Journey to the Sydney Basin
I have always been a foodie. There is nothing I love quite as much as food. So when Weekend Notes offered an invitation for a Sydney Farms Tour I could hardly contain my excitement! This tour is the perfect day out for anyone: whether you're simply looking for some fresh air and green pastures or if you're on the hunt for fresh, organic produce straight from the land - this is the tour for you.
The tour goes from approximately 9:30am - 5pm, beginning and finishing at Penrith. The meeting spot is the bus bay just outside Penrith Westfield on Riley Street; no more than a 2 minute walk from Penrith Station. Trains on the Blue Mountains line go to Penrith from Central Station.
Your Tour Guide: Nyla Thomas
Smack bang on 9:30, a small bus pulls up to the curb and out pops our personal tour guide, Nyla. She greets us all with a bubbly smile and hands out our information booklets, complete with itinerary, produce tips and recipes. Nyla is extremely passionate about fresh, organic produce and has great rapport with many of the local farmers in the Nepean area.
All 6 of us tourists scramble onto the bus eagerly in order to start our fresh food journey. I am pleasantly surprised to see adorable name cards sitting on the seats. Mine reads: "Seat reserved for Kinetic Katie". I'm not so sure the adjective makes complete sense but it is charming all the same. Sometimes it is the little details that make tours like this such a great experience.
We are barely 10 minutes out of the city and already driving past gorgeous green paddocks, bursting with life! I could almost forget that I am still 'technically' in Sydney. It's almost as if I'm on a road-trip around the countryside. I am reminded fondly of rural Tasmania and New Zealand, with fresh produce for sale on the side of the road every hundred or so metres.
Nyla picks 5 stops for her farm tours, which can include farms, orchards, apiaries (beekeepers) and vegetable growers. The choice of stops, she explains, depends on what foods are in season to ensure that we get the best fresh food for our tour.
Stop 1: The Honey Shed
The Honey Shed, owned by Blue Mountains Honey, is home to a vast array of flavoured honeys, jams, relishes and chutneys. There are even candles, soaps and lipbalms too! We are in Luddenham (2828 The Northern Road, Luddenham 2745), just outside of Penrith, but these guys also sell their products at the markets in Penrith and Glenbrook.
When we arrive, a gorgeous brunch has been arranged for us by the lovely Steve and Genny. There is coffee, tea, all of their products to taste test, honey cake, ricotta cake and scones with jam and cream. The honey cake proves to be the most delectable cake I have ever tasted! All 6 of us beg Genny repeatedly for the recipe but she is firm in her resolve: sorry, it's a family secret. She won't even tell her Aunt! But you can understand why she would want to keep something that perfect a secret. She tells us that her honey cake sells out almost instantly every time she and Steve sell at the markets. The trip out to Luddenham is worth it just to buy a slab of that honey cake!
Steve, Genny's husband, is the main beekeeper at The Honey Shed and he is a man that has been everywhere and done everything. He is the most passionate expert on beekeeping that I have ever met and we are all drawn in to his tales and facts regarding his life with bees.
I try to taste as much as I can before the overwhelming amount of honey halts me in my tracks. I encounter cinnamon honey (which I instantly bought a jar of!), ginger honey, lavendar honey, chilli-infused honey, mango honey, beetroot chutney, Christmas chutney, raspberry lavendar honey and the list goes on! There are so many new flavour combinations that my taste buds are going crazy. Steve is an experimenter and he tells us all about his ideas for new flavours and new products. For instance, after we all leave he is about to start his first attempt at hot cross buns.
A wide selection of honeys, relishes, jams and chutneys!
The next stop is the Ambrosia Olive Farm in Silverdale (100 Eltons Rd Silverdale 2752). Here we are able to sample all types of olives (which are available all year round!) including kalamata, manzanello and stuffed olives of both kinds! But the stand-out product for me is the homemade Tapanade. The black Tapanade is delicious and I could definitely devour an entire container of the stuff!
Ambrosia Olive Farm also produce Uncle Steve's Extra Virgin Olive Oil of the highest quality. Steve's family have been growing olives in Greece for generations so he is an absolute expert! Their black olive oil is their biggest seller and it was certainly full of flavour. I was also really taken with their chilli-infused and lemon-pressed olive oils. The chilli-infused olive oil had a real bite to it and I can just imagine how it would pack out the flavour of any meal. Ambrosia Olive Farm are also completely organic and all hand picked so you know they are of the highest quality. They also sell a fabulous caramelised balsamic vinegar that would go great on any salad!
The Farm also sports a flash looking seafood restaurant, which sits inside a glass walled prism overlooking the olive fields and a large pond, complete with waterfall feature. The menu looks amazing and it almost breaks our hearts to leave before lunch. Not too far from the restaurant you can take a look at the Farm's deer, emus and peacocks. And as if olives and a seafood restaurant wasn't enough, the people at Ambrosio Olive Farm also grow fresh fruits, nuts and honey, including honey combe with natural wax! This was the first time I had tasted honey combe and I absolutely loved it. There was so much flavour and the texture of the wax was like chewing gum!
The Common Grounds Cafe in Picton (1580 Remembrance Drive, Picton 2571) is fully organic...except for the store bought butter I spied next to the bread. Other than that, everything is handmade and home grown. The facilities include bakery with freshly baked bread everyday, the cafe itself and a large woolshed for functions. Stepping into the cafe is like going back in time to Grandma's country homestead. Everything is made of wood, the smell of freshly baked bread wafts through the air, the kettle is boiling and banjo music is playing in the background.
The first item brought out to us by the lovely staff is their most popular: known simply as 'green drink'. It is a combination of spinach, kale, honey, grapefruit, orange juice and other natural organic ingredients. And it is...surprisingly tasty. The first sip is like freshly mowed grass, and this throws me a little. Then I take another sip and I detect the sweet honey, grapefruit and orange flavours. And as I continue to drink I find myself more and more addicted to the refreshing flavour. We also taste-test their energy bar, which is much like the 'green drink' but as a solid slice. It tastes a lot like peanut butter but I have no idea what is in it. But what I do know is that it is absolutely more-ish! I eat about 6 pieces and then feel completely full, which is a travesty considering I haven't even started taste testing the breads yet! We are given a selection of multigrain rye, fruit sourdough, spelt and gluten free fruit loaf. And that is only a small selection of the breads the Common Grounds have on offer!
Taste Testing at the Cafe (top left: cappuccino, top right: energy bar, bottom left: fruit sourdough, bottom right: bottle of green drink)
By this point I am full enough to burst! But there is still the organic coffee to try! I order a cappuccino and the waitress informs me that instead of chocolate powder here, they use carob powder and is that okay with me? I have never tasted carob but I delightfully agree and I find the taste pleasantly unique. It is unlike any cappuccino I have had before. Now don't despair if Picton is too far to travel! The guys at Common Grounds Cafe sell at a wide range of markets, including Hornsby, Double Bay, Marrickville, Bondi Junction, Wollongong, Frenches Forrest and Narrabeen. Check out their website for more details.
Stop 4: Leppington Valley Fig Farm
The Leppington Valley Fig Farm can be found at 129 George Rd, Leppington 2179. As we pull up, Nyla honks the horn in a chirpy fashion and this brings two lovely ladies bustling out of their country home and into the back shed to greet us with crates full of fresh organic figs! I eye off a box of odd looking fruit that I have never seen before and one of the women informs me that they are 'prickly pears', which were banned when she came to Australian in the 1950s. She told me humorously about how people would try to smuggle them in and how happy her family were when they were finally allowed. That and parmesan cheese, she tells me. Apparently there was a time when Australia was a parmesan-cheese-free-zone. Thank goodness that is no longer the case because I use parmesan cheese on just about anything!
Nyla selects some soft and hard figs for us to compare, some glazed shortbread, fresh walnuts, oven baked figs, prickly pears and fig & pistachio biscotti for us to taste test. She takes us over to the huge mulberry tree where a quaint table is set up for us. From this vantage point we can look over the fig farm and admire the peacefulness that country living permits. We eat in silence and appreciate good company and good food. It is at this point that I feel ready to slip into a food coma. I am so full that I have no idea how I am going to fit in any tasting at the next, and last, stop.
Stop 5: Montecatini Specialty Smallgoods
Montecatini Specialty Smallgoods is more of a small factory than a farm, and is actually in Penrith itself (Unit 1/6 Robertson Pl, Penrith 2750). As we walk through the door the smell of flavoured cured meats wafts over us. Two of the vegetarian tourists very quickly retreat back to the bus, but me...I am in meat-lover's heaven. The guy providing the taste testing gives us almost every sample of meat they have and is even kind enough to permit a small tour around the factory. He happily informs us that two of his salamis (truffle and fennel & garlic) will soon be available in Woolworths as 'premium salamis' over Easter. Aldi have also recently 'sealed the deal' and may well be stocking Montecatini meats very soon.
The truffle salami and fennel & garlic salami are both delicious but I want to know where I can get their outstanding chorizo. Not to mention their rosemary salami, pancetta and cheeses! The man tells me that Thomas Dux Grocers store their entire range and can be found in Surry Hills, Paddington, Crows Nest, Hornsby and more! This excites me - their meats are delicious.
The tour costs $110 per person and this includes all transport from Penrith to the farms and then back again. The price also covers all of your tastings. By the end of the tour I was bursting at the seams and that was solely from the included tastings. Trust me when I say that you will not need to purchase lunch or snacks. But you will need cash in order to stock up on the great organic produce for sale. And why not be environmentally friendly and take along some of your green bags to save plastic!
If you are vegetarian or gluten intolerant it is probably a good idea to let Nyla, the tour guide, know beforehand. That way she can organise special dietary considerations in advance so that you don't find yourself unable to taste test.
Sydney farmers are struggling due to the rising costs of farming and limited land availability. It is difficult to compete with huge supermarket conglomerates, particularly when the prices of mass-produced non-organic fruit and veg are so low. After talking to these farmers and seeing how passionate they are about their work, I strongly recommend taking the time to visit these farms - or even the markets where they sell - to support the local Aussie guys! They put in the hard yards to produce quality organic food and it is certainly a tough and physically demanding job.
The Sydney basin has a lot to offer and a day trip to the farms is a great escape from the city. Take along the kids, show them the outdoors and breathe in that fresh country air! I guarantee you will enjoy this tour and the farms you visit!
How these places escaped me for so long, I don't know. I did know about one of the places but will definitely be driving to the others to enjoy and purchase their products. Will make a good picnic day.