Just half an hour’s drive east of Canberra, the pretty town of Bungendore has morphed into a gourmet food destination without us even knowing it. From cooking classes and cellar door experiences to authentic French food and pub grub that’s a cut above your usual fare, Bungendore has all the ingredients for the perfect gourmet getaway. Follow our itinerary for a fully formed weekend (or midweek) break, or pick and choose your favourite epicurean experiences to enjoy over several visits.
Your home away from home
The Carrington Inn is the perfect base for the dedicated foodie to hit Bungendore’s gourmet hot spots. This historic property offers a range of suites and retreats for couples, small groups or families in the heart of town. The owners took the opportunity during the COVID-19 shutdown to refurbish several of the Inn’s rooms, and ours is replete with a kitchenette featuring a microwave, coffee maker, toaster, kettle, fridge and basic kitchenware, handy for tucking into local delicacies from the town’s Saturday morning market. If it’s a summery day outside, grab some snacks and settle into The Carrington Inn’s beautiful gardens to soak up the serenity.
If, like me, you became quite obsessed by the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit about an orphaned chess prodigy, now’s your chance to compare your skills – there’s a giant chess set nestled in the shade of a stand of mature trees. Leave your vehicle in the Inn’s car park for the duration of your stay (except when you’re heading to the wineries on Bungendore’s doorstep, of course) and feel virtuous that you’ve “walked everywhere” to burn off the calories. (The fact that all the action happens on just two or three key streets in central Bungendore is neither here nor there.)
Friday night French
Accordion music and a menu featuring French onion soup, escargot and duck confit with orange sauce are clear indications of what’s in store at Le Très Bon this evening. The restaurant has long been a staple in town and its traditional French flavours have attracted a loyal following.
Christophe Gregoire, who runs the restaurant with his wife, Josephine, combines his Gallic flair and extensive international experience as a chef with local produce and influences from his fellow countrymen.
A light and fresh salmon tartare that references multi-Michelin-starred Alain Ducasse is served with a petite salad, while an unusual pairing of rum baba with liquorice ice cream comes with a nod to fellow French chef Pierre Koffmann. The baba is a standout dessert, and so is Christophe’s crêpe suzette – a silky soft pancake with just the right balance of citrus and alcohol. In fact, we’ve thoroughly enjoyed our night at this quirky little place. The food has been spot on, the service warm and the bustling dining room is full of bonhomie. Even the accordion music is starting to grow on me.
Saturday morning market
It feels like I’ve stumbled onto the set of Midsomer Murders, without all the inconvenience of a dead body in the church grounds. At the Southern Harvest Farmers’ Markets (9:00 am to noon each Saturday), I meet the local vicar selling coffee beans, peruse a community stall led by market manager Ruth Gaha-Morris where local growers and makers bring their wares to sell or be packed into produce boxes to be delivered across the region, and chat to Ruth’s mum, Jo, who is selling knitted goods made from the wool of her 58 alpacas on an adjacent stand.
This small weekly farmers’ market offers a window into the Bungendore community and its produce. Talking to seller Robyn Liebich, it’s clear that garlic does well in these parts. On the table in front of her is a sea of bulbs, including something I’ve never seen before – Russian garlic, about five times the size of your average specimen.
Neighbouring stallholder Emily Viski is selling jars of garlic scape powder, made by dehydrating the curly tendrils of greenery produced by plants. It’s perfect for sprinkling on anything that needs a hit of garlic (think garlic bread, for example). Two stalls down is the vicar, Michael Pailthorpe, who has expanded his home-based coffee-making hobby, recently buying a commercial roaster to make the Village Coffee Roastery beans that are now being served in the local op shop (run by Michael’s wife), and which also feature in the cups of takeaway coffee being sold by barista Chris right next to the community market stall. Michael’s beans can also be bought from Bungendore’s well-stocked IGA.
“My aim is to keep it very locally focused,” Michael says. “I’m not looking to become a massive business; I’d just like to keep it part of the community.”
A Contentious cooking class
Contentious Character wears many hats: vineyard, winemaker, restaurant, cellar door, and producer of condiments that run the gamut of chutney, apple ketchup, and cherry and merlot jam. The Wamboin-based winery is also increasingly well known for its events and classes, and that’s what we’re here for today. In an atmospheric basement cellar-door festooned with tiny fairy lights, we’ve joined nine others for a cheesemaking course with Bridgette Cathles from Yes Cheese, who conducts classes at the vineyard about four times a year.
Today we’re making ricotta and mozzarella, the latter a speedy 40-minute version that means we can complete the class in three hours (including a break for a light lunch that we help prepare). The class is hands-on and a lot of fun, made more so by the fact that one of the four ‘Contentious Characters’, head of brand, marketing and sales Tony Mansfield, pops down regularly to deliver tastings of the vineyard’s award-winning tipples.
I’ve dragged my cheese-averse husband along on false pretences, telling him we’re simply visiting a cool-climate vineyard that’s got some excellent shiraz on its list. But after three hours of hooping ricotta and stretching mozzarella, my other half has changed his tune. “I wonder if Bridgette does any halloumi classes?” he says, hopefully.
Dinner with a difference at the George
Do not leave The George Bar & Dining without trying the salt and pepper squid. Or the Sichuan chilli garlic prawns for that matter. These two starters will remain in your memory long after you visit this dining spot, part of the Lake George Hotel on Gibraltar Street. In the hands of talented chef Bigyan and his team, the squid has been rendered utterly tender, its light and crispy batter complemented by a spicy aioli dressing with fresh chilli, coriander and lemon. Meanwhile, the prawns are an indication of Bigyan’s Nepalese heritage, served almost Balti style in a small metal bowl, with a flash of heat from the Sichuan pepper and deep, flavoursome garlic.
The George is a highlight of our visit to Bungendore – its interesting, well-executed menu is nothing like the bog-standard pub staples found in many country towns. Owners Isabel and Richard Harry – Richard, a former Wallaby who was part of the World Cup-winning team in 1999 – fell in love with Bungendore and moved here 12 years ago. They’ve built strong relationships with local suppliers, so much so that the George’s wine list includes only regional wines (there’s a very healthy local craft beer list, too).
In addition to owning The George and nearby Gidleigh Station, the Harrys recently bought the only other pub in town – The Royal – just up the street. Renovations are underway … and we’ll definitely be back to check it out once it’s up and running in 2021.
A convivial breakfast Gathering
Telisha Summerfield sports the kind of broad and welcoming smile that is perfectly suited to the hospitality industry. Having left her management role at Canberra Airport three years ago to “try something completely different”, she is clearly thriving in her new country life running the popular cafe, The Gathering.
Telisha and her builder husband Nathan Geppert put their hearts (and elbow grease) into converting an old hot dog shop a few doors down from The George into a contemporary breakfast and lunch venue, completely stripping it back and introducing an airy, Scandinavian feel. The outdoor tables are filled with diners, and the regular flow of guests into the two indoor dining spaces is testament to how well this reinvigorated landmark has been received.
Behind the counter, youngsters from the local community earn some cash while studying; in the kitchen, chefs Basil and Leah convert organic local produce from the onsite garden and local farmers into breakfast and lunch staples including a delicious plate of corn fritters and poached eggs with house-made relish and parmesan cheese; and a moreish breakie bowl with granola, yoghurt, honey, house compote and milk.
“Everything is made here, we don’t buy in anything,” says Telisha. “We’ve got a team of 17 now, and we’ve already nearly outgrown the space. But we won’t ever leave. We couldn’t have hoped for anything more when we opened.” As satisfying breakfasts go, we couldn’t have hoped for more, either.
Lunch among the vines
Katrina and Daniel Hiltbrunner were made for the elegant dining room perched above the grapevines at Lark Hill Winery in Bungendore. Trained as a chef in his home country of Switzerland, and having plied his trade in the US, New Zealand, Japan, the United Arab Emirates and Australia, Daniel is a rare talent in the kitchen. The charming Katrina is equally comfortable overseeing a well-run dining room, delivering a procession of perfectly executed dishes to tables both inside and out on D&K Kitchen’s expansive deck.
Both left jobs in Canberra to manage the restaurant attached to the much-loved Lark Hill Winery just over a year ago and haven’t looked back. Apart from swapping a 40-minute drive for six minutes door to door, the pair loves being part of a community that places great stock on quality produce and demonstrated its compassion and support for each other during the most challenging of times in 2020. Daniel grows his own herbs and veggies, gets his eggs from the couple’s chooks and works with local producers and makers to source menu items that speak of the region.
For lunch I choose the roast turkey with stuffing, cranberry jus, duck fat potatoes and market vegetables – given we have just today realised that Christmas lunch plans in COVID-afflicted Sydney will have to be cancelled, it seems fitting. Black onyx shin on warm roasted beetroot and potato salad with salsa verde is an equally compelling dish, and my husband puts in his order. Both come with recommended wines from next door Lark Hill Winery (the turkey’s recommended wine match is a 2019 Gruner Veltliner; the onyx is teamed with a 2019 Sangiovese). I get my Christmas spirit back after tucking into the tender and flavoursome turkey, and the rich onyx – a highly marbled Black Angus beef – works beautifully with its accompanying salad. We leave before dessert, but only because we’ve booked a wine tasting next door and don’t want to be late. We’ll be back for a serve of smashed meringues with house-made lemon curd in short order.
A (wine) tasting sensation
Sue and Dave Carpenter know a thing or two about biodynamic winemaking. They’ve been at it since the latest crop of young gun vintners were in short pants. The couple planted the vines at what is now Lark Hill Winery back in 1978, when the roads around the area were unpaved and Bungendore was little more than a dormitory town.
The name Lark Hill was coined from the sound of songlarks that surrounded them while camping on the property. With backgrounds in maths, physics and oceanography, winemaking was a hobby for Sue and Dave then; today it’s a full-blown family affair with son Chris the chief winemaker and the cellar door flanked by an expansive restaurant that Dave, Sue and Chris built 11 years ago with a couple of forklifts (they’ve now happily handed over the running of it to Katrina and Daniel under the D&K Kitchen moniker). Having their vineyard certified organic and biodynamic in 2003 put the couple among the vanguard of Australia’s biodynamic winemakers who farm organically, incorporating the ideas of scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner around special soil preparations and lunar phases. There is nothing hippyish about Sue and Dave, however. The principles of biodynamic farming are heavily based in science, Sue says, and the family vineyard is reaping the rewards of doing things right (though like many in the wine industry last year, they lost all their grapes from smoke taint; “people tried to use the grapes, but it was disgusting – think wet ashtray”, says Dave).
The pair have retained a sense of humour despite the devastation and are warm and amusing hosts during our COVID-induced ‘sit down tasting’ at their functional cellar door. We try six wines ranging from the Gruner Veltliner featured on the D&K menu, produced from the first grapes of its type in Australia, which were planted at Lark Hill in 2005. A 2017 Chardonnay is followed by a delicious ‘Mr V’ 2018 (Marsanne, Roussane, Viognier), and a 2019 Sangiovese. The reds include a 2016 Scuro (Sangiovese, Shiraz) and a 2017 Syrah. Like myself, Dave is a pinot noir lover and tells me it took them two years to find plants back in 1982, as there was simply no interest in pinot at the time. 2018 is the current Lark Hill pinot noir vintage, he says, and should be out in a couple of years. I can wait.
Don’t start the journey home without stopping at Norton Road Wines, another family-run venture specialising in small-batch, cool-climate wines. Owners Karen and Simon Stratton are balancing busy jobs in Canberra with developing this impressive venture, well known for its winery restaurant Biggies BBQ, which serves up the best of Texas and Southern American-style cooking under the watchful eye of chef Izzy Mendoza, whose day job is with the American Embassy.
An old-style caravan has recently been moved onto the property, with a view to turning it into a food van that will serve both visitors to the winery, and hit the road to spread the love. “We’re also hoping to put in a pizza oven and a putting green,” says Karen.
Next: A Shopaholic’s Guide to Bungendore.
Original Article published by Michelle Rowe on The RiotACT.