“We haven’t had rain here for months,” came the voice down the phone. “The whole mid-west of NSW is in drought.”
Clearly they hadn’t figured on the drought-busting capabilities of the travelling Corbett Clan.
Ever since my parents used to bundle up my brother and sister and I in the mint Commodore station wagon and set off on school holiday camping adventures, there was always one constant: it would rain.
No matter if we were traversing North Queensland in winter or making the Great Aussie Pilgrimage to Uluru in the dry season, our arrival was always heralded by an opening of the heavens.
So it was with a perverse rush of nostalgia that I drove the Mazda into Mudgee late one recent Friday evening, barely able to make out the road for the sheets of rain strafing the windscreen.
Mudgee lies an easy three hours' drive north-west of Sydney. Across the Blue Mountains, via Lithgow, and through some of the most stunning scenery New South Wales has to offer.
We had come to attend the township’s inaugural Polo in the Paddock - an event, locals had excitedly informed us, that had everyone within a 200 kilometre radius of the bustling regional centre dusting off their glad rags.
The good people of Mudgee were so excited that The Weekly was coming to town they had put out the call to local businesses, asking if any cared to offer up their goods and services to scrutiny. There was a rain-whispering family of four coming to town. A magazine writer, his showgirl wife and their two mischievous children. Miraculously, they still lined up.
The Mudgee Brewing Company was the first to welcome us across its threshold. The micro-brewery and restaurant occupies an old tin wool shed at the very end of Mudgee’s main street. Perched opposite one of the most beautiful art-deco cinemas I have seen in rural Australia (now empty and screaming out for an injection of life), the Mudgee Brewing Company – home of the local brew, Mudgee Mud – does a fine line in hearty country food and excellent local wines.
A steak (of brontosaurus proportions) with a fine mushroom sauce and sweet potato chips followed by a delicious dessert of a sablé biscuit and lemon curd ice-cream stack - all washed down by a superb chardonnay from the nearby Petersons Winery, made the three-hour drive through rain melt away.
We were equally transported by the live music – a male-female duo expertly performing a raft of easy-listening hits. You could tell how well they were performing by the fact our three-year-old daughter set aside her fish and chips to take to the dance floor for an impromptu ballet performance.
Our accommodation for the weekend was at Ilkley Cottages, which we found in the dark some five kilometres out of town. The soft glow of yellow light among a grove of gum trees in the middle of a paddock beckoned as we made our approach.
In the morning we woke to a break in the weather – and a view so sublime it looked like a painting. Ghost gums in the foreground, rolling fields in the mid-ground and a low-set line of green, moody mountains in the background – with the accompanying soundtrack of a flock of magpies calling.
Ilkley is a quaint collection of three finely-appointed cottages, all lovingly hand-built by the owner, Chris, a former mining engineer. He and his wife Jorie, herself a retired Anglican minister, go out of their way to make guests feel welcome. The loaf of freshly-baked bread and the half dozen eggs from the hen-house that greeted us upon arrival indicative of the extra mile to which they go.
Coffee that morning was taken, as coffee must daily be taken, at Alby & Esther’s downtown cafe. In a courtyard, under a canopy of verdant grape vines, we partook of a fine brew, as the little people sucked on milkshakes with syrup made from real strawberries.
The first thing that strikes you after spending more than a couple of hours in Mudgee is how living in the city means you can easily fall into the trap of believing all creativity and culture is restricted to the boundaries of the metropolis.
To say that Mudgee has undergone something of a gastronomic and cultural transformation these past ten years would be an understatement. As the Range Rovers of weekending Eastern-Suburbs types from Sydney appeared over the mountains, drawn by the emergence of local vineyards, the once sleepy rural hamlet became fashionable. The result now is a buzzing regional centre: three parts country town, two parts Gourmet Traveller-heaven.
After a brief visit to the local CRT (or Combined Rural Traders as it’s known to city slickers) for four pairs of industrial-strength gumboots, it was time to hit the polo paddock.
Bunnamagoo Estate vineyard is the new home of polo in Mudgee. Or to be more precise, a paddock at Bunnamagoo Estate, beyond the vines and lined by marquees on one side and portaloos on the other, is the new home of polo in Mudgee.
Rain may have hampered play on this, Polo in the Paddock’s first iteration, but it did little to dampen the spirits of the four hundred enthusiasts who had travelled from as far away as Orange and Armidale to watch the ponies.
As it turned out, the ponies had an unscheduled day of rest, the muddy terrain apparently too slippery for play. But the assembled masses partied on regardless – ably assisted by the free-flowing rosé and sparkling wine – and the dulcet tones of Lee Kerneghan.
You can picnic with a gourmet hamper at the polo or take a place at linen-covered tables and sip from delicate goblets under a marquee roof if it’s more your style. As the wine flowed and spirits heightened, I got the distinct impression the end result, no matter where you sat, was pretty much the same.
With no horses to speak of, it was back through the mud we trudged, beating a hasty retreat up the slippery road out of polo paddock before the luxury four-wheel drives of a four-hundred cockies rendered it impassable for our little Mazda.
We headed, in all our glorious dampness, to the one place we knew would provide succour: Lowe Winery.
The cellar door at David Lowe’s eponymous vineyard is a place that radiates warmth and bonhomie. Or perhaps that was just the three glasses of truly excellent Mudgee Blue Shiraz.
Lowe spent his formative years as a young winemaker in Bordeaux, showing the French how real wine is made. He has parlayed that experience into one of the Mudgee region’s finest boutique wineries. His passion for all things viticulture is infectious. Did I mention how good the wines are?
Breakfast the following morning was taken at the popular Outside the Square café, where local produce is daily thrown into a hand-baked selection of delectables.
Impressive as Mudgee’s selection of gastronomic options is, the town doesn’t have a complete stranglehold on the region’s top nosheries. Thanks to the highly-incongruous presence of a dumpling house on its otherwise sleepy main street, Rylstone – some 50 kilometres east of Mudgee – makes certain of that.
Called 29 Nine 99 and run by what I am willing to wager is Rylstone’s only Chinese resident, La Nan, the yum cha house has foodies beating a path to the historic town, just for a taste of her dumplings.
Inside the Bridge View Inn – a stout, sandstone building that was once a coach stop for the horses and carriages making the cross-mountain trek – sits a little piece of China’s Shaanxi province.
La Nan moved to Australia back in 1999, following her Aussie paramour – never imagining she would find herself in Rylstone. The mini-emporium of Chinese clothes, homewares and objets d’art she has brought with her add a dramatic splash of colour to this small country town.
Delicious dumplings and an impressive selection of Chinese teas made for a perfect postscript to a weekend of indulging.
And so, mud flecked and bulging of belly, we set course again for the big smoke, content in the knowledge that while we had put the mud back into Mudgee, she had put a few extra kilos onto our collective waistlines. A fair trade, all in all.
Ilkley Cottages - www.ilkleycottages.com.au
Mudgee Brewing Company - www.mudgeebrewing.com.au
Bunamagoo Estate - www.bunnamagoowines.com.au
Lowe Wines - www.lowewine.com.au
29 Nine 99 Yum Cha – 28-30 Louee Street, Rylstone