Willowvale Mill- European countryside in Australia
Do you believe in destiny, fate, kismet or pure coincidence? I was sitting here this Saturday evening in front of the TV and writing this post on Willowvale Mill, that we visited last weekend. On comes Sydney Weekender, and my ears perk up when I catch host Mike Whitney saying “potatoes” and “Crookwell”. And lo and behold, they present a story on- wait for it- Willowvale Mill! I can’t believe what I am watching and abandon my laptop to pay full attention to the segment. It’s more of a reminiscence of our experience last week, and watching owner/chef Graham, who is a real character, because we learnt the history behind the mill when we were there last week.
There is a story behind our discovery of Willowvale Mill. Last weekend was Soy‘s sister and brother-in-law, S and I‘s wedding anniversary. Of course, they were keen to celebrate 20 years together, and invited us along to stay a night in a cute cottage on a property in the Southern Highlands of NSW. The 4 of us stayed on this farm earlier this year, and as they were driving from Sydney and us from Canberra, we decided to meet somewhere in the middle for lunch. I somehow stumbled across a blog, that she forwarded to me, and I read about Willowvale Mill. It sounded lovely, and further research uncovered years of brilliant reviews from the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide. We were all super keen to get in for lunch, and when I spoke to Graham on the phone and told him how excited we were about visiting because of what I had been reading, he sounded quite embarrassed, and said “I must get someone to show me how to get on the net one of these days”.
The drive to Laggan from Canberra was a little under 2 hours, but we got a bit lost, and drove around in the wrong direction before finally spotting the Mill because we were out of range and could not rely on our GPS, call I, or check GoogleMaps on Soy‘s iphone. So when we arrived half an hour late, very shamefacedly, we had to agree with Graham about the “evils of technology” ie our over-reliance on it! I’ve never been to Europe, and it appears very high on my “things to do in life” list, so as we head down the driveway, I feel like we have been transported to the countryside in France or Italy. It also helps that it is a beautiful sunny, cloudless but crisp day. And when we enter the dining area, we naturally gravitate to the open fireplace, with vintage cloches on the mantel. 2 well-loved armchairs are placed in front of it. Whilst awaiting our arrival, the others have started their liquid celebration, and are enjoying Graham’s appetisers of succulent King Brown mushrooms in soy, Italian bread drizzled with olive oil and a range of antipasti. Not wanting to miss out, Soy and I get stuck right into it, and my hands are covered in mushroom juices before I can think of taking photos!
There’s no a la carte menu at Willowvale Mill. Graham cooks whatever he feels like, and there’s a thrill of anticipation to see what he’s planned for us. He brings out this rustic pot of vegetable soup, and we all help ourselves before sitting in front of the fire. It’s delicious! Graham says it’s 90% vegetable, and he must have a wicked master stock as the soup is flavoursome, hearty and warming, and has just the right amount of spiciness.
When we’re finished, Graham announces that he’ll be back in a tic- he’s going for a walk (with his glass of wine). And we invite ourselves along to tour his garden. He shows us around his property- and tells us of the vision he had for it when he purchased it in 1972. When he bought it, all that was there was the mill, built in 1840. He restored the building after it was blown down, then burnt down a couple of years later. As for the land, Graham put in the roads, planted every tree and built all the stone walls and bridges. It is a true labour of love, but there is some way to go yet before Graham’s plans for the place are fully completed. He is planning to build a tower, more stone retaining walls and revamp the garden. The garden is a bit brown and dry because it’s winter, but Graham tells us that he has just sown the garden with berries. I can only imagine how magnificent the place will look in spring!
The lamb comes from a local farm- and Graham is one of their loyal customers- the farm doesn’t sell their meat retail. That’s what I love about the country- people are passionate about knowing where their food comes from, and truly appreciate the produce and the labour involved in creating a quality product. This love follows through to the cooking, to showcase the product to truly highlight its flavour. The roast lamb is one of the best I’ve tasted. I’m normally not a huge meat-eater, but I enjoy every morsel of my piece of lamb. The duck legs also, are crisp and juicy and full of flavour. I’ve never had guinea fowl before, so I’m curious about how it tastes. I know, this is such a cliché, but it tastes like chicken!! It does! And as I was preparing myself for possible gaminess, I was pleasantly surprised that it was mild and tender. All of us were scrambling for more of the roast potatoes though! Graham is also known as the ‘potato man’. He is very involved in the production of potatoes in Australia, and has introduced a number of new varieties to Australia, including blue varieties and a super low GI variety that people with diabetes can have.
My eyes pop when I see Graham stride in with what looks like a cherry cheesecake. I bound up with my camera in tow… and he comes out with another- an orange cheesecake. While I am still standing there in awe, he appears with a third dessert- an apple and strawberry pie piping hot from the oven, which he sets down with a flourish. Graham’s scientific background and his passion for growing food translates into very firm views about healthy eating. He emphasises that we are to have Greek yoghurt with our pie- not cream! And asks S, who is not a fan of yoghurt, why he didn’t take any! I have a sliver each of the cheesecakes- the fruit complements the cheese and biscuit base perfectly. The cream cheese though, tastes very different from the Philly that I am used to. I dare not make this comparison to Graham, but I am sure the cream cheese is home made. Its texture is not smooth and tastes like a much richer clotted cream, adding to the overall rustic feel of the meal.
All of us agree though, that the pie is our favourite dessert. Maybe it’s because it’s a piping hot dessert on a winter day in front of a crackling fire. Maybe it’s because we are sold from the time the freshly-baked apple and strawberry pie aroma wafts over. Or perhaps it’s the Greek yoghurt and berry compote combination that is the perfect accompaniment to the pie. But we all agree that Graham’s pie crust is absolutely marvellous! Soy makes puppy eyes at her sister so she will get her more pie crust, and it works!
Lunch at Willowvale Mill is perhaps one of the most interesting culinary experiences that Soy and I have had. Beyond the wholesome, rustic, home cooked food, it’s the relationship and conversations that we got to have with Graham. We loved the sense of him welcoming us into his home and being a part of his vision for the old mill. We also loved being involved in the general appreciation for the land and savouring a meal that more than showcased local, quality produce. Graham told us that he was planning to wind down, and was considering closing Willowvale Mill to the public in the near future. So if you’d like to experience a slice of French or Italian country hospitality right here in Australia, you need to visit Willowvale Mill very soon!
Willowvale Mill Guesthouse Restaurant
(02) 4837 3319
Lunch/dinner at Willowvale Mill is $45 per person, not including drinks. The Mill also has overnight accommodation.
Tags: regional nsw