Summers are spent squinting through sparkling sunshine, letting the nectar of soft stonefruit drip and sizzle on the pavement, relishing the rich summer bounty with pies and salsas and unadorned fruit.
But well before autumn comes knocking in Sydney, while we are all still savouring days at the beach and endless twilight evenings, there are signs heralding the imminent change in seasons. Slowly and surely the warmth of summer is replaced by the crisp snap of autumn and with it, the crisp snap of autumn fruit.
Back when we lived in NYC it was not unusual to see masses of city-dwellers migrating out to Long Island on brisk autumn Saturday mornings, returning later that evening proudly bearing bags of apples and pears picked straight from the tree.
However I had no idea that any such adventure was possible within 90 minutes of Sydney. Silly me.
Now I could quite happily live in the middle of a bustling city (or on a tiny tropical island but we’ll file that one away for later) forever, but it’s no secret I’m a bit of a farm-girl at heart — an invite for a day of picking apples and pears in Bilpin, NSW was one of the best I’d had in a while.
So it was, one crisp morning a few weeks ago, with great anticipation that I boarded the van arranged for our little outing, gumboots and warm clothing at the ready.
Our first stop was to chat with Alan, a passionate supporter and long-time member of Hawkesbury Harvest.
A not for profit community organisation, Hawkesbury Harvest was formed in 2000 by local farmers and consumers passionate about food issues. The organisation supports the farming community, from the South Coast all the way up to Gosford, with activities to encourage locally-based and sustainable agricultural industry development.
It’s a a bit of a mouthful, but much of it drills down to providing farms and rural communities with the ability to expand their production and create alternative market channels. It comes together every day in the Hawkesbury Harvest Farm Gate Trail.
I read somewhere recently the idea that a supermarket won’t miss your dollars if you change where you shop, but buying instead from farmers’ markets or farm gates could be the difference between a small farm succeeding and failing.
For every season and every crop there is a farm (or 10) on the Farm Gate Trail where you can go and support local farmers by buying direct.
Pine Crest Orchard
Our second stop was one such farm, Pine Crest Orchard, to get out into rows of trees and pick our fill of apples and pears.
Led by owner John Galbraith, we wove through branches laden with Gala, Jonathon and Golden Delicious Apples.
Asian Pears popped off the tree with the slightest twist and disappeared just as quickly with eager bites. Green European ones were popped into bags for later.
Not-quite-ripe quince and vibrant late-season plums teased us as we passed from one variety of fruit to the next.
Along the way John showed us how to ‘cut’ an apple in half with just his thumbs…
…and shared how challenging it is to grow crops for an appearance-focused consumer market.
Gala apples, for example, taste exactly the same whether yellow with hints of red, or red with hints of yellow. Buyers however don’t want the yellow ones, so those trees have been pulled out in favour of ones producing fruit with a rosier demeanour and exactly the same flavour.
Now anyone can stop by Pine Crest to pick their own fruit (or simply stock up from the pre-picked boxes on display in the shed) however many will be surprised to see that apples don’t grow with skins as shiny as a new car.
Most varieties of fruit, especially apples, are coated with wax prior to being arranged on a supermarket shelf. But at Pine Crest your fruit can be polished naturally, popped into an ancient machine, which instantly brings up a natural gloss as the fruit bumps and jump along the fabric rollers. A tea towel at home does the same thing — but the machine is far more fun.
Real food direct from the farm, there’s nothing like it.
Pine Crest Orchard has a variety of fruit and nuts on offer from December to May.
From berries to peaches, plums to apples to pears, to quinces and persimmons, and even chestnuts and walnuts (!!) there is something to keep visitors busy and well-fed for months.
PINE CREST ORCHARD
2549 Bells Line of Road, Bilpin NSW
Open for Pick-Your-Own on Fridays, Saturday and Sundays from 9am-5pm during the fruit season (roughly December to May)
Of course being well-fed goes hand in hand with being well-watered and what would you know but Shane, a true outback farmer, from Hillbilly Cider was on-site to tempt us with his (seriously stunning) ciders.
An organic wine maker, Shane and wife Tessa turned their hand to apple and pear ciders a few years back and Hillbilly Cider launched about 18 months ago with spectacular results.
100% fruit-based, the ciders are naturally carbonated in the brewing process (no added C02), have an amazing fine bubble reminiscent of Proseco and present a crisp, dry finish that may change your mind about cider forever.
The apple stands up on its own but the pear cider, slightly pink and eye-rollingly floral, is something really special. This cider was well worth an excpetion on my usual teetotaling ways.
Hillbilly also makes a nonalcoholic apple version too and while there is carbonation added (no alcohol or fermentation to create bubbles) its still a damn fine drop — and miles ahead of all the mass produced, flavour-added sparkling apple products in the supermarkets.
Yes, I’m gushing, it is deserved.
Lucky for all of us Hillbilly Cider is available outside of Bilpin in bottle shops, at farmers’ markets, and even on tap in a few choice establishments. RJ and I keep our stock of the non-alcoholic version up thanks to the local Harris Farm.
Tomah Gardens Restaurant
After far to many rounds of “just one more splash” of Hillbilly Cider we were coaxed back onto the van with the promise of food. It of course didn’t take too much coaxing and before we knew it we arrived at the Mount Tomah Botanic Gardens for lunch.
A cozy spot on the veranda over looking the gardens provided a visual feast while we waited for the meal to arrive. In proper family style roughly three of almost every item on the Tomah Gardens Restaurant menu was ordered — and other than a moment for a snap or two we all dove in head (or is that fork) first.
The food was seasonal and packed with flavour, and there was more than enough variety to keep us all filling our plates until the end.
Sunflower & Cracked Wheat Bread // Dill-Cured Rainbow Trout with Apple Slaw
Grilled Vegetables with Goat Fetta & Pepitas // Corn Fed Chook Roasted with Thyme, Carrot, Hand Cut Chips, Greens & Gravy (oh those chips!)
Rocket ‘Worms’ (Pasta) with Tomatoes & Basil // Lamb Rack Roasted with Eggplant, Yoghurt & Kumera Crisps
Of course for dessert one of everything, and lots of spoons, was the only option.
Baked Custard, Stewed Rhubarb, Pistachio Shortbread // Figs, Peach-Leaf Ice Cream, Blackberry Jelly // Dark Chocolate & Walnut Praline Mousse Cake // Angel Cake, Apricot Jam, Cream
TOMAH GARDENS RESTAURANT — BILPIN, NSW
MT TOMAH BOTANIC GARDENS
BELLS LINE OF ROAD
BILPIN, NSW 2758 AUSTRALIA
A quick swing through the gardens allowed us to soak up a touch more mountain sun before we returned to the van to start the journey home, bellies and cameras full.
I, of course, was already plotting a return for chestnuts in the short-term… and peaches and berries once winter has passed.
But for now, apples and pears as far as the eye can see. What a perfect way to welcome autumn.
JJ traveled, ate and drank as a guest of Go Future Media and local Bilpin businesses. Editorial policy here.