You’d be forgiven for thinking that Queensland, with its copious expanses of white sand, blue water, and miles upon miles of coastline was little other than a nearly never-ending summer…
Not that there’s anything wrong with miles of beaches, but the north eastern corner of Australia is a huge and diverse area, and only a few hours inland from Brisbane and the Gold Coast are rolling hills, farms and seasonal weather patterns — who knew?!
In early September I was asked to travel around Southern Queensland Country with Tourism and Events Queensland to eat (and eat and eat) as we explored our way down the Granite Belt and back up through Southern Downs.
Our trip started out at the conclusion of ProBlogger, as we piled into a van early Sunday morning, driving west then south from the Gold Coast.
The landscape change was nearly instant, seaside glitter turning to rolling hills and sharp-shouldered cattle before our eyes, and just before the sing-song rounds of “are we there yet” kicked in at the 3 hour mark we pulled into Sutton’s Apple Orchard & Cidery. How convenient.
Sutton’s Apple Orchard & Cidery
A table was waiting for us as was the owner, an apple-cheeked gentleman named David Sutton. Within moments David’s wife Ros popped out of the kitchen, taking a break from cutting pies to take our “one of pretty much everything, thanks” order.
As the apple topped/infused/filled goodies came rolling out we chatted to David and Ros about how they bought the property 20 years ago to grow apples but when the price of fruit plummeted they diversified into raspberries.
Those raspberries paid to educate their children, but aren’t a feature of the farm any more now that the kids are out on their own. Then in the early 00’s the Suttons started making juice from their apples.
The juices, bottled by pure varietal, can include Pink Lady, Royal Gala, Granny Smith, Winesap, Jonathan, Summer Delicious, Mutsu and Sundowner as well as occasional blends with other produce including beetroot, citrus and ginger.
They are heat-treated to pasteurise as they contain no added sugar or preservatives, just whole fruit almost wholly from their own orchard.
Over the years production has a grown to over 80,000 bottles a year and 90% of the juice is sold from the farm gate. The pulp from pressing the juice is returned to the land as feed for local cattle and goats.
The cafe was started five years ago and Ros bakes 40 enormous pies a week and ensures that pretty much everything else is made from scratch – even the tomato sauce.
We shared our way through Apple Pie, Apple & Passionfruit Crumble, Pancakes with Apple Syrup, Apple & Date Scones and tall glasses of Sparkling Apple & Lemon Juice, but the scones (with the apple syrup from the pancakes thank you very much) were easily my favourite.
The apple syrup alone is worth stoping at Sutton’s. David takes 80 litres of juice and simmers it at 55 degrees for about a week until he’s left with just 7.5 litres of sticky, intensely apple, apple syrup. Drooling yet?
During apple season (late summer into autumn) you can pick your own apples, but for the rest of the year customers come to Sutton’s from all over Queensland and NSW just to eat at the Shed Cafe and head home with juice and other goodies from the shop.
There is even one dedicated and transport-blessed individual who flies in by helicopter from Brisbane and lands on the front lawn in pursuit of pie.
David and Ros used to sell their juices at local markets and still have customers from those days come to the shop, David however is not a fan of most current Farmer’s Markets.
“You don’t call it a Farmer’s Market if you don’t have farmers and producers, [most] markets aren’t genuine anymore”, he says as a touch of distain crosses his face.
His passion for supporting the local community is palpable and with his recent foray into making French-style cider has extended to a on-site Cider Festival.
The inaugural event, held this year in May, went so well they are planning on another celebration in 2015. Now that’s the perfect excuse for a visit if I’ve ever heard one.
Only one stop into the trip and we were so full we could barely move, so we left Sutton’s and headed to The Barrel Room Cafe. For lunch… Oh dear.
The Barrel Room Cafe at Ballandean Estate
The restaurant at Ballandean Estate Winery is run by Matt Wells and his wife Bobbi, and between juggling their brand new bub and planning an extension to the space, they are creating locally-sourced, seasonal, Italian inspired meals.
Matt, with experience in all sorts of kitchens from large hotel chains to the mines, has a truly nose to tail approach and highlights as much produce from the neighbours as he can.
When we were there there was a glint in his eye about an impending crop of wild asparagus and excitement when speaking of Queensland’s only saffron producer, located only 10 kms away.
This year Matt and Bobbi are even taking over the catering for Ballandean’s Opera in the Vineyard event.
As we ate dessert for breakfast only a mere hour or so earlier we declined dessert after lunch and instead headed to Twisted Gum Wines, a half hour or so down the road.
Twisted Gum Wines
Owner Michelle Coelli met us at the front of Twisted Gum’s cellar door wraparound veranda and immediately whisked us off for a much needed walk around the property.
The Sunset Vineyard Walk is a special offering of Twisted Gum. Scheduled approximately once a month during autumn, visitors are treated to a tour of the property and former scientist Michelle’s wealth of knowledge about tending a vineyard.
The methods used by the Coelli’s include techniques for growing, pruning and harvesting — all by hand and using sustainable practices to replace pesticides and keep the vines thriving without irrigation. As someone with a vineyard in the family it was simply fascinating stuff.
We were visiting a few weeks before budburst, rendering the vines reasonably bare, but the mulching was in full force as was the clover ground-cover, busy fixing nitrogen into the soil in anticipation of spring.
After taking a swing past the holiday cottage rental for a few quintessential country photos we returned to the old Queenslander cellar door to meet Michelle’s husband Tim and drink in the sunset between sips of wine and morsels of perfectly matched cheese.
So much as I rarely drink anymore I do love a good red and was fascinated at the difference between even tiny sips of the 2011 wet season Shiraz and the 2012 dry season vintage (no irrigation, remember).
The Pink Moscato is one of their most popular bottles but the 2012 Shiraz was easily my favourite, a bit of dirt on the nose and intense fruit on the tongue made it frighteningly drinkable.
Tim and Michelle hold regular long-table dinners at the cellar door and Sunset Walks throughout the season.
Even if you only pop by for a quick taste, and a half-case of 2012 Shiraz, make sure to wander through the front rooms and checkout the artwork by their daughter Emily. She has some beautiful pieces.
Between the setting sun, the tangy cheese, the great company and the smooth wine we had to be herded out, lest we try to invite ourselves to stay for a meal with the family, but the next stop was our resting place for the evening…
…the homey and inviting lodge at Diamondvale B&B Cottages.
Diamondvale B&B Cottages
Continuing the trend of warm hosts we were greeted by Kerrin & Tony Cridland as we settled into our rooms.
Kerrin had the fire roaring and after dinner at a local restaurant — yes one final meal of the day — we were glad to have a cozy cottage complete with electric blankets on the beds, ensuites and a full kitchen (not that food was remotely in the equation until the next day).
In the morning we got up early to catch the late winter sun streaming through the French doors and head outside for some fresh air. It was here we had a proper introduction into why the area is called the Granite Belt.
The Diamondvale Lodge overlooks the Heritage Trail and is located less than 2 kms from Stanthorpe.
We were advised the previous evening that we could walk to town in under 30 minutes, however we made it a sum total of about 200 metres before having no clue where the path was, nor any line of sight to the two locals had passed us by only minutes before.
We instead kept a sharp eye out for wildlife as we meandered in a few circles (rather than along the waterway) before heading back for breakfast.
Breakfast was delivered on a quad bike (because that’s how things are done in the country) and once fed and watered we headed over to the main cottages to take a peek around.
While feeding the chickens that had kindly provided our breakfast, Tony and Kerrin told us how they left their corporate jobs to go travelling and eventually settled at Diamondvale 9 years ago.
When they bought the property it had the main house and three cottages, now there’s a fourth cottage, the lodge and another house on the lake that’s currently being renovated.
During our visit all the cottages were full with couples and young families getting out of the city. It would have been lovely to sit by the creek or pet the ponies for quite a bit longer, but we had to get back on the road.
So into the van we piled and through the countryside we drove to The Granite Belt Dairy and Jersey Girls Cafe.
The Granite Belt Dairy and Jersey Girls Cafe
Stanthorpe Cheese / The Granite Belt Dairy is nearly right across the road from Sutton’s — and in such that pie was our stop on the way into town, cheese was our stop on the way out.
The dairy is owned by Karen Deeth and Rosco Burnett and they are creating farm to platter farmhouse cheese from the milk of a single herd of Jersey cows.
“Jersey cows only produce double cream, so all our cheese is double cream — that’s why it’s so good,” Karen shares with us before voicing her concerns about the dairy industry in Australia.
Karen and Rosco are at capacity with their land for head-count of cattle so now they are looking at bringing in milk from other farms to grow their cheese business but it’s not as simple as that. According to Karen, in 2000 there were (roughly) over 1500 dairy farms, and now there are less than 500.
This is a huge threat to cheese makers because of unreliable milk sources and Karen is not the only one who knows that cost pressures by the duopolies of $1 litres of milk is all but killing the industry.
The Granite Belt Dairy uses 1000 litres of milk to make 100 kg of cheese per week and they are still regularly sold out of their most popular types. The whey leftover from the cheese process goes to a local farmer for fighting downy mildew without chemicals.
Given, Karen and Rosco could produce more milk from their (gorgeous) herd, but they only milk once a day instead of twice. The rest of the day the calves are in the pastures to feed and each heifer spends 9 months milking before a 3 month break.
As for the cheese, it varies from a mild but intensely buttery washed curd to a crumbly peppercorn-studded aged wedge and a fragrant, drippy even when cold (in a very very good way), brie style washed rind.
Stop at the shop taste the cheese and get some of your favourite to take with you — if you’re lucky you may even get a peek at the big brown eyes of the Jersey girls around the back.
Well cheesed-up we hopped into the van once again to head north-east to Killarney, koalas and waterfalls — but that’s a photo diary for another day.
JJ traveled ate and stayed thanks to Tourism and Events Queensland and Southern Queensland Country Tourism. All opinions are that of the writer. Editorial policy here, go for your life then have some pie, or cheese, or wine, or all three because why not.