It’s Aussie Artisan Week – a time to celebrate our amazing army of talented trades people. Hannah Warren talks to some of our culinary kings and queens.
Pepe Saya is Australia’s butter baron. He has turned the mellow, yellow spread into a religion, and now his concoctions adorn the best sliced loaves on the tables of Sydney’s best addresses.
The pandemic has been tough on artisans like Pepe Saya co-founders Pierre Issa and Melissa Altman. But they have survived and thrived.
Which is why they started Artisan Week – seven days of showcasing the finest Australian food, fashion and art makers.
But a week isn’t enough to try all these delights. You can enjoy them for the rest of the year and bring to life his dream of shopping local and keeping these businesses alive.
Sweet-tooths heading to the Riverina region in New South Wales ought to plan a stop at the Junee Licorice and Chocolate Factory, a family-owned company in a historic flour mill.
Neil Druce bought the mill in 1998, but the family had been farming the region for decades; Druce’s father was Australia’s first organic farmer, and that focus on natural produce flows through to the all-organic products at Junee Licorice and Chocolate Factory.
“We pitch that in our marketing but sometimes people don’t care that it’s organic. They just love chocolate; they want to play with chocolate and hang out at a chocolate factory,” laughs Rhiannon Druce, who followed her parents into the family business. A penchant for the delicious runs in their blood – her eldest brother Dean also bought a disused flour mill in Corowa on the Victorian border and distils his own whisky.
The chocolate and licorice proved so popular that the Junee factory grew, and they now have tours, chocolate workshops and a restaurant, and they love welcoming people to their factory for the full chocolate-making experience.
“You can see how it’s all made, and if you’re wanting to get more hands-on, you can make your own freckle or rocky road, where you get to put your hand in melted chocolate and custom make everything exactly how you like it,” says Rhiannon.
When COVID-19 hit, they were ramping up for Easter and had to quickly boost their online presence to shift their stock of bunny-shaped goodies, while putting the brakes on their tours and chocolate-making experiences. They now sell DIY kits online for people to make rocky road at home.
During the worst of the shutdown, they worked hard to keep the factory open and their staff busy, selling hand sanitiser made in Dean’s Corowa Distillery alongside their sweets.
“We were very nervous when all this started happening, but we were able to keep our staff employed, which was paramount to us, and help our community get vital supplies,” says Rhiannon. “It’s just kind of funny that a chocolate factory was selling hand sanitiser.”
If you have any room left after tasting all the chocolate at the factory, Rhiannon recommends stopping at the restaurant for one of their famous hot chocolates.
“They’re made with real melted chocolate, then you can add things like honeycomb and rocky road – they’re pretty luxe.”
Over the next few months, the Junee factory is taking inspiration from another famous chocolate factory.
“You know in Willy Wonka when the chocolate factory closes and then it has the grand reopening? That’s kind of what it feels like for us right now,” says Rhiannon.
“So we’re going to hide a golden ticket in the bottom of one of the chocolate sampling trays we sell, and whoever finds it will win the ultimate weekend in our region, which is known for food and wine.”
Cheese fiends head for the NSW South Coast, where you’ll find Bodalla nestled between the sea and the mountains. The village was founded in the 1860s with 16 dairy farms making cheddar good enough to be the first Australian cheese to be sent to England.
Bodalla Dairy was started by Jane McCuaig and her mother, who moved to the area in the late ’80s and were sad to see the milk from their farm and the surrounding ones being shipped off to the big dairy processors – many of which were overseas-owned.
“We decided to process the milk locally by building a dairy that could bottle and be a place we could teach locals how to make cheese, yoghurt and ice cream in the middle of our own village,” says McCuaig. “We had a lot of learning on the job.”
Now that they’ve got to grips with the process, they’re getting creative with cheese and ice cream in wild flavours.
“We make cheddar with native plants and seeds to give it an Australian twist, like saltbush, wattleseed, Tasmanian pepperberry and our absolute favourite is our eight-hour gum leaf smoked,” says McCuaig. “We make yogurt with lemon myrtle and we have fun making ice cream from scratch; it takes three days from raw milk to scooping. After having a drink or chatting with the kids we come up with crazy ideas for flavours. Some don’t work and some are magical.”
The most magical are surely the ones inspired by local experiences; Let’s Go Camping is ice cream smoked with gum leaves and stirred through with macadamia praline; Bush Tucker is chocolate-coated witchetty grubs (yes, really) in wattleseed ice cream; and Diving at Montague Island has a salty, seaweedy flavour.
Although the village is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it small, you could easily spend a day there.
“Some people arrive for coffee (made with that morning’s milking) and enjoy the sun on the deck overlooking our lake and farm, then bottle feed the calves at 10am, check for eggs, and feed the alpacas and Billy the goat,” says McCuaig.
“They go for a bush walk, come back for a cheese toastie and live music on Sunday. If the adults settle in for the afternoon with a glass of wine, the kids can have an ice cream and play in the gardens.
“Bodalla is really special and it’s not until you come that you appreciate it.”
NSW is home to more than a dozen unique wine regions, which means you can throw a rock anywhere in the state and hit a winery. But if you’ve got wine fatigue (is that even a thing?) stop in at Distillery Botanica in Erina, perched about halfway between Sydney and Newcastle on the Central Coast.
Distillery Botanica is the work of horticulturist and herbalist Philip Moore, who sold his successful herb-growing business in the early 2000s and turned his attention to teaching himself how to distil.
He bought a former nursery/wedding venue in Erina, and applied for a distilling licence; he was only the sixteenth person in Australia to be granted a boutique distilling licence, and only the fifth to distil gin. By 2007, his gins were making their way onto shelves locally and to the International Wine and Spirit Competition in London, where he won the silver medal for his Moore’s Vintage Dry Gin (in 2017, he returned with Moore’s Dry Gin and won gold).
Today, everything is still proudly made on site in Erina; in fact, the Roots & Leaves gin is made with botanicals all grown in the distillery’s gardens. And Philip is committed to the batch-made, artisanal vibe.
“Volume and massive sales was never Philip’s drive. It was never his story. He was never getting into this business to build up a huge company, sell loads of gin, then sell the business,” says manager Nigel Weisbaum. “His thing was always just making delicious stuff.”
Nigel joined the team early last year with visions of making the distillery more of a destination.
“We’re planning a new experience where you can come in, pick your own botanicals and distil your own gin,” he says.
“We’re hoping to be running that by later this year. It’ll be phenomenal. We’ll have tours and tastings, masterclasses, lots of different events and experiences, but the main one will be picking your own botanicals.”
On the 1.5-hectare property, you’ll also find the newly licensed cafe Bar Botanica, owned by Three Blue Ducks alum Dan Hughes who makes the award-winning Mr Goaty Gelato and serves brunches that regularly feature on best-of lists.
“Come for the afternoon,” says Nigel. “Have some lunch, make some gin, walk around the gardens, have a drink…”
But why stop at an afternoon?
“There are great beaches nearby, and we’ve got a brewery called Six String a six-minute walk away. Then there’s a winery called Firescreek 10 minutes down the road, a cheese factory that uses our gin in their cheese, a chocolate factory – loads of little artisan food producers,” says Nigel. “The Central Coast has really picked up its game. It’s really cool.”