The month-long Taste Riverina festival (October 1-31) celebrates the harvest of the southern New South Wales farming region, a burgeoning food destination. In and around its major centre, Wagga Wagga, here are some must-dos any time of year.
Eat and Drink
The smell of sizzling bacon sets the scene at Knights Meats & Deli, a Wagga Wagga institution by the Murrumbidgee River that’s been dispensing steaks and smallgoods since the mid-1970s. Just inside the entrance, one of this local powerhouse’s 50-plus staff members is frying up bacon cured in Earl Grey tea and local citrus for customer tastings.
Since Deanna McNaughton and husband James took over Knights Meats seven years ago, they have expanded a much-loved local butcher and deli into a bustling gourmet hub that celebrates fine produce from the Riverina and beyond. Shelves are stacked with sauces, dressings, jams and sweets, including Knights-branded snacks such as toffee apple and spiced nuts. Cold cabinets brim with meat, fish, charcuterie, cheeses, chicken and deli goods. There’s even a game meat section, for your goat or wild rabbit.
187 Fitzmaurice Street, Wagga Wagga; (02) 6921 3725
On the same city block as Knights Meats, the Thirsty Crow Brewing Company – “murdering thirst”, reads its logo – gives drinkers of its award-winning craft beers a front-row seat to the action, its shining vats in full view of patrons at this former fruit market turned brewpub and restaurant. Wagga’s first microbrewery is a dream realised for Craig Wealands, who learned the craft in small breweries in Queensland and New South Wales before going into business with his parents, Kevin and Carmel, back in his hometown. Ask for a tasting paddle of such evocatively named beers as Vanilla Milk Stout, Dark Alleyway IPA, Murder Pils pilsner and 26Fifty (that’s Wagga’s postcode) Summer Ale. Knock them back with a pizza from a quirky selection that includes pig and fig and Sunday roast lamb.
153 Fitzmaurice Street, Wagga Wagga; (02) 6921 7470
Before (or after) you dive into your creamy De-Brie with ginger biscuits and crumbly Roquefort-style Sacrebleu! with sticky prunes, you can see how it was made at Coolamon Cheese. The warehouse-sized licensed café out front of this former co-op building is big on style, space and dishes featuring cheese, while out back the factory has been designed so punters on hourly tours can see the entire cheese-making shebang. Veteran cheesemaker Barry Lillywhite heads a boutique operation that produces more than a dozen cheeses made with Riverina milk, from fettas and gooey soft whites to a “native” range of semi-hard cheeses flavoured with ingredients such as lemon myrtle and hard cheddars aged at least three months. It’s an enterprise that’s putting the small town of Coolamon, 40 kilometres north of Wagga Wagga, on the map.
87 Cowabbie Street, Coolamon; (02) 6927 3757
“We had a big ‘organic’ sign, and people stayed away in droves,” says Paul Nolte of his Mates Gully restaurant in Wagga Wagga, where a Saturday morning market is taking place in the garden. Paul and his partner Marcia McCoy took the sign down – pretension-wary locals clearly found it a turn-off – but continued their “our farm, your plate” philosophy. Fresh eggs, vegetables and fruit grown chemical-free on their Mates Gully farm, 30 minutes out of town, come to the restaurant daily where the chefs design seasonal menus around the produce. The farm’s Dorper sheep provide the lamb on the menu, too, in preservative-free sausages for breakfast and roasted lamb wraps at lunchtime.
38 Morrow Street, Wagga Wagga; (02) 6921 4241
There are six drops in Charles Sturt University’s Boutique Wines range released this year – and all of them won medals at August’s 2017 Australian and New Zealand Boutique Wine Show in Sydney. For a most un-academic experience of a uni, you can drop by CSU’s cellar door in Wagga Wagga, (open daily) to taste the bronze-winning chardonnays, shiraz and nebbiolo, and the gold-medal-awarded tempranillo and tempranillo rosé. All have been made at the campus’s state-of-the-art winery using New South Wales grapes and the input of students and alumni – of which there’s a few given the university’s 40-year history of teaching wine science and viticulture. “They’re not experimental; we’re making serious wines,” says passionate young CSU winemaker Campbell Meeks. “The bulk of the growers have a connection back to the uni – Tumbarumba for instance has been selling grapes to us for more than 20 years.”
Mambarra Drive, CSU Campus, Wagga Wagga; (02) 6933 2435
After winning the Melbourne Cup in 1947, Hiraji was put to stud at Borambola, then owned by racehorse breeder F. W. Hughes. Fast-forward to 2017 and the historic property is a family-owned vineyard and cellar door, and the grey gelding is remembered via a fruity shiraz, Hiraji’s Spell, which the McMullen family has been bottling since the mid-noughties after planting their first grapes in 1995. Likewise, the French-oak aged Moonlight Cabernet Sauvignon recalls a visit by notorious bushranger Captain Moonlight, which is said to have resulted in the bullet, marks still visible on the walls of the old homestead. This is a gorgeous spot in the countryside to taste not just wine made from grapes grown exclusively on the estate, but also Borambola’s Tuckerbox Hoppy Lager and apple cider.
1734 Sturt Highway, Borambola; 0404 084 657
Townhouse Hotel Wagga
Just around the corner from Wagga’s main shopping strip, the Townhouse has newly refurbished executive suites and an attractive lobby but the big attraction here is its restaurant. Fine-diner The Oakroom Kitchen and Bar uses local produce in accomplished dishes such as a crisp-skinned leg of chicken with chestnut, mushroom and truffle risotto and Riverina lamb rump with minted pea pesto.
70 Morgan Street, Wagga Wagga; (02) 6921 4337
JR’s Hut at Kimo Estate
Wake up to 360-degree views of rolling Riverina farmland in this well-heeled eco-hut on a hill at the 2800-hectare Kimo Estate, one of the area’s oldest properties. In winter, there’s a wood stove for warmth and blankets to wrap yourself in as you sit, either indoors on retro armchairs or outside on the deck, contemplating the serenity. There’s no TV or fridge: JR’s Hut is completely off the grid and the one power point is for charging devices only – no hairdryers please. Kimo Estate is a 45-minute drive east of Wagga Wagga, 10 minutes from Gundagai, and worth it for the singular experience of spending a cosy night in an architecturally designed A-frame in the middle of nowhere, complete with critters scratching at the door. For families and groups, there is other accommodation on the working estate in the old shearers’ quarters and workers’ cottages.
1218 Nangus Road, Gundagai; 0421 505 949
... And a little bit of down time
At Circa 1929 day spa in the beautifully renovated Art Deco surrounds of a former bank building, wellness devotee Janine Norman has taken beautification beyond the full-body massage and age-defying facial. After a 45-minute bath soak in chocolate milk, red wine or coffee and chamomile, visitors can partake of the licensed bar to sip champagne and graze on platters of cheese and antipasti.
109 Fitzmaurice Street, Wagga Wagga; (02) 6925 9312