A "mystery dinner" is the entree to a foodie tour of Sydney's historic Macarthur, writes Kerry van der Jagt.
It's 8.30am on a Friday and my phone beeps with a text message: "Tonight is the night. Please meet at the Shire Town Hall, Picton at 6.30pm sharp."
Since making an online reservation two months earlier, this is the first information I've received about the time or location of a Secret Supper Club I've blindly signed up for.
From our starting point in Camden, an easy 60-minute drive from downtown Sydney, Picton is a further 15-minutes drive southwest. The wind and rain has chased the locals indoors as we gather under the soaring arches of the Shire Hall, the amber lights from its lace-covered windows bidding a warm welcome. Once inside, we are met by the clamour of excited guests, sipping champagne and nibbling canapés to the background music of a male vocalist.
After welcome drinks we enter the "dining" room, where rows of tables set with white cloths, fresh flowers and candles line the colonial-era room. Completed in 1869, the site has been used as the Lower Picton Public School, School of Arts, council rooms, and more recently, for plays by the local theatre group.
But tonight, the Shire Hall is the venue for an underground dining experience known as Secret Supper Club, the brainchild of local foodies, Paula and Craig Wolland from The Chef and I Catering, and Jo Rapisardi from Pretty Picnics. Held once a month at a mystery location, the event is capped at 110 guests, with most dinners booked out months in advance.
We never use the same location twice. Macarthur has enough unique and historic settings to keep us going indefinitely.Paula Woolland
"The Macarthur community loves supporting local business," says Paula Wolland. "They embrace great food and wine and have welcomed our pop-up dining experience with open arms."
I start with a mixed entree of warm camembert with pomegranate syrup, fig and pistachio and mini-beef wellingtons, and continue with marjoram roasted lamb rack with pistachio panna cotta, an adventurous combination that tastes of the countryside. Premium beers and wines flow throughout the evening, while dessert is a Baileys, ricotta and berry chocolate basket. Everything is ridiculously good.
Since its beginnings in March 2014, venues for Secret Suppers have included barns, art galleries, museums, private gardens and historic estates.
"We never use the same location twice," says Wolland. "Macarthur has enough unique and historic settings to keep us going indefinitely."
The Macarthur region has long been associated with food, from the original Dharawal people who thrived on land adjacent to the Nepean River; to the First Fleet's herd of cattle, which escaped from Sydney Cove and didn't stop until they found the same lush river flats; to John Macarthur, who, after negotiating a land grant in the "Cowpastures" developed Camden Park Estate, launching Australia's wool, wheat and wine industries.
Today, just as the runaway bovines discovered, a weekend escape to Macarthur is all about the food. Not just good food, but the chance to put a dining experience into its historical context, to learn about sustainable lifestyles, to meet the growers, the chefs and the winemakers, and to reconnect with where food comes from.
Combine the following for a weekend away, or sample each as a day trip from Sydney.
WINE AND DINE
Thanks to the Nepean River and its fertile riverbanks, Macarthur is home to a half a dozen wineries, three of which can be sampled on a Progressive Wine Luncheon. The self-drive tour starts at Fussy Grape, where owner and winemaker Ned Raich leads our group of four couples through a tasting of chardonnays, viogniers and merlots, while his wife Kate hands around cheeses and bruschetta.
The second stop is Trattoria La Vigna, an Italian restaurant within an established vineyard, where we dine on a barnyard of animals: Italian-style pork spare ribs, lamb cutlets with caponata vegetables and chicken wrapped in prosciutto – each matched with wine from the estate. The final stop is Razorback Ridge Wines, a picturesque winery best known for sparkling chardonnay and rosé on a parcel of land that was once part of the Macarthur estate. Ask to try their 2014 verdelho, which took out a silver medal at the 2015 South Coast wine show for "Best wine produced from Sydney area grapes". A dessert of fig, almond and ginger tart is the perfect ending. Progressive Wine Luncheon ($70 per person), bookings essential. Phone 0416 521 753, see razorbackridgewines.com.au.
MARKETS AND GARDENS
The Camden Fresh Produce Market is held each week on Camden Town Farm, the only genuine farmers market in NSW operating on a working farm. Every Saturday morning, up to 30 stallholders gather on the flood plains selling everything from artisan breads, cakes and cheeses, to olive oils, open-range meats and organic produce. Adjacent to the markets is the Camden Community Gardens where locals can lease a garden bed for $75-$110 per year.
To learn more about low-impact living, head to the Macarthur Centre for Sustainable Living at nearby Mt Annan. This community-driven organisation runs cooking classes in cheese, sourdough and sushi-making as well as workshops on preserving, juicing and worm-farming. Next door is the 416-hectare Australian Botanic Garden, the largest botanic garden in the country and home to themed gardens, mountain biking trails, a restaurant, plant nursery and the futuristic PlantBank. Download the free PlantBank app and take a self-guided tour of the Seedbank and research laboratories. See camdenproducemarket.com.au; mcsl.org.au; rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au/annan.
BEER AND SPIRITS
Beer lovers aren't left out in Macarthur, with Infusion Bar and Brewery at Rydges Hotel in Campbelltown operating their own microbrewery. Top tipples include Macarthur Wheat, Appin Ale, Razorback golden ale, Summermoon pilsner and Fishers Ghost premium lager. For $9 we buy a flight of six beer samplers and sit at the bar watching the brewery in action.
For a dose of spirits (of the chain rattling kind) head to Menangle House, said to be one of the most haunted houses in Australia. From April to September, this 1830s inn hosts monthly ghost tours, including a psychic reading and a two-course dinner. By lantern light we are shown around the convict-built inn, while psychic Tracey Lee shares tales about resident ghosts, convicts chained in the cellar and children buried in the garden. If supernatural shenanigans are not your thing, Menangle House Horse & Jockey Inn also has an a la carte restaurant, courtyard dining and tavern bar. See rydges.com; see menanglehouse.com.au.
CAMDEN'S CAFÉ CULTURE
While Camden is traditionally dairy country, it's not all scones and cream. There's Barenz, a hip bar, cafe and restaurant serving modern tapas plates (barenz.com.au); Squeeze and Grind, an indoor-outdoor cafe dishing up healthy choices by day and cocktails by night (Thursday, Friday and Saturday); Back Galley Cafe, a modern eatery specialising in locally sourced produce; and Epicure Store Camden, a tea shop and gourmet food store (epicurestore.com.au).
The latest go-to spots are R Coffee Co., a minimalist space with a warehouse vibe straight out of Surry Hills (though the livestock feed store next door gives the game away – rcoffeeco.com) and The Italian Food Project, a trattoria-style restaurant with a youthful edge and outdoor terrace serving grills, homemade pasta and wood fired pizza. (macarthur.com.au).
Camden is a one-hour drive from downtown Sydney via the M5 Motorway. Made in Macarthur offers a range of boutique food and wine tours, see madeinmacarthur.com.au.
For the Macarthur Secret Supper Club ($125) contact Pretty Picnics. Phone 0410 651 388, see prettypicnics.com.au.
Camden has pub accommodation, B&Bs and a caravan park on the Nepean River. Deluxe double rooms at the historic Camden Valley Inn start from $180 per night. Phone (02) 4655 8413, see camdenvalleyinn.com.au.
The writer travelled with the assistance of Destination Macarthur.