When entrepreneurial retailer Mark Foy opened the Hydro Majestic at Medlow Bath in the Blue Mountains in 1904, he introduced what was arguably Australia's first "paddock to plate" fine dining experience. Through the ingenious use of a flying fox linking the top of the escarpment with the rich grazing lands of the Megalong Valley 500 metres below, farm produce was sent up daily to the hotel's restaurant, ensuring the menu featured only the freshest, best-quality home-grown vegetables, fruit and meat available.
Fast-forward 112 years, and Foy's seemingly revolutionary practices are once again in vogue, with the Blue Mountains increasingly recognised as a viable destination for foodies. Tourists and daytrippers from Sydney now visit the mountains not just for their wilderness walks and sensational views, but for the bustling cafes, fine restaurants, local delicacies and even the burgeoning wine scene. And what better way to refuel after a challenging bushwalk than over a delicious meal featuring locally-sourced produce presented with innovation and passion?
"Historically, this area has always been the food bowl of Sydney," Fabrice Rolando from First Farm Organics tells me as we wander through his verdant market garden in the Kanimbla Valley, at the western base of the Blue Mountains. "Eating organic, heirloom produce isn't a hipster invention – it's just a forgotten skill and craft. I'm not reinventing the wheel here!"
Despite his humility, Rolando is a horticulturist and gardener of note, and the vegetable supplier-of-choice for the leading restaurants in the Blue Mountains, including Darley's at Lilianfels, Leura Garage and Vesta at Blackheath. What Rolando grows in his open-pollinated patch of rare, exotic and heirloom vegies impacts directly on those kitchens, with the chefs gaining inspiration and designing their menus according to what's in season.
"It's important there's a synergy between chefs and the growers," Rolando says as he pauses to pluck a yellow rocket flower, currently in high demand as a garnish and salad ingredient. "Chefs need to think like growers and vice versa. The good ones come down here, walk through like this, point and say, 'what's that, what's it taste like, how can I use it?' Having a relationship with the farmer gives the restaurant a real edge."
With food and beverage at the forefront of their hospitality empire, the Escarpment Group of hotels – consisting of the recently refurbished Hydro Majestic, the five-star Lilianfels, Echoes boutique hotel and Parklands Country Garden & Lodges at Blackheath – echo Rolando's mantra, acknowledging local and regionally sourced produce with special indicators on each menu.
"Where possible, we use local and regional suppliers (including Rolando); and we also have our own kitchen garden at Parklands, which we're hoping will become sustainable across the whole group," general manager Ralf Bruegger tells me during Hydro's hugely popular high tea. "It's all about going back to basics, respecting and understanding ingredients, about the food that comes out of the ground."
At the funky Leura Garage – a converted mechanics workshop, complete with car hoist and old mufflers as decoration – local produce also features heavily on the ever-changing menu, with owner James Howarth championing "fresh, local, organic and expressive of the mountains". Standouts include free-range lamb from Lithgow Valley, beef from Kanimbla Valley and pork knuckle from Mudgee; while First Farm Organic herb pots allow the chef to pluck fragrant leaves straight off the plant.
The restaurant also showcases wines from the Central Ranges, holding special events during the year to highlight local selections. During November, for instance, it features "meet the winemaker" nights, where shining lights of the industry – such as Mudgee's highly awarded James Manners – bring along their favourite vintages to share with guests.
Winter, of course, is the busiest season in the Mountains, with the prospect of log fires, misty views and even snow luring Sydneysiders up the Great Western Highway. And what could be more enticing than a steaming cup of rich hot chocolate as a warming treat?
"Chocolate is cold-weather food, so it's become an essential part of the mountains experience," chocolatier Adam Preen, from Blue Mountains Chocolate Company, tells me as he leads me through the process of tempering dark Belgian chocolate in his kitchens near the Three Sisters at Katoomba.
One of just two companies that handcrafts chocolates on the premises (the other being Josophan's at Leura), Blue Mountains Chocolate Company sells individual chocolates by weight and is famous for its sinful hot chocolate, made from chunks of pure Belgian dark chocolate melted in a cup heated by a tea candle. The quirky little shop also hosts chocolate-making workshops for visitors who want to take home a new skill.
Further up the hill at Blackheath, Vesta at Blackheath has also tapped into the "slow and warm" ethos to entice visitors from Sydney and beyond. Its specialty is rustic mountain food, slow-cooked in an original baker's oven dating from the 1880s and fired by vintage ironbark. Once again, seasonal, local produce is paramount; 70 per cent of Vesta's vegetables come from First Farm Organics, with the rest supplied by local gardeners who drop by to sell their crop.
For customers who want to make the most of a mountains holiday-home experience, Vesta now offers takeaways, including mouth-watering slow-cooked lamb shoulder served with organic vegetables, roast potatoes and a red wine jus or a vegetable casserole with potatoes, carrots, wild rice, reggiano and mushroom broth.
With massive foil trays in hand, we head back down the escarpment to where Blue Mountains farming all began – the beautiful Megalong Valley. Our overnight destination is a modern, self-contained two-bedroom lodge at Dryridge Estate, a boutique commercial winery located on the Six Foot Track, that produces a surprisingly decent drop.
After an afternoon tasting of the estate's full range (rieslings, pinot gris, rosé and shiraz), we retreat to the verandah of the Sunrise Lodge, bottle in hand, to soak up the grandstand vista of the setting sun illuminating the ancient, rugged escarpment.
This surely must rank in the top 10 views within a two-hour radius of Sydney; and after a truly indulgent gourmet short-break, I am a well-sated, happy camper.
The Blue Mountains are a 1.5 hour drive from Sydney; a train service is also available.
Rooms at Parklands Country Garden & Lodges start at $200 a night; see parklands.com.au.
Self-contained lodge accommodation is also available at Dryridge Estate from $225 a night (minimum stay two nights); see dryridge.com.au.
Julie Miller was a guest of the Escarpment Group, Leura Garage and Dryridge Estate.