Carol Brown used to come to Mrs Oldbucks Pantry in Berrima as a kid. She loved the smells and tastes of all the sauces and condiments, especially the teas. Now, a year after she bought her cherished childhood memory, Carol, who could talk the label off a chutney jar, stands in the doorway wearing a period apron and mop hat, welcoming people into her enchanting corner store. Some days she dons a full bustle skirt ensemble as second and third generation visitors come in and make their own memories.
Mrs Oldbucks is a Berrima institution and a member of the Berrima Cluster, a collection of 18 food, wine and heritage destinations that showcase the town's and surrounding district's epicurean goodies. There are eight Southern Highlands Food & Wine Clusters, each offering handy summaries and maps of the regional highlights, making it easy to get your teeth into the local producers, eateries and culture.
The Berrima iteration was launched last November with sumptuous supping and lots of Carols, all passionate and keen for a chinwag. Like Hank and Katrina, who have sunk no small sum into the exquisitely renovated PepperGreen Estate Tasting Room. Here you can sample their 14 cool-climate wines (try the earthy-as-a-forest-floor savoury Pinot Noir) and the buttery olives and olive oil they produce from their 55,000 Arbequina trees. Add a tasting platter of apple smoked pork, barbecued chorizo, arancini, chilli and figs, along with a picturesque outdoor setting on the banks of the Wingecarribee River, and you have all the ingredients for an idyllic afternoon.
Diego has just returned from a trip "home" to Puglia in southern Italy when I drop in to his General Store & Café. Way more café than general store, this is one of the best places in town to eat, as my prosciutto and gruyère toastie with pickles indicates. A chef by trade, Diego raves about the area's suppliers. He specialises in focaccia, pasta, bomboloni and other patisserie items and also holds a couple of special dinners a month, each focusing on a particular Italian region.
Former Sydneysider Tony from Courtyard Café is still trying to get used to waking up to animal noises rather than traffic. He says the neighbourhood poddy calf puts on an especially impressive early morning moo-fest and that everyone seems to have chickens. Noisy chickens. But he is quick to stress that they give superb eggs, as my breakfast here confirms.
Opposite the Courtyard Café is Bare Body Beauty Co's "Scrub Hub", which knocks out a browse-worthy range of handmade skincare products. The totally plant-based range includes charcoal and hemp oil soaps and elderberry and vanilla/coconut face scrubs. See barebodybeauty.com
Situated in a gorgeous 1830s sandstone building, Eschalot is the go-to fine-dining experience in Berrima. Chef Matty Roberts and partner Cass Wallace, who handles the wine, took over the French restaurant in August, 2018 and you couldn't find a nicer couple on a long truffle hunt. Eschalot's five- and eight-course degustation meals include local wine pairings, including impressive offerings from Rotherwood Estate, Cherry Tree Hill and Artemis. Awarded one hat in the Good Food Guide, this is a must-dine for serious gourmands.
Berrima boasts a few Georgian architectural highlights, headlined by the convict-built Harpers Mansion. Owned by the National Trust but maintained by volunteers, the house is filled with period furniture and intricately carved cedar from the Shoalhaven. A 40-square-metre hedge maze forms part of the garden out the back, along with delightfully-scented heritage roses and camellias, as well as blackberries, gooseberries, raspberries, quinces, red currants and medlars, which end up in jams and sauces.
Mal Chenu travelled as a guest of Southern Highlands Food & Wine Clusters and Gunu Berrima.
Berrima is 130 kilometres south-west of Sydney and 165 kilometres north-east of Canberra.
Gunu Berrima is a gorgeous 40-hectare estate 10 minutes from town. Surrounded by bushland, gardens, fruit orchards and olive trees, the Tuscan-style homestead comes with five-bedrooms, three bathrooms, a full kitchen, tennis court, pool and fresh eggs from the resident chooks. From $990/night (Sunday – Thursday) and $1090/night (Friday – Saturday). See gunuberrima.com