“I haven’t had to mow the lawn in two years,” says Warren Thomas.
Now if you’re a lawn lover, not having any grass to mow for that long could be depressing. But not for Warren, husband to the owner of local Ballandean business Washpool Skin Wellness Rather than dwelling on not having to drag the mower from the shed in over 24 months, Warren, a grazier who has worked on the land all his life is optimistic. He’s reduced his herd size while he, “waits for the prosperous times to come.”
And it’s not just Warren. The optimism is widespread in the Granite Belt Wine Country At just under a three-hour drive southwest of Brisbane – or two and a half hours from the Gold Coast, this rural community, renowned for stone fruit and a growing reputation in wine have been battling a double-edged whammy: a severe drought and bushfires.
There’d been no rain in the region after ex-Tropical Cyclone passed through in 2017. In mid-December last year (2019), the region was on water restrictions of 80 litres per person per day. And a series of bushfires in September crept alarmingly close to the town of Stanthorpe. A combination of natural disasters testing the mettle of these country folk.
But they have not given up.
The farmers, fruit growers, cheesemakers, guesthouse managers, craft shop owners, winemakers and restaurants in this section of Queensland’s southern country, like Warren have adopted a similar optimistic attitude about the challenges they’ve been dealt.
How to help and halt the heartbreak?
Towards the end of last year, I visited the region and was shocked at how dusty brown and parched the countryside looked. On that trip from Brisbane, our group indulged in a few wineries and enjoyed some local produce.
A couple of months later I’m back in the region that holds a special place in my heart. With a group of travel writers / bloggers / influencers/videographers / and a few Public Relations gurus from the Australian Society of Travel Writers (ASTW)
We took to the road for an epic two-day journey on a Maxi Tours bus with bus driver Allan Foster. This friendly Stanthorpe local drove us to the Granite Belt to do what we do best.
Share our experiences.
For we too have optimism.
And this time the paddocks are tinged with green. Light rainfall has brought some relief.
Yes, Warren will have to mow!
She’ll be apples
I have a weak spot for a good apple pie. And Sutton’s at Thulimba (just before entering the town of Stanthorpe) has the best I’ve ever tasted. Pink Lady apples are picked straight from the orchard out the back. They’re peeled, chopped, cooked and transformed into a sweet filling, which is packed into the pies (no less than 25 apples per pie.)
If you’re eating in, your ‘slab’ of pie is served with a dollop of whipped cream topped with Sutton’s Apple Syrup and a scoop of spiced Cider Ice Cream. (They offer gluten-free alternatives.)
Sutton’s stocks a wide range of products including apple preserves (apple chutney, sauce, jelly) and berry and citrus fruits. (I bought some of their limoncello and apple cider vinegar.)
Tip: Arrive hungry these portions are ginormous.
Pick me some strawberries
It was shades of déjà vu over at Ashbern Farms where I can’t help but write, “best strawberries I’ve ever tasted!”
With two locations – Sunshine Coast and Stanthorpe – the Granite Belt location on West Road is a working commercial farm. Visitors can step out in the fields and pluck your own (PYO) ripe strawberries from the runners. (Payment is by weight of the punnet you’d picked!)
Before we go and PYO we meet co-owner Brendan Hoyle who with wife Ashley have faced challenges on the farm. “Being so dry last year we planted the crop one month late with dire consequences,” says Brendon. Each bush has produced much less than the usual 500 grams to one kilogram they normally extract.
Thankfully under watchful eyes and farming daily there are strawberries to be found. We find and pluck a few ripe Cabrillo variety, an explosion of sweet juicy tastiness!
I say to Brendan on my way back to the shed, “I will never be able to eat another ordinary strawberry again.”
Nor taste a better caramel strawberry sundae again! (Soaked in caramelised balsamic vinegar – I can hear you reaching for the car keys – GPS set to Stanthorpe.)
Open October to May with picking Wednesday to Sunday.
In a Jam?
Using fresh ingredients (many sourced locally) Jamworks gourmet foods have a mouth-watering selection of jams and chutneys. Every pantry should have a strawberry ginger and rose jam and a lemon butter right?! Well, mine does now!
Open for morning and afternoon tea. They also offer a tempting lunch menu.
St Jude’s Cellar Door & Bistro, has met a few challenges surviving the drought and continuing to produce quality fresh, wholesome, delicious food at their bistro. Robert also has his own vines and hopes to be adding his wines to the Sirromet varieties they currently stock.
Our mouths watered when his team placed a few samples of “something we prepared earlier” on the table. Using local mushrooms, free-range eggs and a dash of Mt Sterling Tapenade. Food this good is what this region is all about and why we should be making our way to Stanthorpe (I could have licked the plate clean it was so delicious.)
Conveniently located close to our accommodation for the night (Apple Blossom Cottage) family-run restaurant Essen has home cooking Austrian/German-style at their core. Like many others in Stanthorpe their dishes are made from locally sourced, fresh ingredients.
The atmosphere is relaxed, the service friendly and the food delicious. I especially enjoyed the “kasnudeln’ – pasta filled with herbs, quark and beurre noisette (straight from the menu description.) The apple strudel, burnt butter, and cinnamon ice cream gave me another happy apple dessert moment.
All courses were accompanied by a fine selection of Award-Winning wines from Ridgemill Estate And we were fortunate to share the dining experience with the friendly owners of Ridgemill Estate, Martin Cooper and wife Michelle Feenan.
Where to stay
With so much to do in the region, I suggest staying one or two nights (at least.) And with a plethora of choices, all scenarios are accommodated: couples, families, solo, and budget wary travellers.
I stayed in the very comfortable Apple Blossom Cottage. Built during the 1900s the floorboards creak as old aged timber should. They have a fireplace for winter, a kitchen with all modern mod cons and three bedrooms – two queen-sized beds ( one with an ensuite) and another with twin beds.
At Ridgemill Estate not only did we sample their wines we also had a sneak peek at their self-contained studio cabins. Can accommodate large groups with eight studio cabins or a three bedroom winery escape house (sounds tempting doesn’t it?)
The Granite Belt Brewery has 19 rustic cabins to suit everyone. With onsite restaurant, bar and boutique beers on tap – this could be the ideal locale for those who may prefer an ale over wine. (And their apple cider is pretty good too.)
Wash away the blues
When we found out our we were going to a ‘soap making class’ at Washpool Skin Wellness I wasn’t sure what to expect.
I walk into the store filled with a heavenly scent of fragrances wafting from the shelves stocked with an array of goodies. Melissa Thomas, owner of the local Ballandean business greets us and within five minutes of listening to her discuss her 100% natural products, we’re hanging on her every word. (Being an ex-schoolteacher also helped with engaging her class of wannabe soap makers.)
With her grazier husband Warren doing it tough on the land these last few years, Melissa openly admits “this side hustle has become our main hustle.”
Melissa has extensively researched natural ingredients and her products have been created to be safely used by people with allergies. Many of the natural ingredients are edible including honey, avocado oil and organic shea butter she sources from a free trade group in Africa.
Washpool has half-day soap making workshops. Melissa’s fun and relaxing classes will change your mindset about soap forever.
She’s another example of someone doing what they love and making beautiful NATURAL products for everyone to enjoy.
Why we do what we do
The Granite Belt locals are doing what they can to stay viable and remain in business.
For some, that means changing menus to feature seasonal ingredients that are available, or not planting a crop this year to give the dry soil a rest. A few winegrowers have removed this year’s grapes to ensure their valuable vines stay alive to produce a vintage another year. They’re a community looking to the future, not dwelling on the past. And with the recent sprinkle of rainfall there’s visible enthusiasm for what is to come.
Passion and optimism. Makes for a fine mix.
The countdown is on as the town of Stanthorpe is set to roll out a green welcome to its biennial Apple & Grape Harvest Festival
The10-day program begins Friday 28 February and continues through to 8 March 2020.