Beyond the vines in Australia’s Barossa Valley

Already famous for its excellent wines, a new generation of farmers, cheese makers and chefs are dragging the South Australian region into the 21st Century.

Around 70km north of Adelaide lies one of Australia’s oldest wine districts. In the Barossa Valley, rows of luscious emerald vines stretch into the distance, lapping against the base of rolling golden hills. Charming bluestone cottages and sandstone bungalows pop out of the green like tropical islands, and depending on the season you might pass magnificently vibrant flower fields in dazzling yellows, deep purples and bright reds.

Despite the spectacular scenery, however, the allure for most travellers has long been the region’s wine. The Barossa Valley is home to more than 150 wineries, including some of Australia most famous, such as Penfolds, Jacob’s Creek, Peter Lehmann, Seppletsfield and Wolf Blass. Shiraz vines thrive in Barossa’s temperate climate, and cabernet shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and riesling are also growing in popularity.

Germans fleeing religious persecution from Prussian provinces first settled the valley in the mid-19th Century. Finding a Mediterranean climate characterised by warm, dry summers and cool, wet winters, they successfully planted their own vines and have kept the valley dry grown (ie no irrigation zone) for more than 150 years. Although the grape growth might be low some years due to droughts, it is believed that this natural method enhances the flavour of the fruit – and therefore the wine. Today, this sustainable ethos is still very much alive, with locals still tilling their own vegetable patches and a commitment to minimal water usage and traditional growing methods wherever possible.

From these humble beginnings, however, a gastronomic awakening is taking place. Over the last few years a new generation of farmers, cheese makers and chefs have thrown open their doors to share their culinary skills with the public, creating magnificent food to pair with the spectacular wines as the valley shifts its focus to the 21st Century.

The hub of the activity is the bustling Barossa Farmers Market,  which takes place every Saturday morning in the town of Angaston. This is where chefs, locals and travellers gather for their weekly dose of seasonal fruit and vegetables, homemade breads and pastas, locally farmed lamb, goat, duck and turkey, live yabbies (freshwater crayfish), traditional mettwurst (a type of smoked German sausage) and hand-crafted beer. Upon arrival make sure you join the queue for a delectable country-style bacon and egg roll.

For something more sophisticated there is a glut of restaurants headed up by passionate chefs, with the chef d'oeuvre being the restaurant at Hentley Farm in Seppeltsfield, 18km west of Angaston. Still a newcomer to the scene (the restaurant opened its doors in May 2012), it is quickly gaining recognition as one of the top restaurants in the state, if not the country. At the helm is executive chef Lachlan Colwill, a 27-year-old already notorious for his award-winning culinary skills.

The degustation options are designed according to what is abundant, seasonal and fresh. Dishes might include exotic concoctions such as delicate puffed tapioca and jasmine rice with pumpkin seeds and mushroom floss, or South Australian squid in aromatic smoked leek linseed and garlic flower broth. Colwill expertly weaves flavours with textures to create beautifully balanced dishes, coupled with impeccable presentation and a warm and intimate ambience.

To sample regional produce in a charming but casual setting, book a table at 1918 Bistro & Grill in the town of Tanuda, 13km southeast of Seppeltsfield. Located in an enchanting villa built in 1918, the eatery is well frequented by locals who are lured by the fresh food, large servings and a relaxed atmosphere. In the warmer months, take a seat on the wide jasmine-scented veranda, while in winter it is divine to cosy up inside by the open fire. A starter of fresh house-baked bread comes with truffle oil, while smoked tomato and baba ghanoush are teamed with gooey local melt-in-your mouth halloumi cheese. For a main dish, the duck curry is a wonderful collision of succulent duck leg, crispy fried pork, sweet potato, green beans and pineapple.

Just a few steps away is fermentAsian, which was named as one of the country’s top 50 restaurants in 2012 by The Australian newspaper. Vietnamese-born chef Tuoi Do does a fabulous job of creating classic Southeast Asian dishes with modern Australian twist. Barossa Berkshire pork belly is cooked in a fragrant ginger and orange sauce, while local Black Angus beef is grilled and served with a fresh herb salad. Do’s parents, Bang and Pinh, grow a lot of the restaurant’s vegetables (such as bok choy and snowpeas) and herbs (such as Vietnamese mint and coriander), while Tuoi’s partner, Grant Dickson of Rockford Wines, selects the wines to match. Because Vietnamese food is generally light, with most dressings and sauces based on palm sugar and lime, Dickson often recommends a dry Riesling to accompany the delicate flavours.

However, the gastronomic awakening is not all about eating. Casa Carboni, an Italian cooking school and enoteca that opened in December 2012 in Angaston, offers a more hands-on experience. Owners Matteo and Fiona Carboni teach visitors how to prepare traditional Italian food using seasonal produce from their vegetable patch next door – some classes even include a trip to the Barossa Farmers Market to handpick ingredients. As a child growing up in Italy, Matteo learned to make fresh pasta using eggs straight from the hen, and still applies this passion to his own cooking methods. Whether Matteo is conducting a pasta demonstration or a gnocchi master class, he always features classic regional recipes from the areas in which he grew up – Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany or Piedmont – and incorporates as much fresh produce from the local area as possible.

One of the major personalities involved in Barossa’s gastronomic scene is cook, food writer and television personality Maggie Beer, and no visit to the valley is complete without a stop at Maggie’s Farm Shop in the town of Nuriootpa. If you arrive by 2 pm you have the option of participating in an interactive cooking demonstration, sometimes run by Beer herself.

Afterwards take a seat inside the bustling cafe or on the balcony overlooking the pond, and snack on Beer’s foodie-friendly picnic fare, such as homemade pheasant terrine, pork rillettes and chicken and rosemary pate, along with creamy cheeses, wood-fired bread and tangy olives. You can purchase Beer’s products to take home – perfect for those who just cannot get enough of Barossa’s fresh and tasty produce.