Sunday, 24 September 2017

Blue Wren Flies High

John Maddocks heads west, seeking fine dining in the heart of Mudgee’s wineries.

This is a degustation with a difference. It’s a performance piece: part high wire act, part magic show. And sitting at the Blue Wren Chef’s Table, a bench where much of the preparation takes place, I have a front row seat. The chefs seem very competent, but if they stuff up, it will be in full view.

Few chef’s table experiences in Sydney have you seated so near to the action. A view of the kitchen through glass is sometimes as close as you get. A meet and greet with the chef at the beginning and a chat at the end of the night are often the extent of the contact. But the Blue Wren experience is truly intimate. If this is theatre, the diners are almost on stage with the chef. And that’s exactly how head chef and owner Kip Harris likes it.

“I want guests to share the experience with us,” Kip tells me. “We should get to know each other in a welcoming and homely way. I want diners to come along with us on the creative process, to discuss what’s going on and ask questions if they feel like it. And, of course, the whole thing should be fun.”

Both Kip and fellow chef Steve certainly seem to be having fun. I watch as they prepare crispy skinned duck with duck liver ice-cream brulee, pickled radish, cauliflower, crouton and dehydrated raspberry. It’s one of Blue Wren’s signature dishes, but I’m not prepared for the theatrical flourish when Steve suddenly blasts the brulee with a blowtorch.

“Sometimes we have to work a little outside the box,” Kip says in response to our surprised gasps. But behind this seeming understatement lies decades of industry experience both in Australia and overseas. And there’s a long history with Blue Wren itself.

“I worked as general manager for my father over ten years ago and I’ve always loved this place. So it was a natural step to buy the winery from him and keep the family business going.”

Keeping the family business going is a very low-key way of describing Kip’s achievements. In two years he’s transformed Blue Wren by rebuilding the restaurant and expanding the adjoining function centre to seat 200 guests. While these accomplishments are significant, it’s ultimately a passion for food and innovation that motivates Kip.

“I want to give people an unforgettable dining experience,” he says. “And to do that I’m always researching and experimenting with new flavours and technologies for our constantly changing menu. I believe that gastronomy forms the foundation of memorable food experiences.”

The mention of gastronomy leads me to ask Kip if he identifies with the approach of celebrity chefs like Heston Blumenthal, who helped popularise ‘molecular gastronomy’, the application of scientific principles to the development of food preparation.

“Heston is good, but there are lots of chefs who take a gastronomical approach,” Kip replies. “My passion is in the details. I love experimenting because I want to find new ways of combining ingredients that push the boundaries of the diners’ perception of flavour.”

There’s no doubt that the five-course winter tasting menu pushes boundaries, challenging both the visual and taste senses. We start with a celeriac soup of broad beans, peas, asparagus, poached egg, truffle oil and parmigiana reggiano. The menu then progresses to dishes featuring seared scallop, pork belly and chateaubriand. But it is what these ingredients are combined with that sets Kip’s creations apart. The chateaubriand, for example, is served with cacao, smoked potato puree, pear, black pudding crisp, morel, vegemite foam and horseradish snow. It looks and tastes amazing.

The food is matched with some great wines from Blue Wren’s vineyard, including shiraz, rose and verscato. The reserve shiraz is excellent and can hold its own in any company, demonstrating once again how far Mudgee wines have come.

Sitting with a glass of shiraz enjoying the Blue Wren restaurant’s cutting-edge cuisine with Kip and Steve in the middle of a peaceful, idyllic vineyard makes it hard to believe that the hustle and noise of Sydney dining is just a three-and-a-half-hour drive away. It’s wonderful to just savour the moment.

Should you want to extend the moment, stay for the weekend at Blue Wren’s new five- bedroom Farmhouse. It’s a great base for exploring everything that hip and historic Mudgee has to offer. Get a group of friends together for a memorable weekend.

Getting There: 
It’s an easy, scenic drive from Sydney or you can fly there with regional airline Fly Pelican, which services Mudgee six times a week from T2 at Sydney.

The Blue Wren Restaurant opens for dinner from Wednesday to Saturday and for lunch from Friday to Sunday. The five-course tasting menu is $98 per person with matching wines from the Blue Wren range at $35 per person. Bookings are essential. Information and bookings: or Tel: +61 2 6372 6205
Address: 433 Ulan Road, Mudgee NSW 2850

Staying at the winery in the cosy, well-appointed five-bedroom Farmhouse allows you to enjoy the considerable delights of Mudgee in a relaxed and leisurely way.

The writer was a guest of Blue Wren Winery

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Blue Wren Winery Mudgee - take the taste challenge.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Lost in Lijiang

A Tibetan girl at the Yak meadow on Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. 
“I love you!” yells the Tibetan girl as I walk past her souvenir stall at the Yak Meadow. The beautiful meadow is high on Jade Dragon Snow Mountain near Lijiang in China’s Yunnan Province.

“I love you too,” I call back in response to her novel sales pitch. The girl’s friends giggle as I stop to look at the distinctive silver jewellery, prayer wheels and yak’s tails on display. Tibetans believe that brushing your bed down with a yak’s tail keeps nightmares away.
 You can take a ride on these colourful yaks for a few dollars.
But getting a yak’s tail through Australian customs seems like a nightmare itself, a point that I find difficult to explain to the enthusiastic Tibetan salesgirl. I buy some prayer flags instead and walk out onto the meadow.

I am feeling light-headed from the 20-minute chairlift ride that has carried me to an altitude of 3,700 metres. During the ascent we looked out over spectacular valleys and craggy slopes with stands of colourful rhododendrons, azaleas and wildflowers growing beneath towering spruce trees.

Nineteenth-century European plant hunters loved Yunnan because of its 13,000 kinds of plants, half of which can be found on Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.

Wooden walkways on the expansive field lead you to outstanding views of the highest peaks of the majestic 5,500-metre mountain, which remains unconquered by climbers. After taking in the views, I opt for a yak ride to the nearby temple and watch Tibetans in traditional costumes dancing and singing.
There are numerous Naxi villages in the valley below Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.
Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is near the ancient city of Lijiang, home to the Naxi (pronounced Na-shi) people. The Naxi are descendants of Tibetan nomads and have lived in the area for over 1,000 years.

On the way back to Lijiang we visit the Yufeng Buddhist monastery, famous for a 500-year-old camellia said to produce 10,000 blossoms every year. The camellia is actually 2 plants grafted together that supposedly represent a pair of lovers who were forbidden to marry and committed suicide rather than live apart.

Today Chinese couples believe that being photographed in front of the camellia will ensure that they will be together in the next lifetime.
The tiled rooftops of the World Heritage Dayan town at Lijiang.
The highlight of any visit to Lijiang is spending time in its old quarter, Dayan Town. This 800 year-old World Heritage site features ancient timber and earth houses with tiled roofs set on delightful canals. No cars are allowed in the narrow, winding streets, which are paved with large stones.
Picturesque canals are a feature of Dayan town.
The idea is to get lost in Dayan’s quaint streets if you really want to discover the place. The old town attracts local artists and artisans, and there is plenty of high quality jewellery, clothing, pottery, paintings and carving on sale. And it’s very pleasant sitting at an outdoor restaurant beside the canal eating a Naxi delicacy such as goat’s cheese sprinkled with sugar.
 The delightful Black Dragon Pool at Lijiang.
At night the old town takes on a different character. Candles floating past on paper lotus flowers make dining alfresco beside the canals an enchanting experience.

The enchantment continues with a concert by the Naxi orchestra, which plays classical Taoist music on traditional instruments. Incredibly, the average age of the musicians is 80, and they still perform to enthusiastic audiences every night.

On the way back to my hotel I notice flames leaping up in the main square. As I get closer I hear music and realise that the crowd gathered around the huge fire is actually moving. This is a traditional Naxi style of dancing, with circles of people holding hands and taking rhythmic steps around the fire.

There is something irresistible about hundreds of Naxi, Chinese and a few tourists dancing around a fire in a historic town in China, so I join in. The dance, part of an ancient but living culture, produces an uncommon sense of harmony as we move together in the flickering light.

When To Go. The best time to visit Lijiang is from April to July to enjoy the temperate spring and summer temperatures. The flowers for which Yunnan is famous are at their peak in late spring, from the middle to the end of May.

Story and photos by John Maddocks

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Ireland - Six of the Best

Visit the Emerald Isle’s Most Exciting and Enchanting Destinations

With over one third of Australians claiming some Irish ancestry, Ireland has become one of the most frequently visited countries for travellers from Down Under.

Dublin's Temple Bar is always lively

Start your trip in Dublin, rightly described by Lonely Planet as Europe’s most vibrant capital. It has been voted in the top four most popular city destinations in Europe along with London, Paris and Rome. See the Book of Kells at historic Trinity College, go to Oscar Wilde’s house, have a drink at the magnificent Guinness Brewery and Storehouse and wander around the ancient cobblestone streets of Temple Bar to visit magnificent pubs.
A valley on the Beara Peninsula 

Colourful streetscape in County Cork

Ireland’s west coast is the country’s scenic heartland. The Beara Peninsula in County Cork is a place of stunning beauty. Green valleys, rocky mountains, rugged coastline and picturesque villages with multi-coloured houses feature in a breathtaking landscape.

The picturesque Dingle Peninsula 

Travel further up the west coast through Kerry to the legendary Dingle Peninsula, once described by National Geographic Traveller magazine as the most beautiful place on earth. Little wonder that David Lean set his film Ryan’s Daughter here.

The peninsula is peppered with ancient stone buildings and prehistoric stone circles. The pace is so slow here that you can hire a horse-drawn caravan for a week or two to get around!

North of Dingle lie the truly spectacular Cliffs of Moher, undoubtedly among Ireland’s most famous sights. The views of these sheer, absolutely vertical cliffs that stretch for eight kilometres are tremendous. Bird watchers come to see the Puffin birds that make the cliffs their home.

Nearby lies the one of the world’s most enigmatic regions – the Burren. The Burren is a 160 square kilometres of rugged limestone rock, and is often referred to as Europe’s largest rock garden. It was shaped beneath ancient seas and then forced high and dry during a great geological upheaval. Rare plants from both the arctic and the Mediterranean grow side by side in its crevices. The Burren is a paradise for archaeologists, historians, hikers and artists. In addition to its natural beauty, the Burren is peppered with ancient burial chambers and medieval ruins.



Connemara in County Galway has one of the most memorable, hauntingly beautiful landscapes on the planet. It is a patchwork of idyllic bog wilderness, wild valleys, sweeping beaches and dark lakes that shimmer in the sunlight. To many it is the most enchanting region of Ireland. Connemara affords great hiking, biking and driving opportunities. It also has idyllic coastal villages such as Roundstone, where you can enjoy a Guinness after walking on the fabulous Roundstone Bog and watch the lobster fishermen come and go in the harbour.

Words and images by John Maddocks

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Rough Diamonds and Pure Gems

Getting shafted takes on a very literal meaning at Lightning Ridge. Folklore in the black opal country of the wild northwest of New South Wales is full of examples of rough outback justice.

“If I caught a ratter down my mine I’d drop some gelignite on him,” George tells me. “And believe me, that’s happened plenty of times around here.”

A ‘ratter’ is an opal thief and George is an old miner I meet at the bowling club, which is Lightning Ridge’s social hub.
Miners’ camps at Lightning Ridge have every type of accommodation possible.
"While I'm here talking, some bloke could be down my shaft stealing thousands of dollars worth of opals. The worrying thing is that the only person I've told about my strike is you," George says.

George is typical of the eccentrics who call this outback town home. He has lived for 8 years at a camp he bought for $20,000 on the outskirts of ‘the Ridge’ and came here fossicking on and off for years before he finally stayed. George has joined people from over 50 nationalities lured by the elusive black opal.
Cooper’s Cottage is a testament to the pioneering days at Lightning Ridge.
Black opal has a dark body hue, which allows the stone’s striking colours to stand out. This characteristic makes the black variety the most valuable opal, and some experts claim that hundreds of millions of dollars worth of the stones have been found at Lightning Ridge.

The Glengarry Hilton has one of the
world’s most rugged golf courses.
Mining has been at the heart of the Australian dream since the gold rushes of the 1850s, and get rich quick stories of valuable opal finds have attained legendary status at Lightning Ridge. But the ‘shaft and tunnel’ underground style of mining here involves hard physical work and significant overheads.

“I gave mining away years ago,” Pete of Pete’s Opals tells me as I browse in his shop. “Holding a heavy drill twenty metres underground takes its toll, so now I use what I learned about opals to sell them.”

Pete patiently explains the differences between types of opals and their relative values. He tells me that there are still plenty of opals being found, and that miners often sell to him when they need cash for supplies.

There are around 20 opal shops in Lightning Ridge and it pays to do some research if you intend to buy. But even if you haven’t come here to purchase opals, there’s plenty to see and do. My first stop in the main street is at Cooper’s Cottage, one of the oldest houses in Lightning Ridge. Built in 1916, it’s now a monument to life in the early days.
Rusting mining equipment on the Grawin opal field is a reminder of faded dreams.
The nearby Visitors Centre provides plenty of information about other local attractions, as well as maps of the car door tours. Because there are no street signs on the opal fields, painted car doors have been strategically placed to indicate sites of interest. There are four tours that follow numbered red, green, blue and yellow car doors, taking you to such places as Lunatic Hill, Pig Hill, the walk-in mine, the cactus garden, the sinister sounding Chambers of the Black Hand, an award winning theatrical performance called The Black Queen and, of course, the town opal fields. There are also some quirky landmarks such as Amigo’s Castle, the Astronomer’s Monument and a house made of bottles.

The cactus garden, claimed to have the largest cacti display in the southern hemisphere, is a standout. The Chamber of the Black Hand turns out to be a replica Egyptian tomb featuring hundreds of carvings of everyone from Nostradamus to Homer Simpson. Back in town, the John Murray Art Gallery in Opal Street is another artistic venture worth seeking out. Murray’s distinctive, often humorous outback art is among the best in the genre.
While there’s nothing fancy about the Glengarry Hilton, the welcome is friendly.
Next day I explore the Glengarry and Grawin opal fields 70 kilometres from Lightning Ridge. Locals say that these fields represent what Lightning Ridge used to be like before it became a large town. At the Glengarry Hilton, an authentic bush pub started in the 1970s as a sly grog shop, I meet Gisela, one of the proprietors. Gisela tells me that in the old days the police repeatedly tried to raid the illegal pub, but warnings via the bush telegraph always ensured there was no booze around when the authorities arrived. In 1993 the Glengarry Hilton was finally granted a bottle shop licence.

The rustic bar at the Glengarry Hilton Hotel seventy kilometers from Lightning Ridge.
People come to the Glengarry Hilton to meet the locals and to ‘noodle’ (fossick) on the huge mullock heaps nearby, where Gisela assures me that many valuable opals have been found.

It’s evening when I get back to Lightning Ridge and I go for a soak in the free outdoor artesian baths, which have a constant temperature of 41.5 degrees.

Searching for colourful opals by day and lying in a hot thermal pool beneath a canopy of diamond-like stars at night makes the Lightning Ridge lifestyle an attractive proposition.

[Travel Facts]

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Oaxaca: Zenith of the Zapotec

The enchanting city of Oaxaca, 440 kilometres south of Mexico City, is situated in the middle of spectacular rocky deserts of towering cacti. Encircled by protective mountains, this sophisticated city boasts some of the finest Spanish colonial architecture in Mexico. Oaxaca, which is one of the country’s major arts and crafts centres, also has numerous pre-Hispanic ruins nearby and a large Zapotec and Mixtec indigenous population.

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Mui Ne: Dune with a view

The old, former US army jeep suddenly turns off the road and accelerates into the sand hills. I cling to the dash as the ancient vehicle lurches and bumps its way over the hills and careers towards the looming South China Sea.

Ten metres before we reach the crashing breakers, the jeep swerves and heads along the wet sand, neatly dodging the water washing up onto the shore.

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