Mountain bounty, 200 years on

High life: Dryrange Wines owner Barbara Tyrrell.
High life: Dryrange Wines owner Barbara Tyrrell. Photo: Steven Siewert

The toughest thing about climbing the Blue Mountains in 2013 - at least if you're driving - is the odd traffic snarl where the road is being widened. But in this 200th anniversary of the first recorded successful crossing by Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth it should be remembered that it took seven attempts to finally make it to the other side, the first in 1792 by Lieutenant William Dawes.

You could say it's also taken 200 years for the mountain folk to fully realise the unique position they're in when it comes to using the produce all around them - and it is all around them. Chefs have a choice of heading down to the Hawkesbury or west to the Megalong and Kanimbla valleys for their raw materials.

At Restaurant Como at Blaxland, chef Grant Farrant gained more than the name of his eatery from his stint working beside Lake Como. ''I brought respect - respect for produce.'' And that translates into using as much as he can from nearby. At an altitude of 270 metres, Blaxland is pretty low in the pecking order, so Farrant forages among the growers in the Hawkesbury Nepean catchment. ''I know all the Greek and Italian growers down there,'' Farrant says.

Bistro Niagara's Stephen Burman.
Bistro Niagara's Stephen Burman. Photo: Steven Siewert

''This week I'm using borlotti beans grown at Freemans Reach.'' And as often happens out of town, ''customers come in here and dump bags of produce on me: tomatoes, lemons, finger limes''.

Climb another 800 metres to Katoomba and you'll find chef and owner of the new Bistro Niagara, Stephen Burman. He comes to the mountains with some pretty impressive credentials, among them head chef for Raymond Blanc's Brasserie chain in Britain and senior sous chef at Quay, before opening his own place, Grub and Tucker, in Newtown. While there, he spent a lot of time in Katoomba, saw the vacant Niagara site and snapped it up.

''I want to source and use as much local produce as I can,'' Burman says. ''Yesterday a guy came in with some grey ghost mushrooms (Tricholoma terreum).''

This week I’m using borlotti beans grown at Freemans Reach.

His menu revolves to a great extent around the big wood-fired oven that was already there when he took over. And one of the first things on the menu was a slow-roasted rump from farmer and butcher Paul Kingston. ''Now I'm buying everything from him,'' Burman says.

Kingston, who owns Lithgow Freerange Meats with his brother Anthony, has only been in the region for a year, but has already made a big impact with the beef he farms in the Kanimbla Valley and the lamb he sources direct from nearby farms. ''We grow full-blood Angus and Angus cross-bred with wagyu. And we do it naturally - it's grass-fed all the way, we don't use superphosphate and we don't overgraze. Where we could run 60 cows we run 35.'' Kingston has been closely involved with local restaurants from the outset because, as he says: ''I like to see people eating good meat.'' He supplies Darley's in Katoomba, Vesta in Blackheath, and Bistro Niagara.

A little further up, at Blackheath, there's a market gardener who is about as local as any local producer can get. Robin Johnson was head gardener at Old Parliament House in Canberra from 1983-93. Soon after leaving, he had a terrible accident, bought a house in Blackheath four years ago, and began growing greens and herbs. ''This garden gives me the solace I need,'' he says. And many beautiful greens local restaurants need.

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Johnson grows eight to 10 lettuces, mizuna, parsley, endive, chilli, coriander and rocket from organic seed, starting the process in a series of three poly tunnels he has built in his backyard (''I'm a great one for finding things on the side of the road'') before planting them in a 60-square-metre site down the road. All this takes place on compost he makes from clippings and green waste local gardeners drop off to him. ''I started by selling to the Blue Mountains Food Co-Op in Katoomba,'' he says, ''but then I decided I wanted to remain completely local.'' So he sells to just four Blackheath restaurants and cafes: Vesta, Anonymous, Victory and Piedmont Inn Pizza.

David Harris at Vesta takes two deliveries a week from Johnson, and says his mizuna is ''beautiful and peppery''. Harris believes that ''people up here are now more aware of local producers like Robin and Paul Kingston. We're looking at having Paul raise and process chickens and ducks for us. Oliver [chef Oliver Roberts] wants the chickens to be a bit older. I know the longer we're up here, the more producers will come out of the woodwork.''

He's right. While Good Food is in the mountains we hear about Fabrice Rolando, a horticulturalist from South Africa, who recently set up ''an old-fashioned market garden'' at his First Farm Organics at Hartley. ''I'm planting open-pollinated heirloom vegetables for the local restaurants. I love working with chefs. A chef tells me I want this - and I grow it.'' It's early days, but he's already working with Darley's and Leura Garage, and planning mustard greens for Ashgrove.

Lithgow Freerange Meats owner Paul Kingston
Lithgow Freerange Meats owner Paul Kingston Photo: Steven Siewert

But the gong for the most interesting product has to go to Jodie Van Der Velden at Josophan's Fine Chocolates in Leura. She infuses single-plantation chocolates from French maker Michel Cluizel with locally grown mint, basil and rosemary, and uses Mt Wilson hazelnuts.

All this local food is crying out for local wine. And you'll find that in the Megalong Valley. Down on the valley floor, Barbara Tyrrell grows riesling on an east-facing slope, the vines in granite soil. The resulting wine, Blue Mountain Riesling, is bone dry with a refreshing citrus note. There are others, including the spicy Nellie's Cabernet Rose, which you'll find on lists in the mountains, including at Vesta.

Where to go

Local produce and wine

Blue Mountains Food Co-op
Ha'penny Lane, Katoomba, 47825890 - A good selection of local produce from commercial and backyard growers.

Carrington Cellars and Deli
Parke Street (behind the hotel), 47820999 - A comprehensive selection of local produce and central western wines.

Dryridge Estate
The Six Foot Track, Megalong Valley, 47875625 - Cellar door open on Saturdays; a beautiful 20-minute drive from Katoomba.

Josophan's Fine Chocolates
132 Leura Mall, Leura, 47842031.

Lithgow Free-range Meats
Shop 1-147 Mort Street, Lithgow, 63514008 - You've got to love a butcher's shop with a huge mural of the farm on the wall.

Some of the restaurants and cafes using local produce

Bistro Niagara
92 Bathurst Road, Katoomba, 47829530.

Restaurant Como
134 Great Western Highway, Blaxland, 47398555.

Vesta
33 Govetts Leap Road, Blackheath, 47876899.

Piedmont Inn Pizza
248 Great Western Highway, Blackheath, 47877769.