From black to green: Sean Moran from Sean's Panaroma. Photo: Jennifer Soo
Only a short drive from town, the Blue Mountains is Sydney's great big backyard. It's where we head for weekends away. Where we bushwalk, spend clear spring days wandering from antique shop to coffee shop and splash out on an overnight stay in a posh guesthouse for the fun of it. And get all loved up over intimate, romantic meals.
Just not at the moment.
Since the October bushfires the Blue Mountains is like a lover spurned. Local visitors have evaporated. Tour operators from overseas, scared by alarmist weather maps, have been phoning to cancel pre-booked holidays for months hence. At the time, says Jennifer Ingall from Katoomba's Hominy Bakery, "it was like the proverbial Western. There was no-one on the street''.
Food-led revival at the Blue Mountains
Darley's restaurant, Katoomba.
"On the worst day, everyone left town," says Eric Sward, president of the Blue Mountains Accommodation and Tourism Association (BMATA) and owner of the Mount Heritage Hotel in Katoomba and Fall Mountain Retreat in Wentworth Falls.
"We sent our staff home and guests cancelled as the emergency services suggested. On the following day, everything was back to normal - except business."
The situation has left housemaids with no beds to make and waiters polishing cutlery.
Chefs are unhappy that they have few mouths to feed and business owners are very nervous, which makes now a good time to visit.
After 250mm rain, Wentworth Falls is positively gushing and is a wonderful sight. Walking trails are open and there's no chance of not being able to get a table where you want.
Ingall reports that her business trade is down 30 per cent, but counts herself lucky.
"We're very fortunate, we're an established business and bread is a daily staple," she says.
Within two weeks of the Winmalee fire starting, four major operators reported a revenue loss of $2.3 million to Randall Walker, chairman of Blue Mountains, Lithgow and Oberon Tourism, the peak regional tourism organisation. "That prompted me to investigate further. The economic loss overall, in three weeks, was $28.4 million. Why it's so high is because not only are visitor numbers down but operators are dealing with cancellations of advance bookings too."
The mood may be grim but "everyone is being generous with each other," says Ingall. "People are being deliberately positive to keep their spirits up."
The new incumbent at Mt Tomah Botanic Gardens Restaurant, Bilpin resident and co-owner of Sean's Panaroma at Bondi, Sean Moran concurs. "It's been tough for a lot of people," he says. "But we're a pretty optimistic bunch in Bilpin. We've had some good rain now. Maybe that will help change people's perceptions."
With Moran's reputation he may be just what the region needs to get back on its feet.
Who wouldn't beat a path to Mt Tomah if they knew a roast chicken with carrots and a jug of homemade gravy on the side was there?
It was the area around Bilpin most directly affected by fire, with a devastating loss of 56,000 hectares of wilderness. Fruit grower Cedric Leathbridge commends the preparation of the local Rural Fire Service brigade in the face of such a quick moving fire.
"Bilpin was not damaged and the orchard is intact," he says. He, along with many other orchardists in the area will be open for business as usual once the stone fruit ripens in time for Christmas. Leathbridge's Bilpin Springs Orchard is one of many on Bells Line of Road where people can pick their own fruit.
Natural beekeeper Tim Malfroy of Malfroy's Gold did lose some of the hives he keeps at a permanent site near Mt Irvine - although the bees in some hives that were charred survived.
"Seventy per cent of my business was under threat and I only lost 10 per cent," he says.
Read this as a call for community action to help and support those directly affected by the fires, as well as the tourism and hospitality business that are suffering as a result of it. Spread Malfroy's Gold honey or Princess Pantry jam on Hominy Bakery sourdough for breakfast. Linger over coffee at The Red Door in Leura. Take time for a long lunch at … anywhere really (our pick is Sean's, but then there's Vesta, and Darley's and Restaurant Como for starters). Stay overnight. Your presence in the Blue Mountains in coming weeks and months will go a long way.
Take the high road
TAFE NSW Western Sydney Institute Blue Mountains College is putting on a 100 Mile fund-raising dinner on November 29 for people affected by the fires. Tickets are $88/plus $25 matching wines.
Inquiries: 4753 2009.
Red Door, 134 The Mall, Leura. 47841328. Interesting specials and a nice take on regular cafe standards.
Anonymous, 237-238 Great Western Highway, Blackheath. A funky little cafe that has great coffee and an original menu.
Cafe Off Piste, 146 The Mall, Leura. 0414195509. It's all about the coffee.
Ashcrofts, 18 Govetts Leap Road, Blackheath. 47878297. A new owner – Adrian Hunt and new menu.
Mt Tomah Botanic Gardens Restaurant, Bells Line of Road, via Bilpin. 0421552746. Sean Moran and Michael Robertson's country outpost delivers in spades.
Restaurant Como, 134 Great Western Highway, Blaxland. 47398555. An original and creative one-hatter experience.
Silk's Brasserie, 128 The Mall, Leura. 47842534. A perennial favourite with regular visitors and a delightful find for first-timers.
Vesta, 33 Govetts Leap Road, Blackheath. 4787 6899. At the heart, the wood-fired oven.
Silvermere Guesthouse, 1 Lake Street, Wentworth Falls. 0488 361 923. Stay overnight in the elegant guesthouse and enjoy dinner in the Nineteen23 dining room with food by Rockpool Bar & Grill alumni Will Cowan-Lunn.
Lillianfels Resort & Spa, 5-19 Lillianfels Avenue, Katoomba. 4780 1200. A beautiful property, magnificent view and the hatted-restaurant Darley's presided over by culinary hotshot Lee Kwiez.
Buy locally made
Blue Mountains Food Co-op, Ha'ppeny Lane, Katoomba. 4782 5890. Just-picked snow peas from a backyard grower, organic and biodynamic fresh fruit and vegies and bulk wholefoods.
Hominy Bakery, 185 Katoomba Street, Katoomba. 4782 9816. These guys have earned their sourdough stripes; they've been 15 years in this location and were in Blackheath for a decade before that.
Carrington Cellars, Parke Street (rear Carrington Hotel), Katoomba. 4782 1111. Topshelf bottle shop and deli. Ask Tristan to steer you towards the Blue Mountains products: Princess Pantry and Blue M jams and preserves; Malfroy's Gold honey; Whisk 'n' Pin muesli and The Chocolate Pot's salted caramel and nougat. And in the bottle-o, Dryridge Estate's Riesling made in the Megalong Valley.
Blackheath Growers' Market, Blackheath Community Centre, Cnr Great Western Highway and Gardiner Crescent. The next market is Sunday December 8, good timing to get farmer-direct food for the Christmas table and the odd food gift.