Sofala is the kind of town you can almost entirely describe with bush ballads. It’s a land of rock and scrub, where flowing beards are all the go and the struggle with the elements is everlasting war. Right now, gripped by the worst drought in 100 years, those words of Banjo Patterson and Thomas Spencer ring particularly true. But so do these: “The folk are now rejoicing as they ne’er have before.” Not because of a cricket triumph. Because the local cafe, the Painted Horse, made it into the Good Food Guide 2019.
Opened in January, the Painted Horse is run by partners Kate Geale and chef Nicole McIlwaine. They’re no strangers to the Guide. McIlwaine was in fine dining for 15 years, including six with Australian-Italian chef royalty Stefano Manfredi. The pair’s last cafe was Coogee’s Black Pony. Now, their lemon tarts, crab linguines (made possible through a thrice weekly link to the Sydney Fish Market) and vibrant specials using the bounty of local produce, is diverting traffic to this historical two-street town. And the whole town is claiming credit.
“This might be the best thumbed copy of the book in the state,” says local Sasha Wafer. “No-one was sure how the cafe would go down but day one saw long-bearded locals front up for breakfast – then lunch. They started bringing their eggs, jams, honey and figs and all the rusty antique machinery decorating every wall. They are so proud of their cafe.”
Sofala needed the boost. Founded in the gold rush in 1851, the NSW town once had 10,000 souls and 40 hotels. Today it’s closer to 100 residents, with a primary school of six. The original, rustic buildings have long attracted both artists and filmmakers (Sirens and The Cars that Ate Paris filmed here, landing locals cameos actors would kill for in LA). The Turon River brings campers and prospectors. But this is sheep country, suffering the full extent of the feed shortages from the drought.
In March, the Turon River, the village’s primary water source, almost ran dry until an old mine spring was miraculously released (so locals think) all but saving the town from ruin.
The arrival of the Painted Horse has been a small miracle of its own.
“The cafe has become such an important gathering point, in addition to the pub,” says Wafer. “People can swap the odd schooner for latte and they are. You can't underestimate how important that is when times are as tough as they have been."
Diners also shouldn't underestimate the value of tourism for rural communities. Imagery of struggling farms is necessary to raise drought awareness, but it can deter tourists whose spending power can actually make a huge difference to the economy and morale in outback towns.
The Painted Horse is putting Sofala back on the map, and business is picking up. McIlwaine, who camped here as a kid, is seeing interest build in local buildings for lease. “Regulars are coming from as far as Rylstone and even Tamworth, driving the arterial route. Now it’s warmer, if you don’t have a weekend booking you won’t get in,” she says.
So as not to be "know everything blow ins," Mcilwaine and Geale made the decision to stay BYO, so they are attracting customers who then also spend money at the local pub. There is suddenly a reason for visitors passing through to make a weekend of it.
Next March, Sofala will host its biggest ever Rebellion on the Turon, a historical re-enactment of the 1853 uprising between the miners and the police.
“The town hasn’t been alive for some time,” says Wafer. “The drought can be so isolating and it’s easier for outsiders to look the other way. Seeing our town in the Guide, felt like proof in black and white we’re still here. And we’ve got a bloody lot to offer.”
The Painted Horse Cafe, 27 Denison Street, Sofala, 02 6337 7092.
The new Good Food Guide 2019 is on sale in newsagencies and bookstores or order via thestore.com.au/gfg19 (delivery included), RRP $29.99.