A winter foodie escape to the Southern Highlands: where to eat, drink and stay

Jil Hogan
Start your morning with the whisky porridge from Exeter General Store.
Start your morning with the whisky porridge from Exeter General Store. Photo: Jil Hogan

With its picture perfect sprawling hills, fresh air and luscious surrounds, it's not hard to understand why many city folk have made the 'tree change' to the Southern Highlands. And for a paddock to plate experience, they don't come much better. Here's seven reasons to make a foodie winter weekend trip:

1. Whisky porridge

What's better than breakfast for dinner? Evening drinks for breakfast. Whisky porridge makes an appearance on the menu at Exeter General Store (1 Exeter Rd, Exeter) come winter, and even if it's out of the way, the dish is worth the trip. The warm, rich breakfast is humble porridge at its finest, served with stewed fruit on top and just a subtle hint of the spirit (I dare say it's entirely kid-friendly).

If that's not your thing, there's also egg dishes, granola, a smoothie bowl and pancakes. Or the EGS breakfast board ($17) ticks both the sweet and savoury boxes, with a granola, yoghurt and fruit pot, plus bacon, corn fritters and relish on sourdough.  

As well as a cafe, the store is a bit of everything, with a general store, post office, gift shop and an entire wall of shelves stuffed with second hand books. Pair your breakfast with a Toby's Estate coffee, grab the weekend paper and try and secure a table next to the front windows where the sun streams in.

The Exeter General Store is open seven days for breakfast and lunch. facebook.com/ExeterGeneralStore.

Barbara and Ted Smith at Yelverton Truffles, with Jet and Belle.

Barbara and Ted Smith at Yelverton Truffles, with Jet and Belle. Photo: Jil Hogan

2. Truffle hunting

The cooler months also mean truffle season. Yelverton Truffles is a boutique truffiere, owned by Barbara and Ted Smith, located in the green, rolling hills of Robertson, where the movie Babe was filmed. The Smith's story is an interesting one - the couple formerly worked in Sydney in the aerospace industry, running their own business supplying materials for aircraft parts and maintenance training for airlines and the military. 

They sold their business to a German company in 2004, and went on the hunt for something new to do. After some research, they settled on truffle farming, despite knowing very little about it previously. And their career change paid off - they had their first harvest in 2012, and in 2014, Yelverton Truffles set the Australian record at the time for the largest recorded grown truffle at 1.172 kilograms.

Yelverton Truffles runs hunts throughout the season, and the couple welcomes guests onto their property with open arms - literally. No one gets in without a hug from Barbara. On the tours you learn about truffles, head on a hunt and watch truffle dogs Jet and Belle in action, and then the best bit, taste the truffles. Tours are usually booked out, so try and book in early, or you can be added to the waiting list. yelvertontruffles.com.au.

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3. Dining at Grand Bistro

After running a number of successful eateries in Sydney (Flat White Café Woollahra, Madame Char Char Surry Hills), chef Damien Monley and wife Justine made the move to the Southern Highlands with their family to get closer to the food source. In Bowral, they've turned the old pub into local dining hub The Grand Bistro (295 Bong Bong St, Bowral).

It's sleek and low-lit but not stuffy, with casual service but exceptional food. Meals are generous and interesting - from the crispy pork belly with star anise, chili caramel, apple slaw and black vinegar, to the five spice crispy quail with pickled cucumber and sweet soy mayonnaise. Food is well-priced, and even the kids are catered for with their own menu.

The wine list is a great opportunity to sample some of the Southern Highlands' wineries, including Howard's Lane Vineyard, which Damien and Justine also own. Their shiraz in particular is worth a taste, and is quite full-bodied for a cool climate red - perfect for a winter's night. If you're enjoying the wines, they're also available for takeaway by the bottle. ​grandbistro.com.au.

Mount Ashby Estate Vineyard in Moss Vale.

Mount Ashby Estate Vineyard in Moss Vale. Photo: Jil Hogan

4. French food and antiques

Another Sydney couple who have set up in the Southern Highlands is antiques doyenne Sally Beresford and husband Chris Harvey. The couple first bought a property in the area with the intention to turn it into vineyard - they planted vines in 1999 - and then decided to also move Sally's antiques business out there. Now, the Mount Ashby Estate cellar door (128 Nowra Rd, Moss Vale) sits on the side of a hill, surrounded by vineyards and grazing cows.

The cellar door has a restaurant with a modern take on French food, and most of the food is gluten free - try Sally's signature pork rillettes on the charcuterie plate and pair with a glass of the 2016 pinot gris. It is open Thursday to Sunday for lunch and wine tastings. While you're there, visit the shed next door which houses Sally's antiques and in-demand French tables which are made from whole trees imported from France. mountashby.com.au.

5. Tractorless lamb

Sitting on a vineyard and surrounded by olive trees, McVitty Grove Cafe (434 Wombeyan Caves Rd, Mittagong) offers one of the most breathtaking views in the region.

Start your visit with a tasting of Tertini Wines and Sunshack Cider, then grab a glass of your favourite and settle in for lunch (try and snag a table in the sun on the veranda - you will probably need to book ahead). Open Wednesday to Sunday, the menu is made up of hearty, meat-heavy meals. The specialty is their delicious "tractorless" lamb, so-called because it's the estate's lambs that keep the grass down as opposed to any machinery - you may drive past some of them on the way in. Like the lamb, everything you find on your plate is sourced from a nearby farm. It's food - and a venue - made for long, leisurely weekend meals.

The cafe is also open for dinner Friday and Saturday. mcvittygrovecafe.com.

Joadja distillery owners Elisa and Valero Jimenez.

Joadja distillery owners Elisa and Valero Jimenez. Photo: Jil Hogan

6. Whisky tasting

It's a bumpy but picturesque drive down the escarpment to Joadja, a private property that was a mining town in the 1880s. These days it's home to heritage site Joadja Town, and for the past decade, Joadja Distillery (1760 Joadja Rd, Joadja).

The distillery is a nod to the property's history, when the Scottish oil shale miners brought with them not only their skills in mining, but also skills in brewing moonshine.

Joadja Distillery's ​current owners Elisa and Valero Jimenez have run the business for six years, and tapping into their own Spanish heritage, they use ex-sherry barrels from Spain to mature their whisky. As well as whisky, they currently make gin, anis liqueur, a moonshine of sorts called 'outlaw', and Pedro Ximenez fortified wine, which comes in the sherry barrels.

The spirits are made using pristine water from the on-site spring and local ingredients, and the Jimenez family is also about to start growing barley on the property, which will make them one of the only distillers in the world to grow and malt their own barley on site. The spirits are available online at joadjadistillery.com.au and check the website for tour and distillery opening times.

Joadja Town will also play host to the first Wildfest in October, a three-day festival combining food events and outdoor adventure.

7. Degustation dining

The award-winning Katers Restaurant (Kater Rd, Sutton Forest) has a degustation tasting menu in a fine dining setting. While it's located in the picturesque Peppers Manor House hotel, this isn't your usual hotel restaurant, with a seasonal menu that is local produce-driven and full of interesting flavour combinations.

The restaurant is supplied by growers from local small farms who make their way to the restaurant's kitchen daily with their fresh meat, vegetables, and edible flowers, which all make their way onto the plate.

There's also more casual dining outside in the courtyard, where you can enjoy grazing plates washed down with local wines while looking out over the manicured gardens.

The degustation tasting menu is $109 per person, plus an optional $65 for matching local wines. peppers.com.au/manor-house/dining.

Where to stay

Once you've eaten and drunk your way into a food coma, you'll need somewhere to unbutton your pants and rest.

Fresh produce from the farm at The Loch, Berrima.

Fresh produce from the farm at The Loch, Berrima. Photo: Jil Hogan

If you want to be surrounded by produce: Once horse stables, The Loch (581 Greenhills Rd, Berrima) is a foodie delight with an upstairs converted into contemporary suites. The farm stall is open to the public every Sunday, stocked with freshly harvested produce from the grounds, plus condiments and take home meals by The Loch's owner, chef Brigid Kennedy. The upstairs accommodation is available all week, and the modern rooms have bespoke details and rustic touched, plus gorgeous views over the property. Also for guests, there's a spacious lounge with comfy sofas and a giant fireplace, plus a communal kitchen. In the morning, you also get to enjoy a generous breakfast hamper of produce from The Loch Farm. theloch.net.au.

If you want a pampered experience: The Gibraltar Hotel (7 Boronia St, Bowral) is a modern resort-style hotel overlooking a lush golf course. Rooms are spacious and have oversized king beds, plush bedding, a large bath and rainfall showers. On-site there's also a restaurant, bar, day spa, heated pool and small gym. gibraltarbowral.com.au.

One of the cottages at Hillview Heritage Hotel at Sutton Forest.

One of the cottages at Hillview Heritage Hotel at Sutton Forest. Photo: Jil Hogan

If you love a bit of history: Perched on a summit surveying the Highlands' hills and valleys, Hillview Heritage Hotel (7277 Illawarra Highway, Sutton Forest) was once the exclusive playground of the New South Wales Governor and his dignified guests. The grounds were, and still to this day remain a working farm. There are eight cottages scattered around the main house which guests can stay in. Each has its own unique charm, and blends modern comforts with original fittings. For winter, there's fireplaces to snuggle up in front of and rustic claw-foot baths to soak in. Hillview's current owner Damien Miller has a passion for sculptures, which are now scattered throughout the grounds and Hillview Heritage Hotel now hosts an annual sculpture festival. hillviewheritagehotel.com.

The writer was a guest of WiIdfest, in the Southern Highlands October 27-29.