Megan Arkinstall discovers the perfect Kangaroo Valley gourmet getaway; a region full of fresh produce and locals who know what to do with it.
We’re going to make ricotta,” Toni Moran tells us before quickly adding, “It’s actually not hard!”
She obviously saw the terrified look on my face that screams ‘I. Can. Not. Cook!’ My repertoire consists of not much else than meat and three veg, let alone ricotta.
But that’s why my friend and I are here at Flavours of the Valley Cooking School in the beautiful Kangaroo Valley: we both enjoy eating and both could use a little (read: a lot) of help in the kitchen.
“Cooking comes from the heart and the hands. A little bit of love makes everything taste so much better,” Toni adds.
Five years ago, this former high-school teacher decided to take a 12-month break to try something different. She started running food and wine tours throughout Kangaroo Valley and would teach the occasional cooking class on the side using fresh, local produce – this, of course, turned into a full-time venture.
Nonna’s kitchen flashback
“As a little girl I remember the smells and sounds coming from Nonna’s kitchen – garlic, onions, tomato sauces, fresh fragrant herbs,” she says, speaking of her time spent cooking alongside her Italian grandmother and mother. “All of the Italian ladies would work together, chatting away as they created a special feast.”
Naturally, her signature class is Traditional Italian Flavours, in which we are partaking today, but she also teaches Spanish Tapas, Moroccan Flavours and Country High Tea.
Our menu, which we will create from scratch, consists of caponata with crusty bread, stuffed zucchini flowers with balsamic tomatoes, roast pumpkin tortellini, and cannoli for dessert.
Despite my reservations, I’m told there’s nothing particularly fancy about the dishes we’re creating – it’s all about flavour. The aromas coming from the pan as we cook the chopped vegetables for our caponata and pan-fry the (handmade!) ricotta-stuffed zucchini flowers are deliciously intoxicating.
Of course, the ingredients are über fresh – today we’re using olives and olive oils, fresh herbs, capsicums, onions, mushrooms, eggs and cheese all sourced from Kangaroo Valley or within the Southern Highlands.
The foodie community
Indeed, this tiny community is rich and varied in produce, with a host of talented locals who are passionate about growing, harvesting and creating from the earth. Toni is determined to support these ‘little guys’ because, as she admits, “I’m a little guy, too!”
After each course that we complete, we sit down and enjoy the fruits of our labour before moving back to the kitchen to start on the next course.
The dishes we’ve created are quite simply delicious – don’t mind if I do! – and most enjoyably devoured in the peaceful setting that is Wildwood Estate, with sun streaming through the windows and the tranquil bush surrounding us.
Back in the kitchen Toni answers all of our questions no matter how basic or silly they may seem (What’s the best way to cut an onion? What part of thyme do I use?) and also gives us some hot tips, such as using a wooden surface for making pasta because stainless steel and stone dries it out too much. Noted.
The Kangaroo Valley vibe
The vibe is unpretentious and you’re encouraged to do things the way you would at home; there’s no need to master the art of extravagant gourmet creations, à la Heston Blumenthal.
“Did you see the final of MasterChef?” Toni asks referring to the episode when Mr Blumenthal himself directed the contestants to construct a monumental dessert.
“Eighty ingredients and 55 components in one dish!” she says shaking her head. This is certainly not what this rustic Italian cuisine is about.
It turns out, the task that I thought would be the most difficult proves to be the most enjoyable and actually quite therapeutic: making pasta from scratch.
As we hand-roll the pasta for our tortellini and fold the spiced mashed pumpkin and sweet potato into small parcels of goodness, Toni tells us about the significance of pasta to her family.
“Nonna was a stickler for tradition and even though they lived in the tropics of Far North Queensland, Christmas dinner always consisted of agnolini (a meat-filled pasta in hot chicken broth). Not the best meal to have on a humid Australian summer’s day – but heaven forbid we should mess with tradition,” she laughs.
As I hold myself back from licking my plate clean of the white chocolate and raspberry cannolis we made for dessert, I’m happy that Nonna didn’t mess with tradition… now I can add a little more to my meat and three veg repertoire.
The details: Kangaroo Valley
Getting there: Kangaroo Valley is an easy two-hour drive south of Sydney and east of Canberra.
Playing there: Flavours of the Valley runs different themed group cooking classes on the weekends, while private classes take place in the week. Prices start from $85 per person.
Eating there: Right in the centre of the village, Bistro One46 is a great, friendly spot for a hearty meal made with fresh, local produce. During winter, the fire keeps diners cosy and on warm, sunny days, there’s no better place to while away the afternoon than on the grapevine-covered balcony. And you simply can’t leave without tasting the devilishly good Sticky Date Pud!
Staying there: We stayed at Kookaburra Hill, a three-bedroom house set on two lovely hectares, just walking distance from town. The house is perfect for a family or couples; it’s extremely spacious with stunning peaked ceilings, a modern kitchen, fireplace and pool. From $500 per night, minimum three-night stay; see kangaroovalleystays.com