Between Sydney and Albury in the south, a string of often quaint, old inland towns straddle the Hume Highway west of Canberra. The land is wide and brown, but the sprawling Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers give life to these towns, and have allowed to flourish a dynamic and exciting food and wine scene. Spanning Griffith, Wagga Wagga and towns famous for bushrangers, drought and farming all around, the Riverina is fast becoming a destination for discerning food lovers.
Wagga Wagga may literally translate as “the place of many crows” in the local Wiradjuri aboriginal language, but it’s also the place of much livestock. Stock, including cows and sheep, are a major part of business in this town, and visitors can witness the action. Turn up to an amphitheatre-style ring in the Boman industrial area on a Monday morning for cattle and Thursday for sheep and watch farmers sell and barter. If Australia was built on the sheep’s back, or you love your beef and lamb chops, this is your chance to witness that world in action.
Sprout and About is the Wagga Wagga farmers’ market for those who love a bacon and egg roll and a good coffee for breakfast, and local oranges squeezed fresh. After breakfast, stock up on groceries from 30 stalls that span produce, organic vegetables, even hot sauce. It’s how the locals fill their pantries (monthly on the second Saturday, 8am-1pm).
In the small Riverina town of Junee, half an hour from Wagga Wagga, walk down the side of a large brick 1935-built mill that was brought back to life after near destruction from fire by Green Grove Organics. Inside, people shovel, Oompah Loompah-style, and work to turn organic couverture chocolate through fruit and nuts – think ginger, macadamia nuts, coffee beans - which are polished to a rich gloss in gleaming copper barrels you can see through viewing windows. They make licorice here, too, the love-or-hate black confection said to cure constipation and nourish our immune systems. There’s a shop out front to stock up. The Junee Farmers Markets are bustling on the first Sunday of each month, so time your visit well.
A welcoming French restaurant in Leeton has a distinctly Australian accent, selling local wines and serving bistro favourites to sharp locals. The warm Pages on Pine does melting brie with pear and rhubarb compote, a crisp confit duck with pork belly and prunes, and vanilla crème brulee among other French classics. It’s one of the best eats in the Riverina.
Griffith is arguably the culinary heart of the Riverina, and its cultural mix of Fijians, Indians and Italians ensure gastronomic diversity. A fourth generation family bakery has been making bread, biscotti, cannoli, gelato and nougat since 1952 at Bertoldo’s Pasticceria. Another culinary staple – wine – is a persuasive reason to visit Griffith. De Bortoli does its iconic dessert wine Noble One as well as a host of premium varietal, sparkling and recently Prosecco, and tastings are available from its cellar door, surrounded by expansive gardens. McWilliams Wines is another premium stop for the drop, and the cellar door is set on a stunning rural property. Just look out for the massive structure that looks like a barrel buried in the Australian earth, and ask for a tasting.
It’s possible to race down the Hume Highway, eyes on the road and mind on the tunes, but take a detour and explore the historical towns of the quaint, often buzzing Riverina, its markets, vineyards and restaurants. It’s a destination steeped in history, but being bound by two of our greatest rivers and the farmers, producers and people who reside there, it’s one with a bright gastronomic future as well.