In big cities, we expect big-name restaurants. It’s a given: top-notch cuisine’s taken for granted. Equally, when we travel to country towns we know the culinary offerings will be fewer. So it’s a special pleasure when we discover good dining establishments in small places. Forget “serendipity”: it’s pretty much miraculous when you consider patronage limited by the number and lifestyle of the locals, and tourism traffic governed by seasonality.
And so we find The Mill, close to the banks of a wide stretch of the Lachlan River, hung by graceful weeping willows, in central west NSW. It’s located in the heart of Cowra, population fewer than 10,000. Moreover, it’s the low – low temperature – season when we visit. We round the river bend, park out front (easy and free, cf. Sydney etc) … and, from first remarkable sight, are filled with delicious anticipation of a special experience. We’re nowhere near a winery yet a mini-vineyard of trimmed mature grapevines espaliered on free-standing timber trellises neatly edges a mezzaluna gravelled driveway, its core of soft green lawn featuring a rustic wine barrel draped with more leafy boughs. The elegant garden prefaces the 150 year-old mill building itself rising tall over the centre of the drive, a dormer window peeking out of arresting upper walls of sheer granite, its ground floor shaded by a corrugated-iron veranda roof concealing picture windows and the entry.
Inside, polished concrete floors and dark-timbered tables and chairs against the old granite and sandstone walls heighten the historic setting’s embrace. Indeed, The Mill is Cowra’s oldest (1861) and most iconic building, perfectly preserved outside, tastefully restored inside. Built as the wheat-processing centre of the settlement, its site was chosen close to river transport for the grain to be tuned to flour for the 19th century village. The location, though, saw it flooded right to the rafters several times before adjacent Wyangala Dam was built 40km east; and ultimately, with passage of time, fall into disuse. Then some 20 years ago the interiors were lovingly refurbished, beams sourced from an old Murray River rail bridge at Echuca, ceilings renewed in recycled Oregon pine.
As well as a restaurant open seven days, its three levels serve as a live music and occasional gourmet markets venue, an intimate function, conference and weddings centre, and gallery and exhibitions space. Owner Craig Constable hosted us for a superb lunch of a grilled steak and grilled salmon with country garden-fresh salads, the best nosh we’ve had in years in rural NSW. We fretted a little it wasn’t until that evening that the renowned Cowra lamb would appear on the menu, yet were salved by a couple of lovely wines … raison d’etre of The Mill’s latter-day revival in its new guise. Late last century vignerons at Windowie, one of around 40 vineyards in the Cowra-Canowindra region, established it as something of an in-town cellar door-cum-wine bar to showcase their international and domestic award-winners – to lure connoisseurs out to experience the full range at the winery itself. When Constable took over he extended the Windowie link to other vineyards, some producing notable organic varieties. The Mill offers patrons free guided tours and breakfast, lunch, dinner, teas, snacks and tastings. Check opening times on 6341 4141.
TRAVEL TICKERTAPE: As P2P (peer-peer; person-person) accommodation sites multiply, www.nightswapping.com claims to cover both hosts and guests for mishaps, worldwide, with cover by insurance giant Allianz (Excess: 100Euros). Most sites – e.g: lovehomeswap.com; homeexchange.com; aussiehomeswap.com.au; even christianhomeswap.com – allow for non-contemporaneous swaps and for those without a swap to offer payment instead, a la airbnb. NightSwapping remains more faithful to a barter system: those who can’t offer reciprocal hosting (say, Woop Woop for Paris) instead pay a fee, but the fee goes to NightSwap: from 7 to 49 Euros a night, on a 7-step rating of the accommodation. Hosts receive credit nights on the network in return.
Every site has conditions that need poring over. With the many things that could go wrong (imagination shudders!) I’d prefer the old-fashioned B&B budget compromise. But the sites feature “testimonials” of members who claim as many as 60 successful swaps – some including the family Mercedes.
This column was from issue 117 of Greater Port Macquarie Focus.