by Sally Hammond
The Mudgee district, a land flowing with (not milk) but wine and honey, seems to be many people's idea of a promised land. The region, just a few hours by car from Sydney, is thick with displaced city-siders who have left the rat-race and set up in a winery, an orchard, a restaurant or a gallery.
So you have ex-accountants, ex-lawyers, ex-teachers – ex-everythings – happily tilling the soil, getting down and dirty, alongside fifth-generation locals.
While the mix could be disastrous, it seems to work very well. Each new flood of skills adds something to the district and the gentle Mudgee atmosphere heals urban nerves and steals their hearts. So fully does the place adopt people that you have to dig a bit before the information is volunteered.
Basically, once you move in, it seems, a sort of green amnesia takes over.
With a population of around 10,000, Mudgee's assets are disproportionately large. Wineries, restaurants and cafes abound, and food producers – honeys and mustards, trout, yabbies, lamb, nuts, jams, jellies, fruit and vegetables – make the area almost self-sufficient.
Dozens of wineries are scattered around a region that one wine writer has described as 'almost perfect conditions for wine-growing'. Mudgee's altitude is 450 metres and the red volcanic soil, cool nights and summer showers prolong the ripening of the grapes, producing unique wines.
One of my favorite places to visit is an old schoolhouse just out of town. Bechora and Sybil Deeb met years ago when they both worked at the Sydney Hilton Hotel. Before that Bechora had worked with Archbishop Abdo Khalisse, head of the Maronite Catholic Church, as his driver, personal assistant and, inevitably, his cook.
For it is in the kitchen that Bechora's skills are best displayed. Today Bechora and Sybil are the hosts of Deeb's Kitchen which is open at weekends on the corner of Cassilis Road and Buckaroo Lane. Before that they ran the Mudgee General Store, the sort of place found in every country town, handling a miscellany of absolute necessities. What they didn't realise was the impact they would make on local palates.
As one local expressed it. "We started finding these wonderful foods in the store. Vine leaves wrapped around amazing flavours, unusual cheeses and breads. We couldn't believe it."
In fact Deeb's soft creamy yoghurt and sheep cheeses became his signature. The milk, from Middle-Eastern awassi sheep was from Cowra. The result came from Bechora's persistence and diligence. He still makes some cheeses and they appear on tables at the restaurant. It is hard to predict what may turn up on the menu here. Deeb is a gifted and intuitive cook, so whatever is in season, whatever is ripe in the garden, whatever is freshest and tastiest might make it to your plate.
And it will always be fantastic, you can be sure.
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