One sure fire way to get a complete stranger to burst into an impromptu line dance routine is to tell them you are from Tamworth. It's a joke that never gets old, apparently. Tamworth's worldwide claim to fame is indeed country music and the Tamworth Country Music Festival attracts tens of thousands of tourists over 10 days every year (from 18-27 January in 2019), but that's not all it has to offer.
Another annual 10-day festival shows quite a different side of this fertile land in the north west of New South Wales, about 320km from the Queensland border. Taste Tamworth (5-14 April in 2019) is a chance for visitors to take a closer look at where their produce comes from, enjoy pop-up bars and long lunches and sample tasting plates in the park (while listening to live music, of course).
I grew up in Tamworth so I've always thought the region was special but it took a recent visit to open my eyes to just how bountiful it really is - and so much more than can be squeezed into one short break.
Tamworth itself has undergone quite a renaissance and a new generation of entrepreneurs has given this country town a boutique city vibe, including the renovated mid-city hotel CH Boutique Hotel on Peel Street. If the walls could talk, the CH Boutique Hotel would spill every secret about Tamworth and its people from the time it was built in 1900 as the Central Hotel. However, a complete facelift completed four years ago has transformed this heritage-listed building from a tired old pub to luxury accommodation that pays homage to its Deco heritage. Today it has all the mod cons of free WiFi, Foxtel, wake-up calls, valet laundry service and a new Executive Wing which has added 34 new rooms, while the Deco Restaurant and Bar serves tapas and taster plates on the menu, a perfect place to perch at the end of a day exploring.
My adventure started at a café resembling the Secret Garden, nestled behind two heritage listed church buildings and The Old Bell Tower in Marius Street. It's not so secret if the steady stream of early risers coming in for breakfast is anything to go by, but you wouldn't know you were sharing this slice of heaven with anyone but the fairy wrens as garden tables are tucked away in little private alcoves between the rambling roses, daisies, lavender and wisteria. The quaint Café Tea House attached to the garden serves very, very good Campos coffee, a decent selection of T2 teas and a simple but delicious country menu. The classic muesli with Greek yoghurt and berries, served in a tall sundae glass, narrowly beat the Belgian Waffle with home-made butterscotch sauce to my belly. If I had time to spare I could have spent a few hours pottering about the gift shop bulging with antiques, trinkets and treasures.
At Le Pruneau (83 Bridge Street) Frenchman Phillippe Kanyaro shares his passion for fresh provincial-style food at his café which serves up delights from breakfast brioche to orange-smoked duck at lunch. Phillippe is an accomplished cheesemaker and so cheese is made on site from local milk and he supports local farmers and their produce at his popular organic markets held in the café car park every Saturday morning. My tip: after brunch grab a loaf of crusty bread, a wedge of house-made cheese, vine-ripened tomatoes and strawberries to enjoy later.
Any suburb, let alone city, is judged on its coffee these days and Tamworth makes the grade. In the not too distant past, asking for a latte would have drawn a blank stare. Now an urban-style coffee culture has well and truly taken hold with coffee junkies lining up at Addimi Espresso (306 Peel Street) for their morning fix. The collective worldwide experience of the baristas in this funky little café shows and they serve an excellent piccolo, along with house-baked goods and lunch from 11.30am. It is a hive of activity from 6.00am daily.
After dark The Pig and Tinder Box (429 Peel Street) is the place to be. An old bank building has been given a new lease on life by Gen Y owners Chris Cornforth and Fraser Haughton who have brought their experience from operating small bars in big cities to Tamworth. While the Pig and Tinder Box is not so small it is buzzing with an energetic vibe. The menu is casual with a focus on generous tapas and plates and wood fired pizzas washed down with craft beers, all served at a city pace.
Cornforth, too, champions local produce sourcing meat, cheese and milk from local producers. "we're in the middle of this amazing food bowl and we want to showcase that," he says.
Indeed, local farmers in the region have been producing everything from bush honey to grass-fed beef and hydroponic vegetables for generations but the farm gates have only been opened more recently for visitors to take a closer look at where their food comes from and how it gets to the restaurant plate. Cornforth and Haughton are supporting that with their own 'Eat local, taste local' flavour in their menu.
Do not eat anything for at least 12 hours before feasting at the Safari Club Bar and Grill (19-23 Brisbane Street). Everything about this award-winning South African-style char grill restaurant is big so you'll need an appetite to match for the huge plates of sticky, saucy, tender beef, pork and land ribs. They have just the right amount of spice and huge hand-cut steaks or exotic game meat such as crocodile are cooked by owner and head chef Elliot Dube. The more adventurous can attempt the 1.5kg Lions Paw* with a side of Monkey* gland sauce.
*No lions or monkeys were harmed in the enjoyment of this meal.
Less than an hour's drive from Tamworth is the historic and very quaint village of Nundle. Built on the banks of the Peel River, this sleepy village once pulsed with thousands of prospectors hoping to strike it rich on gold that would flow down from the hills to the valley below.
The landscape remains virtually untouched since the gold rush days in 1850 with evidence of its existence still visible in the divots and piles of stones that line the river shore. Thriving with bird life and other fauna, it's a spot where you're likely to catch a glimpse of an elusive platypus, or a sleepy koala and jag a rainbow trout in he pristine waterways. And yes, there's still 'gold in them thar hills', so you might just make your fortune!
Seventy-five years ago fortunes were made from a thriving wool trade which fed demand for 200 woolen mills across Australia, but the Nundle Woollen Mill (1 Oakenville Street) is the last one still operating. Tree-changers Nick and Kylie Bradford bought the mill eight years ago and now it's the only place in the world you can actually see commercial wool spinning on machines that are more than 100 years old. The mill spins cleaned Australian wool and the Bradford's dye all their own yarn in myriad shades of the rainbow.
As hand crafts such as knitting, crochet, spinning and weaving and enjoy a resurgence Nundle Woollen Mill ships its yarn all over Australia and the world via its online store but the mill's own shop is like a candy store for 'yarnistas' piled with woollen jumpers, scarves, gloves, hats, tops and socks and walls of yarn including the popular super-chunky felted Nundle Wool Vine.
Just a short stroll from Nundle Woollen Mill is the Mt Misery Gold Mine (80 Gill Street), not really a working mine but a lovingly restored old building full of mining memorabilia. There's also an old mining shaft to explore which gives a spine tingling glimpse into the dark and dangerous days of gold mining. Luckily for us, instead of back-breaking work and choking dust, the 'mine' is now serving up delicious home-cooked meals, pastries, hand-made chocolates and a choice of teas which can be enjoyed on the open veranda with the local blue wrens or in front of the cosy fire during the coolers months.
Back to the main street of Nundle and sitting in the beer garden of The Peel Inn (Jenkins Street) is a little surreal. It's warm and sunny with colourful baskets of seedlings and flowering cumquats buzzing with bees and butterflies, yet it's snowing . . . snowing petals.
Above us the tendrils of a 40-year-old grapevine stretch far and wide, providing a leafy green canopy shading us from the midday sun and when it flowers in spring it sends down a flurry of petals which settle all around like snow. It is quite magical and adds to the ambience of the 150-year-old-pub which has a rich history from the gold rush days. Its first owner lost the pub in a card game but it was an auspicious win for the next owner, John Schofield, whose descendants continue to run the inn today. Their classic pub menu is complemented with locally sourced beef, trout and blackberries and the tap beer icy cold crisp.
Trout is something of a specialty at the eateries here and we soon find out why. High in the hills just 20 minutes from Nundle village is the Arc-en-Ciel Trout Farm (Malonga, Morrison's Gap Road, Hanging Rock). The temperature is noticeably cooler and the bushland dense and thriving with wildlife. Here, in a pristine paradise, the Sydenham family raise thousands of tonnes of rainbow trout ("arc en ciel" is French for "rainbow") from eggs in natural spring-fed ponds surrounded by virgin bushland.
To say that owner Russell Sydenham takes special care of his fish is an understatement - for one batch that was behaving erratically at night he thought they were stressed by the dark so he left the lights on in the hatchery all night - and the result is a range of product that wins awards at food shows around the country, from whole fish and fillets to paté and Gravlax cured in a marinade of salt, sugar and dill.
There's a farm-gate store and a café to try the trout specialties for lunch. For a small fee, visitors also can fish their own trout or, in the warmer months, take guided tours to learn about the rich Aboriginal history of the land, bush medicene, bush tucker and unique wildlife. Keep an eye out for Goldie the 3kg albino trout and, if you're lucky, you might spot an endangered Spotted Quoll or the magical sugar gliders fitting from treetop to treetop.