Your guide to Aussie Artisan Week

Take your pick at the Junee Licorice and Chocolate Factory.
Take your pick at the Junee Licorice and Chocolate Factory.

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It's Aussie Artisan Week - a time to celebrate our amazing army of talented tradespeople. Hannah Warren talks to some of our culinary kings and queens.

Pepe Saya is Australia's butter baron. He has turned the mellow, yellow spread into a religion, and now his concoctions adorn the best rolls on the tables of Sydney's best addresses.

The pandemic has been tough on artisans like Pepe Saya co-founders Pierre Issa and Melissa Altman. But they have survived and thrived. Which is why they started Artisan Week - seven days of showcasing the finest Australian food, fashion and art makers.

But a week isn't enough to try all these delights. You can enjoy them for the rest of the year and bring to life his dream of shopping local and keeping these businesses alive.

Something sweet

Sweet-tooths heading to the Riverina region in NSW should plan a stop at the Junee Licorice and Chocolate Factory, a family-owned company in a historic flour mill.

Neil Druce bought the mill in 1998, but the family had been farming the region for decades; his father was Australia's first organic farmer, and that focus on natural produce flows through to the all-organic products at the Junee factory.

"We pitch that in our marketing but sometimes people don't care that it's organic. They just love chocolate; they want to play with chocolate and hang out at a chocolate factory," laughs Rhiannon Druce, who followed her parents into the family business. A penchant for the delicious runs in their blood - her brother, Dean, bought a disused flour mill in Corowa near the Victorian border and distils his own whisky.

The Junee chocolate and licorice proved so popular the factory grew and they now have tours, chocolate workshops and a restaurant, and they love welcoming people for the full chocolate-making experience.

"You can see how it's all made, and if you're wanting to get more hands-on, you can make your own freckle or rocky road, where you get to put your hand in melted chocolate and custom make everything exactly how you like it," says Rhiannon.

When COVID-19 hit, they were ramping up for Easter and had to quickly boost their online presence to shift their stock of bunny-shaped goodies, while putting the brakes on their tours and chocolate-making experiences. They now sell DIY kits online for people to make rocky road at home.

During the worst of the shutdown, they worked hard to keep the factory open and staff busy, selling hand sanitiser from Dean's Corowa Distillery alongside their sweets.

"We were very nervous when all this started happening, but we were able to keep our staff employed, which was paramount to us, and help our community get vital supplies," says Ms Druce. "It's just kind of funny that a chocolate factory was selling hand sanitiser."

If you have any room left after tasting all the chocolate at the factory, Rhiannon recommends stopping at the restaurant for one of their famous hot chocolates.

"They're made with real melted chocolate, then you can add things like honeycomb and rocky road - they're pretty luxe."

Over the next few months, the Junee factory is taking inspiration from another famous chocolate factory.

"You know in Willy Wonka when the chocolate factory closes and then it has the grand reopening? That's kind of what it feels like for us right now," says Ms Druce.

"So we're going to hide a golden ticket in the bottom of one of the chocolate sampling trays we sell, and whoever finds it will win the ultimate weekend in our region, which is known for food and wine."

Dairy delights

Cheese fiends should head for the NSW South Coast, where you'll find Bodalla nestled between the sea and the mountains. The village was founded in the 1860s with 16 dairy farms making cheddar good enough to be the first Australian cheese to be sent to England.

Bodalla Dairy was started by Jane McCuaig and her mother, who moved to the area in the late '80s and were sad to see the milk from their farm shipped off to big dairy processors - many of which were overseas-owned.

"We decided to process the milk locally by building a dairy that could bottle and be a place we could teach locals how to make cheese, yoghurt and ice cream in the middle of our own village," says Ms McCuaig. "We had a lot of learning on the job."

Now that they've got to grips with the process, they're getting creative with cheese and ice cream in wild flavours.

"We make cheddar with native plants and seeds to give it an Australian twist, like saltbush, wattleseed, Tasmanian pepperberry and our absolute favourite is our eight-hour gum leaf smoked," says Ms McCuaig. "We make yogurt with lemon myrtle and we have fun making ice cream from scratch; it takes three days from raw milk to scooping. After having a drink or chatting with the kids we come up with crazy ideas for flavours. Some don't work and some are magical."

The most magical are surely the ones inspired by local experiences; Let's Go Camping is ice cream smoked with gum leaves and stirred through with macadamia praline; Bush Tucker is chocolate-coated witchetty grubs (yes, really) in wattleseed ice cream; and Diving at Montague Island has a salty, seaweedy flavour.

Although the village is blink-and-you'll-miss-it small, you could spend a day there.

"Some people arrive for coffee (made with that morning's milking) and enjoy the sun on the deck overlooking our lake and farm, then bottle feed the calves at 10am, check for eggs, and feed the alpacas and Billy the goat," says Ms McCuaig.

"They go for a bush walk, come back for a cheese toastie and live music on Sunday. If the adults settle in for the afternoon with a glass of wine, the kids can have an ice cream and play in the gardens.

"Bodalla is really special and it's not until you come that you appreciate it."

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A little drink



NSW is home to more than a dozen unique wine regions, which means you can throw a rock anywhere in the state and hit a winery. But if you've got wine fatigue (is that even a thing?) stop in at Distillery Botanica in Erina, perched about halfway between Sydney and Newcastle on the Central Coast.

Distillery Botanica is the work of horticulturist and herbalist Philip Moore, who sold his successful herb-growing business in the early 2000s and turned his attention to teaching himself how to distil.

He bought a former nursery/wedding venue in Erina, and applied for a distilling licence; he was only the sixteenth person in Australia to be granted a boutique distilling licence, and only the fifth to distil gin. By 2007, his gins were making their way onto shelves locally and to the International Wine and Spirit Competition in London, where he won the silver medal for his Moore's Vintage Dry Gin (in 2017, he returned with Moore's Dry Gin and won gold).

Today, everything is still proudly made on site in Erina; in fact, the Roots & Leaves gin is made with botanicals which are all grown in the distillery's gardens. And Mr Moore is strongly committed to the batch-made, artisanal vibe.

"Volume and massive sales was never Philip's drive. It was never his story. He was never getting into this business to build up a huge company, sell loads of gin, then sell the business," says manager Nigel Weisbaum. "His thing was always just making delicious stuff."

Mr Weisbaum joined the team early last year with visions of making the distillery more of a destination.

"We're planning a new experience where you can come in, pick your own botanicals and distil your own gin," he says.

"We're hoping to be running that by later this year. It'll be phenomenal. We'll have tours and tastings, masterclasses, lots of different events and experiences, but the main one will be picking your own botanicals."

Mr Goaty gelato

Mr Goaty gelato

On the 1.5-hectare property, you'll also find the newly licensed cafe Bar Botanica, owned by Three Blue Ducks alum Dan Hughes who makes the award-winning Mr Goaty Gelato and serves brunches that regularly feature on best-of lists.

"Come for the afternoon. Have some lunch, make some gin, walk around the gardens, have a drink," says Mr Weisbaum.

But why stop at an afternoon?

"There are great beaches nearby, and we've got a brewery called Six String a six-minute walk away. Then there's a winery called Firescreek 10 minutes down the road, a cheese factory that uses our gin in their cheese, a chocolate factory - loads of little artisan food producers," says Mr Weisbaum. "The Central Coast has really picked up its game. It's really cool."

* Keep up the support of your local artisans and tag a pic of this weekend's purchase on Instagram with #AussieArtisanWeek.

Get in the spirit

Brix Distillery

Brix Distillery

Eight distilleries in NSW doing great things with whisky, rum, gin and more.

Husk Distillers, North Tumbulgum

This distiller of Australia's only virgin cane rum also makes a purple-hued Ink Gin. Drop into the cellar door for a rum-tasting paddle under the beauty of Mt Warning.

Lord Howe Island Distilling Co.

Fancy a Wild Lemon and Hibiscus Gin? This distiller uses wild and endemic botanicals from Lord Howe Island to make its award-winning spirits.

The Aisling Distillery, Griffith

A family-run distillery that specialises in small-batch single-malt whisky and rum, using locally sourced Riverina barley.

North of Eden, Stony Creek

This micro-distillery creates incredible gin in 200-bottle batches and are proud of making true London Dry gins.

Brix Distillers, Surry Hills

In the heart of Sydney, you'll find Brix's unique dark and white rums. Book in for a tour or a rum-spicing class.

Wild Brumby Distillery, Jindabyne

Australia's highest distillery utilises Alpine water, organic fruit and mountain botanicals for its award-winning schnapps.

Headlands Distilling Co, Wollongong

Four friends founded Wollongong's first distillery in 2015. A must try is their Seacliff Vodka - a truly authentic Australian spirit.

Stone Pine Distillery, Bathurst

Australian craft spirits, including gin, rum and vodka, are made a particular interest in Australian native botanicals.

Pretty as a picture

Jenny Kee. Picture: Sue Stafford

Jenny Kee. Picture: Sue Stafford

Fashion legend Jenny Kee has been inspired by the great Aussie bush and is still energised by its beauty.

Forty-three years ago, Bondi-born Jenny Kee spent time with friends in Tuscany, where she realised that was a life she wanted back in Australia.

The fashion designer, known for her colourful prints and intricate textiles, returned to Sydney and opened her fashion boutique, Flamingo Park, in the Strand Arcade.

Ms Kee has collaborated with the likes of Chanel's Karl Lagerfeld and Diana, Princess of Wales, wore one of her knitted koala jumpers, nicknamed "Blinky", to a polo game at Windsor Castle.

"London was absolutely wild in the seventies, and Sydney, too, was also a very happening place. But before we left Europe, we stayed with some friends who lived in the Tuscan countryside. It was exquisite. My partner and I decided to then set up our life in the Blue Mountains, so we could emulate that same kind of lifestyle. To this day, it is still my favourite place in the world," she says.

"There is something so magical about this part of the world. The people here are amazing and there is a real sense of community. The landscape and the surrounding environment have had such a big influence on my work."

Ms Kee, aside from designing during lockdown, has spent much of her time in the great outdoors, hiking, taking photographs of the regeneration of the bush and supporting local producers.

"There are some amazing hikes around the mountains. There is a reason why it's a World Heritage area. Some of my favourite hikes are the Hanging Rock trail and the Centennial Glen path," she says.

"The mountains have changed so much over the years. Katoomba, for instance, has become this burgeoning scene filled with artists and musicians. But there are some lovely stores in Leura filled with antiques. I regularly hunt for skincare items at iKou."

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Local shops for the fashionista

Dinosaur Designs, Sydney

This design studio has been creating and selling highly sought-after handcrafted resin jewellery and homewares since its launch in 1985.

Cloth Fabric, Darlinghurst

Cloth is the brainchild of Julie Paterson, an artist and textile designer who has been creating fabric designs inspired by the local landscape for over 25 years.

Gillawarra Arts

An Indigenous creative arts business headed by Worimi woman Krystal Hurst, who hails from the NSW Mid North Coast. Ms Hurst designs handmade jewellery using natural materials and specialises in contemporary artworks on canvas and murals. Each piece paints a picture of the sky, land, rivers and sea, with old knowledge and new stories interwoven by Aboriginal women.

Fiona Schofield, Orange

With over 25 years handcrafting beautiful, coveted hats, headpieces, veils and accessories, Fiona Schofield has enviable skills and trade knowledge as an experienced milliner.