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A cornucopia of delights at McCarthy's Orchard

Eat | Drink | Explore

Philip White’s had big trouble working out where to start on this remarkable set of yarns arising from one inspiring McLaren Vale farm with a finger in every pie – apple, pear, cherry, grape, fig and much more.

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This report should start with rosé. Grenache rosé that’s neither pink nor as simple and sweet as raspberry cordial. Rosé that tastes more like white wine with the sort of inexplicable intensity of texture white wine scarcely offers. Intensity and finesse with a comforting umami “Ooh Mummy” warm soup thing going on that reminds me of the finest clarified fish stock. But here it’s perfectly cool. It’s like the Semillon Stephen Hickinbotham made at Anakie near Geelong in the early ’80s. Pale lemon butter, zabaglione and umami.

Tell me about texture.

Shivers.

Maybe I should have started the yarn in the ute, bumping around that big long sand dune on Sand Road, McLaren Flat.

We’re in an orchard … “the old original types,” Mark McCarthy says, ” … and we got six different types of table grapes down the bottom there we’re just trialling out with just a third of them. Lady’s fingers, like we got the old types. These are avocadoes. These are Reed variety here on the end. You can see Hass there in the second row. But these ones here get the size of emu eggs.

“We got some mandarins – we could do without those – and a few orange trees.

“We got a little farm in Merbein just outside Mildura in Victoria where we grow pistachio nuts. We grow a Sirora variety that was developed by the CSIRO just up the road from our place in the 1970s. We’re near where the vineyard station was on the corner of the Sturt Highway there. We have a few different types of dried fruits there. Sultanas; some muscats. Summer muscats. Flame Seedless which is a table grape but we use it as dried fruit. Currants. You can cane prune it.

“We do figs. We do a lot of dried figs. We just cut ’em in halves and dry ’em naturally. We don’t use any preservatives or anything on them. A few quinces. We had a few pomegranates but they got a virus and died. The quinces go quite well there.

“I have a theory that anything your grandmother grew in her backyard was a good thing. They generally don’t need a great deal of water and you can look after ’em easily.”

We talked of great mulberry trees now lost in the landscape, some taken from cuttings from the first European tree planted this colony, the poor ancient mulberry on Kangaroo Island. And if I hadn’t interrupted so excitedly at this couple’s endeavour he woulda told me twice as much.

“Here we grow six or seven types of apples,” Mark barged on, swapping some gears in the sand. “Six or seven types of pears. We grow some cherries. A patch of cherries. We do stone fruits and nectarines, peaches, apricots and plums; a little patch of asparagus we’ve put in; then a patch of avocados … and … mangoes. And donkeys. Donkeys. Which try and eat everything.

“I think that’s about it …”

He had forgotten something like, how you say, in your face.

“Oh yeah, then there’s the old Shiraz, the old vine Cabernet … yeah, and a patch of vines that we grafted to Nero. Our youngest vines are like 27 years old. The majority of our vines are like 50-plus. 1965 planted. That’s sorta half the farm and the other half are all those fruit trees.”

So I coulda started the story with the donkeys. Or maybe the cider. How they’re rounding up some of the old forgotten cider varieties. They have both apple and pear ciders. I haven’t got my head around them yet.

But probably the best place to start the story was a few months ago when I was very ill. I recall a phone conversation I didn’t understand, then a couple of hours later a knock at the door.

“Hullo Philip I’m the Lisa McCarthy who phoned,” said a person I didn’t know. There was a white van behind her. “You met Mark at the Farmers’ Market the other day and he said you weren’t well so I’ve made you some food. We all look after each other in this community.”

And then she unloaded a stack of their home-grown fruits and dried produce and cooked stuff and a smoothie made off the property that kept me buzzin for 18 hours. I sat inside and sobbed happily for awhile after that.

Anyway, as I crawled forth since those bad days, I couldn’t wait to visit.

McCarthy’s Orchard is right opposite the best little brewery in the south, Goodieson’s, on Sand Road. Just east of the Herb Farm. The McCarthys are busy getting built for visitors and guests. Like a proper cellar door and stuff. It’ll happen. They always have a cooler room open, stacked with the best juicy fresh and dried produce, with an honesty box where you leave the money.

They have under assemblage some twisty gateworks, made from the more strangely-turned rococo exhaust systems of worked cars. With fruits and grapes suspended, of course, in cast iron. Them gates’ll make Dali’s moe twitch.

Another starting point loomed: there, building a retaining wall at the front of the home garden, was the mighty McLaren Vale stonemason Tiger MacMillan, who I’d not seen at work since we commenced photography for the book McLaren Vale – Trott’s View in 1999. Tiger was building the magnificent wall at Penny’s Hill on that occasion. I’d been too scared to ask around about whether the great mason remained working among us.

One can measure the quality of a community by visiting its most revered stonemason. We discussed rocks and good quarries.

“It’ll stop the chooks from spreading all the mulch on the path,” Lisa said.

Lisa. Whew. Runs a household of four young daughters and does deliveries: kids, produce and wine. Like sales. Nuts. So how’d she arrive in this business that started up the river with Mark’s father?

Lisa was special events manager at Kew Gardens, London, to start with. Or not to start with, but that’s not a bad start. The best and grandest of the old Empire gardens, and now one of the most progressive. She had great fun. She flipped through an astonishing book of shows she’d mounted in her years there. Fantastic fruit and vegetable displays; florals; fireworks … dreamworlds … I’ll run some on my blog when we find some digital copies.

Then Lisa came back and played a big role in getting the wondrous Willunga Farmers’ Market off the ground.

Met Mark and got cracking. Looks after the staff. The fruit sorters, the pickers, the diggers and hoeing folk. I don’t mean to tack her on the end here like a postscript, because she’s nothing of the sort. She’s a friggin dynamo bright with sparks and the most constructive and energetic heart. Just that I had the mike pointed up Mark’s baritone purr while we did the farm.

Supersuits the giant husband right down to the ground, methinks. He brings home the fish, too. Filleted King George whiting grilled perfectly on the plate in three minutes. With that rosé. Reminded me of that other giant, Cath Drogemuller at Paracombe. And Paul her big fisher.

I’ll write some descriptions of the hearty and true, fine and blessed McCarthy’s Orchard reds soon.

In the meantime, go try that Grenache Rosé. I reckon they bought that fruit from a neighbour and Andy Coppard made it. Masterly.

Hang on, I shoulda started with the Jujubes. These damn things have my dark gizzards chirping. They’re also called the Chinese date, and they grow loose on a tree. They grow them at Merbein. Miracle fruit. You can get them dried in the honesty box cool room. Chew them like a date, taking care to work around the stone. Make tea from them and go to sleep. Go straight to sleep. And eat the softened fruit in the morning.

Which is not to overlook the mangoes. Yep, mangoes. This bloke’s growing mangoes on a sand dune in a vineyard/orchard cornucopia at McLaren Vale.

Obviously slow starting, to look at the trees, but he convinced me. They’ll crop this year. I shoulda started there. Or his plans for growing coffee. But mangoes. McLaren Vale. FFS.

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