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Another world within reach: Journey through winter in the Adelaide Hills

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Although it seems so close and familiar, the Adelaide Hills has an unexplored side that shines in winter. On these cold days, meals by the fireside prove paddock to plate is more than an abstract concept and welcoming locals demonstrate community is not just a catchphrase.

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Those living in the Adelaide Hills don’t refer to the CBD as the city. They call it “the flats” and – for them – going down to the flats means crossing into a different world entirely.

Those living in the city don’t normally have the same sensation as they journey up into the Adelaide Hills. It is easy to think of the pretty pub-and-restaurant dotted landscape as a less populated, greener and much steeper extension of what lies closer to home.

It’s not. Although it is easily missed by those just passing through, the Adelaide Hills have a unique character borne of an intimate connection with nature and agriculture.

“You see tractors and you see people ploughing and sowing and reaping,” says Bev Pote, a Uraidla resident and owner of Piccadilly Kitchen. “I think that’s really good, it keeps you grounded.”

As the rains renew the region this winter, its real nature is becoming more visible. Producers pause by the fire for a drink and a chat, locals open their homes, creeks refill and native flowers unfurl. With the change that washes through, visitors are afforded the chance to see what locals see – to discover the reality of this unknown world that was, until now, sitting just out of reach.

Touch the soil

Will Rischbieth has built a business from his desire to share his version of the Adelaide Hills with visitors. A Stirling resident since the age of six, the 30-year-old is also an avid cyclist – throughout his late teens and early twenties he raced internationally.

“So, this business has sort of been a long time in the making,” he says of Will Ride, his e-bike venture located on Stirling’s main street. The business sees Will leading tours around the hills, including through little-known parts of nearby national parks.

The e-bikes, which kick in with some motorised help for steep climbs or tough going, make cycling in the hills possible for normal, non-lycra-clad humans. And with the slower pace and low environmental impact of pedal power comes access to formerly unreachable places.

“For us to be able to take people in there [the national parks] and show them all these beautiful places or different angles of Mount Lofty that you’ve never seen before – that’s pretty rewarding,” says Will.

Setting foot on the soil of the region also opens new sides to it. Bev immigrated to the Adelaide Hills from South Africa in 2000, and it was through experiencing the full extent of her new home’s variability that she came to love it.

Mount Lofty Gardens. Photo: Tyrone Ormsby

“The Mount Lofty Botanic Gardens… is lovely in all seasons,” she says. “Yes, it’s cold in winter, but that’s an advantage I think. You know, you go out into it and then come back to a lovely fire.”

In the contrast between the chill and the warmth and in the beauty of the Gardens’ rolling hills, there’s a reminder of our often-forgotten symbiosis with the world around us. Bev says there’s another, perhaps even simpler way to experience this in winter – by taking a drive to visit the many roadside farmgate stalls that dot the area.

“The first one I would say is Rosie and Oscar [of the Piccadilly Flower Stall… she does beautiful flower arrangements,” says Bev.

“And the other one is Springwood Farm. They grow their own raspberries, loganberries, blackberries. And it’s a very natural ice cream that they make – it’s a little industry, which is beautiful.”

In winter, the stalls change in rhythm with the farms that supply them. Tasting Springwood’s ice cream, curds, jams, and chutneys – made to preserve the bounty from the warmer fruiting months – and touching Rosie’s bouquets of winter blooms, the rhythm of the visitor slowly comes closer to syncing with the rhythm of the hills.

Springwood Farm. Photo: Tyrone Ormsby

Taste the source

It’s one thing to have direct access to the season’s best produce at a roadside stall but it’s another entirely to know what to do with it. The saving grace of the less culinarily inclined are the Adelaide Hills institutions who have perfected seasonal cooking and taken it to extraordinary levels.

Hardy’s Verandah Restaurant at Mount Lofty House has an extreme focus on local produce. Chefs forage on the property itself and the produce sourcing radius is tiny – concentrated within the surrounding valley whenever possible. Star chef Jin Choi turns his neighbours’ bounty into an ever-changing seven course degustation menu, and his take on quail is not to be missed. The food combined with the view over the fog-filled valley as the moon rises is enough to ruin every winter evening that follows.

Lofty House. Photo: Tyrone Ormsby

While the view is a little different from the fireside at The Olfactory Inn on Strathalbyn’s High Street, there’s the same ardent desire to explore local ingredients. Chef Simon Burr even uses the often-maligned Coorong carp as a substitute for pork in his mapo tofu, with excellent results.

“One of the most rewarding things we’ve had is meeting and working with little local producers,” says The Oflactory Inn co-owner Lauren Alexander. “It’s good to be able to put them on the menu and share their pride.”

The Hills is one of a few places in the world where this paddock to plate philosophy is so tangible, but forming a sense of the region doesn’t just happen as a result of what’s on the menu. Because of the small scale of hills businesses, it is also likely that the person who makes your coffee or breakfast is the same person you end up chatting with.

A prime example is Stall 1195 – a new venue that, with its bike repairs and art gallery, is as much a community space as it is café. While the kitchen serves up popular breakfasts made from largely home-grown ingredients, the focus for owners Betty Bird and Carlo Russo is on keeping things low-key and local.

“We want to keep it as just us here, we don’t want to employ other people. Keep it simple,” Carlo says.

Will Rischbieth’s favourite Hills café is also owner-operated, but the pace of Red Cacao in Stirling is a stark contrast to Stall 1195’s laid-back vibe. The chocolatier does a brisk trade of coffee, sweets and lunches and owner Marcus Booth-Remmers is delighted to see first-hand the effect of his handmade couverture chocolates.

Red Cacao. Photo: Tyrone Ormsby

“It’s an indulgent and comforting experience we want to offer,” he says of the joy he gets from serving visitors looking for a little warmth in the depths of winter.

As a pure expression of Hills life – where the produce and the operators are all local champions – it is hard to go past Lot 100. Here, Mismatch Brewing Co, Adelaide Hills Distillery and The Hills Cider Company have come together to create a unique production and tasting venue. The spirits and beer are made on site, there’s rows of apple trees growing to supply the cider production (which on certain weekends you can help pick), and Lot 100 restaurant staffer Sam O’Leary says “we like to re-use everything we can”. The beers are perfect with the house-made pastas and breads, and the apple, fig, mascarpone and whey caramel dessert.

Lot 100. Photo: Tyrone Ormsby

Stay with purpose

While eating and exploring are revealing, the ultimate insight into a place is always the result of being welcomed into a local’s private space. Jasmin Packer and her family loved their property in Ironbank so much that they knew it needed to be shared.

After living on their acreage between two national parks for 18 years, they opened up a little wooden hut they’d built near their creek as an AirBnB property in March 2018. The tiny HideyHole space is one of SA’s best winter getaways – with a little fireplace inside and provisions for a campfire outside – but it is also purposeful. Jasmin and her family run HideyHole as volunteers and use all the proceeds to fund bush management and other conservation efforts.

“We know the Adelaide Hills are a biodiversity hotspot and it’s highly threatened,” says Jasmin, pointing out that Southern Brown Bandicoots are found on the property.

Jasmin says winter is a particularly good time to experience the fragility and beauty of the Hills’ ecosystem.

“It’s the cosiness of HideyHole that people enjoy,” she says. “The mists come rolling into the valley, you tend to see more bandicoots, they come out and dig because they soil is moist. And the frog song in the waterhole, oh my gosh, it’s beautiful.”

Martin Freeney’s path to sharing his property with visitors was equally as indirect as Jasmin’s. He built an Earthship – a home made from mud-filled tyres, re-used bottle bricks, and other sustainable, thermally-stable materials – as part of his PhD studies. For him, it was an exploration of how Australian housing could be responsibly re-imagined. For the guests that stay in this greenhouse-fronted architectural marvel, the Earthship Ironbank is a demonstration that living off-grid and in harmony with nature is as delightful as it is responsible.

Heartwood Cottage. Photo: Tyrone Ormsby

People have been enjoying the Hills’ unique environmentally for more than a century which means there are plenty of historic properties to enjoy. In Stirling, the sprawling and beautifully-restored Heartwood Cottage is steeped in history and culture. The original 1850s home was bought by architects Rosanna and Pauline Hurren and faithfully reinvigorated and extended into a three-bedroom property with a sun-filled conservatory and slow-combustion fireplace at its centre.

“It’s one of the original Tiersman’s cottages of this area and we didn’t want it to be demolished,” says Rosanna. “Guests always say they can’t believe what they’ve found when they stay here.”

Such is the nature of the Hills themselves – that a little exploration, especially in winter when the locals welcome visitors enthusiastically, will yield experiences of more depth and delight than the most optimistic visitor could imagine.

Solstice Media has partnered with the South Australian Tourism Commission to tell South Australian’s the reason why they need to take their next holiday in their own state.

For our recommended 3 day itinerary, click here.

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