14 November 2017

Escape to the country: A Canberra region gem

| Maryann Mussared
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Laggan Pantry’s hazelnut brulee, with biscotti and hazelnut parfait. Photo: Maryann Mussared.

Recently I noticed some posts on social media featuring Laggan Pantry, a restaurant located in the rural hamlet of Laggan, just north of Crookwell. It is surrounded by an abundant garden: a huge bed of asparagus, artichokes and organic summer berries, a greenhouse full of micro herbs and all sorts of vegetable seedlings ready to be planted out, free-range chickens, sheep, fruit trees, plus an adorable sheepdog called Obi. This garden has an important purpose: everything grown is for use at Laggan Pantry.

Laggan Pantry. Photo: Maryann Mussared.

Approaching its second birthday, the Pantry is less than an hour and a half north of Canberra in the Southern Tablelands, just beyond the 1820s pastoral settlement of Crookwell. I drove up to visit and confirm what I was starting to suspect is one of the best-kept secrets in rural NSW.

The Laggan Pantry is set in a shady green garden and visitors can expect a warm welcome from Obi the sheepdog. Photo: Maryann Mussared.

The 58-seat restaurant is picturesquely set in the gardens of the 1837 Police Barracks, built when gold was being transported from the former bustling gold mining town of Tuena in the north, and bushrangers were aplenty. The barracks are reputed to have housed Ben Hall at one stage but are nowadays a comfortable home for Evan and Sally, the owners of Laggan Pantry.

Chef Evan and front of house manager and sommelier Sally. Photo: Maryann Mussared.

From the moment I arrived, I knew I was in the hands of professionals. The Pantry is a culinary destination; run by the energetic duo of chef Evan and front of house manager and sommelier Sally. Everyone receives a warm welcome from Obi the sheepdog, often to be found resting on the lawn in the shade. Set in six and a half acres of gently sloping land, the Pantry is blessed with a good water supply from a spring that keeps the vegetables happy and the fruit trees, lawns and gardens lush and green. The orchard is prolific and provides a huge range of fruit, including quince, beurre bosc pears, hazelnut, almond, and chestnut as well as a full range of summer berries and even some young truffle-inoculated oak trees. As well as the restaurant, there is a perfect B&B cottage, and visitors can purchase preserves and jams made in the kitchen. In late spring I did not waste the opportunity of stocking up my larder and made a choice of green pickle chutney, mint jelly, tomato chilli jam, as well as blackberry, red currant and quince jams.

Pantry preserves. Photo: Maryann Mussared.

Lunch is available Friday to Sunday with dinner served on Friday and Saturday. Seating for the restaurant is a choice of outside tables on the terrace, the verandah, or inside: a simple, cool, calm space with high ceilings and polished wooden floors with views of the garden from three sides. A large table adjacent to us was served efficiently while the other smaller tables received attentive friendly service, and everyone had views of the well-tended leafy garden from a light, airy and contemporary setting.

The restaurant is light and airy with views of the garden. Photo: Maryann Mussared.

The lunch menu offers a single entree: the share platter that arrived at the next table looked very good, groaning with regional and local produce, including in-house duck parfait, pickles and bread, as well as local olives and meat. However, we had decided on the two specials of the day to save space for dessert. I had intended to have the open lamb pie, but that can wait for my next visit. The two specials we chose were perfect for Sunday lunch: warm Thai beef salad with slivers of tasty tender beef sourced from a nearby property topped with crunchy vermicelli noodles and lightly roasted cashews.

Sunday lunch at The Laggan Pantry. Photo: Maryann Mussared.

The second was a seafood hotpot: a mix of very fresh mussels, pipis, squid, a firm fillet fish and atop, and a well-sized Balmain Bug. Lightly steamed in a chilli tomato sauce, this was served in heated cast iron skillet with crunchy, garlicky sourdough bread. The subtle tomato sauce did not overpower the individual flavours of the seafood. It seems even in this rural location fresh seafood is delivered from Narooma and Eden five days a week. A side-serve of lightly roasted chat potatoes with sea salt and rosemary was a perfect accompaniment, but there was also the choice of fresh vegetables or salad greens from the garden.

A crisp, citrusy Clonakilla Sauvignon Blanc cool climate wine from Murrumbateman went very well with our lunch. There was one wine on the menu from a local winery – a very local ‘Laggan Pinot Noir’ which will just have to be tasted on another visit. I also noticed a number of other good nearby regional wines (Orange, Young, Lake George) plus some excellent King Valley wines, and there was an appealing choice of boutique beers.

The desserts were light and tempting. Hazelnuts are grown on the farm, so hazelnut brulee with hazelnut parfait was a must and we tried the not-too-sweet vanilla pannacotta with lightly poached rhubarb scattered with mint leaves: rhubarb and mint is definitely my new favourite taste combination.

Vanilla bean panne cotta with rhubarb and mint. Photo: Maryann Mussared.

We had first class coffee made with filtered water from the spring to finish and then took a walk around the productive vegetable garden and up the hill to meet some friendly black-faced Suffolk sheep accompanied by Obi: it was a lovely end to our meal.

Black-faced Suffolk sheep. Photo: Maryann Mussared.

It was a real treat to stay overnight in the small B&B Laggan Cottage, located in a quiet corner of the garden. Formerly a small shearing shed, Evan and Sally have created a perfectly peaceful environment where couples can truly relax, and in our case, listen to the rain on the tin roof. We even found a Scrabble set in the drawer which was put to good use.

Designed to provide all comforts necessary, including a cosy gas log fire and delightful country-style ambience. Photo: Maryann Mussared.

The detail of each part of the cottage has been thought through completely. The bed was good quality and the vintage furniture was complemented by the contemporary soft furnishings. There is a shady verandah, perfect for a late afternoon cup of tea or glass of wine.

Laggan Cottage B&B. Photo: Maryann Mussared.

I so admire the passion and vision that Evan and Sally have for the Pantry. The journey to get to where they are today has taken over seven years. They both gained good experience running a chalet in the Snowy Mountains and before that Sally had come from a family of Canberra hoteliers. Once they had made up their minds to pursue their rural enterprise, located and acquired the property, there was a lead time of nearly five years to get everything ship-shape and to where they are now. Their hard work certainly shows. They have met the challenges of sourcing quality produce, planning a menu based on what is available by the season in the style of French country cuisine, and making it all appear deceptively simple!

With technology making the lives of people escaping to the country much easier in terms of connectivity and thus supply chains, Evan and Sally are at the forefront of culinary entrepreneurship in regional Australia and helping us answer ever-increasing questions about where our food comes from.

Laggan Rooster with attitude. Photo: Maryann Mussared.

Laggan Pantry is popular with locals, and regulars come from far and wide. It is perfect for small functions and families are well catered for with a short and tasty children’s menu. Needless to say, reservations are essential.

The drive from Canberra is not in the least bit arduous for lunch, and a nice circular drive took us up through Gundaroo and some really lovely wheat country north of Gunning and Grabben Gullen. On the return journey, we drove through the Great Dividing Range into the back of Goulburn and returned via the very easy Hume and Federal Highway.

For dinner guests, overnight accommodation is available for a couple in the Laggan Cottage; and for a family or small group, the converted Church is a short walk. Crookwell has a well-equipped Visitor Information Centre for assistance with local accommodation and also has a wealth of information about all the other nearby Upper Lachlan towns and attractions, as well as some quality local handicrafts.

Laggan can be quite busy. As well as the lovely old pub, there is an increasingly busy Farmers Market on the third Saturday of the month in the Memorial Hall with the next market this coming Saturday 18 November. This coming weekend is also the final weekend for the 2017 Sculpture in the Village Exhibition in the gardens of Willowtree Sculpture Garden: open every day until Sunday 19 November from 10.00 am to 4.00 pm.

The greenhouse in the kitchen garden is full of microherbs ready to be harvested. Photo: Maryann Mussared.

Maryann Mussared was a guest at Laggan Pantry.

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