Brendan Ironside grew up in Batlow. Surrounded by regions rich in culinary superlatives, it was unsurprising he dreamed of becoming a chef.
Growing up, he recalls big family gatherings that always seemed to revolve around the dining table.
“Mum and dad were always having people over for dinner, or we were being invited over by family, and it wasn’t an Ironside party without enough food to feed everyone 10 times over,” he laughs.
Upon completing high school, he chased his dreams to Sydney where he was recently promoted to Junior Sous Chef at Crown Sydney’s fine dining establishment Nobu.
As he says, though, “you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy”, and so he is delighted to return to his home town where he will put his skills to the test at the one-night-only food spectacular Batlow Bites.
A sold-out fringe event of the Winter Bites Batlow festival, proceeds of the evening will assist community organisation Do It For Batlow in progressing projects that benefit locals following the devastating Black Summer Bushfires.
Do It For Batlow secretary and Brendan’s mum Cara Ironside says the festival is set to be a triumphant showcase of the town’s resilience.
“The Black Summer Bushfires were supposed to be devastating. We were deemed undefendable by all and sundry,” she says.
“If it wasn’t for the local RFS, retained firefighters and our own ‘shuttle brigade’ citizens, we would’ve been utterly annihilated.”
Brendan was already working in Sydney when the bushfires hit, and the fear for his loved ones is still fresh in his mind.
“I’m not going to lie – it was pretty scary. My mum and my two younger siblings left and got themselves to safety, but my dad, grandad and older brother all stayed back to fight the fires,” he recalls.
“There was next to no contact, cell service was down, power was down, all the information I was getting was from mum, who I called four or five times a day in my breaks.”
Two-and-a-half years on, Batlow has shaken off the ashes and is ready to prove it at the Winter Bites Batlow festival. The third and final instalment of a three-part event will showcase the best the region has to offer.
One participant is Crafty Cider owner Tony Cross.
When the Dunns Road fires claimed more than 234 hectares of orchards in the area, his then-fledgling orchard was one of the few spared from the worst of the damage.
The orchard he managed down the road at the time did not fare as well.
“When the fires came through, nearly every orchard suffered in some way, whether that was trees burnt, pumps and irrigation burnt, sheds or even houses burnt down,” he says.
“The orchard I managed lost a bin shed with 2000 bins and a couple of thousand trees.
“Unlike the wineries, the apples didn’t get smoke taint, but there was no sunshine here for a good three weeks due to the smoke, so a lot of the apples that survived were small that year.”
Tony has managed orchards for about 25 years. He started crafting his own cider about 13 years ago, hoping to one day begin his own operation. About six years ago, he bought 55 acres in Kunama just southwest of Batlow and decided it was time to “have a crack”. He planted nine varieties of English and French apples on just over a hectare of orchard to produce a range of medium-dry craft ciders.
It makes him part of a dwindling number of Batlow’s orchard farmers.
“Back in the 80s there were about 80 growers, now there are 20 odd, so the industry has shrunk considerably in 30 years,” he says.
“After the fires, some older producers – apple growers and chestnut growers whose productions were burnt badly – opted to give it up. They felt it was too late in their lives to start from scratch.
“When you lose apple trees, you have to push them out and start again and it generally takes five years to get back to where you were, so production levels haven’t come back yet.
“I don’t know if it’ll ever get back to what it was before the fires. But I do believe Batlow will continue to be known for its apples.”
Tony says in spite of the trauma Batlow’s apple industry sustained from the bushfires, he has no regrets. He intends to grow Crafty Cider over the coming years.
For now, his attention is on joining his son Floyd in working the orchards.
“This is winter pruning time now and I have my son Floyd working me,” he says.
“It’s very pleasing to be able to spend that time in the orchard, getting the trees into better condition and giving them the attention they need.”
The second is his upcoming appearance at Winter Bites Batlow where he’ll host a mobile bar and serve draught cider.
“I’m passionate about trying to get Batlow back on the map, so I am looking forward to it.”