Forage: Orange F.O.O.D Week

Fine wine, gourmet food and hiking boots. One of these things is not like the others. Such is Forage, a very special event held at the end of the annual Orange NSW F.O.O.D Week (Food Of Orange District). Forage is unlike anything I have ever done before and I can safely say without a shadow of a doubt that I absolutely loved every minute of it. The event is based on 'Mangialonga',  a walk held each year around the Italian municipality of La Morra. Sweeping generalisations tell us that what the Italians don't know about eating and drinking really isn't worth knowing - the same can be said of Forage.

At 12:30 we arrive at the Orange Visitor Information Centre and join the queue of likeminded foragers, everyone chatting excitedly while we await a bus to whisk us out of the city. We collect our foraging 'tools' (wine glass, lanyard, pencil, order form, bottled water) and are greeted by a lovely DPI representative who will accompany us through the afternoon. Not ten minutes later we've left the bustling city and are disembarking in the middle of Philip Shaw Wines vineyard. Our glasses are filled with Printhie Swift NV Cuvée (beautiful!) and the lovely Tim and Sophie Hansen are serving up their morish Mandagery Creek venison prosciutto with poached quince and hazelnut dukkah. This is only station 1 and I'm already in heaven! Current F.O.O.D Week President, James Sweetapple, jumps on the back of a parked quad bike and warmly welcomes one and all. He is clearly very proud of the event and I can't wait to see what is next.

We break away sooner than most to allow ourselves time to quietly meander through the vines. At the end of the row we find station 2: a country terrine with cherry compote from renowned chef, Michael Manners. Twisted River Chardonnay Viognier for me, Orange Mountain Wines Shiraz Viognier for him. Meat terrines are not generally my cup of tea due to their texture and sadly this one is no different but I have a taste and can appreciate the lovely flavours coming through. Husband gobbles down both serves with glee.

A short walk down a dirt road brings us to station 3, situated on a windy hilltop and serving cups of warming Bistro Ceello beef and barley soup. We're lucky to get the chance for a chat with the lovely James Sweetapple before he continues on his way helping the various volunteers along the route. Philip Shaw Merlot Cabernet Franc for me (wowsers!) and Highland Heritage Merlot for him.

There is a good distance between stations 3 and 4 and the chance to really stretch our legs is welcome. Down through rows of vines, alongside a tangle of brambles and a short but steep incline whets our appetite perfectly for what is in store next. The fantastic folks from The Agrestic Grocer are nestled in the shade of a gum tree and serve up an incredible chicken, wild mushroom, leek and apple pie. Brangayne Pinot Noir for me and Hedberg Hill Riesling for him - both are delectable and perfectly matched with the pie.

Time to move on - we still have the main course to come! The vines lead us over a footbridge and down into a valley where there seems to be party going on at station 5. Live music, dancing, groups of happy eaters and drinkers whiling away the afternoon beside a dam sparkling in the afternoon sunlight. I've forgotten what we're going to be eating here and am pleasantly surprised when I am presented with a plate of Edwina Mitchell's braised Trunkey Creek pork neck with potato salad and aioli. We linger a while and people watch before setting off for the next station, unsure of whether we can possibly eat or drink anything else.

An unexpectedly steep incline leaves me breathless once I get to the top (must start exercising...) but we are rewarded when we turn around and get a full view of the course so far. We're surprised at how far we've actually walked and decide we probably deserve a treat. Station 6 is serving up hand pressed Shiraz sorbet which is a revelation - luscious, tart and the perfect palate cleanser. Husband enjoys a glass of Cargo Road Wines Moscato as we sit a while and watch the sun begin its inevitable descent toward the horizon.

The last 3 stations are located in the beautiful surrounds of Orange Highland Wines and Gardens. We stop and chat with the delightful Kate Bracks (of Masterchef fame) as she dishes up her hazelnut financier with poached figs - I swoon, it is so good. Taking the time to explore the gardens, we nibble on some Second Mouse Cheese Co. white mould cheese and find a nice sunny spot to enjoy the live music and a cup of freshly ground Bills Beans coffee. Two very happy and very weary little foragers hop on a homeward bound bus.

I cannot speak highly enough of this event, the organisers, the volunteers, the winemakers and the chefs. Everything seemed to run smoothly and if it didn't, any dramas were hidden very well. The crowd attending was a great mix of young and old, couples, families and friends. A completely relaxing and unique event set in the beautiful rolling countryside of Central NSW. Mark your calendars for next year - I might just see you there!