Leeton and Narrandera – country towns that are a part of the ‘food bowl’ of south western NSW, otherwise known as the Riverina Region.
It’s a region for which praise is not loudly sung, and yet there is so much to be said about this lush little pocket of country NSW, where much of our produce comes from. Flying into Narrandera/Leeton airport, the vista below is nothing short of gob-smacking. In every direction for thousands of kilometres, signs of abundant farming can be seen in every shade of green, yellow and brown. And with the majestic Murrumbidgee River winding its way through the endless fields, you could be mistaken for thinking you’re flying over a part of England.
Upon landing, there is something else abundantly clear – the locals are delighted you’ve come to explore their beloved region. Their friendliness, welcoming smiles and enthusiasm for things to do in the area are all anyone needs to kick off a trip to remember. And out here, with the fresh air and produce, it’s the ideal place to kick back, relax and recharge.
Go wild at Altina
Yes, it is all about food out this way, but no trip to this area is complete without a few hours spent at the remarkable Altina Wildlife Park. It’s a safari park bursting at the seams with fascinating African animals, all housed in open-air enclosures with plenty of room to roam. The birth rate of unusual species here is off the Richter, testimony no doubt to the creatures’ contentment. They have bred African Cape hunting dogs; they have maned wolves (successfully breeding four litters from wolves imported from Russia and Sweden); and they have a genetically viable group of addax, with calves now on show. Altina has also had the most successful breeding program of scimitar oryx, with many births to date.
On arrival, guests climb into a covered wagon pulled by a friendly Clydesdale horse. With his best mate Zorro the Jack Russell beside him at the reins, Gino, owner and manager of the park, gives visitors an impressive tour and knowledgable insight into his world and the lives of the many species – with a healthy dose of very dry Australian humour to boot.
Highlights of the tour include meeting a feisty rare white lion and lioness (watching them being fed and hearing them roar if they are in the mood); Mongolian horses in full-canter; ferocious wild dogs being thrown feed in the form of rabbits, and being a few steps away from exotic wolves and lovely lanky giraffes. The native birds, goannas, parrots, kangaroos and emus also roam among the enclosures by the river, and amid the picturesque gullies and plains dotted with river red gums. And for those who want to get even more up-close and personal with the many creatures at Altina, you can do a behind-the-scenes tour, take part in feeding time, and see the animals interacting with the animal carers.
Grains of life
Cruise down the road and take the leap from wildlife to wild grains, grown by Peter Randall, a passionate rice farmer who has gone against traditional farming methods to grow his NASAA-accredited organic rice. If you are keen to learn about where your food comes from, and are also interested in organic farming methods, a visit to Randall Organic Rice should feature on your itinerary.
Randall passionately believes that people deserve chemical-free, tasty rice that is environmentally sustainable, and he whole-heartedly believes that the spike in cancer and other illnesses correlates with the many pesticides and chemicals often used in farming. To him, it’s about resisting what he refers to as negative trends; such as “companies modifying organisms for profit, farmers killing ecosystems with chemicals, rising cancer rates, and large companies controlling food production.”
“I didn’t want my kids around chemicals,” Randall says simply. “I wanted a healthy environment for them, and it just tastes better.”
He confesses that many locals thought him crazy when he took the organic route, but the company is now turning a healthy profit, with his rice stocked in top restaurants and health food stores across the country. Randall intends to further grow his brand and develop his systems for higher production. “They all probably still think I am mad,” he laughs, looking out over the fields covered in all kinds of grass and weeds, the rice sprouting from amongst it. “That sight would scare the life out of most farmers!”
Leeton is also home to one of Australia’s leading branded food exporters, SunRice, which was formed in 1950 with the establishment of a single rice mill. With operations and markets spanning the globe, SunRice today supplies around 60 countries with diverse and nutritious food products. The company is considered an Australian icon and is proudly grower-owned by rice farmers across the wider region.
Italians and oranges
How often do we all drink orange juice and not take a moment to think where the millions of oranges that go into some of the most popular juices come from? The Ciccia family, Italians who have lived in Australia for three generations are citrus farmers in Leeton, and you could not find a more generous foodie family in love with both their produce and the region they call home. Nonna (meaning ‘grandmother’ in English) and her family love to meet visitors and show off what they do on the farm. And they do a lot. They work from sunrise to sundown to produce the orange juice that goes into Berri and other juices that people may recognise on the supermarket shelves. “My mother and father came here over 50 years ago and created the foundations for what we have become,” says their son Michael, proudly. “They’ve gone through hard times of drought and flood and everything else, but they made wise decisions and were always thinking to the future.”
Today, the hundreds of acres of the family’s orange groves are vibrant, delectable proof of the family’s hard work. It’s this hard yakka that has made their family business one that is felt and tasted every day, right across Australia and beyond.
Wine & dine, Riverina style
The Riverina region is famous for its wine production, and many of the vineyards and winemakers are regularly scooping up awards. But one of the stellar performers in the region is a small operation with only four staff, called Lillypilly Estate Wines. Established in 1972, this Leeton wine producer grows all of its own grapes and produces wines that have won some of the best wine awards in the world, including a host of them from the AWC Vienna International Wine Challenge. In these prestigious awards, 11,514 wines from 1,760 producers out of 37 nations are blind-tasted by some of the world’s top wine judges. In 2012 alone, Lillypilly won eight awards, including a gold for their 2011 Moscato and a silver for their 2012 Sauvignon Blanc. And if you have ever wondered how wine blends are created, a trip to Toorak Wines will not only give you enough information to have your head spinning with the wonderful world of winemaking, but you can also have a crack at blending yourself.
The family-run Italian business welcomes visitors with open arms, and you can sit down in the processing plant and take part in a wine tasting and blending class that makes you realise how much passion, effort and thought go into making the perfect drop. But as the winemakers will tell you themselves, the perfect blend is simply the one you love the most, so you might just make yourself incredibly happy in the process of blending their shiraz with cabernet. The company also produces top-notch wine labels Amesbury and Willandra Estate wines.
Don’t skip out of town before heading to Pages on Pine for lunch or dinner. Considered the most up-market place to chow down in town, and included in the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide as a top regional restaurant to try, the owners are passionately focused on using the best local produce to create the fresh and inventive dishes that have the locals flocking here on a regular basis. And the desserts have the whole town talking. There is always a new one on the menu to finish off a lovely night. The best thing is, you’re bound to start chatting to a table of locals on one side of you, only adding to the amount of other things you must do while you’re in town. So relax and try and fit it all in, as recharging, relaxing and soaking up the people of and produce of this special pocket of the Riverina is good for the soul.
Travelling to Narrandera or Leeton in the Riverina Region?
Narrandera Leeton Airport is located on the outskirts of Narrandera. It is serviced by Regional Express Airlines with daily return flights to Sydney and Griffith. If you would like to read more about what there is to do in the region, we have mapped all the best places to eat, drink and wander in Wagga Wagga.