Best food experiences Lockyer Valley
The Lockyer Valley is a bit of a secret in Queensland. For those of us who know about it, there’s an urge to keep it that way, to let it lie low. To tell people about it means unleashing all of its unique features on an unsuspecting crowd. It’s a crowd that will become a forever fan, once they are in the know. It means we will have to share it with others. But, that would be selfish. The Lockyer Valley deserves to have its name said aloud, and it most certainly should be proud.
The Lockyer Valley has a reputation as the salad bowl of Australia. Located only one hour west of Queensland’s capital city Brisbane, it is one of the most fertile farming regions across the globe. With rich soil, the farmlands here make it possible to grow some of the best fresh produce in the world. It is also home to emerging artisanal producers; cheese, smokehouses, a wurst house and native fish farmers.
It is also a great day trip from Brisbane and Toowoomba. For Australians who might be looking to holiday close to home, the Lockyer Valley is the perfect place to add to your places to visit near Brisbane. It is also a great opportunity to support local farmers and producers.
Ghost Gully Produce
Gary and Kym Samuelsen have been operating Ghost Gully Produce and its associated Salad Shed for 16 years. With a small staff of six, working across approximately five acres, they turn over around 2.5 million plants every year.
Under the intense Queensland sun, hydroponic lettuce and herbs are grown and sold to local cafes, restaurants and consumers. They do not play in the mass-produced, supermarket environment, meaning they can offer a value-added service to their customer base.
The plants are grown in a strongly controlled environment with quality testing conducted every day. Being pesticide-free is a bonus and Gary has continually invested in technology that promotes sustainable farming.
Being a Queensland farmer comes with plenty of issues, particularly as it relates to water. OZONE treated water is used to wash all products. It is a treatment that promotes shelf-life and doesn’t leave a residue.
Being efficient can assist with sustainability measures but it’s also about ensuring survival. Gary uses solar panels to generate electricity and is adapting water infrastructure to recycle and capture as much rainwater as possible. Water in these areas is liquid gold. You never know when you are going to see good rainfall.
They innovate with the varieties and can mix things up when and if they need to. Edible flowers are now in high demand by cafes and restaurants. There’s basil, coriander, mint, thyme and chives. In the lettuce department, there’s are varieties of cos, green oak and even “burger” lettuce.
It’s quite an operation and one that we were interested to see and learn. As far as the eye can see, little mounds of green and purple sit aloft the metal tables that Gary has built.
Poly pipe runs along each row, delivering water and nutrients to these tiny plants that take only a matter of weeks to grow from seedlings. Before too long, they’ll be handpicked, washed and packed and ready to adorn someone’s plate at a local establishment.
Gary has built this business up from the site of a former nursery, to be one of the largest hydroponic farms in the area.
Gary is continuously out amongst them all tasting them. He tells us that “he knows in an instant whether they are ok or not”. He also describes another funny story about one of his boys.
Like many of us when we were kids, this young man wasn’t so keen on eating his veggies with his dinner at night. Imagine then Gary’s mirth when he saw the same boy freely eating mouthfuls of lettuce one day!
Whilst their primary market is the local hospitality industry, delivering in the vicinity of Brisbane and Toowoomba, they also understand that the locals want to buy from them. The Salad Shed plays an integral role in providing fresh produce to the community.
Like any good country roadside stall, an honesty system is in place here. Daily the fridges inside the tin shed contain consumer-sized bags of lettuce and other herbs. It’s a simple process of taking what you want and putting your money in the tin. Depending on the season, you’ll also find fresh produce like lemons, limes, tomatoes and avocadoes.
There’s also an unusual twist to the name chosen by the Samuelsen family for their business. The name Ghost Gully was unusual enough for us to ask the question, but upon seeing the cartoon-like white ghost on the Salad Shed, it was time for the truth to come out.
“My farm was the location of the unsolved Gatton Murders that happened in 1898”, he said. Known also as the Murphy murders, three siblings were found murdered on 27 December 1898, in one of the gullies on the farm.
Whilst today the site is marked by GPS and the murders remain unsolved. Gary is a great storyteller, and a genuine Aussie bloke and farmer.
No visit to the Lockyer Valley is complete without stopping at one of the many roadside stalls operated by the local farmers. They are a rite of passage out here, a place where locals come for freshly picked salad and vegetable items.
There’s no need to work out the food miles here. Just look left, right and behind you and you’ll see the paddocks where the pumpkins, carrots, beans and tomatoes have been growing. Everything is fresh, some still have the dirt on them, as if to further prove their authenticity.
Some, like Ghost Gully, will have a stall set up by the side of the road with some of their produce and an honesty tin. Others may have a more formal farm store.
Awassi Cheese Farm
A thick grove of avocado trees guides our entry. Judging by their gnarled trunks, I’d say they have been growing here for a while. In the fields to our left, we can see some sheep grazing on the green grassy banks. It looks like we have indeed found the Awassi Cheese Farm.
A group of young women have set up beneath some of the 500 avocado trees planted here, spread around a table filled with food and wine. Our host, Di Piggott, welcomes us with all the enthusiasm we have come to expect from the locals in the Lockyer Valley. Immediate formalities out of the way, she leaves us to browse around the building which serves as both a kitchen and a place to hang out and relax.
Di is in demand here at the moment, pulling some beautiful looking items out of the freezer and arranging them on a rustic wooden board. The girls outside have polished off their cheesy delights and it’s now time for dessert.
I’m keen to try some of the artisanal produce that Di makes onsite here, but first, it’s time to get to know this place a little better. If anything, it will sharpen our desire to get stuck into her cheese later.
Awassi Cheesery background
Set amongst the rolling hills of the Lockyer Valley, second-generation cheesemaker Di and her husband David are carving out their niche in the heart of this abundant food bowl. With a great love for the Awassi sheep that descend from the Middle East and a desire to produce authentic farm produce, they’ve set up their growing business in an area that appreciates and nurtures them.
Years ago, they had a dream to set up this business elsewhere, an add-on to their existing home and lifestyle. Unfortunately, red tape and other bureaucratic issues saw them quit this area and look further afield.
Their dream was realised here in the Lockyer Valley, where they now operate a farm outlet and cheesery. All products are made directly from the milk they harvest from their herds of Awassi sheep.
The Awassi sheep
It’s evident as we take a look around the farm that both Di and David love these animals. Di fondly refers to them as “her girls” and like any other pet, they come to her when she calls their name. As we stand underneath the avocado trees, the free-roaming sheep find it hard to control their excitement at seeing her (and the food she is carrying).
They come for a pat and a rub and of course a handful or two of the food. They are friendly, even to strangers and are used to being around people. The Awassi sheep are not common in Australia. Di is adamant that she wants to breed them in a way that not only delivers exceptional quality milk but to also preserve their heritage.
A visit to Awassi Cheesery is all about the cheese experience and there is a tangible connection with the customers. “We’ll make your first coffee, you can get the next one yourself”, says Di, as we explore the inner workings of her kitchen.
There’s nothing too fussy here either, and she’s more than happy for you to self-serve your own BYO wine, providing coolrooms, ice and glasses. Could life get any better? You can also tour the various parts of this working farm, watching the sheep be milked or hanging out with the new lambs.
Di and David are also an essential part of the local community, supporting other businesses and farmers. The flowers on her beautiful desserts come from Gary’s Ghost Gully Produce, for example. She also sends excess avocadoes to Gary’s ‘Salad Shed’ to sell. Olive oil from local producer Coolana Olives infuses the labneh.
Di also loves a chat, so where better to do that than under the trees. We’ve been dying to tick off this final part of the visit here and get a chance to take a seat, where many before us have done so. It’s a dangerous place to be.
If time isn’t on your side, or you have somewhere else to be, it’s probably best to stand, for once you sit down, it’s a difficult place to leave. It’s is a time of relaxed indulgence and savouring authentic food made with love.
Earlier, I saw one of the girls sneak away from her group of friends to take a quick power nap in one of the hammocks suspended between the trees. Right now, I understand how she felt. I wonder if Di would mind if I stayed the night here?
It’s time to get stuck into the cheese. It’s made entirely from the milk on the Awassi farm. The cheese is milked, cleaned and produced onsite. Di doesn’t seek out nor covet external praise in the form of awards. Nonetheless, she is a multi-award winner, picking up the 2017 Delicious Produce Award for Queensland. Di’s focus is on producing the best cheese that she can. She is also extremely innovative.
Her cheese, “Grantham”, is the only cheese in Australia that has been designed and named specifically for its location. Different conditions, seasons and other external factors can influence both the quality and the profile of the milk and therefore the cheese.
As an experienced cheesemaker, Di can tell the type of cheese she can make from a particular milk supply in an instant. There are no recipes: just knowledge, experience and a whole lot of experimentation.
They know each batch and the flavour profile. When a customer comes back to them and says “I loved the cheese we bought here three months ago”, they know exactly what they had and are therefore able to match it. That’s understanding your product and your customers.
With a cheeky Australian Pinot Noir, we start a cheese journey. Tasty feta matched with ripe cherry tomatoes gets things going. It’s rich and creamy, with a flavour that marks it as being different from cow’s milk immediately. I remind myself that this is just the start, so I need to exercise some self-control.
Labneh came next and I will admit to being rather partial to labneh. I make it myself at home, but of course, not with sheep’s milk. Flavoured with olive oil, I can taste the chilli, lime, garlic, lemon and rosemary.
The garlic is strong, taking the edge off the cheese a little too much for my palate, but I’m happy to dive into the others, especially the chilli and lime.
As the wine flowed, so too did the cheese. The Grantham arrived next, supported by a pepper pecorino and one of Di’s creations, the Urbriarco, a Grantham soaked in wine. This cheese is the Awassi signature product. It all sits alongside a homemade fig and ginger paste and some of Ghost Gully’s edible flowers.
Finally, it’s time for a cheese dessert. Frozen labneh is the base for the parfaits that arrive next. Made with seasonal produce at the time, ours contain mango and fig.
The bite-sized fig and feta tarts are scrumptious, but it’s the sheep’s milk yoghurt on this board that commands my attention. I’m a relative newcomer to the world of yoghurt, having disregarded it for many years. This smear of sheepy goodness, without heaps of sugar and with a sharp, distinctive flavour, was the bomb.
There’s nothing left to do now except relax and enjoy these beautiful surroundings and think about how many of our friends we can bring back here.
Oh and don’t forget to take some of the Awassi products home with you. All products made onsite are available for sale. During the year, Awassi runs special food events, featuring their cheese.
Tip: Bring a cold bag with you if you are planning on buying up big.
Other things to do in the Lockyer Valley
Meaning to Stop collectibles
The set of shops that occupy a well-known corner on the Warrego Highway are an iconic piece of real estate. For at least 25 years, I’ve driven to and from Brisbane and Toowoomba, regularly seeing the “Meaning to Stop” building, and never once doing so. Not once.
Once full of antiques, the building is now home to a store that looks like the inside of your Grandma’s house. Full of amazing old pots, cutlery, crockery, tea sets and all manner of jars.
There are collectibles to suit every passion. If nothing else, it’s a walk down memory lane. There’s also a cafe which has taken on the Meaning to Stop moniker.
The town of Forest Hill might be a dot on a map, but it’s a beautiful country town and perfect for a day trip. Don’t just take my word for it either. On the day we visited, a local car club had stopped here for coffee, their vintage vehicles filling the side streets off the main road. Motorbike riders had stopped here on their morning ride and a party bus from Brisbane had just emptied its contents of men out the Forest Hill Hotel.
Once a staging post on the Cobb and Co trail, where coach drivers used to stop and water their horses, it’s now become the same thing, just for people. There are several good cafes in town and a handful of shops showcasing local handicrafts.
Queen B’s Collective
At Queen B’s Collective, there’s a healthy display of photography, restored furniture, antique and vintage items and handmade bath products. A group of local mothers runs the shop.
Country towns in Australia are known for their pubs and the size of the town never dictates the number you’ll find. In Forest Hill, there are two pubs in the main street, despite there being less than 500 people who call this town their home. They are the best place to pop in for a beer at the bar and have a quintessential counter meal.
Next door to the Forest Hill Post Office is the Gallery 4342, an area for local artists to showcase their talent.
Places to eat in the Lockyer Valley
With a respectable menu that runs for pages and a drinks list that includes the locally brewed Toowoomba Lager, Cafe 4342 serves breakfast and lunch to hungry diners every day.
Run in conjunction with the local post office, owners Richard and Heather Drouin are shining a light on a successful business diversification strategy. Along with their son, the cafe’s chef, they are providing excellent value for money food for locals and visitors via a cosy indoor dining area and an outdoor courtyard. Further value-adds have been special evening degustation dinners when time permits.
Tip: In a town like Forest Hill, the weekend numbers tend to be challenging to forecast. Help support a small, local business by booking a table where you can so the team at Cafe 4342 know you are coming.
Pop into Cafe Sorella for a coffee and slice of homemade cake. There are several tables outside on the street, dog-friendly of course. Inside, you can sit in amongst a mishmash of giftware, clothing and furniture. There are share tables and smaller ones for couples in the window and near the service area.
In 2011, we visited Grantham under entirely different circumstances. Back then, the town was devastated by an unimaginable flood and we were involved in an operation to help provide showers and bathroom facilities to the locals.
We worked in amongst these people impacted by this tragedy and it is nothing we will never forget. The Floating Cafe was in the thick of it that day, with many of the buildings, significantly the bank and the pub, no longer here.
Owner Tabitha Drescher runs this little hub of activity in the Grantham community. All food is made onsite, with Tabitha regularly found out the back labouring over the hot stove. It’s hard to ignore the array of homemade cakes and slices tempting us from the display case.
We manage to stay strong, opting for a coffee and hot chocolate. Whilst there is a cosy indoor area, our preference is to hang out for a while on the deck underneath the enormous trees.
Where to stay in the Lockyer Valley
The Lockyer Valley is home to good old-fashioned motels, guesthouses and B&Bs. There’s also plenty of places to camp. Gatton is also known as an RV-friendly town, welcoming those who travel and live on wheels. It’s also home to excellent customer service and special welcomes.
We stayed in a great local motel in Gatton, with a bit of a unique aspect. Room Motel, opposite the Lockyer Valley Cultural Centre, offers modern, stylish rooms built in shipping containers.
Once inside, you’d never know. Actually, from the outside, you’d never know either. A variety of room types are on offer including king rooms, deluxe king rooms and triple singles. Also making this four-star motel stand out is the availability of rooms for those with disabilities and my favourite, pet-friendly rooms.
The affordable pricing also includes free undercover, off-street car parking, free wifi in all rooms and Netflix. Room service is available for breakfast and dinner.
Our king room was extremely spacious and included a lounge area with a large sofa, dining area, seated bar and kitchen. A television and air conditioning unit provides adequate coverage in both the lounge and the bedroom. Despite being located near a busy road, the room is quiet at night. Toiletries and basic tea/coffee making ingredients are provided.
Other places to stay
Located near Laidley, Branell Homestead offers country-style B&B living in the main house or more contemporary accommodation up on the hill.
Enjoy this three-bedroom house, Stockton Rise Country Retreat, with a wrap-around verandah. Located near Laidley it’s the perfect place for a drink and a BBQ whilst watching the sunset.
Murphys Creek Escape offers powered and non-powered sites in natural bushland..
How to get to the Lockyer Valley
The Lockyer Valley is located 107 kilometres west of Brisbane and 30 kilometres east of Toowoomba, in the Australian state of Queensland. It is comprised of nine small towns, each with their own unique character. Gatton is the largest town in the area.
Brisbane has a domestic and international airport. Qantas and Virgin operate full-service airlines out of both the domestic and international airports. Low-cost carriers such as Jetstar and Tiger also fly from here. Many of the world’s major airlines fly from the international terminal.
The domestic airport is known simply as Brisbane Airport and the international is referred to as Brisbane International Airport (IATA: BNE)
There is also a new airport in Toowoomba offering domestic services to Melbourne, Townsville, Darwin, Sydney and western Queensland.
The Toowoomba Airport is known officially as Toowoomba Wellcamp Airport. (IATA: WTB)
Tip: When booking a flight to/from Brisbane or Toowomba, it is essential to check the airport you are selecting. On the Qantas website, for example, selecting Brisbane will give you the option of Brisbane Airport and Toowoomba (Brisbane West Wellcamp). These airports are a two-hour drive from each other, so choose carefully.
Several trains traverse the Queensland countryside. You can catch the Spirit of Queensland up the eastern seaboard from Brisbane to Cairns. The Spirit of the Outback operates from Brisbane to Longreach. Covering the distance between Brisbane and Charleville, The Westlander stops in Toowoomba. Check timetables on Rome2Rio.
Various commercial bus services including Murrays and Greyhound operate services to and from Brisbane and Toowoomba.
The easiest way to get to any of the locations in the Lockyer Valley is by car. It’s around one hour to drive from Brisbane (without traffic issues) and 15-20 minutes from Toowoomba. The towns of the Lockyer Valley are spread across two sides of the Warrego Highway, so having a car makes accessing them all very efficient. We rent our cars through Auto Europe.
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