The Toowoomba tale reads a little like Hansel and Gretel. There's enticing breadcrumbs leading you all the way west, but these days, those crumbs are more likely to be organic, washed down with a frothy coffee. Yes, it's difficult to imagine, but Toowoomba was once all about haberdashery stores and picnics in the park. Sure, those things still exist, but there's a new kind of darling on the Downs as well, and it's all about funky food, edgy art and an organic movement which is turning heads in the classy capital cities.
Yes, you're in kookaburra, king parrot and galah country here where signs leading you west proclaim things like “cow poo $10 a day”. But make no mistake. A bunch of local yokels this is not.
Drive through Crow's Nest and at Bunnyconnellen, Peter and Janie Simmonds - who are best known for their olives and olive products - are also embracing a new way of thinking about the region, and food.
The couple launched pop-up cooking masterclasses on their property acting as a conduit between local producers and consumers.
“It is about doing things differently to what we've done. We want to bring people together,” Peter says.
“We want to champion everyone else's product.”
The pair, who was the first to produce smoked olives in Australia, know a thing or two about food. Their marmalade jam was recently awarded a silver place in the Original World Marmalade Awards in Cumbria in the UK.
There's an edginess mixed with elegance in this region. Dine in the grounds of Clifford House at Gip's Restaurant, which was originally designed as a residential men's club but falling cattle prices saw it unfinished. Early settler James Taylor, with his wife Sara and 9 kids, turned it into an elegant mansion with 30 rooms, 6 house staff and 3 gardeners. These days, the restaurant is built in and around the old billard room and the chef uses local produce to design a modern-Australian menu.
Anna Shirley, 27, went to boarding school at Downlands College, and has returned here as the manager of Gip's.
“What's changed in Toowoomba? Definitely the cultural scene. It is more of a destination for bands and it is on the map now,” Anna says.
“It is a little bit more polished now. I go out to eat a lot in Toowoomba and you don't get better beef anywhere. In your cafés, people are expecting high-quality coffee. We're not a backwater town.
“There are a lot of excellent local artists in Toowoomba. There are a lot of cultural influences coming into our cuisine here as well.
“I think Toowoomba has taken a while to get going but it is on the way now.”
Just up the road, at Vacy Hall, tradition still stands in this historic guest house built in 1898 and which has undergone several incarnations during its time including as accommodation for American sailors during World War Two and a boarding house for uni students in the 50s.
Vacy Hall owner Graham Higgins says the art scene in Toowoomba is thriving through the innovative Insight Gallery; Tosari Galleries which has introduced art classes; and Kath Dickson Community Art Space which is designed for emerging artists.
“We've got an emerging art culture and food culture like the rest of the world. We are embracing food that is more locally grown and leaves a small carbon footprint,” Graham says.
“The thing I like about Toowoomba is it is a compact city with four distinct seasons. It's got this emerging kind of art and food culture that is quite vibrant”.
Follow the scent of caffeine down Ruthven Street and you'll find further evidence of Toowoomba's renaissance. In the small laneway Searles Walk, stumble across Ground Up Espresso Bar which could be in a Melbourne laneway with its graffiti-art walls, rustic seats and the trendy set. Perhaps the best indicator of all, however, sits at 488 Ruthven Street – a pop up coffee shop called Bounce – which partners with a local disability service to assist people re-entering the workforce.
After all, that's what this region has done so beautifully. Re-invent itself and bounce.
Word Count: 689
Author: Christine Retschag
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