Today Willa Arantz may live in Orange with her young family but this restaurateur’s memories of her Murrurundi childhood are still central to her life.
Ask restauranteur Willa Arantz about growing up in Murrurundi and it’s hard for her to put it into just one word but “magical” seems to sum it up best. So much so that Willa and her husband chef Shaun Arantz, who had come from Dunedoo in central western New South Wales, once considered opening a restaurant in the place where she grew up.
“We both wanted to come back to the country and we considered Murrurundi as a place to open a restaurant. We were young and didn’t want to go back to Sydney, so everything was on the table,” she explains.
In the end the pair decided to move to Orange and eventually opened their award-winning restaurant, Racine at La Colline, on a vineyard a few kilometres out of town in 2008. Today, however, Shaun and Willa’s focus is on Racine Bakery and the restaurant is now closed. With plans to open a wine bar later in the year, Shaun is working on new menus and Willa is spending more time painting in a space just across the road from the bakery.
“We always have a project on the go. We feel lost if we don’t have something,” says Willa.
Her parents Rosie and Ian McDuie recently sold Greenhayes, their beautiful 1860s home in Murrurundi, to move to Orange to be near Willa and her young children: Edward, 11, and Paloma, 6. The timing couldn’t be more perfect to look back on their decades of family life in this Upper Hunter town.
Tell us about growing up in Murrurundi.
I loved growing up there. It was a safe and beautiful place — we knew everyone. We lived on a few acres right on the edge of town, so we had a bit of rural, a bit of town and a lot of freedom from a young age.
Mum and Dad moved to Murrurundi when I was three after we had been living in Scone. They found this lovely old house that needed work. I think they thought that might be a bit of fun, especially as it was still close to Scone and their friends. It was only about 10 acres, but that was enough for them to have chooks, veggies and a few horses and we agisted some land next door so we had access to a huge property.
Greenhayes was a lovely house. It was full of beautiful cedar joinery, 12 foot ceilings with pressed metal, a haunted attic and oodles of character. We seemed to be always working on it. Mum was always up a ladder painting something or sewing curtains or chopping down trees with a handsaw while Dad was always striking plants for the garden or moving horses somewhere or fixing up his aviary.
The paddocks off the main house were the scene of many bonfires and lots of cubby house building. I spent my days climbing trees and riding horses. I had a quiet old pony called Barney that we would double dink on all around the garden. Once we were riding him along our verandah and he fell straight through some old boards and just stood there with the two of us on his back.
Murrurundi back then was a different town to now. There was more day-to-day life; the banks were open and there were more businesses, so it was more lively in an ordinary way. Everyone knew each other. It felt very safe and embracing nestled in between the two hills at the end of the valley. It was magical really.
What was a typical day like for you in Murrurundi as a child?
I feel like we were so free. I lived close to my friend Anna, who is still one of my best friends today, and we spent a lot of time at each other’s houses. We would disappear all day and occasionally a council worker would drive by in his work truck to the gravel quarry behind the caves where we played and say ‘Ya Mum’s lookin’ for ya’ and we’d go home or else they’d tell mum on their way past where we were.
Mum was a sister at the local hospital and everyone knew her and loved her, so they looked out for us in respect to her. I love that about Murrurundi.
Our house had these big sash windows and in summer, when the moon was full, Anna and I would climb out the window in our white nighties (always had to be wearing our white nighties) and run around the garden by moonlight long after bedtime. Mum and Dad had no idea and it felt so daring and magical – we were big fans of fairies and spent a lot of time writing letters, building fairy gardens and basically trying to catch or communicate with fairies in any way we could. I feel lucky to have had Anna growing up, we fed each other’s creative, exploring spirit and she was a true soul mate.
What were your favourite things to do?
I loved the river and the swinging bridge. I feel like I am in The Wind In The Willows when I go down there. As an adult, I would always stop and just take that in when I came home. Paradise Park is also a beautiful spot, made for adventuring and climbing and the scene of many great barbeques. A good day out is to climb the Eye of the Needle and look out at the view over Murrurundi, followed by a barbeque in Paradise Park.
Any Murrurundi locals that you remember fondly?
Yes, so many! There was Libby Feast with her big rambling and colourful house. We’d stay there for days, just hanging out and cooking cakes in her kitchen and I don’t know what else, but we were never bored. Then there was Charlotte and Viv. Viv had a big white beard and rode an old-fashioned racing bike all around town and Charlotte is an artist who paints wonderful vibrant, richly coloured still lives (she recently had her portrait featured in the Archibald Prize).
George Greg was always riding his horses around town —he always seemed to be somewhere on a horse. There were lots of horses and people riding horses – Shaun tells a story of his first visit to Murrurundi when a man stumbled out of the pub, climbed onto his horse, lay down on it and the horse just walked him home (presumably) down the main street. He couldn’t believe it and he’s from Dunedoo! There was Chuck and Will who owned the Café Telegraph which was the best café. I can still remember the taste of their caponata crostata. Eating there was like eating at their house. They were amazing cooks — it was like a bit of Darlinghurst had come to Murrurundi.
Robin Babbage, who lived behind us, built his own plane which he used to fly over our house. When I was very young, a local called Peter Norvill flew solo around the world in his Cessna Hawk so he was a real celebrity to us as kids. Everyone in Murrurundi was a character and we knew all of them. I could go on and on!
After having such a country childhood, was it important for you to give your kids something similar?
Yes absolutely. I loved the simplicity of my childhood, which is hardly possible for kids now with social media and other devices like Xbox. Spending time with friends outside, riding bikes, swimming in the river (or Lake Canobolas in our case) is what I think is important to give our kids. I encourage them to get into the garden with me planting vegetables – at the moment we are picking raspberries and tomatoes and they love that, we also bought a flow hive for Christmas, so beekeeping is on the cards for 2022.
It’s easy to say what you want for your kids, but it’s harder to actually do it. I make the effort to give them as many similar experiences as I had, which was lots of bike riding, outdoor projects, helping in the garden, tennis, and getting outdoors. I just wish I could give them the horse riding and polo part, but that’s not really in our lives here. Being in Orange enables us to do that very easily and I feel extremely grateful that my experience as a child has set me up to want to pass it on to my kids.
What inspired you both to move to Orange?
When I met Shaun his parents lived in Dubbo and we would often drive through Orange from Sydney to visit them. We always said how we’d love to live there (this is back in the early 2000s) because it was so pretty and had a couple of good restaurants Lolli Redini and Selkirks – which was pretty unheard of in the country back then. Then when we were overseas family friends Kathy and Richard opened a restaurant in their vineyard, the School House at Mayfield, and asked us to run it. It was a no brainer, our own restaurant in the country in a town we’d always loved. We weren’t the first foodies to come here, but I feel like we were there from the early days and a lot has happened here since. I’m so thankful to Kathy and Richard for getting us to Orange. It’s the perfect place for us and we love it: it’s a beautiful blend of country and city.
Opening a restaurant must have been a huge challenge for a young couple.
Then we got this wonderful opportunity to run the School House Restaurant at Mayfield Vineyard by some family friends Kathy and Richard Thomas – I had grown up with Kathy and her daughters, who featured a lot in those tennis days and picnics at Murrurundi and that’s how we ended up there. We were so young, naive and full of confidence and passion. We made a lot of mistakes but had a lot of success early on and luckily our optimistic idea that we’d be fine working together was actually correct (eventually!).
What do you both remember about the first day of the restaurant?
I was so stressed! I think I may have blocked it out. I had only waitressed before in pubs and cafés, so I read and studied for weeks a book called ‘Table Service’ obsessively. Then I set myself challenges to not make even a single mistake all service — the mistakes were along the lines of ‘If a customer has to ask for water, then that was a black mark’. I remember that we felt very good about that first service, probably drank all the leftover wine to reward ourselves – we were young to have our own business, most of our friends were still clubbing and going out.
How did the bakery come about?
Shaun was making bread for the restaurant and one of our customers was opening a little local produce shop called A Slice of Orange so we started doing a bit of wholesale to them. It got so busy we hired a baker, bought a proper baking oven and then the little shop in town came up. We moved there in 2012 (so almost 10 years now) and at that point we had been trialling all sorts of patisserie items — Shaun had spent years trying to perfect the croissant. We hired the most amazing artisan baker from Victoria called Ted, who ran the little bakery shop kitchen while Shaun still ran the restaurant. He was incredible and we learnt so much from him — he was such a professional and so generous with his knowledge. Ted retired in 2017, but by that stage the bakery had grown and had several bakers and chefs, then in COVID when we shut the restaurant and focussed on the bakery solely, it went huge.
And finally, regional Australia has seen a huge shift in the last decade. How do you see the future?
It’s wonderful to see so many city people getting out and exploring the regions and even country people exploring other parts. I have always said that regional areas have been treated like the dumb unsophisticated cousin of the city when it comes to the food scene, but really we are just the smart ones who live this great lifestyle, doing what we love right where all the good food comes from, we are in it, we have access to producers, winemakers and farmers that you don’t get in the city. Loads of great chefs have moved here for a better life and while the concentration of good food isn’t like the city, you can find great food in basically any regional centre or town now that you couldn’t 15 years ago.
I think COVID has opened our eyes to how great regional Australia is and this has certainly been felt in Orange with visitor numbers and the amount of people who have moved here from the city (although Orange was already experiencing this before COVID). I can’t see that changing too much in the next few years, I think people want to stay local and that will become a habit.
166b Summer Street, Orange, NSW
(Entry via the Woolworths carpark)
Telephone (02) 6361 4234 or visit
A regular visitor to Orange — and Racine Restaurant — over the years, our editorial director enjoyed learning about Willa’s childhood in Murrurundi. “We usually mainly talk about food and work so it was lovely to hear about those early days,” she explains.
A trip to Racine Bakery was the ideal brief for this Orange-based photographer who lives just a short drive away.