Hola from the Hunter Valley!
No, not the Hunter Valley of Santa Fe, New Mexico. This is, in fact, the Hunter Valley of New South Wales. As we made our way up the drive of Casa La Vina we half expected the Three Amigos to be facing down El Guapo’s men in the bell tower. But this place is anything but Western schtick. I can honestly say this is the best accommodation I’ve ever stayed.
Frank and Tracey Anderson fell in love with adobe style of home on a trip to New Mexico and decided to build their own pueblo in Pokolbin. Three years on there is the main house (with the bell tower beloved by bats, not bandits) belonging to Frank & Tracey and three separate, luxuriously self-contained adobes facing a central courtyard available for holiday accommodation.
Internally, the adobe is contemporary (wi-fi, Foxtel), private and stylish with exposed timber beams and with modest Santa Fe touches. Every detail has been considered, from the pergola over the jacuzzi to the Nespresso coffee machine, making this one of the most effortlessly enjoyable places we’ve had the pleasure to rest our heads. I really couldn’t fault a thing. Frank and Tracey were gracious hosts who, on the evening we arrived, were busy helping re-arrange a helicopter booking for a neighbouring couple due to inclement weather.
It was hard to pry ourselves away from Casa La Vina given the rain has set in for the night, but we had a reservation at Amanda’s On The Edge which I had heard of so much over the years, but as yet had not have the opportunity to visit. As it turns out the view is something else! Unfortunately the rain didn’t let up so I couldn’t capture a shot. This was not a problem when it came to the plates however…
Never one to pass up the opportunity to partake in pork belly, I ordered Crispy Skinned Pork Belly on Wok-Tossed King Brown Mushroom Noodles and Dean chose the Crab & Snapper Filled Ravioli with Champagne Butter Sauce. Gone in sixty seconds.
The rainy weather called for some hearty mains. Me; Lamb Rack on a Spinach & Fetta Cheese Filo with a Roasted Tomato & Capsicum Sauce. Dean; Crispy Skinned Duck Maryland on Saute Leek & Shallot with Plum Compote & Golden Kipfler Potatoes. We matched these with a First Creek Pinot Noir, knowing we were visiting them the next day. The perfect way to spend an Autumn evening.
Oh yes, dessert! A perfectly-size pot of Creme Brulee for me and Hot Chocolate Brownie with Chocolate Sauce & Malt Icecream for Dean. We practically needed to be rolled out the door when the taxi arrived.
After a leisurely breakfast of self-BBQ’d bacon and eggs with fresh coffee and juice in our little Santa Fe house we were looking forward to First Creek Wines a little way up the road (we could have walked but it was still raining!). Previous wineries we’d visited spoke in high admiration of First Creek, who first began as an independent winemakers for many of the vineyards in the Valley. More recently they have begun to bottle their own wines, and if the Pinot from last night was anything to go by they are doing a sterling job of it. Let’s just say we didn’t leave empty handed.
It’s not long before wine-tasting leads to lunch-eating and we were on our way to another Hunter Valley institution, Shakey Tables. Like so many enterprises in this neck of the woods, Shakey Tables is a small team effort lead by Simon & Paula Rengger who utilise a vast repertoire of skills to offer a unique experience that includes colourful art (Paula is a trained jeweller and silversmith who paints on the side), food (Paula also happend to head the kitchen in her spare time), wine, accommodation and events (Simon’s specialty). Their combined ingenuity and hard work is evident as we sit back to browse the menu (which Paula has designed, literally).
Duck liver parfait with rhubarb jelly, caperberries, cornichons, Persian figs and garlic croutes is sublime and the Wagyu beef carpaccio with rolled pickled vegetables, crispy quail egg, garlic crisps & parmesan balance distinctive flavours nicely. The perfectly-cooked rolled pork loin for main is crowned with squiggly pieces of pork (immediately Instagrammed) crackle and the rabbit, tarragon & pancetta roulade with a porcini crème, baby root vegetables & a smoked potato puree knocks Dean’s socks off.
Dessert is a visual feast with the famed rose, pistachio & lychee ice cream terrine with Turkish delight in a rose scented jus looking like a Muppet character with its flounce of pistachio fairy floss akimbo. The caramel parfait bombe with chocolate mousse and salted peanut caramel doesn’t quite reach the level of a similar assembly of ingredients we tried on a recent trip to Melbourne’s Golden Fields, but it comes pretty damn close.
Having stayed for as long as possible at Shakey Tables in an effort to avoid the rain, we hot-foot it to Constable Estate Vineyards and are behind schedule. The rain is simply not letting up which is a real shame because this particular vineyard is renowned for its sculpture garden. Having come woefully underprepared for all this wet weather, a tour of the garden means I have to build and elaborate shoe-drying system back at Casa la Vina that involves a hairdryer propped up by rolled towels pointing directly at my shoes for 20 minutes to get them from soaking wet to wearable. This was not before sitting down with two of the loveliest ladies who manage the Cellar Door at Constable, which involved much wine tasting and a thoroughly fascinating briefing into the man responsible for this particular estate, David Constable. We even leave with a copy of David’s book which details the journey from paddock to the lush gardens and vineyard it is today.
After a hot shower and above-mentioned shoe-drying session back at Casa la Vina, we are off again, this time via a courtesy bus (a miracle mode of transport in the Hunter Valley) to Blaxlands Inn. This was the perfect venue for a dinner date in this kind of weather. Our driver recommended we not go past the garlic prawns and their specialty, deep-dish pies. I was pleasantly surprised by the fit-out of the place which reminded me of a contemporary lodge. Not one to take recommendations lightly, I order as I am told and enjoy both immensely. We are too full for dessert and don’t mind lingering in the lounge with the last of our bottle of red while the courtesy bus reappears to take us home.
We wake to blue skies (hooray!) and opt for a Continental breakfast in our little home before we depart for Ogishi Craft Centre at Lovedale. Established in 1987 by Setsuko Ogishi, Ogishi Craft Centre sells original pieces from glass artists around Australia and also offers glassblowing classes and demonstations. Setsuko came to Australia as a painter before settling into glassblowing after training at Adelaide’s Jam Factory and her glass works are highly regarded. The Craft Centre also sells Setsuko’s handmade chocolates and offers a spot to relax if the wine and food is becoming all too much.
Practically next door to Ogishi Craft Centre is Emma’s Cottage Vineyard where wine tasting and art go hand-in-hand. Megan Barrass has filled the cellar door at Emma’s with her original paintings as part of a gallery space and on the labels of the wines themselves. Megan brought in a new piece as we sipped wine. Surrounded by a beautiful rose garden, Emma’s is also home to a laid-back restaurant with a European menu.
Emma’s of Lovedale offers a stylish way to long lunch with a casual ambience, fresh flavours and a very nice wine list. Yes it is possible to have three serves of pork belly in one weekend, but this time Dean ordered it. I was a tad jealous when it come out with two king prawns atop and nam jim dressing, so I am lucky he shares! I have to say the salad of radicchio, Binnorie goats fetta, brunoise of pumpkin and balsamic glaze was a comparatively healthy way to end what was an otherwise decadent weekend of wine, food and more food. Oh, I nearly forgot about the vanilla pannacotta and strawberry consomme…
Casa La Vina
657 McDonalds Rd, Pokolbin
+61 2 406 770 294
Amanda’s On The Edge
1039 McDonalds Road, Pokolbin
+ 61 408 649 696
First Creek Wines
600 McDonalds Road, Pokolbin
+61 2 4998 7293
1476 Wine Country Drive, North Rothbury
+61 2 4938 1744
205 Gillards Road, Pokolbin
+61 2 4998 7887
2198 Broke Road, Pokolbin
+61 2 4998 7550
Ogishi Craft Centre
540 Wilderness Road, Lovedale
+61 2 4998 7979
Emma’s Cottage Vineyard
438 Wilderness Road, Lovedale
+ 61 2 4998 7734
Emma’s of Lovedale
438 Wilderness Road, Lovedale
+61 2 4998 7333
Please join me for another jaunt around the wine-producing region of the Hunter Valley. I am sure it will make you as green as the rows of vines that lace the landscape.
As you may recall, I was one of three lucky bloggers selected to report to you, dear reader, on just a few of the splendid things to be enjoyed in a weekend in the gorgeous Hunter Valley - on the ground and in the air (more on that later).
Our arrival coincided with Hunter Valley Wine and Food Month – that’s right, a whole month dedicated to the finer things in life. A time when makers and growers move out from behind the shadow of their drops and dishes and become co-stars of the show.
The first show in store was a Steak & Shiraz appreciation tasting at the Hunter Valley Steakhouse located within the Mercure Hunter Valley resort. The venue is very reminiscent of an old-school lodge as we walk by a billiard room framed in dark wood panelling. An open wood-burning fireplace was roaring and we felt very snug coming in from the cold. Executive Chef Jean Marc Pollet brought us cuts of organic grass fed, Pure South Angus & Wagyu beef to view and explained to us the qualities of each, before grilling them to medium-rare for a taste test alongside local Shiraz from McGuigan, Tyrrell’s and Moorebank wineries. It was quite interesting to determine the different attributes for ourselves in this vertical tasting of sorts. While Wagyu seems to get all the attention these days, I came away with a new appreciation for Angus – so much so I ordered it for dinner. I have to say, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as a well-cooked steak and we certainly left happy campers.
But camping we were not. Our accommodation was located a few minutes drive away at Grand Mercure Apartments within the grounds of The Vintage, a Kellerman’s type resort with golf course, club house and day spa, however I’m pretty sure without Johnny Castle teaching merengue dance classes. We get the keys to a near-new two bedroom duplex with views out to the seventh hole, a gas fireplace and a really, really deep bath.The really, really deep bath gets really, really full and then I understand the whole point of the glass wall (above). It’s so you can watch the TV located in the bedroom while sipping wine from your bubble bath.
The next morning after a terrific pep up breakfast at The Vintage across the way from our apartment, we head next door to Chateau Elan, which is where the spa is located. We opt out for a facial, massage and pedicure and instead opt in for a helicopter ride! I have never been in a helicopter before, and always secretly hoped it’s something I’d tick of the list of ‘things to do once in your lifetime’. I was kinda excited. Any nerves were forgotten as our pilot Debbie from Slattery Helicopter Charter gave us the low-down. I can now see myself hopping in and out of helicopters for the rest of my life. Seriously, people like Debbie make it look so easy! When I am a millionaire….
R: Peppers with Pepper Tree Wines to the lower left
Landing at Tower Estate
We could have landed at Tower Estate within 2 minutes, but Debbie the Pilot took us the long and scenic way ie over pretty much every winery and B&B in the Pokolbin region – a truly breathtaking perspective – that had us land within a simple stride to the door of Tower Estate. With the venerable Len Evans looking down over us, we tasted some outstanding wines in front of a crackling fire. It was a struggle to settle on a favourite, but we walked out with a few bottles of the 2010 HV Shiraz (which did not last long back at home).
The next stop was literally a 10 minutes stroll up the road to Pepper Tree Wines, but why walk when you can helicopter? Off we zoomed with a detour over the western edge of Pokolbin and over the very photogenic Hunter Valley Gardens (above) before landing in the field behind the tasting room at Pepper Tree, all within the time it would have taken us to walk to Pepper Tree. It seemed outrageously extravagant, but also very rock star.
The character oozing from Pepper Tree Wines is like the filling from a soft-centre chocolate – so sweet, so good. A cobbled path takes you past a newly opened coffee house (where they shall soon be roasting their own beans) through a cottage garden to the tasting room proper. Another fireside sip on some delicious wines meant we were hauling home several more bottles, including a Wrattonbuly Tempranillo. The biggest question was, ‘Will there be enough room in the chopper?”.
As it turns out, yes there was. Just. Another take off into the Hunter Valley skies and back to the start of our adventure at The Vintage. We bid Debbie a fond farewell and grateful thank yous for making the dream come true. Then feeling decidedly plebian we booked a taxi to our next destination.
We were back to Brokenwood for a Semillon & Sushi masterclass with an overwhelming feeling of rock star all over again. With sushi mats at the ready and a plateful of ingredients we were instructed on the delicate art of sushi assembly, while sipping on a vertical tasting of Brokenwood Semillon. As you can tell from the pic above, I obviously require more practice, or less sipping of Semillon. Our group was a decent size of people who turned out were either from Newcastle or very close by. Before long we had formed a camaraderie around our shared hometown and discussed the pros (there aren’t really any cons) of living within a 45-minute drive of the Hunter Valley. One of the being taking an easy morning or afternoon trip ‘up the road’ to take part in activities such as this.
We were then invited to take a wander across the road to Oishii Japanese & Thai restaurant for lunch and see how the experts do it. A degustation menu paired with Brokenwood wines was awaiting. Starting off with a trio of Thai style king fish tartare, salt cod brandade with horseradish cream and slow cooked king prawn with exotic fruit vinaigrette we sampled (and I use that term loosely) Broken wood 2011 Semillon (yum), 2012 Pinto Gris and 2008 Voignier.
This was followed by a plated trio of cubed Wagyu rump with sweet potato puree & soy jus, braised lamb shank spring roll with curry mayo and rounded out with a mushroom ragout and a sous-vide egg cooked at 62 degrees. These were matched with a 2009 Pinot Noir (my fave), 2011 Sangiovese and the 2009 HV Shiraz. We all toasted Masterchef’s contribution to the meal for having taught us all what sous-vide is. I have to say, I am a big fan of degustations these days and I think it’s a no-brainer way of sampling a little of so much of what a chef and a winemaker can offer. It’s also perfect for people like me that take forever to make up their minds when ordering from a menu.
As you can imagine our group was jovial by this stage so we retired to The Goldfish Bar next door to continue our getting-to-know-yous. You can tell it’s a good day when you completely lose track of time and within what seemed like the blink of an eye we had to bid our new friends goodbye and hotfoot it to a taxi for our dinner reservation.
It seems we are heading slightly off the beaten track that is McDonalds Rd et al as the driver calls ahead to ask if the weir on the main road into RidgeView is flooded. If so, an alternate, slightly longer and bumpier route in will need to be navigated. It seems the weather is on our side and we are told the regular route is passable. My adventurous spirit is awakened as we begin our Leyland Brothers-esque adventure. High beams are on and so begins negotiating almost flooded weirs and bumpy roads in. I’m told the dining room of this Cypriot Meze restaurant faces out over picturesque vineyards, but it’s pitch black dark outside. We are lured to the warm lights of the dining room and settle in nicely with a glass of Chambourcin.
The space here is warming and intimate and the little-out-of-the-way-ness makes this place feel even more special. I’m sticking with my degustation formula because I simply can’t make up my mind. The tasting plate of chili salt squid (with 2011 ‘Generations’ Reserve Semillon), chicken souvlaki with a village salad and tzatizki (with 2007 ‘Helping Hands’ Red) and, lastly, grilled haloumi with pear & pisatchio (with 2010 Pinto Gris) is just what the doctor ordered. Each plate is a light and flavourful and the matching wines are a delight.
We end up sharing the chicken and prawn jambalaya with herbs, chorizo with a seafood bisque sauce and rice is rich and hums with full flavours of crustacean goodness.
And finish off with loukoumades, a traditional Greek ‘donut’ tossed in cinnamon sugar and drizzled with a honey glaze and served with vanilla bean icecream. If you are after a comforting meal from your Cypriot granny (Yaya?) but with all the best modern twists, Ridgeview is perfect. We felt looked after and leave very satisfied.
The next morning after sleeping like a log, we head off for breakfast. I must have driven past Peppers Creek Village, home to Cafe Enzo, David Hook Wines and a very sweet chapel and wedding reception venue, upteen times before. When we told our friends the night before that we were headed here for breakfast they all nodded approvingly so we already knew we were on to a good thing. A really good thing. Seriously, if you are going to go anywhere for breakfast . brunch, make sure it’s this place. The stone and timer building was originally built as a home for a local artist and we sat inside in what would have been the loungeroom, with the loft that was once his studio space, above us. There is a lot of character including a centuries old carved timber mantle over (yes another!) fireplace. In every corner you look there’s beautiful detailing. Sunny baked eggs with pops of cherry tomato and fetta and long thin swords of toasted bread were the perfect way to start the day. As was the coffee. I managed to convince Dean to hand over some of his crispy bacon too.
At the Small Winemakers Centre we took part in an Icons blind tasting, the point of which is to prove that Hunter Valley Shiraz can go head to head with the revered Penfolds Grange. Locals legends Brokenwood Graveyard, McWilliams Maurice O’Shea & Thomas Kiss were lined up alongside a Grange from which you try to determine who is who. I got two right, but I can tell you it was pure luck; a case of adding numbers to names. As it turns out I could happily take home a Brokenwood Graveyard and very easily convince myself I was drinking Penfold Grange. Go Brokenwood!
The Legends wines were just a smidge over our budget but we managed to walk out with a few bottles of The Little Wine Company’s Tempranello.
A little way down the road is the winery Bimbadgen Estate. Last time we were in the Hunter Valley they were playing hose to Noiseworks with the kind of outdoor concert the Hunter Valley is so well-known for these days. Simple Minds, Devo & The Church will be playing here in December and the position of the winery atop a hill provides a natural amphitheatre for concertgoers. Inside the winery is Esca, a restaurant that’s a staple for Modern Australian food with wine matching in the Hunter Valley. The interior is clean and fresh and the views out of the vines is a perfectly pleasant distraction.
Again, we go with a degustation and Chef Ebonnie Newy does not disappoint. Allow me to walk you through it…
A pretty plate of seared tuna, mushroom salad, daikon and ginger dressing, salmon pearls matched with Bimbadgen Regions 2011 Sauvignon Blanc makes for a snappy start. Then twice baked cheese souffle, cauliflower and black truffle emulsion with a gunshot of beetroot powder is served alongside Bimbadgen Regions 2011 Pinot Gris is warming in all its cheesy glory.
To round out the white plate there’s a shot glass of prawn bisque, shaved fennel and a layer of basil foam married with a lively Bimbadgen Estate 2011 Verdelho . Then it’s onto the red tasting place. Confit of duck, roasted quince, red wine jus and a Bimbadgen Regions 2010 Pinot Noir is my idea of a match made in heaven. Purply-green micro-herbs make it all the more attractive.
Just when I think the high-mark has been and gone it’s on to the nraised Cowra lamb shank, de-boned and rolled in prosciutto, broadbeans and raisin compote. A tender package of salty and sweet, stamped ‘delivered’ with Bimbadgen Estate 2010 Shiraz.
Of course, Byron Bay pork belly can do no wrong in my eyes and accompanied with a cassoulet of butterbeans, sage and kassler, caramelised pear and Bimbadgen Family Collection 2009 Bald Crusader Shiraz, is a tummy filling end to a triumphant lunch.
We are one hundred per cent caught in the moment of a lazy Sunday lunch on this sunny afternoon in the Valley. Before we know it an hour’s past since the plates were cleared and we can’t say not to a cheese plate with fig and apricot salami, muscatels, toasted walnut & red wine bread and to cap it all off a sip of Bimbadgen Estate 2006 Botrytis Semillon.
This weekend has left us feeling immensely mature beyond our prior food and wine tasting experience. Our knowledge of steak, sushi, helicopter take-off and landing procedures, legendary Shiraz, Cypriot and the new ModOz has grown exponentially in a matter of days. Not to mention the wine. All that wine.
Hunter Valley Steak House
cnr Broke & McDonalds Road , Poikolbin
+61 2 4998 2000
Grand Mercure Apartments, The Vintage
cnr Vintage Dr & Claret Ash Dr, Rothbury
+ 61 2 4998 2222
Flying with Slattery Helicopter Charter
+ 61 408 649 696
Halls Rd, Pokolbin
+61 2 4998 7989
Pepper Tree Wines
Halls Rd, Pokolbin
+61 2 4909 7100
401-427 McDonalds Rd, Pokolbin
+61 2 4998 7559
Tempus Two Winery, cnr Broke & McDonalds Rd, Pokolbin
+61 2 4998 7051
273 Saltwater Rd, Rothbury
+61 2 6574 7332
Pepper Creek Village, cnr Broke & Ekerts Rds, Pokolbin
+ 61 2 4998 7233
Small Winemakers Centre
426 McDonalds Rd, Pokolbin
+61 2 4998 7668
790 McDonalds Rd, Pokolbin
+61 2 4998 4666
When Hunter Valley Tourism announced they were on the hunt for three Ambassador Bloggers to report about some of the finds in the wine growing region that is a mere 45 minutes by car from my front gate, I entered. If I die not winning another competition in my life, I will die happy. Joining me in the onerous task of drinking loads of wine and eating ourselves stupid over three weekend throughout the year is Lisa Perkovic (www.lisaperkovic.com.au) and Billy Law (www.atablefortwo.com.au). They’ve already reported on their first weekends here and here. Sucks to be us, hey?
You’ve heard of four ingredient recipes, right? Let me introduce you to one and two ingredient recipes. The first is a chocolate mousse that only uses chocolate and water and the second is a banana ice cream that only uses bananas.
In the spirit of the shortness of these recipes I will make this quick…
As the Newcastle Show Cookery & Jams Competition draws closer (March 16-18) I’ve had a number of friends mention they would like to have a crack at entering. Their reasoning is that if Dean can win Best Chocolate Cake then surely it can’t be too hard. And they would be right. With a little preparation everyone has equal standing for a first prize medal. There’s nothing sweeter than victory in a cooking competition, especially if it’s your first time. Of course, Dean and I will both be back defending our titles in 2012.
To help the novices, I’ve drawn up a list of do’s and don’ts. Some of these I learnt as a result of the live judging that took place at the Newcastle Show last year, and some gleaned from speaking with Cookery Steward and medal-winning competitor, Ellice Schrader.