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
It’s no secret that food provides people with comfort and a sense of security. When we’re feeling our most fragile, emotionally or physically, there’s more to a meal than just in the eating, particularly when a meal is given as a gift. And while the giver often responds with ‘It’s nothing!’ to your ‘You shouldn’t have!’, you can’t help but feel a little lighter knowing someone has thought enough of you to help out in what might be the only way they know how. In every act of the giving and taking of food, relationships and people grow stronger.
You might recall my visit to the local Ukranian Church hall I made a couple of months ago to learn how to make highly addictive varenyky. Well, I went back again, this time to get my head around holubsti; seasoned minced beef and pork wrapped in a cigar-like fashion with lightly cooked cabbage leaves. A mainstay of any Ukranian kitchen and one I’ve become quite fond of eating whenever Dean’s Baba (grandmother) makes a batch to share with the family.
I finally found some time to read through the new food magazine from SBS, Feast. It included a feature on doughnuts of the world that instantly reminded of the little doughnut shop on the ski-tube platform at Perisher Valley.
Every time we go on a ski trip to the Snowy Mountains, we’ll inevitably ski from Perisher to Blue Cow and return back to the car via the ski-tube at Bullocks Flat. As fellow skiers loaded up with poles, skis, gloves and boards amble on and off the train at the mid-way point that is Perisher, there is the opportunity only achieved with utmost precision planning that allows you to get off the train, dash to the counter of the doughnut shop on the platform, receive your bagged dozen of mini doughnuts as you throw them a fiver and then sprint back to the train just as the doors close shut.
Our little crew will cheer and then huddle around the courier to breathe in the sweet scent of cinnamon sugar that fills the damp carriage as other weary passengers look on in envy. The bag is passed around the group as each person takes out a warm, golden doughnut. The joy of simple pleasure takes over as it’s quickly gobbled up and the bag goes on for another pass around. For a moment the exhaustion felt from a day of skiing through gum trees and gulleys dissipates. We alight at the end of the line and trudge to the car, remembering that our journey has not ended – there’s still the drive back to Jindabyne. It’ll be a little while longer before we can finally fully relax under a hot shower and then in a lounge chair in front of a fire back at the hotel. Those little doughnuts act like a little life preserver, keeping us buoyed for the final leg home.
Maybe you’ve heard of charismatic Korean-American chef, David Chang. You might be accused of living under a rock if you haven’t. His much-hyped Momofuku (translation = Lucky Peach) restaurants in New York are notoriously difficult to secure a reservation at. His first restaurant Momofuku Noodle Bar opened in 2003. Chang took exclusivity to new heights in 2008 with Momofuku Ko, a 12-seat 2-Michelin starred eatery with an online-only reservation system that allows bookings only six days in advance. Momofuku Ssam Bar and Momofuku Milk Bar (whose ‘Crack Pie’ is currently being trademarked) opened within the same year. After publishing the Momofuku cookbook in 2009 he established Má Pêche and another two Milk Bar outposts followed. More locally and most recently he appeared in this year’s Masterchef.
Inspired by visits to Australia, Chang will be opening a Sydney restaurant in the revamped Star Casino called Momofuku Seiōbo (pronounced say-oh-boh, being the Japanese queen goddess of the west) at the end of the year. Another two restaurants in Toronto are scheduled to open in 2012.
A lover of noodles, pork buns and expletives, Chang’s enthusiasm for understanding and making the most of our senses while cooking and eating sees him on endless journeys of experimentation and scientific discovery.