A good few words start with W… winter, warmth and wine. With the drop into the cooler season of autumn, come Easter long weekend both Night Owl and myself knew we were both in dire need of a break. Our Hong Kong trip (which I am still yet to write about) felt like eons ago, and with both of our workloads being quite full recently, we knew that a long weekend spent at home would not relax us as much as getting out of Sydney could. Originally, I had a look into the Blue Mountains as there are few things better than waking up to a foggy morning over the valley, but as we only had the idea the week before, we were too late in scoring any good accommodation. A friend of mine was telling me about a night away that she was planning in the Hunter Valley with her new beau, and on a lingering thought I decided that we should go too (not on the same evenings though!).
Can you believe I’ve never visited the Hunter Valley – the food and wine haven of New South Wales? I guess it was only until October last year that Night Owl and I bought our dear car “Betsy” (who dutifully trekked us all the way up to Byron Bay over the New Year holidays in scorching 40 degree heat), and before that I didn’t really have anyone to go up with without third-wheeling (back when I was *forever alone*). I’ve always been more of a foodie than a wino. I can deeply appreciate my spirits – particularly whiskies – but with wine I can only really distinguish between what I do and don’t like. Whites I’m not fussed about, but I do enjoy a hearty glass of red. It always makes me laugh how the same words are used for wines: spritzy, notes of elderflower, passionfruit and citrus for the whites, and oak, blackberry, earth, mulberry, leather for the reds. I’m not overly fond of matching wine with my food, preferring to digest my food with water so as to best taste the essence of the dish, but thought that visiting wineries with Night Owl would at least provide me with an educational experience – particularly as I wouldn’t be able to drink anything, just taste as I was the designated driver for the trip.
After a stop over in Lake Macquarie, we arrived at Pokolbin, the base of the Hunter Valley region in the mid-afternoon. We had booked a 3pm cheese tasting at the Hunter Valley Smelly Cheese Shop, located at Roche Estate. You can tell them what type of cheeses you usually like (cheddar, soft, washed rinds, goat, sheep, blue?) or they can select some of their best-selling and trademark cheeses for you to try. We enjoyed almost everything we tried and bought a selection to take back with us to our hotel room for supper. In addition, they also sell cured meats, crackers, and other antipasto condiments. There are pre-packaged cheese platters ready to take away should you wish to go on a picnic at one of the many vineyards around the area (may I suggest Audrey Wilkinson?), and if you know what cheeses you want to buy without tasting them the cheese fridge is a walk-in treasure chest of delight.
Afterwards, we decided we were eager to check-in soon, so made a quick trip out to the boutique Pigg’s Peake winery to buy a bottle of wine for the evening. A tasting convinced us to buy three bottles – a vintage port, a heavily tannin-ed red, and a lighter red to digest with our evening cheese feast. Our favourite wines at Pigg’s were the bold, heavily tannin-ed reds. There were a couple of girls squealing over the bubbles and moscato, but you will encounter them at every single cellar door you visit.
We were staying across the road from Roche Estate at Leisure Inn. It really isn’t as cheap as it sounds. Each room has a jetted bathtub and comfortable (albeit firm) bed, which is more than you can ask for, not to mention that the grounds are simply stunning.
We spent our first evening devouring cheese and salami in bed, while watching RuPaul’s Drag Race on my work iPad (shhhh don’t tell my boss).
We had a leisurely sleep in and breakfast the next day was some leftover cheese and a cup of tea and coffee from our kitchenette facilities. We didn’t want to fill up as we were visiting two-hatted restaurant Muse for lunch. I had a 12 noon booking and was informed over the phone by the friendly manager when I booked that there was a strict two hour turnaround, and it was referred to in the friendliest, non-pressure way possible when we were seated at our table by our very gentlemanly dapper waiter. The interior design is a high ceiling restaurant with lots of glass panels and side walls to overlook the stunningly lush grounds, earthy wooden beams and crisp white. There is of course a degustation menu with or without matching wines, but not wanting to over-estimate our appetites we decided on two courses each from the a la carte ($75 for two courses, $95 for three).
Unlimited bread was served with a whipped creme fraiche sprinkled with crushed hazelnuts. Little amuse bouches were brought over, which involved a small perfect bowl of fried kipfler potatoes with nori salt, and a large plate of what looked like rocks and pieces of wood at first glance. The “rocks” we were supposed to eat were some sort of charcoal crust containing a pumpkin puree, and both of us got a pleasant shock of surprise when we popped the “rock” into our mouths and the crust burst with a delicious oozy and buttery puree inside.
We share a little entree of Macleay Valley suckling pig, hummus, radish, pomegranate, lardo, smoked chilli and pistachio.
It’s a perfect little morsel of nutty hummus with a light, zesty and fresh salad paired with the tender pork belly and crisp crackling. The acidity of the pomegranate seeds cuts through the natural fattiness of the pork, which makes for a refreshing entree.
We have our own mains, and I’m a little mystified by the presentation of the Armidale lamb, roast onion, cavolo nero, goats’ curd, black garlic togarashi. It’s a very abstract way of presentation with the two charred baby onion halves – it almost looked like a face, with the rib as the mouth. The lamb was perfectly cooked to my request of medium rare, and the meat came off in one slick piece from the bone with ease. All together, the flavours worked well, the black garlic gel providing an earthy, bitter smokiness with the subtle heat of the togarashi.
Night Owl’s Redgate Farm quail, kohlrabi, brassica crisps, nori, smoked soy, green onion oil was a lot lighter and more delicate in flavour to accommodate the game bird, which had been de-boned and compressed terrine-style.
Dessert I select the Muse Coconut – the restaurant’s signature dessert which I’ve seen many photographs of. Photographs don’t do this dish justice: it’s a dark and white chocolate hand-painted coconut “shell”, filled with sweetened coconut water, nestled among these nitrogen-poached coconut cream mousse “clouds”, which were scattered with violet popping sugar.
It was a beautifully refreshing and moreish dessert – the perfect way to end the meal on a warm autumn day. By this time, we were nearing a quarter to 2.00pm, and our waiter hurried over to ask if we wanted tea or coffee. The service team is really at the top of their game here. We ordered a cappuccino and a piccolo, both which arrived in beautiful handmade earthenware. All of the plates and bowls used to serve our meal were gorgeously handmade in soft natural shades, complemented by the soft white light filtering through the restaurant. Our bill was gently nudged onto the edge of our table, and we settled the cheque before bidding our adieu. Time to visit some cellar doors!
Our first visit for the afternoon was to Tyrrell’s Wines – Australian family owned since 1858. The grounds are beautiful and the neighbours had two curious horses who had ventured to the edge of their paddock to greet the visitors at Tyrrell. I spent a good amount of time patting one of the horses while he attempted to gnaw on my camera sash. On the topic of wine, Night Owl picked up one of their Hunter Valley whites, while I loved their Aged Liqueur Verdelho.
Our other visits for the afternoon also included Tinkler’s Wines (the Verdelho), and Usher Tinkler’s (where we loved everything but reluctantly limited it down to a Semillon-Chardonnay blend, a Shiraz and their special Mr T’s 20 year old fortified limited edition). Usher Tinkler’s also do salumi until 3pm; something I was initially interested to try but thanks to our lavish lunch I was too full and by the time we arrived it was past 3 – next time then!
And of course – Audrey Wilkinson just for the view.
We didn’t bother doing any tasting at Audrey Wilkinson as it was overflowing with guests, preferring to head back to our lodgings and rest before we ventured down to Cessnock for dinner. With the tastings at cellar doors during our weekend, both of us noticed that we got a fair bit of attitude and aloofness, combined with a lack of or very slow service – almost as though they thought that we were simply there for the free wine. We were hardly those giggling girls who simply want to try every cellar door’s sparkling – we were looking for the punchy reds, the bodily fortifieds, the smooth whites. It was a little disappointing to say the least – and we noted that it tended to happen at the larger wineries. You would tell when the server was surprised when we made up our minds a lot faster than many of the other tasters there, selecting not just one – but normally two or three bottles before promptly paying for them and taking our leave.
We went back to our lodgings to rest and freshen up before driving along the dark country road back onto the highway towards Cessnock. For a lower-key dinner, I had heard good things about 221 Restaurant & Bar at the Royal Oak Hotel, National Winner of Best Restaurant in a Pub in 2014 among many other awards. The streets of Cessnock were largely deserted and quite dark – dashing our hopes of attempting to find a Coles or Woolworths to pick up some toiletries, so we headed straight for the warmth of the pub.
Restaurant 221 is located through the back of the pub. While it is located in a pub, I would still advise making a booking – particularly on a weekend – as it did get quite full with groups and couples during our dinner. We opted for a simple main each, and the bread they brought around was pillow-soft, almost as though it had been steamed. It’s dramatically different from the “artisan” chewy, crusty bread you get at many restaurants these days. The amuse bouche is a simple spoon of a slice of cucumber with creme fraiche and smoked salmon.
Servings are of course generous here. My Sage stuffed pork belly roll with charred cabbage, broccolini, golden raisin puree and Madeira jus ($36) looked like it had my daily recommended intake of vegetables on there (I haven’t photographed the huge quarter of charred cabbage), with two generous slabs of fragrant and tender pork belly. The crackling was crispy yet sticky, providing a lot of crunch which then seemed to glue itself tastily to my back molars.
Night Owl’s Grimaud Duck Breast and Confit Leg with star anise glaze, carrot puree, black caviar lentils, marmalade and duck jus ($36) was a beautiful way of showcasing the two prime cuts of the bird, and was a well-balanced yet very flavoursome hearty winter dish.
We share the Dessert Tasting Plate ($25), which consists of a very interesting showcase of Gianduja Semifreddo with Frangelico figs and hazelnut amaretti, Banana Mille-Feuille with malt sponge and lavender honey ice cream, and the amusingly retro Grilled Pineapple with meringue, tropical salsa and coconut sorbet.
While the flavours and presentation were a far cry from the two-hatted lunch we had earlier that day, it’s no doubt that 221 is value for money and very generous with their servings. We left stuffed to the brim to head back for a long soak in our room’s jetted bathtub before a good night’s sleep.
We were sad that it was our last day in the Hunter Valley region, although our wallets were having a workout with all the lavish food and many bottles of wine we had purchased. We had about a dozen bottles of boutique wines in the back of our car, and shortly after checking out we visited the Smelly Cheese Shop again to pick up our favourites as well as a few gifts for my sister and brother-in-law. It’s quite nice hanging out in the cheese shop and around the Roche Estate early in the morning before the crowds arrive; the coffee at Smelly Cheese is also very good. We also drop into Tempus Two for a look around, because why wouldn’t you do a sneaky tasting at 10am in the morning?
Our last gourmet stop for the trip was an early lunch at Circa 1876, located at The Convent. Funnily enough, we noted that unlike the cellar doors, we received no attitude from the restaurants we had visited – probably because we had made bookings and so they assumed we knew what we were getting ourselves into. I originally had tried to make a booking via Dimmi for Circa, but it came up that there was only a one hour sitting time. Night Owl rang them up and was fortunate to snare a table the day prior. and there was no mention of any one or even two hour turnaround.
The grounds of The Convent are stunningly gorgeous – not in the same way as Audrey Wilkinson, but quaint with their generous vegetable garden. 90 per cent of Circa’s fruit and vegetables come from the kitchen’s 0.4-hectare garden, and I’m even considering getting the vegetarian tasting menu the next time I visit.
The decor is warm and inviting, yet high ceiling-ed to allow in the generous amount of sunshine while the doors on the terrace can open out onto the grounds – perfect for the functions I’m sure this venue is often reserved for.
The design of the menu is either degustation or a la carte. We opt for the a la carte (two courses of $75, three for $95). We commence with house-baked bread with a lime churned butter, and a spoon of smoked tomato, ricotta and balsamic glaze. The bread amuses me as it reminds me of the dumplings you can get at yum cha.
Our entrees come out surprisingly quickly, but then at 12.00 noon there weren’t a large number of tables that had yet arrived. Night Owl’s Smoked Marrow Bone with salt-cured yolk, black truffle, mushroom and onion marmalade, baby leeks, bacon and chive crumb is show-stoppingly beautiful, and the marrow is creamy, dark and woodsy – punctuated with the tang of Parmesan and the soft aroma of black truffle.
My Sesame Crusted Yellow Fin Tuna with soft-cooked pullet egg, olive cheeks, chipotle aioli, wasabi roe, fresh garden greens and lime is essentially a very tasty breakfast, and I eagerly take the money shot.
The dish is creamy and soft, popping with flavour and texture, Why is it that olives and tuna go so well together?
I’m enchanted with the amount of colour on my plate when the Cherry-glazed Duck Breast – served pink – arrives, with caramelised celeriac, Foie Gras, baby leeks, fresh blackberries, Madeira glaze, balsamic cherries, celeriac puree and port jus. Duck and Foie Gras is the most beautiful combination, and the flesh of the duck was both springy and tender.
Night Owl’s Sous Vide Kangaroo Loin – served medium – with zesty quinoa, artichoke, snow peas, jus and blackcurrant gel was an incredibly hearty dish, with the most perfectly small diced carrots. It’s definitely a winter dish, and the portion size was so generous that Night Owl struggled to finish the plate.
Service could best be described as “a little clunky” during the course of our meal. I didn’t want to have the review end on a down note, so I’m going to mention it here. My sparkling water glass ran empty and it took a while for me to get the attention of our waitress. She asked if tap water was okay, and mystified I agreed – although I had only had one glass of sparkling so far and I could see my bottle of sparkling at the front of the restaurant. When she returned though, she had the bottle of sparkling and topped up not just my glass but also Night Owl’s half-glass of tap water – I let it slide. I think the more brow-raising situation was at the end of the meal when I gave my card with the bill to the waitress, who immediately returned with the credit card machine and gave the card and machine to Night Owl – not me- to input the PIN. Fortunately it was our shared account card, so Night Owl input the PIN before handing me back my card.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We haven’t even gotten to dessert yet! We had a little amuse bouche of cherry and hazelnut soil, with vanilla creme anglaise.
The Circa Strawberries and Cream arrived with nitrogen-poached strawberry mousse, vanilla and strawberry ice cream, strawberry jelly, strawberry snow, dehydrated strawberries, sweet crumble and cream arrived lightly smoking and was a delight to eat. It was the essence of summer – citrus, bright and light, and perfect for the warm 25 degree sunny day that it was when we dined. The different shades of pink were gorgeous and the dish smelled amazing. I had the dessert with a sneaky glass of Pepper Tree Wines’ 2016 ‘Sticky Pig’ Pinot Gris, part of the limited release range at their cellar door on the other side of the grounds. What a coincidence that I loved the wine and we were right next door! Looks like we’ll just have to quickly drop in before we leave.
It’s a blessing and a curse that the amazing Hunter Valley is just a two hour drive away from Sydney – yet it feels like you’re in an entirely different country altogether. It will be good to explore the Upper Hunter the next time we visit, but now we have a few places in our book to stop by on our way up. A Disneyland of good wine and good food, best enjoyed with good company.
Hunter Valley Smelly Cheese Shop
Broke Road & McDonalds Road
Pokolbin NSW 2320
(02) 4998 6713
Piggs Peake Winery
697 Hermitage Road
Pokolbin NSW 2320
(02) 6574 7000
2450 Broke Road,
Pokolbin NSW 2320
(02) 4998 6777
1838 Broke Road
Pokolbin NSW 2320
(02) 4993 7028
53 Pokolbin Mountains Road
Pokolbin NSW 2320
(02) 4998 7435
Usher Tinkler Wines
97 McDonalds Road
Pokolbin NSW 2320
(02) 4998 7069
De Beyers Road
Pokolbin NSW 2320
(02) 4998 1866
221 Restaurant & Bar
Royal Oak Hotel
221 Vincent Street
Cessnock NSW 2325
(02) 4991 3700
Broke Road & McDonalds Road
Pokolbin NSW 2320
(02) 4998 4098
64 Halls Road
Pokolbin NSW 2320
(02) 4998 4998
Pepper Tree Wines
86 Halls Road
Pokolbin NSW 2320
(02) 4909 7100