After a leisurely, sunny long weekend in the Hunter Valley, it’s a touch difficult to get back into the routine of not having a buffet breakfast prepared for me, of not wine tasting at 10.30 in the morning, of not taking a dirt track to a winery restaurant for lunch or dinner. It’s a tough life.
In one of the best long weekends in (personal) recent history, I feel I’ve eaten and drunk so much good food and wine that detox may well be in order. Except that I now have a fridge shelf full of cheese that needs to be eaten, and the few boxes of wine are really made for drinking now rather than cellaring.
The weekend started with an easy 2.5 hour morning drive north; excitement coming at the first sighting of a horse or cow, and then the first brown tourist street sign indicating ‘Vineyards’. The plan was to head straight to FlavourFest – a three-day wine and food festival in the picturesque Hunter Valley Gardens in Pokolbin.
There was a slight chill in the air, not helped with the gusts from the slick black helicopter taking off in the football field, but we were prepared with all manner of clothing and accessories, and then armed with a couple of FlavourFest tasting glasses.
Passing the bongo beats of the concert stage near the entry, we’re initially attracted to the cocktail flairing prowess at the seminar stage; not even thinking for a moment that cocktails and the Hunter region don’t naturally go hand in hand. It’s all about showmanship, and while it’s fun and impressive to watch, I think it’s just adding to the time it takes to get a drink in my hands.
The festival was spread throughout the front section of the Hunter Valley Gardens, the stalls in a seemingly uncategorised fashion, with the main stage on a floating barge in a lake. Saturday’s main stage programme featured the curly-headed Tobie Puttock of Fifteen restaurant and Jamie Oliver-associated fame, and was hosted by Janelle Bloom, food writer and apparent ‘Ready Steady Cook’ extraordinaire.
For the session we managed to catch, Tobie deboned an organic chicken from nearby Nulkaba Hatchery and cooked half in a pan flattened beneath a foil-wrapped brick, the skin stuffed with mascarpone, prosciutto, marjoram and lemon, and the aroma heavenly even from our viewing distance. He then proceeded with a dessert of deep fried quenelles of Binnorie Dairy ricotta with lemon and sultanas, coated in cinnamon sugar – so tempting and hunger-inspiring that a visit to the food stalls was immediately required following.
A rather small smattering of food stalls were serving hot food – deliberate, I think – as our automatic choice was the stall of the on-site eatery, The Cellar Restaurant. Believe it or not, there was also the festival mainstay of Turkish gozleme among German sausages; Japanese/Thai of Oishii from the Tempus Two complex; Red Belly Gourmet; wood fired pizzas; pasta; and empanadas.
Both savoury options were appetising on The Cellar Restaurant's chalkboard, and so we make away with one of each. The burger featured a chunky pattie of minced venison, full of flavour and a touch of gaminess, sweetened with the beetroot relish on a soft bun. Wild rocket leaves and a horeradish sour cream top it off, though I struggled to find the flavour of horeradish. In all, a very satisfying burger.
If we thought the burger was delectable, the sausage was surprisingly even better. Made of a local black pig, the flavour and texture was like no other sausage: almost crumbly and clearly without a filler or gluten binder; not oozing with fatty oils, but lightly pink with near visible small chunks of meat. Served on another soft white bun with a dark, caramelly apple compote, this was as sophisticated as a banger on a roll is ever going to be, and what I’ll be dreaming of at my next sausage sizzle.
With the wine, beer and cocktail hall a major feature of the festival, it would have been remiss to not spend a bit of time in there and I didn’t need much convincing. Tasting vouchers, at $2.50 each, would buy a 60ml taste of wine or a 200ml ‘taste’ of beer – not bad value really. I’d started small at the Small Winemakers Centre stall with The Little Wine Company Gerwurz – a sprightly sweet and fruity white with a slightly dry finish; actually pairing very well with the pork sausage.
We’d also collected a sample (which is really a middy less a mouthful) of the Hunter Beer Company’s Kolsch – a light but bitter refreshing beverage ideal for sitting in the gradually warming noon sun.
Drinks in hand it was time to explore the rest of the festival stalls and indeed the gardens themselves. Thankfully, it had turned into a beautiful winter’s day with fluffy, non-threatening clouds in the mostly blue sky, making stall perusing enjoyable, and the gardens endlessly pretty and restful.
Following fairly extensive exploration of the gardens, we headed back to the festival area for a little more tasting as the afternoon was still kind of young. The crowds were still out in force although the queues for food had died down considerably, although the opposite was true for the tent of alcohol.
The Red Belly Gourmet truck had been dishing out gorgeous looking dishes all day long, even in the late afternoon as we sat down to snack on organic beef skewers cooked before us. With an Asian-dressed fresh mixed leaf salad on the side and a sweet and spicy dark chilli sauce, this was the perfect lead into an after-meal treat of a Hunter Valley Cheese Company semi soft blue – part of the platter we’d bought earlier from the stall.
Sitting in the sun with cheese and crackers, I felt a little something missing. A quick walk to the big tent of bottled goodies and handover of a couple of vouchers solved that in good time, with a taster of Allandale’s late harvest Semillon Sauvignon Blanc – a standout favourite of mine in the sticky varieties, not quite as saccharine as the rich, deep sweetness of the Margan Botrytis Semillon.
There was a lovely relaxed feel as stallholders came out to take in the gorgeous afternoon sunshine by the water, and of course, taste each others’ wines and food. It was just so nice to see everyone – young and old, locals and tourists, foodies and winos – just doing the very simplest things in life and enjoying it so much.
Feeling the warming rays of the sun starting to ease by the water, we thought we’d head off in search of warmth in other forms and find it back at the seminar stage – full afternoon sun exposure and a Martini cocktail demonstration. The warmest part was probably the generous sampling of cocktails, all made with a Martini brand mixer – Bianco with apple juice; mint and limes; Rosso with orange juice and the favourite, Rosato with a good helping of Grey Goose vodka, pineapple juice and limes.
After a few sun-drenched cocktails, a sparkling white finds its way to my grasp with the last of the vouchers, which I finish to the sounds of a beautiful, slow jazzy rendition of ‘Over the Rainbow’ at the concert stage. It’s the dying hours of the festival and everyone has a smile on their faces and bellies full of goodness, surrounded by reviving greenery. The first day of the festival (and my only day there) has ended on a stunning note and I’m sure it’s not just the wine talking.
Thanks to Sharon at Agent99 PR and Hunter Valley Gardens for a great day.