Saturday, June 26, 2010

Dear Hunter

There’s nothing nicer than waking up late on a weekend, and stretching your arms and neck to see a sunny day outside; not quite beckoning, but saying something like, “Yeah, just come out when you’re ready – take your time, I’ll be here all day.” It’s admittedly rare given only two out of seven days technically qualify as the weekend, let’s say 60% of the time is sunny (pulling numbers out of nowhere here), and you don’t always have the liberty of sleeping in and/or just enjoying the day.

Hunter Country Lodge, Wine Country Drive, North Rothbury

I hit the jackpot on last long weekend at the Hunter Valley, although there were probably a dozen or so wineries beckoning in the distance. In bed, I actually arose to check out an odd sound outside – only to find a gaggle of white and light brown geese honking loudly and generally loitering down the back of the lodge. Trained pets or not, I’m not sure – though I did note the presence of foie gras on on-site restaurant’s menu.

Views at Hunter Country Lodge

The itinerary for the day was fairly loose – other than a visit to a cheese factory, we were going to wing it, trawl the dirt roads and visit any winery along the way that tickled our fancy. Following a simple buffet breakfast at the on-site eatery, we made the 10 minute or so trip from North Rothbury to Pokolbin and went directly to the Hunter Valley Cheese Company, next door to the McGuigans cellar door and complex.

The immediate pungency through the doors of the factory is not for non-cheese lovers, nor is the sight of multiple cheese-filled fridges and tasting cabinets full of bits of cut cheese. As for anyone else, restraint is needed. Rather than racing to taste though, I take a slow, sensible walk around the non-cheese produce area while waiting for the daily cheesemaker talk.

Peter Curtis of the Hunter Valley Cheese Company, McDonalds Road, Pokolbin

Peter Curtis is the man, and he talks about his craft with obvious love and experience to a crowd huddled in front of the glass window of the controlled-temperature maturation room. They don’t have their own cows, but Peter says his 4am wake up wouldn’t be assisted by having to milk cows too.

Cheeses in the maturation room

Peter briefly talks through the general cheesemaking process, highlighting a few different ways with different types of cheeses. For example, a fresh soft cheese, like their scrumptious fromage, will mature for about two days, whereas a hard cheddar could go for 18 months or more. There’s also – in no particular order – the salting/brining process (minutes or days), pressing and turning, washing or ashing of rinds, and most interestingly, the bacteria.

By the sounds of it, cheesemaking is like alchemy. Your choice of bacteria (mostly in powder form these days, Peter tells us) will not only determine your type of cheese, but characteristics of your cheese type too. A brie could be worlds apart from the one down the road using the same milk, based purely on the bacteria combination added and how they’re eating through the sugars in the curds. It comes down to the cheesemaker, or alchemist, in deciding what flavours and characteristics they want of their cheese – their cheese tasting palates must be exceptionally particular.

After Peter’s mini seminar, it was enough talk and time for cheese tasting. With almost everything on sample, we’re advised to start from the lighter flavoured soft cheeses, and progress through to the stronger ones and the hard cheeses – much like wine tasting if we think of whites as soft and reds as hard.

Riley's Marinated Fromage

Branxton Brie

The soft, white, marinated fromage, as mentioned, is delicious – their version of a ricotta but flavoured with olive oil and sundried tomatoes – simply perfect picnic stuff with a crusty baguette. Going on from that, they have two bries: the subtle grape vine ashed brie and the ballsier Branxton Brie, which is creamy and saltier and everything I dream of in a brie.

Milawa Blue

On to the washed rinds, they’re still soft but with flavour that smacks you in the mouth. The Hunter Gold is rich in colour and flavour, but it’s the Pokolbin Smear Ripened that I can still taste and smell many minutes after sampling.

The Milawa Blue is divine – quite reserved for a kind-of soft blue, making it perfect for scoffing in large portions with fruit or maybe a sticky. I didn’t try all the cheddars, but made away with a bitey Wauchope Cheddar for lunch and/or home. Along with a small wheel of Branxton Brie and a few wedges of Milawa Blue. And some dried muscatels and caperberries. And green olive mustard from the produce section. And a piece of fudge.

Lunch from the Hunter Valley Cheese Company

Despite it being before noon, it was already wine o’clock – probably quite late by local standards since most cellar doors open at 10am. With McGuigans right next door, it was all too easy to taste the entire list, especially with a super-friendly staff member pouring the tastings. The favourite here was undoubtedly the 2008 ‘sweet’ Shiraz, which, while relatively steeply-priced, was uber smooth and suave, and in its funky-necked bottle was just dying to come home with me.

Brokenwood vineyards (next to McGuigans site)

Hoisting out of there with a few bottles, we also joined a winery tour of the site which started at the wintery-looking vineyards (yet to be pruned) to hear about the operations. They mostly buy grapes from growers rather than maintaining their own vineyards (strategic given the global oversupply of wine in recent times) and an impressive 65% of all McGuigans production is shipped offshore. We head for the actual machines and equipment for winemaking as well (pressing, fermenting etc.), although bottling is done offsite.

Fermenting wines in stainless steel

American and French oak barrels

The reds are kept in oak barrels for some time; but not many of the whites – the practice seeming so traditional, and old-fashioned even, compared to the high-tech of gigantic stainless steel containers for the whites. The French and American oak barrels themselves are intriguing stories and an important part of the flavour, if not cost, profile of a red wine. We're told you can even choose the 'toasting' of your barrel.

Small Winemakers Centre, McDonalds Road, Pokolbin

A good couple of hours after parking in the McGuigans complex, we set off down McDonalds Road to the Small Winemakers Centre, which adjoins the Australian Regional Food Store & Café. The Small Winemakers Centre offers a select few labels from the Hunter region, led by The Little Wine Company, and is ideal when you’re without a great deal of time to check out a lot of wineries.

I’d tried and like the Little Wine Company 2008 Gerwurz at FlavourFest, but fell in lust with the David Hook Riesling for its light, happy fruitiness. The Thomas Wines 2009 ‘Six Degrees’ Semillon was also a winner – rather a sweeter Semillon – while the The Little Wine Company Tawny Port in its squat, square glass bottle was irresistible for both its packaging and contents.

Next door, the Australian Regional Food Store & Café is filled with late lunchers and shelves of mostly local produce: think jams, chutneys, mustards, chocolates and more. The giant brownie-tray blocks of fudge were also momentarily tempting, as too the many jars out sampling their wares. The green chilli jam was hellishly hot, while the Indian-spiced eggplant was unusual but moreish.

Wintery vineyards

Time was flying by a little too quickly, maybe or maybe not due to the ‘comprehensive’ tastings we were conducting. In the morning we’d passed Peterson House and its signboards proclaiming a partnership of oysters and champagne (oysters and sparkling white wine just doesn’t have the same ring). Not wanting to remotely risk missing out on this, we headed back to Peterson House with haste to a fairly packed car park; understandable with the Hunter Valley Chocolate Company, a restaurant and wedding coordinator on site.

Our general aim in tasting was to find a sparkling to match with oysters; the sweeter sparkling rosés of Pink Blush Rose and Illusion Sparkling Rose completely inappropriate. Some of the sparkling whites tended too dry but the (surprisingly cheapest) NV Sparkling Gateway proved to be the favourite, with and without oysters.

Natural oysters at Peterson House, Broke Road, Pokolbin

I’ve finally developed my liking for oysters au naturale, though I’m still partial to a Kilpatrick one any day. I adore a wine vinaigrette but simple with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice (or Tabasco sauce for some), I gobbled my share of the plump, fresh oysters in the slowly setting afternoon sun, sipping my sparkling wine and wondering if there was anything better on a lazy Sunday long weekend afternoon. I think the pink galahs loitering nearby were having the very same thoughts.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Where the heart is

The choice of restaurants in the Hunter Valley surprised me with its vastness, with lots of fine dining, modern Australian, a few hats, and a pleasing focus on regional ingredients and produce. One theory is that the abundance of good wine goes hand in hand with good food. Whatever the reason, it’s a fulfilling, tummy-expanding exercise that I took upon with glee during my long weekend in wine country.

The late night drive was dark and gravelly, and the car thermometer indicated a chilling three degrees Celsius outdoors – a thought (and feeling) we overcame with the idea of fireplaces and a glass of wine. The Peppers Guest House lodging is particularly homey with numerous wood-burning fireplaces certainly helping the warm ambience. The restaurant, Chez Pok was perfect for romantic dinners, evidenced by the plethora of couples in the dimmed and subdued outer (but still warm) dining area.

Amuse bouche from Chez Pok, Pepper Guest House, Ekerts Road, Pokolbin

Presented with an innovative and quite exciting menu, I’m torn all over the page finally settling on two courses with some wintery heartiness. We’re started with an amuse of sage foam atop a creamy sage soup with a fried sage leaf feather in the cap. It’s an intriguing homage to the fragrant herb; likeable but not lovable. We’re further warmed by the Margan Barbera, an Italian style red which was a bit sharp at times, but agreeable with the much-anticipated meal.

Steamed scallop and yabby lasagne with a shellfish cappuccino, curried cauliflower

I was in the mood for pasta and unexpectedly found it in the form of the steamed scallop and yabby lasagne – a mollusc and a crustacean of which I adore equally. I hadn’t expected the flattish cylindrical shape, nor the slightly unappetising hue of the shellfish foam under the lasagne, but I was keen to like the dish as the combination of listed flavours sounded appealing.

The pasta was thin and silky; more like Chinese dumpling wrappers than a fresh, eggy pasta. The seafood turned out to be, a little disappointingly, in minced form with few discernable pieces of each scallop and yabby; but it did have the exquisite fresh-sweet flavour of seafood. More disappointing was the yabby claw, probably present for more visual appeal than any sustenance or flavour addition.

Most surprising and satisfying was the puree of curried cauliflower – a completely unexpected but most harmonious flavour with the seafood lasagne; and much more impressive than the shellfish cappuccino which, while not overly strong in flavour, would have been improved as a more airy component, I think, than its liquid pool construction.

Caramelised veal sweetbreads, Jerusalem artichoke puree, mushroom tarte fine

The first time I came across sweetbreads on a menu, I’m pretty sure I thought brioche. Lucky for me I don’t think I’ve ever ordered it for I would have been in for quite a surprise. Still not big on the organ/offal deal, I am even less keen on glands of a young cow. Nonetheless, when forced to try a mouthful I bite into the lovely, rich caramelised surface of the surprisingly chewy sweetbread (as I had expected the mushy texture of liver), eventually getting to a mildly metallic flavour I then just had to swallow and wash down with wine.

I was much happier trying the smooth, naturally sweet Jerusalem artichoke puree and buttery thin mushroom tarte fine; though perhaps the gland would have been more pleasant with these accompaniments.

Roast partridge with Marsala poached date and foie gras, confit legs, pomme puree

Continuing on the theme of daring foods (or perhaps I’m tame and exaggerate a little) was the little-seen partridge – two ways, one particularly striking. Or perhaps I should say strutting. With claws and toes hanging off the edge of the plate, it was one confronting pair of confit legs but tasty and tender enough to ignore the nether regions.

The cube of the roast partridge was imposing in comparative size – what a lot of flesh for such little legs! It was filled with a quite sweet stuffing of Marsala poached dates and subtle foie gras – the sometimes overpowering sweetness of the fortified wine not one of my favourite flavours.

Sticky beef cheek, celeriac puree, broad beans, speck, bone marrow

I thought there was no going wrong with the sticky beef cheek on the menu and when it came to the table, I was so very right. The huge hunk of the deep coloured beef cheek sat in the centre, with an appealing dab of celeriac puree festively decorated with vibrant green broad beans and pink-red batons of speck – a winning combination, by the way.

I could have eaten with a spoon, or cut it with a single chopstick, so soft was the beef cheek. It was full of hours of flavour and such the filling winter warmer that I was thankful for the presence of the slight bitterness of the celeriac over what could have been a rich pomme puree instead.

Adding to the decadence were gold coins of bone marrow in what was probably the crunchiest deep fried crumb coating I’ve ever come across – a seriously impressive contrast to the gooey mush of the bone marrow which oddly enough (considering my emotions towards the more unusual animal body parts) I quite enjoy.

Buttered courgette and yellow squash (front) and golden kipfler potato, almond praline, sage and rosemary salt (back)

The generous sides, served on long and thin platters, were perfect foil for my rich beef on one side, and added nourishment on the partridge side. Fresh chunks of steamed zucchini and yellow squash were just lightly buttered while the roasted kipfler potatoes were a revelation, sprinkled with almond praline – a bit like the delightful dichotomy of caramel popcorn or indeed salted caramels.

Sated, or in my case, absolutely stuffed, from the mains, I could barely look at the dessert menu let alone order one, but the enchanting box of petit fours was irresistible.

Petit fours – Marco Polo macaron, raspberry jelly, white chocolate truffle

A treasure box of little sweets is presented on pebbles of coffee – in some cases imparting (unwanted) flavour to the little goodies. Having the jelly first, little did I know that it would be quite the sour, soft jelly with more of a general sweet-sour flavour than raspberries in particular.

The macaron, flavoured with Marco Polo tea, was a little firmer and chewier than I’d expected, but was a delightfully sweet couple of mouthfuls anyway with a rich buttercream filling. The marble-sized white chocolate truffle started to melt in my fingertips as soon as I picked it up, as if the ganache had barely set; the heightened sweetness of white chocolate against bitterness of the cocoa powder and stray piece of crushed coffee bean.

At this point, the restaurant was empty although staff were in no hurry to shoo us out the warm doors. While the service alternated through the night, overall it was excellent and added to the very pleasant experience. We carried our glasses of wine to a couch next to the fire, the dying coals plenty enough to make me blush and thoroughly warm through before braving the outdoors again. It was a feeling, and a night overall, that I could only wish every home felt like.

Chez Pok on Urbanspoon

Friday, June 18, 2010

Flavour Hunter

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.

FlavourFest at Hunter Valley Gardens, Pokolbin

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.

Australian Flairing Masters, hosted by Twisted Liquid

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.

Cocktail flairing

Main stage

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.

Tobie Puttock demo with Janelle Bloom (right)

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.

Eat Street & Flavours of the World

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.

Red Belly Gourmet tarts

Retro Manna wood fired pizzas

Venison burger with beetfoot relish and horeradish sour cream from The Cellar Restaurant

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.

Rare breed black pig sausage with apple compote from The Cellar Restaurant

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.

Small Winemakers Centre stall

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.

Hunter Beer Company stall

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.

Tar 10 stall

Moorebank stall - where I purchased a delish Spicy Grape Sauce

Home made jams stall

High tops cupcake stall

The Japanese Garden

The Story Book Garden

Which fairy tale or nursey rhyme has mushrooms and toadstools?

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall...

Plant sculptures

Gigantic koi in the lake

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.

Organic beef skewers with sweet chilli sauce

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.

Prime seats by the lake

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.

Clowning around

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.

The Martini stand

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.

La dolce vita - with Martini Rosato

FanJAZZtic at the Concert Stage

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.


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