I've always wanted to visit the Hunter. But as with any place you really want to go, life finds a way of intervening and time slips between your fingers like sand, soft and unnoticed. So, for reasons beyond my knowledge or control, the valley remained a mystery for years. One warm weekend in Easter, however, all of that began to change.
Our journey began at the Hunter Valley Cooperage, a beautiful B&B run by Gay and Warren Cooper. Nestled deep within the Kelman vineyard, on a winding gravel path, it is a large sandstone house guarded by giant chess pieces.
The highlight of the house, besides the beautiful rooms and gardens, is the warmth and hospitality of its hosts. Gay and Warren Cooper spoil their guests with incredible breakfasts each morning, whether it be bircher muesli, poached cinnamon pears, eggs benedict or ricotta pancakes.
These ricotta pancakes (with banana and honeycomb butter) were far fluffier than their ancestors at Bill Granger's Sydney cafes. In fact, if there were such a thing as a Pancake Forecast, this dish would be Cloudy with a Chance of Honeycomb Rain. The pancakes tasted like whipped clouds on a plate.
The Hunter Valley Gardens are a must-see, especially for nursery rhyme lovers, due to the presence of Alice in Wonderland, Little Miss Muppet and even Jack and Jill rolling down a grassy hill.
Now, if there's one place that you must try in the valley, it's Simply D'Vine. As you may have divined from its name (sorry, I couldn't resist), the cafe is attached to a thriving nursery. If you weave your way between the fountains, terracotta pots and water features, you will find a small tranquil oasis at the back fence. There, on wobbly white chairs, sipping coffee out of mismatched mugs, I had the best French toast I have ever had.
The tendency of French toast to droop and slump under the weight of its buttery innards was completely avoided here by breaking up the bread into bite size cubes. Each cube was a delightful morsel of crispy cinnamon crusted edges which surrendered to a moist fluffy interior. The rich butteriness was offset by the slightly tart berries and berry sauce. Just genius.
And now for the big guns - Emerson's at Polkobin. I had heard a lot of good things, and when we got a last-minute booking at 8pm, it did not disappoint.
Butternut pumpkin terrine, salt roasted baby beetroot, fried binnorie labna with lemon and sage crumbs. Incredible. The perfect combination of textures, crunchy and chewy, hard and soft, salty and sweet. An amazing entree.
Pan fried Nulkaba quail, pine nuts, sweet corn, raisins, estate grown mulberry glaze. Another crowd-pleaser. Perfectly crunchy without being too oily or dry. Perfectly executed.
Slow baked pork belly, ash coated pork fillet, crackling cream, savoy cabbage, apple puree with Madeira sauce. Judging by the sound and speed at which D finished this dish, I think he thoroughly enjoyed it! Tender pork and amazingly crunchy crackling - the few pieces I tried were incredible.
Pan fried snapper, Jerusalem artichoke cream, chanterelles, fingerling fennell with brown butter sauce. Beautifully presented, and it tasted just as thoughtful and delicious as it looked. Soft fish flesh on a creamy base, studded with leaves and perky peas. Wonderful.
Unfortunately, the name of this dish eludes me, and the dessert menu has since changed, leaving me speechless to inform you of its ingredients. However, I do recall notes of meringue, caramel and honeycomb, and the presentation itself shows you that craftmanship was involved in the making of this dish.
Again, the name eludes me. But if I was a dessert forecaster, I would say that it was Fudgy with a Chance of Brownie Cubes and Chocolate Rain, which would require a spoon and fork for protection!
So next time you're dying to go somewhere, try to make a meal of it.
Until next time.