The Hunter Valley is calling...for the best dining EXPerience & relaxing scenery for a long time.
The sun was sitting low in the sky and the komorebi on Friday afternoon was a welcome sight as we whizzed past the trees on the side of the freeway. Once again we were heading north and it was so unexpectedly pleasant to see the sun's rays beaming from the sky, we couldn’t help but notice its beauty. It had been endless days since it had last cast a shadow over the sodden land. Our destination was a little place called Lovedale, one of the many wine regions in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales and the gateway to picturesque country vistas and boutique wineries. My significant other and I had booked a little weekend retreat at a place called Tonic. We were both longing for a little tonic, both of the invigorating kind, as well as the one that would accompany our gin as we clicked our glasses to chin chin the weekend. As we turned off the Hunter freeway onto a country laneway aptly named Wilderness Road, we passed ribbons of grapevines, olive groves and cottage gardens as we searched for the gate that would lead us to our hillside retreat. The gentle drive up the hill to the cabin took us through a shallow creek that parted two of the three beautiful dams we would later enjoy casting our eyes over from our private deck. I couldn’t help but notice the Royal blue chests of the delicate swamp hens skipping around in the mud on the side of the road, the elegant stature of one loan black swan as it glided around the pond next to the bullrushes, and the curious and stately welcome from a frisky kangaroo hopping along beside the car. We looked out beyond the trees wondering where the rest of the mob might be hiding.
As we entered the pincode into the keypad and walked through the lime green door, we both felt a little shorter as our shoulders drop down, our heart rate slowed and our breathing relaxed. The accommodation was a simple elegant design based on the style of an outback shed, clad with corrugated iron on the outside, polished concrete floors and contemporary furniture on the inside, with a large black and white cowhide rug on the floor and a chalkboard on the far wall with a scrawled welcome message. Through sliding glass doors that opened onto a wooden deck we were captivated by the picturesque vista over the dams, rolling green hills, and beyond to the magnificent Brokenback Ranges. Sunlight, fresh air, birdsong in the countryside, it’s what dreams are made of. As the sun goes down the pink and grey tones from the sky are reflected into the rush framed dams below, and as the whimsical bunny tail grass moves gently in the breeze, the scene is perfectly calibrated to enjoy sundowner drinks before heading out for a late dinner.
Magnificent sunset from our deck at Tonic Hotel, Lovedale
We were fortunate to have secured a table at one of the finest eateries in the Hunter Valley. EXP was an indescribably amazing EXPerience, a thirteen course tasting menu for the senses, highlighting locally grown and sourced produce and exceptional culinary talent. Sitting at the marble bench and the most coveted seat in the house overlooking the small open kitchen, we dined on the finest culinary creations whilst being privy to watching the chef, sous chef, sommelier and attentive staff work their magic. Starting with a blini sized crumpet and a spoonful of plump orange pearls of caviar, followed by several other dishes, not least of which was the Lancer wheat sourdough warm out of the oven with a slab of pepper berry and salt crusted cultured butter, a memorable dish in itself, a beautifully executed and Unami rich risotto made with Koshihikari rice infused with a mushroom-based XO sauce overloaded with king oyster mushroom, Fermier washed-rind cheese and cavolo nero, oh boy, the legendary house cured duck ‘ham on toast’ with macadamia butter, rounded out with desserts of buttermilk and jewels of finger lime that exploded with flavour as you dug through the layers like a sweet lasagna, and a hand crafted three layer Neapolitan ice cream of pink Davidson plum, Daintree dark chocolate and gumbi gumbi sandwiched between a caramelised wafer. The EXP food EXPerience is equally matched by the precision and ordered execution in the preparation of the dishes in the kitchen and the calm manner in which the passionate and dedicated staff go about their craft. EXP is a bucket list EXPerience and one that I am fortunate enough to have EXPerienced for the second time.
Preparing the Neapolitan Ice Cream Sandwich in the EXP kitchen at Pokolbin
Saturday morning we woke to clear skies and after a leisurely breakfast we headed out for the day to explore the surrounding area and vineyards. We had booked many months beforehand to attend the Wildflower Festival, however after the incessant rain that had fallen in the preceding weeks, the concert had to be cancelled as the ground was so wet the pylons used to erect the stage kept sinking, and it was deemed to be too unsafe to proceed with the event.
Our first point of call, after locating a lazy mob of kangaroos on the hillside at the Hope Estate was to visit The Smelly Cheese Shop at the Roche Estate. Needless to say that after being a mouse in a past life I was in Cheesy heaven. I resisted the temptation to fill up my bags with cheese, meats and condiments as we were heading off to a funky boutique winery, Usher Tinkler Wines to enjoy a grazing platter and wine tasting. Whilst I am no connoisseur of wines, I enjoyed the preservative free wines and left with a bottle of a wine called Death by Semillon, which paired beautifully with a Death by Cheese soft oozy Italian creation La Tur served with Wollombi Honeycomb. Please sign me up for the funeral or bring me back to life with a 2020 Rebirth Shiraz, a plate of shaved capocollo and some local fresh sourdough. I can happily report that a good time was had by all. Of course you cannot leave without a bottle of their famous Mr T’s Rare Batch Liqueur, the real reason we visited Usher Tinkler Wines, right? It’s a special drop to have in the wine cabinet for when you need a nightcap, and that groovy bottle will make a great vase when you’re done!
Grazing platter, La Tur cheese, capocollo salumi, Wollombi honeycomb, fermented pickles, fruit and sourdough at Usher Tinkler Wines
Tempus Two Winery at the Roche Estate was a different experience, a much larger winery with wines made both locally and interstate. The 2018 GSM is a wonderful red wine Syrah that was very drinkable and made with a combination of Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvedre grapes grown in the Barossa Valley. The 2020 Cabernet Shiraz is a full bodied and well balanced wine also from the Barossa. You can most likely tell from my short description that my passion for wines does not run as deep as my passion for fine foods. When it comes to wines, it’s quite simple. I either enjoy them or I don’t!
Waking on Sunday to another glorious day, we sat on the deck one last time to take in the view before we left the farm. The black swan seemed a little less elegant this morning as it zoomed in like a seaplane landing and skidding across the top of the water before it came to an abrupt stop. It then went about its day bobbing its head up and down under the water as it went in search of frogs and worms and aquatic vegetation to eat. Nearby, the sweet fairy wrens flitted about around the rusted clumps of bunny tail grass before popping up onto the deck for a visit and to look for some crumbs of bread. What a beautiful way to bid farewell to our relaxing country weekend in the little tin shed on the side of the hill in Lovedale. As we departed from the property the same proud kangaroo that welcomed us when we arrived escorted us back to the gate where we rejoined Wilderness Road. It seemed like a fitting end to a lovely weekend.
Until next time may your days be both serendipitous and enjoyable.