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The ‘Red’ Centre.

My Jacob’s Creek wine tour continues. After an educational day in Adelaide Hills filled with fine wine and artisan cheeses and chocolates, it is time for me to explore another wine region in South Australia. This time I am heading down south, a long 4-hour journey to Australia’s finest ‘Red’ center. Well, red wine that is. Coonawarra, best known as one of Australia’s finest wine regions.

Sazón espresso – Mount Barker, Adelaide Hills

But first things first, coffee is calling and we make a quick stop at Mount Barker as there is this cafe called Sazón Espresso that I’ve been told is worth a visit. As we walk inside, the aroma of freshly roasted coffee welcomes us whilst two baristas are busy making coffees for the customers behind the espresso machine. I believe one of them is Jose whilst Oswaldo is the chef in the kitchen, they are cousins who moved from Mexico and started this cafe 3 years ago. We order a flat white and hot chocolate to go, their tempting Mexican breakfast/lunch menu will have to wait for the next visit. As much as I’d like to be convinced they made the best coffee in Mt Barker, I do find my coffee a little weak and on the sweet side.

Nevertheless, the caffeine will perk me up for the next 4 hours drive down south, whilst the regional radio station South East 104.5FM keeps me entertained with Hanson, Stevie Wonder, Celine Dion, to Nirvana, Adele, Bruno Mars and Nickleback. I can’t help but find it amusing that the radio host, an old lady telling us in her jittery voice that the next song is by Enimem. Bless her! 🙂

Fodder – Food with Thought / Coonawarra

And before I know it, I have arrived at Coonawarra. Our first stop is at Fodder restaurant for lunch. The restaurant is usually closed on Tuesdays but they are kind enough to open the door just for us. The Fodder is situated in the old Coonawarra school house overlooking the vineyard across the road. It used to be a hotel serving pub grub, the massive cook-your-own-meat grill is still sitting right at the front of the restaurant but now used as a wine tasting table.

Owners Melissa and John Innes has taken over the space recently and revitalised it into a modern bistro-styled restaurant, emphasises on fresh produce, quality ingredients and gourmet pizzas from the wood-fired oven. And they take their pizza very seriously, we have to laugh when we saw the disclaimer at the bottom of the menu: “Don’t even bother to ask for pineapple or chicken! BYO if you insist.”  I guess Hawaiian Pizza is out of the question.

Melissa has already planned our lunch menu today. Nibble plates arrive at our table as soon as we are seated; we are greeted with labna, serrano ham, karitsa estate olives, then asparagus from their own garden with aged pecorino, chervil salmon rilette and lime cured salmon; all accompanied by fodder ‘turkey’ bread, a bit of tongue-in-cheek twist to Turkish bread.

The entree of surf & turf looks like a main to me, it is an Asian fusion of fresh South Australia garlic prawns with rare black Angus beef that is exceptionally juicy and tender, served on a bed of spaghetti with silken tofu, Asian herbs and dressing.

For main, we are pampered with olive and almond crusted south east lamb cutlets, roasted in the wood fired oven. The cutlet is on the verge of being overcooked and losing its pinkish tinge, but the meat is still surprisingly tender with a subtle smokiness from the wood-fire; served on minted pea risotto.

The dessert is an interesting one and I can’t really decide whether I like it or not. I called it the cheese baklava, it is a mille feuille made up of Coonawarra walnuts and quince paste sandwiched between layers of puff pastry and finished with Pyengana cheddar melted all over it. The classic combo of cheese and quince paste, salty and sweet, it works like a charm, I dig it, no problem. But it is a rich and heavy dessert packed with cheese, butter, fat and more fat; I simply have to stop at third spoonful.

As much as I’d like to stay a little longer at Fodder, it is time to move on as there are lot more to see and learn here at Coonawarra.

Old Coonawarra Railway Station

Not far from Fodder restaurant, we make a quick stop at the old Coonawarra railway station. This South Australia iconic landmark has been saved from the wreckers ball and still standing tall in the middle of the vineyards. You simply cannot visit the Coonawarra without taking the obligatory postcard snap at this old railway station.

Today I am very lucky to have Jacob’s Creek Barossa Vineyards Manager, Tim McCarthy, who drove all the way down from Barossa to meet me and give me an educational tour of their Coonawarra vineyard. Tim has spent a lot of time working in Coonawarra vineyards and knows this region like the back of his hand. He tells me what makes Coonawarra so special is because of its ”terra rossa” soil and he can’t wait to show me what is all about.

Coonawarra’s Terra Rossa

To the untrained eye, Coonawarra appears completely flat, but underneath all the healthy vineyards along Riddoch Highway is Australia’s most famous terra rossa red soil. It lies on a shallow limestone ridge covering an area of just 15 km x 2 km north of Penola. From an aerial photo, it is clearly shown that almost every inch of the ridge is now covered with vineyards. And from the ground, there’s really no better way to examine the red soil other than dig deep and go underground.

We drive to one of Jacob’s Creek vineyards where part of the soil has been dug up recently to show visitors the cutaway view of the soil formation. I am surprised to see the red soil is actually no deeper than 30 cm on top of the limestone, hence the roots can’t spread further into the ground which results in thinner grape vines.

Jacob’s Creek St Hugo Vineyard

It is the pruning season everywhere here in South Australia. I also get to meet Joe, one of the pruners here at the vineyard and he is more than happy to share his story on how he cut off the tip of a finger by using the electronic pruning shears. Ouch! Joe hands the shears over and lets me have a go at pruning, it is actually quite fun despite I am totally hopeless at it.

From what I gathered, the grapes growth and the quality of the wine can be reflected on how the grapevines are pruned. It is a case of quantity versus quality. Some vineyards would prefer less pruning and keep some of the stems trained along the wires, that way more grapes will grow. More grapes means more wine to be produced to supply the market’s demand. On another hand, here I see Joe is pruning the vines by cutting off the stems a lot closer to the main grape vine, Tim says this way they will yield less grapes but the flavour will be lot more intense. And this vineyard produces the most premium Cabernet Sauvignon Jacob’s Creek has to offer, the St Hugo Cabernet Sauvignon. I can’t wait to taste it with our meal at a very special restaurant in Penola tonight.

Last year wasn’t a good year for Jacob’s Creek due to the heavy rainfall in Coonawarra. Rain is their worst enemy, it wiped out the crop at the vineyards just a few days before harvest. Instead of selling the bad crop to other winemakers to produce some clean skins and make a quick buck, Tim believes it is unethical and none of the growers should be doing that. They didn’t produce any wine from this region last year, they scraped the whole lot and started from scratch, in the hope for a better crop this summer.

As far as I’m concerned, they did the right thing.

We check into our motel at Penola and have a few hours to spare before dinner. Instead of having a quick nap, I decide to go back to the vineyard to catch the sunset and I am so glad I did. The vineyard is absolutely beautiful seen in nocturnal light. I am absolutely fascinated by the grape vines as if they have come alive and start breathing, crystal-like dews are slowly excreted from the vines as the temperature drops.

The serenity only lasts for a short while before the mosquitoes start feeding on me. It’s time to head back and get ready as the dinner awaits.

Pipers of Penola

I have very little close to almost none dining experience in Adelaide, let alone regional South Australia. However,  my dining companion hinted that tonight’s dinner at Pipers of Penola is going to be a special one. I’m not sure what to expect but I am ready to be tantalised.

As we arrive outside of the restaurant, my first impression is that I am already loving this place. Pipers of Penola is housed inside a tiny weatherboard Methodist church that was built in 1908. This humble restaurant fits no more than 10 tables, all draped with thousand thread count thick white linen, but my eyes are immediately drawn to the food-art on the wall by Tasmanian artist, Tom Samek. The whimsical subject on each artwork lightens up the elegant surrounding.

It might be modest in proportions but this highly acclaimed restaurant has earned its keep with accolades as the Best Regional Restaurant of South Australia 2011 at the Restaurant & Catering SA Awards for Excellence, which is their 3rd win in a row.

Chef /Owner Simon Bowen and wife Erika at front of house have the simple philosophy of offering a high-standard fine-dining experience in a small town like Penola. The a la carte menu showcases top quality regional produce matching with classic and modern French techniques.

The little attention to detail is impeccable, even the butter has an imprint of their logo. We are welcomed with a complimentary amuse bouche of cauliflower soup infused with truffle oil, the soup is light, airy and velvety smooth with a hint of earthy truffle oil.

For entree, my dining companion opts for the roasted pumpkin tortellini, three perfectly folded tortellini are cooked to al dante, slippery on the lips; the nuttiness of brown butter and the earthiness of truffled parmesan enhance the sweetness of the roasted pumpkin filling. I order the seared Parisian gnocchi and it is definitely one of the best, if not the best, gnocchi I’ve ever had for a long time. You can simply tell that the gnocchi is made by a skillful chef who is also a perfectionist. Every single gnocchi is cut to exact same shape and size, they are pillowy soft like marshmallow on the inside with a lightly seared crispy outer shell, accompanied with juicy garlic prawns and chopped samphire, a perfect balance of sweet and saltiness.

Resistance is futile, I simply have to order the crispy skin pork belly for my main. It arrives with a big square block of pork belly served on a bed of caraway braised cabbage, minted mushy peas and mandarin salsa on the top. First thing I do is to quickly scrape the mandarin salsa on top aside to protect my beautiful golden tile of crunchy crackling before it goes soggy. The pork belly is a textural beast, soft juicy braised meat with earth shattering crunchy crackles, I think I am having a Meg Ryan moment. The acidity of mandarin salsa cuts through the richness while the braised cabbage and minted peas are the ideal accompaniments with the pork belly.

I do find small towns are usually generous with portion size. The fish dish arrives with four seared Coorong mullet fillets stacked on a bed squid ink linguini, accompanied by two king crab and chorizo kromeski balls sit on leek and vermouth puree smears, and finishes off with fennel salad. We also order a side of roasted kipfler potatoes which we hardly make a dent as we are struggling too finish our mains.

Time for desserts, but I do find the menu is rather limited on options and not really their forté. The only item that intrigues me is the Chocolate Terra Rosa. It is a clever play on the ‘soil’ that this region is famous for, a thin stick of chocolate tart is constructed with strawberry compote as the red soil, the toasted snowy white Italian meringue is obviously the limestone ridge and the bottom layer is a thick rich chocolate ganache on a buttery shortcrust pastry. There is also walnut soil on the plate as Erika tells us usually you will see walnuts on the tree just before the grapes start growing on the vine.

We also order house made lemon and pineapple sorbets to compliment with the chocolate tart. Both sorbets are refreshingly sharp and zingy, as the similarities in both flavour profiles, it can get bit lost when having them together. Also, we find there is a hint of garlic aftertaste lingering in our mouth from the pineapple sorbet, perhaps it was a little mistake of using the same chopping board during preparation.

My sweet palates are still craving to try something a little bit different, the gingerbread ice cream for instance. We ask for a small tasting scoop, the flavour is subtle without a gingery kick as I’d expected. Nevertheless, the ice cream is creamy and smooth.

It has been a long day and the scrumptious meal at Pipers of Penola has definitely put me into food coma and ready for bed.

The little town called Penola

As much as I’d love to have a lie in, I wake up bright and early the next morning as I have another long road trip ahead of me. But I can’t simply leave without having my own little exploration of this little town called Penola. Best known as the home of Saint Mary Mackillop, Penola is the town with a population of 1300 odd people. Scottish born Alexander Cameron, a pastoral pioneer who squatted the area in 1845, founded Penola in 1850. A commemoration bronze statue of Cameron can be found on the main street. I have a quick stroll around Mary MacKillop Penola Centre, marvel at the 1867 stone schoolhouse where Mary and her sister Annie used to teach.

Penola is a quaint little town, well endowed with excellent food, finest wine and deep history.

I hop back into my hire car and head north, my next destination – Barossa Valley.

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More info on:
Jacob's Creek - Coonawarra
Sazon Espresso
Shop 1/24 Gawler Street
Mount Barker
SA 5251
P: (08) 8391 4641
Fodder - Food with Thought
Memorial Dr
Coonawarra SA 5263
P: (08) 8736 3170

Opening Hours:
Mon, Thu-Sun 11.30am - 10pm
Pipers of Penola
58 Riddoch Street
Penola, South Australia, 5277
P:(08) 8737 3999

Opening hours:
Tue - Sat 6pm - 10pm