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The long and wine-ding road.

Our long-awaited return to the Australia’s oldest producing wine region has finally happened just recently and Hunter Valley never fails to amaze and inspire as I am yet slowly unearthing more hidden gems among the tangled vines. We picked the last crop of hailstorm surviving grapes at Mount View during the harvest time in March, and this time we will be in the midst of pruning season at Hermitage Road. Despite the whole wine region looks monotone with leafless scrawny vines on dry soils, there are still plenty of activities to be discovered, fine wine to be drank and scrumptious feast to be devoured. But first, let’s check into our little weekend getaway at Billabong Moon.

Billabong Moon

Billabong Moon is tucked away among the vineyards and olive groves on Hermitage Road. There are five unique cottages sprawls over a twenty-five acres of natural vegetation that offers plenty of privacy. While I adore the Treetops cottage which comes with an outdoor bathtub where you can enjoy a warm bath under the starlit sky right in the midst of the woods, our Billabong Cottage is possibly the ultimate little hideaway overlooking a manmade billabong that offers nothing but tranquility and serenity.

The expansive view of the billabong from our cottage. We’ve been there are silver perch aplenty in the dam if we feel like fishing, or take the little boat out for a paddle.

It is not that difficult to feel right at home in this cottage. Both rooms offers queen size beds and private ensuite with spa bath. A fireplace in the living room keeps the cottage warm and cozy in winter nights. We take a quick freshen up and ready to head out for dinner at The Beltree.

The Beltree Trattoria

“Drive slowly in the dark as there are kangaroos and wombats about.” We’ve been informed before making our way to the Beltree at the far north end on Hermitage Road. That’s right, Beltree with one ‘L’. After spending almost half a year living like the Italian at the breathtaking coastline in Positano and trained under Michelin star chef, Guy Parkinson and partner Jess finally came back to Australia and took the realm at Beltree in August 2011, offering a seasonal contemporary Italian menu designed to share.

The restaurant is located in the former Margan winery before it moved further down the road at Broke, hence a custom signed glass window still remains. The alfresco seating proven to be more popular during the day whereas sitting inside in front of a fireplace is definitely more appealing this evening.

Warm ciabatta and green olives welcome us as we settling in and perusing the menu of this evening on two blackboards hanging on the wall. Jess runs the floor and introduces us to a few specials on the menu this evening – I do have my eye on the suckling pig. As we are about to decide what we would like to order, Jess comes back and tells us that the chef would like to prepare a “la tavola” for us this evening, basically leaving it to the chef to choose our 3-course menu with matching wine. “The locals usually come in and let Guy to decide and choose whatever he wants to put on the table for them,” she added.

We are off to a good start, a wooden board of waxy charcuterie garnished with house pickled vegetables and white anchovy is begging to be eaten. These cured meat are produced in Queensland, the bresaola is our favourite, soft with intense flavour and peppery spicy; the coppa pork neck is silky smooth with ribbons of fat that makes you feel like wearing lip gloss the more you chew; and the calabrese sausage has the fiery heat same as the chorizo. The pickled vegetables add the crunch and cut through the fat nicely.

Never say no to “parfait”, or as they called it pate here at Beltree. The duck liver pate is as smooth as baby’s bottom from passing the liver mixture through the sift numerous times to achieve such finest consistency; pairs with sweet Cantiano sourcherries jam whereas tiny sour cornichon brings a nice balance to the richness. We find ourselves happily scraping up the pate and spread all over the crispy carta di musica, bliss.

A waitstaff brings out a board of suckling pig and heads to our table, my most anticipated dish is finally here. She then explains to us, “This is the suckling pig special on the menu, I thought I will bring over so you can have a look before I take it over to the next table who orders it.” She then walks away… OH, SUCH CRUELTY!!!

No suckling pig, we settle with hand rolled potato gnocchi instead. These gnocchi are some of the best I’ve tasted, a little bit bigger than the normal oblong shape, but these pillowy morsels are delicately soft and light; served with a hearty duck ragu.

The house made Italian pork sausage is a must try. The sausage is meaty and has some bite to it, packed with flavours especially the fennel is distinguishably noticeable. It is served on a bed of polenta di Storo which we’ve been told has more texture than the normal ones, fried farro grains add a nice crunch and the aroma of shaved reggiano is enough for me to put on an Italian accent and call out, “Mama mia!”

Dessert deserves an extra stomach space, the simplicity of red wine poached pear served with ginger gelato is delightfully scrumptious. On the other hand, I find the caramelised lemon tart is a little “yolky” in flavour as I believe it is made with duck eggs, the flavour is quite strong which makes the thyme infused mascarpone rather lost in the combo.

Despite I am still crying inside for not getting to try the suckling pig, our dinner has been fantastic. “La Tavola” for $69 per person is a great way to sample a variety of dishes from the menu. But next time, I am diving straight in for the suckling pig at $90!


Breakfast at Billabong Moon

Absolutely gutted that our scheduled hot air ballooning on the very next morning has been cancelled due to strong wind. Boo…… never mind, sleep in and breakfast in the cottage that is.

All cottages except the guest suite has self-cooking breakfast provisions which you can cook up a hearty English breakfast for two. How do you like your eggs?

No hot air balloon isn’t all bad. We play golf…

and paddle a boat… Okay, enough of that, let’s pour some wine into our system to drown our hot air balloon misery.

Around Hermitage

You’ll notice many of the wineries, accommodations and restaurants around Hermitage Road are members of the Around Hermitage association and have a red sign outside of the entrance. Vicci Lashmore-Smith from Misty Glen Wines bought the property two years ago and also volunteered to run the association and put all the wineries at this part of the valley on the map. There are still many wineries on Hermitage Road I’ve never heard of, the majority are small boutique wineries that usually you won’t find their wines in the bottle shops but only through the cellar door.

Our first stop is at Mistletoe Wines which has a 5 Red Star rating from the James Halliday wine guide 2012 with their 2009 Reserve Shiraz rated at 97 points. On top of that, Mistletoe is also an art gallery, hence photography isn’t allowed inside due to artists’ copyrights of the artwork.

Next stop is at DenMar Estate for tasting and lunch. Proud owners Dennis and Marie named their winery by combining their own names, hence DenMar was born. DenMar is one of the few in Hunter Valley that is gutsy enough to give Pinot Noir a go, but it was their 2007 Chardonnay that took the gong and awarded a Silver medal at the Hunter Valley wine show.

While Dennis talking us through their wine list, Marie has been busy cooking us a humble lunch. They open Cafe DenMar just last year during Easter, nothing fancy, but just simple honest food.

In between, we also popped into Oakvale Wines and discovered they have just released an apple cider two weeks ago. It is bottled the traditional way, with cork, and you pay a little extra, but they are totally worth it; one of the best ciders I’ve ever tasted. Not to mention the label is darn pretty too! Then we got tipped off to visit Piggs Peake and try their dessert wines, especially one named “Thick As”. I’ve tried Piggs Peake wines a while back at Atelier for a pork function (as you do) and loved it. This time I picked up two of their dessert wines, the semillon Boartrytis and the shiraz Suckling Pig. Then we try the “thick as”, it is like pouring a bag of sugar down the throat, we both find it way too sweet for our palates and give it a miss.

James Estate is our next stop, it is right at the entrance of Hermitage Road if you are coming from the central of Pokolbin. James Estate’s winery is actually located at upper Hunter Valley in Baerami which is a little out of the way for visitors to venture out to. Hence they set up a cellar door here in Hermitage Road a couple of years back to capture the traffic. James Estate’s wines are countless and they’ve been trying a few other possibilities including the Vitai, a Semillon where they just let the wine ferment in the barrels without touching it. The end result is a sweet wine with a hint of freshly cut grass undertone. But we are more interested in the Jimmy Jack range, the winemaker who also happened to be a mountain biking nut has created this range purely for his mountain biking group. We actually find the 2006 Jimmy Jack Shiraz is exceptionally drinkable.

Our last wine tasting is at Misty Glen Wines with Vicci. They have five varieties of wines from vines grown on a 16 acres of land, they are also one of the few in Hunter that produces the Chambourcin variety. Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are their best wines to try.

Vicci offers to take us for a walk in the vineyard, along with her two golden retrievers, “Chardonnay” and “Semillon”. The vineyard has an expansive view of the Brokenback Range, it is simply breathtaking as the sunsetting in the horizon while the sky changes into a violet blue hue. It is not difficult to see why Vicci left her Newport home in Northern Beaches, Sydney and moved up to Hunter Valley.

For those who are looking at having a sea change, to purchase an already established vineyard in Hunter Valley with acreage and a 3 bedroom house will set you back at $900,000 we’ve been told. And there are a few vineyards around Hermitage Road are on the market actually, interetsted anyone?

The Mill Restaurant

The Tuscany Wine Estate is a big complex which consists of The Brokenback Tapas Bar, Arrowfield Cellar Door, The Binnorie Dairy Cheese Shop and also The Mill Restaurant is where we will have our dinner this evening. A pre-dinner drink at the Brokenback Bar has been organised for us but only later find ourselves gatecrashing a post-wedding dinner party, awkwardly introduced ourselves to the happily married couple and congratulated them for their big day. We didn’t stay long to avoid any more awkward moments and head over to The Mill for our quiet dinner.

Last time I was at The Mill was during the Amazing Hunter Valley Race which was heaps of fun. Kirsty Gregson, the general manager of The Tuscany Wine Resort did mentioned there will be some changing hands in the kitchen and tonight we are introduced to the new-ish chef who has only been here for few months.

My recent obsession with sourdough making had me admiring these crusty ciabatta, dipping liberally in EVOO and balsamic vinegar and dust it with a coat of dukkah spice, every bite is filled of contentment.

The entree menu offers an Asian fusion selections. A refreshing star anise and coriander cured duck breast and endive salad is a healthy option to kick start the meal. Thin slivers of spiced duck meat is chewy but soft like jamon, its gamey flavour is intense and prominent from the curing and balanced nicely with the sweetness of pomegranate seeds in moscato dressing.

I order the tempura of soft shell crab, a whole crab is battered and deep fried served with a mild nahm jim dressing, on a bed of green papaya salad which sadly monopolised by shredded red cabbage that is rather bitter in taste.

The confit pork belly couldn’t escape its fate and landed on our table. Two generous hunk of pork belly had been confited to lock in all the porky flavours but the pig can do a little bit more swimming in the water bath for a better tender experience. The skin is scorched for the crunch but sadly I find there is a still a thick layer of skin and fat underneath that hasn’t been rendered out which resulted a tacky, leathery chewiness.

Fish of the day changes regularly and tonight I have the opportunity to try the steak of the sea, a thick slice of swordfish is grilled to perfection, soft flesh and just cooked through, it is meaty but not dry. However I do find the fish can do with a little bit of seasoning, but hand cut potato chips cooked in beef fat saves the day.

Oh look, it’s liquorice allsort! As much as I hate to say this, sadly the dessert doesn’t live up to its whimsical presentation. We find the mango and strawberry with licorice pannacotta are a little heavy handed on the gelatin, they are firm and bouncy like a tennis ball, the macaron is biscuit-y crunchy rather than the soft chewiness that I am used to. And beware of the toffee shards, best to leave it if you do not want to lose any dental filling that is.

On the other hand, the passionfruit parfait is a lot more enjoyable. Tangy, zingy passionfruit parfait is invitingly refreshing, coated in crushed sable breton gives it a nice crunch, served with seasonal berries that has been macerated in dessert wine for a boozy finish. I reckon we will sleep well tonight.

Black Creek Farm

Our final day in Hunter Valley is a relaxing one. We grab a quick breakfast at Petersons Champagne House which has changed their name and now simply called Petersons House to avoid any defamation. And we spend the rest of the morning browsing at Hermitage Road Antiques that is piled with nautical artifacts and old large format cameras, a place worth visit.

Our final meal in Hunter is at Black Creek Farm, the newest kid on the block in Rothbury which opened in June 2012. It is located on the Old North Road which connects Hermitage Road and Rothbury. Despite its secluded location, this highly anticipated restaurant has already attracted a large number of lunch goers and the whole restaurant is almost full on a Sunday afternoon.

The restaurant is set inside an old farm house but tastefully decorated with heavy country-style wooden tables and chairs, whereas marble tablewares and turqoise glasswares imported from Indonesia add a personal glamorous yet quirky touch to the whole setting. And I love the menu is presented in a colour pencils case tin.

We opt to sit outside on the balcony overlooking the vineyard below, a Sunday lunch simply can’t get any better than this.

The menu is designed to share, we are settling in with warm marinated farm olives and spiced nuts to start off with. While I can’t stop munching on the delicious crunchy spiced nuts, but it is the olives that have been marinated in herbs and garlic then served warm totally blown us away.

I like the sound of chilli beans, salsa and tortilla. The bean mash is a little dry, but nothing can’t be save with a good salsa (or is that a guacamole?) It is a great DIY dish to share at the table.

Once we had our entrees, it then turns into a waiting game. It takes almost 45 minutes for our mains to arrive. We both share a spiced baby chicken, nice juicy meat smothered in a zingy harissa sauce with preserved lemons and farm olives.

‘The farm’ house pie today is rabbit. The pie comes served in a rustic enamel plate, almost an inch thick of puffy pastry like a mystery bag, we can’t wait to pierce it open to reveal what is inside.

The pie is filled to the brim with shredded rabbit meat and mirepoix, the flavour of the rabbit is subtle almost like chicken. No explanation on what the sauce that accompanies the pie, neither is written on menu, but we didn’t need it as the pie is good on its own. However, I would have stamped a gold star on this dish if isn’t because of the soggy pastry on the side and bottom of the pie which is still doughy and undercooked.

We also order a vegetarian dish to counterbalance with all the meaty dishes. Highly recommended by the waitstaff, this salad is an edible garden of sweet roasted baby beetroot and heirloom cherry tomatoes, dabbed with sharp Binnorie feta and a drizzle of tangy white balsamic vinegar.

And a meal is not complete without dessert. The beautifully presented chocolate and hazelnut mousse is best to share, it is rich and decadent, each mouthful of silky smooth mousse is accompanied by crunchy hazelnut praline.

The creme brulee comes in two flavours, the ones we try are blueberries and lemongrass. The blueberry brulee is more accessible for everyone’s palate and even though the lemongrass brulee might sound peculiar but surprisingly it gradually grows on me and finding myself loving it.

Despite our disappointment missing out on hot air balloon ride, our weekend around Hermitage Road had us recharged and rejuvenated, if not a few pounds heavier. Until next time.

Billabong Moon
393 Hermitage Rd, Pokolbin NSW 2320 Australia
P: +61 (0)2 6574 7290

The Beltree
266 Hermitage Road, Pokolbin NSW 2320
P: 02 6574 7216

Mistletoe Wines
771 Hermitage Road
Pokolbin NSW 2320
Australia Free Call: 1800 055 080
Telephone: 02 4998 7770

DenMar Estate
479 Hermitage Road,
Pokolbin NSW 2320
p. 02 6574 7291

James Estate Wines
1210 Hermitage Rd, Pokolbin NSW 2320
P: (02) 4998 7992

Misty Glen Wines
293 Deasys Road  Pokolbin NSW 2320
P: (02)4998 7781

The Mill Restaurant
cr hermitage road & mistletoe lane
pokolbin nsw 2320
P: +61 2 4998 7288

Black Creek Farm
803 Old North Road, Rothbury NSW 2325 P (02) 49383484

A table for two visited HV as a guest of Hunter Valley Wine Country Tourism