Friday, May 19, 2017

Hunters Gatherers Cooking from the Heart

A funny thing happened a couple of weeks ago. I received a message from a Twitter friend who had won a competition through our local ABC radio station to take 10 friends to the Hunter Valley for a day of feasting… and I was one of the 10 names she put forward. Hells bells! Before I knew it I was on a road trip to culinary heaven with some people Id never met before (in real life).

After preliminary how-do-you-dos at the ABC Newcastle office and some face-to-face conversations that involved responses over 140 characters in a coach from Newcastle to Pokolbin, our group of Twitter friends disembarked at the perfectly positioned Audrey Wilkinson Vineyard, high atop a ridge overlooking row after row of grape vines and the beautiful Hunter Valley.
Cue the first utterances of ‘Oh, my God’ for the day. I’ve been to a number of vineyards in the Hunter, but this was my first visit to Audrey Wilkinson Vineyard and I was so pleased to be taken to a new-to-me vineyard in a pocket of the Valley Id not been to before. Extraordinary views and a complimentary glass of Verdelho aside, the set-up on the verandah of the vineyards main lodge made it abundantly clear just what an amazing day was ahead of us. To the left was a giant paella pan and to the right a BBQ with duck breasts already sizzling away with two chefs busily prepping our lunch. Directly in front of us, a long table dressed in white linen and three wine glasses at each setting. Up the back, a table from which ABC1233 would be live-crossing from for the afternoon. Cue second round of “Oh my God”.

Whilst the first round of white wines was poured with instructions to drink from left to right, Carol Duncan, the outright affable afternoon host on ABC1233, began conducting the live-cross with interviews from winemakers from Audrey Wilkinson Vineyard, The Little Wine Company and Tower Estate. It was interesting to hear their perspectives of a challenging but highly rewarding industry that many of the heavy hitters haven’t been able to handle as illustrated by their departures over recent years. These days, the heart of the Hunter Valley wineries is family-run vineyards whose passion for outstanding wine-making outweighs profits.
Next up, a nifty labna-making demonstration from the Hunter Valley Cheese Company. Having made labna for the first time not long ago it was a great reminder to get another batch made up with some new ideas for flavourings.
Then our attention turned to the paella that was being cooked up by Andy Wright of The Cellar Restaurant. Three things I learnt:
+ Too much chorizo is never enough
+ I should be adding a lot more smoked paprika than I do
+ A dollop of saffron aioli atop a plate of beautifully cooked paella, whilst unconventional, is the bee’s knees.

A breather by way of olive oil and vinegar tastings from Pukara Estate was a real eye opener. Guava vinegar? Caramelised balsalmic vinegar? Wasabi olive oil? Yes, yes and yes! As we went along the line of samplers with our pieces of dipping bread, my brain was in overdrive with all the ideas about how to use each oil or vinegar.
So by this point, just when we thought we couldn’t take anymore of our minds being blown, along comes a fresh row of wines, this time reds, to accompany the next course which just happens to be one of my favourite dishes of all time – duck. Local duck nonetheless, from the same farm we acquired our pet chickens. This stellar dish by Matt Dillow of Verandah Restaurant made clear, in a very toothsome way, just how amazing the produce of the Hunter Valley is.  Lucky for us, Matt has kindly shared his recipe for us all to enjoy.

For a place I thought I knew well I realised quite quickly just how much of the Hunter Valley there still is for me to discover. Yes, there is great wine and food, but more that there are passionate producers who love what they do and want to share it with you. I’ll be getting out my Gregory’s and see what else I can uncover. In the meantime duck.

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