You are not permitted to download, save or email this image. Visit image gallery to purchase the image.
In a cosy little restaurant in the cosmopolitan inner-Sydney suburb of Paddington, I’m waiting in anticipation to taste dishes from one of the Hunter Valley’s most acclaimed young chefs - multi award-winning Josh Niland.
He moved from the region to the big city as creator of the Fish Butchery, Australia’s first sustainable fishmonger, and is owner of the award-winning 34-seat restaurant I’m in - the two-hatted Saint Peter, focused on using the whole fish with no waste.
I ease into the intriguing menu with a selection of flavoursome local oysters, before a selection of Fish Butchery Charcuterie (including the gamey fish head terrine) and a starter of Tasmanian Long Spine Sea Urchin Crumpet, with a thick gravy jelly texture.
A main of Bowen line-caught coral trout, leeks, spinach and finger lime in verjuice with a side of black figs, fromage blanc, macadamia and pickled roses completes the most exciting fish menu you’ll find - it’s no wonder Niland and his projects have won many important accolades and the respect of peers, including Nigella Lawson, who called him simply, ‘‘a genius’’.
The next morning, I’m up before dawn to get a bird’s-eye view of the region Niland grew up in and where his passion for cooking started at just age 13 - the Hunter Valley.
In a Balloon Aloft hot air balloon, around a dozen of us fit tightly into the wicker basket, taking in the views of vineyards patchworking the fields of Australia’s birthplace of wine as curious kangaroos and their joeys look up at us. It’s peaceful hanging in mid-air as the rising sun peeks behind mountains sketched in the distance.
Later, I meet another innovative Hunter Valley chef, Frank Fawkner, who has created a special dining experience at his EXP Restaurant. The degustation menu starts with appellation oysters (meaning they are hand-selected by the farmer as their finest) with house-made green tea kombucha granita, paired with a nashi pear prosecco.
Restaurant manager Harrison Plant (the youngest person in the world to graduate with the title of International Butler) is knowledgeable about the wine pairings and says the Hunter Valley wines are similar to those of Spain, but not as heavy and with better fruit.
There’s more chance to discover the wine of the region the next morning on the Two Fat Blokes wine tour, starting at Misty Glen Wines. Owner Eric Smith pours us generous samplings, including a spritzy semillon, buttery chardonnay, cherry-flavoured rose and a sparkling chambourcin, the crowd-favourite with its festive blackcurrant and mulberry flavour.
He tells us the picking season in Hunter Valley is shorter than in other regions and that the shiraz grapes grow smaller and in tighter clusters, so they’re vulnerable to rain with very thin skins.
We’re told semillon is the No 1 wine of the region (followed by shiraz) and should be drunk in the first four years, or more than eight. Another tip is that wine in a clear bottle needs to be drunk right away.
Next, we’re off to Tintilla Estate for a blind tasting of the family-run estate’s handmade wines. We do badly on the test, but enjoy the atmosphere of the vineyard, set next to tidy rows of vines with red roses at the end of each.
Running late, I arrive five minutes before closing at The Wood Restaurant, but they accommodate me with good humour and I’m glad they did, as they offer the best wine (Brokenwood pinot) and my favourite meal of the trip.
In the elegant bistro atmosphere, I savour each bite of acclaimed chef Andrew Wright’s hapuku with Cloudy Bay clams, ’nduja (a spicy pork salume), caper and anchovy butter with Serrano jamon.
It warms the spirit with its rustic herby saltiness and the perfect level of spicy heat, offering the best end to a long weekend in food and wine heaven in the Hunter Valley. - The New Zealand Herald
Getting there: Air New Zealand, Qantas and Jetstar offer direct flights from Auckland to Sydney.
Hunter Valley is just over two-hours’ drive from Sydney CBD.
Where to stay: Kirkton Park Hunter Valley has a Grecian-style pool house and countryside surrounds and is the perfect escape from the daily grind.