It has been a while since our last themed family feast. We usually save them for special occasions like birthdays and in the last 6 weeks we’ve had plenty of opportunities as we had 4 birthdays to celebrate. First was Anne’s, who turned 15 and requested her junk food, aka KFC, MacDonalds, pizzas and ice cream cake. I prepared a green cob salad for good measure, but dinner was pretty much a matter of Mr T driving around collecting take out!

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Then it was Tania’s turn, and though we didn’t celebrate on the actual day, we all gathered 2 weeks later for a “comfort food” lunch. The cold weather had a lot to do with the theme choice and unsurprisingly everyone picked delicious high carb dishes to make. Think roast pork, cauliflower gratin, mac and cheese, pulled pork pies, apple pie and ice cream. A very white and brown meal saved for the fennel and mache salad I put together at the last minute (I can’t help myself, I need greens on the table!)

For the boys (Malcolm and his son, Harry), the choice was easy: Mal elected to eat out at the Bavarian Café, so we all feasted on pork knuckle and sauerkraut (and copious amount of beer for some of us) while Harry preferred to host the family at home (his) with you guessed it, KFC, pizzas, sausage rolls and lollies! It is a Steen’s ritual after all I think.

By now you are probably wondering whatever happened to our gourmet feasts of old. Well let me take you back to late April, on a balmy autumn afternoon. It was close to my birthday, and though lunch wasn’t meant to be a birthday lunch, we ate and drank in a celebratory fashion…I called the theme “Wine country picnic lunch”, inspired by a recent trip to the Mornington Peninsula where we spent 4 days exploring vineyards and eating our way thru glorious restaurants and cellars doors. One of the highlights was at Foxey’s Hangout where 9 of us sat on the terrace overlooking the vines and feasted on the 7 course chef’s menu, which consisted of little plates of everything from the menu matched with their house wines. The standout was mushroom sausage rolls, which were so meaty and flavourful, I swore to replicate the dish as soon as we came home.

When asked by our guests what to bring, my instructions were thus to think of anything that they would take on a picnic and would fit on a wooden board.
I love to be surrounded by people who love food just as much as I do, so it is always exciting to see the girls roll with whatever theme is chosen and the results were nothing short of delicious.

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Shelley and Tania gave me a giant board as a gift, shaped from the top of a wine barrel. That was the perfect vessel for the best looking cheese and charcuterie board, showcasing all sorts of cured meats, pates, gooey cheeses, briny olives and luscious honeycomb.

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Tania made a smoked salmon terrine, enriched with anchovy and caper butter.

 

Rosalie’s filo pastry quiches were a hit, as were Danielle’s pork sausage rolls and perfect companions to my mushroom rolls.

 

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As usual I prepared a green salad, this time it was a warm one, made of sautéed zucchinis and mint served alongside roasted sweet potatoes. These were to go with the chicken kebabs that Craig had brought along.

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Dessert was a lot of fun: I could not decide on a single one so I prepared 4 plates. Admittedly, one was a fruit platter, because who doesn’t like to pick at berries and grapes at the end of a meal. Then I had leftover white chocolate and raspberry birthday cake from the day before, so cut it into bit sized squares. Still wanting to cook something, I turned to the pantry and found a bag of culinary lavender I brought back from Tasmania a while ago and decided to make madeleines with them. Finally, following Anne’s request for a paleo kind of dessert, I came up with a peanut chocolate tartlets recipe which was a hit.

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The morning after…

To keep with the Wine Country Picnic theme, I selected wines to match from my own cellar (more a dark spot in the recess of our laundry masquerading as a cellar!) which we had collected during our road trips over the past 3 years. With Sparkling Rose from Foxey’s Hangout ( Mornington Peninsula ), Keith Tulloch’s Semillon ( Hunter Valley ), Devils Corner Pinot Noir ( Tasmania ), Artemis Pinot Noir ( Southern Highlands ), Cupitt’s Slaughterhouse Red ( NSW South Coast ) and the iconic Wolf Blass grey Label Shiraz ( McLaren Vale ), lunch lasted well into the night as we ate and drank our way around Australia’s wine country.

Needless to say that we had some leftovers and the beauty of finger food is that it was perfect for lunch boxes or just light snacks to have with coffee!!

 

Mushroom “Sausage” rolls

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This is my take on these yummy mushrooms rolls from Foxeys Hangout. It is adapted from a recipe from Le Petit Oeuf, which also include comte cheese. I have kept it very simple with only mushrooms and a few aromatics and puff pastry ( or paleo pastry if you prefer ), leaving out the cheese. Serve with a spicy tomato chutney or plain tomato sauce, and watch them disappear. Even our mushroom haters love them!
Serves 18-20 bite sized pieces as part of a buffet or 4 rolls

Ingredients
4 sheets of puff pastry ( thawed out if frozen )
4 tbsp olive oil
1 kg of mixed mushrooms (swiss browns, flat, portobello…the more variety, the stronger the flavour ), cleaned and roughly chopped
2 large brown onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
Thyme sprigs ( or 1 tbsp of dried thyme )
1 beaten egg
1. Keep the puff pastry in the fridge until ready to use.
2. Prepare the mushroom filling: Heat 2 tbsp of olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and fry for 5-10 minutes, stirring until softened. Add the thyme and garlic and cook for another minute or two. Remove the onion mix from the pan and set aside in a bowl. Place the pan back on high heat, add the rest of the olive oil then the mushrooms. Cook for about 10 minutes, until they are soft and all the moisture has come out of them. You want a dry pan. Turn off the heat and remove the mushrooms, add them to the onion/garlic/thyme mix and leave to cool. Chill in the fridge until ready to assemble the rolls.
3. Assemble the rolls: Take the puff pastry sheets out of the fridge. Lay a quarter of the mushroom mix down the long middle of the pastry, making a big pile that runs to the edges of the pastry. Roll the pastry over the top, squeezing the contents tight ( as you would for a sushi roll ). As you reach the end of the roll, brush the last 1cm of pastry with the beaten egg, before finishing rolling. The egg will seal the roll. Trim the ends of the roll and place on a grill over a baking tray. Brush all over the top with the beaten egg and place in the fridge. Repeat with the other 3 sheets of pastry then leave in the fridge for 20 minutes or so for the rolls to firm up
4. Once well chilled, bake for 25 minutes in the oven pre-heated to 220C. They should be golden and puffed on top.
5. Slice in bite sized pieces and serve on a board accompanied with tomato sauce.

Lavender Spiced Honey Madeleines

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Lavender madeleines garnished with rosemary twigs, because I ran out of lavender sticks and I was told they both belong to the same family of plants

I have made these delicious sweet morcels a few times now, using a packet of culinary lavender I purchased during our Tasmanian road trip. The recipe is not mine, it is from Donna Hay, one of my favourite Australian food writer/stylist. It only takes 5 minutes to prepare and 10 minutes to bake, so I find it ideal to pop in the oven when pressed for time and you still want to have something nice and sweet. The lavender lends a subtle yet not overly floral scent while the honey gives the cake a lovely spicy taste. Delicious for dessert or with a cup of tea!

Makes 12

Ingredients:
½ cups plain flour, sifted
½ tsp baking powder, sifted
1/3 cup caster sugar
1 tsp dried lavender
2 eggs
80g unsalted butter, melted
1 tbsp honey
1 tsp vanilla essence
1. Pre-heat oven to 180C
2. Place the flour, baking powder, sugar, lavender, eggs, melted butter, honey and vanilla in a large bowl and whish until smooth.
3. Spoon the mixture into a lightly greased 12-hole madeleine tin. Cook for 8-10 minutes or until puffed and golden ( they certainly don’t take longer than 10mn !)
4. Remove from the tin and set aside to cool a little. Sprinkle with icing sugar and 1 tsp of dried lavender and serve.

 

Chocolate Peanut Tarts

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I found this recipe in a Vegan magazine, and adapted it to suit our paleo’s palate. While our diet is becoming increasingly plant based, we still like a bit of meat and dairy. I think, flexitarian is the term? So though this is a gluten free dessert, it does contain a little bit of dairy from the chocolate and a lot of nuts. The filling is a mix of coconut cream, peanut butter, chocolate and maple syrup which is smooth and quite rich. The base is coconut flavoured, and very short and crumbly in a nice way. Because of the richness of it, I find it better to bake small bite sized tartlets rather than bigger tarts. Then again, it depends how hungry your guests are!!!

Makes 5-6 tarts or 24 bite sized tartlets

Ingredients:

For the base
100g plain gluten free flour ( I mix tapioca and corn flour )
65g coconut flour
160g coconut oil, solid
5 tbsp maple syrup

For the filling
2 tins of coconut milk, cream only ( place the tins in the fridge first )
80g smooth peanut butter ( I used Mayver’s Smooth Dark Roasted Peanut Butter )
20g dark chocolate ( 70% or more )
1 tsp maple syrup

1. For the base: preheat the oven to 180C and grease the tartlet tins with butter
In a large mixing bowl, combine the gluten free flour, coconut flour, solid coconut oil and maple syrup. Mix and bring together with your fingers until a dough forms.
Press the dough into the tins, prick with a fork and place in the oven for 9-10 minutes until golden in colour ( watch that they do not burn! ) Allow to cool before filling
2. For the filling: scoop out the solid coconut cream from the top of the coconut milk and place in a saucepan. Heat gently until hot ( not boiling )
While the coconut cream is hot, stir in the peanut butter, chocolate and maple syrup until smooth and creamy. Set the filling aside to cool for about 30 minutes.
3. Once all cooled, spoon the filling into the tartlet crusts, pop into the fridge and allow to set, 1 or 2 hours.
4. The tarts/tartlets will keep in a sealed container in the fridge for a few days, though the crust will soften over time.

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The same crust, 2 ways: peanut butter chocolate filling in the foreground, raspberries and cream in the background

 

 

 

 

The problem when planning a country getaway is that I rely on the weather to be cooperative. Sunny and warm is the ideal, if not balmy and mild at the very least.
This is day two of our midweek getaway in the Hunter Valley and this morning we wake up to the worst conditions possible: it is blowing a gale, heavy rains are threatening to flood the whole Hunter region and the bureau of meteorology has issued a severe weather warning for the next 3 days! And to think that we were sipping wine under the verandah and relaxing by the pool yesterday…

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The plan for the day is to book a half day winery tour, maybe fit in a hike somewhere before dining at Muse, one of the Hunter Valley finest restaurants ( highly recommended by my friend Elaine, who sadly had to leave us the day before so she will miss out ).
Of the many tour operators advertising, a lot don’t run midweek and by the time I find someone who does, it is close to lunchtime and we decide it is too late to organise, preferring to do our own thing instead.
We are both famished ( the villa only provides basic tea and coffee facility, no mini bar or small biscuits, though provision of these can be arranged ) and Mr T suggests we walk up to the main building for brunch. Only thing is that it is pouring with rain, we don’t have an umbrella and I can see ourselves stuck in the resort restaurant all afternoon waiting for the weather to clear. So, we fall on plan B and call the local taxi who drives us to the Hunter Valley Gardens Village.
The gardens cover 12 hectares, each featuring a different style ( there is a rose garden, an oriental garden, a sunken garden… ) and linked by 8 kilometres of winding paths. I was really keen to practise on some macro and landscape photography, but well, did I mention the torrential rains? So we retreat undercover and seek shelter into the first cafe I come across.

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Stepping into The Taste of Country is like entering my mother’s kitchen: it is warm, the sturdy wooden furniture gives it a real country feeling ( which is the point ), except mum doesn’t have as many signs on the wall. We both order mugs of coffee and something to warm our bellies up: breakfast with the lot for Mr T and house made minestrone soup for me. The latter comes with a healthy serving of sourdough bread and butter, it is not what I would normally ask for when eating out, but today I am cold and wet, somewhat miserable for missing out on the garden walk, so I am going for comfort food! And it is a bit like a hug in a bowl.

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Since a hike is out of the question, we decide to buy an umbrella and find at least one wine cellar door. Luckily, McGuigan Wines is a short walk around the corner and the staff here welcomes us with open arms, it seems we are the only people coming in this afternoon. The atmosphere is very different to Keith Tulloch’s winery. Instead of soft lounges in white and cream surroundings, we stand in a main hall set up for large group tastings, with museum and cellar door only wines on display and available for tasting, while smaller groups can be accommodated in separate tasting rooms. I like how there is a mix of young and older wines, and taste my way thru to the exclusive Philosophy Cabernet Shiraz 2012 ( a $150 gem! ) ordering a case of Cellar Select Semillon and Shiraz to be home delivered.

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As luck would have it, the Hunter Valley Cheese shop happens to be next door so it is no surprise that we end up with a small collection to take home. The cheese manufacturing was set up over 20 years ago, to complement the wine offerings in the region. Some of the varieties on offer range from Brie to Washed rind and Ash Goat, any other day we would have sampled every one of them, but today, not only I am full from lunch but I also like to think that I know my cheeses well enough to choose on sight. Mr T is not looking forward to have smelly cheese on his plane, hehe!

By mid-afternoon, we’ve had enough of wandering in the rain so we catch a taxi back to the villa and having given up on any kind of hike, settle for a warm tea while catching up with some work ( so much for the romantic getaway! )

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Dinner time can’t come quick enough, as I have been looking forward to it all day. Muse Restaurant is considered a Hunter Valley icon. It is the brain child of local chef Troy Rhoades-Brown and his wife Megan. Their aim is to source the best local produce and showcase the ingredients, in a contemporary Australian style and judging by the number of awards won ( 2 chef hats from the SMH Good food Guide amongst them ), it has become a dining experience not to be missed.

Muse is located on the grounds of Hungerford Hills winery, a short distance from the resort. Our initial plan was to walk and work up an appetite, but relentless rain has meant that we’ve once again had to call on the taxi service ( we must be their best customers today!) Our booking is for 6.30pm and we arrive a few minutes earlier, not wanting to miss a minute of the upcoming experience.

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Another couple must have had the same idea as they are already waiting in the lobby ahead of us. As we are all asked to wait a few minutes, I spy behind the window, and watch the team being briefed by the chef. I can’t hear anything, but I am always fascinated to watch the serious faces, focused on the job ahead. It is as if the place is run with military precision. When the team is finally ready, we are led to our table in the order of which we have arrived and ours is placed near the open kitchen where I have full view of the staff, cooking away in a very calm fashion, none of these Masterchef style antics to distract diners…

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The waitress hands us the menu, which outlines the 4 course dinner we’re about to enjoy tonight.
That doesn’t mention the extras to come.

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Upon seating, we are greeted with a serving of sourdough bread and whipped macadamia butter.

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Then, comes a small plate of savoury palmiers with rolls of kolhrabi filled with some kind of mousse and topped with puffed rice.

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And a labne ball wrapped in a delicate “net “ of milk skin. You have to excuse my vagueness here, as much as I tried to remember the waitress’ every detailed description of the dishes, there is so much going on on the plate all I can say is that these amuse-bouches are sensational and I can’t wait for the actual meal to start.

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First course is a carrot with cured pork jowl, goats curd, Paxton honeycomb, ginger and blackberry: the carrot is tender, draped with a wafer thin slice of pork jowl. Mixed with the creaminess of the goat curd, the crunch of the honeycomb and the slight spice of the ginger, it is a lovely start. And we love the theatrics of the smokey dry ice whey which the waitress poured over the dish at the table.

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Second course for me is potato and black lip abalone, with cured yolk, mushroom in a chicken soy broth. My last experience with abalone was a disappointing one in Tasmania a few months ago, so I was keen to try again. Wow, this dish is playing tricks on my senses: the potato is turned into thin strands like angel hair pasta, it is topped with creamy cured egg yolk and shaved like pieces of abalone. Not chewy at all, and a very subtle hint of mushroom powder. It is delicious and I reluctantly agree to share with Mr T who is handing me his plate.

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His choice is king fish, with green tomato, green chili, citrus koshu, abruga caviar and shiso. It is like a tartare, with all raw ingredients. It is a very pretty dish, shaped in a circle, with the fish, tomato and chili mixed with japanese wine koshu, peppered with sevruga and shiso leaves. It is refreshing and light, I am thinking of stealing the idea for our next garden party feast.

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Third course is the mains, and both of us eschewed the wagyu beef, reportedly a signature dish, preferring to opt for the quail dish for Mr T and the Murray cod for me.
Mr T’s redgate farm quail comes with a plum, buckwheat noodles, umeboshi ( japanese salt plums ) and wild garlic capers. It is quite a tasty dish, with a definite umami flavor, and Mr T appreciates the deboned quail.

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I love the murray cod, served with heirloom tomato, wombok, saltbush, katsuobushi ( dried smoked bonito flakes ) and kimchi dressing. It is such a different way to serve the fish: tangy, salty, spicy and moist. Once again, I make a mental note to try this at home.

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We opt out of the optional cheese course, which doesn’t preclude us from being served a perfect palate cleanser of grapefruit sorbet.

Finally dessert time comes and, honestly these must be the best desserts we have had in a long time.

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The Muse coconut is a masterpiece of all things coconut: with no description on the menu, we are left to guess as we taste: the coconut “shell” is made of thin chocolate, filled with coconut mousse as light as air and coconut jelly inside. the whole thing sits on top of coconut “soil”, coco nibs and toasted coconut flakes. The only component I can see myself trying at home would be the toasted coconut flakes, the rest is so refined and precise, I tell Mr T I would fly back in a heartbeat just for this dessert.

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The other dessert choice is no less impressive: white chocolate and wattleseed set cream, hazelnut, banana sorbet and fermented golden passionfruit sit so pretty on the plate and taste divine. It is not overly sweet, which I like and taste like the tropics on a plate.

The 4 course dinner will set you back $105 per person, which is not cheap but considering that the whole experience lasts at least 3 hours and includes such beautifully crafted dishes, it is worth every dollar. Wine pairing is offered for an extra $10 per glass, though I didn’t avail myself to it, preferring to choose from their very extensive wine list and tasting local gems like Hungerford Hill Dalliance Sparkling, Andrew Thomas Braemore Semillon and Usher Tinkler Reserve Shiraz.

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Finally, when it is time to leave, we ask for a taxi to be called. As we wait, we are kindly offered a glass of liqueur which is a nice touch, especially as it appears that our taxi is missing in action. We find out that a few couples ahead of us called ubers who came from Newscastle, that’s how busy cabs are tonight! After nearly an hour of waiting, our waitress apologizes profusely for the missing cab ( she’s so sweet, it is not her fault after all ) and after enquiring where we are staying, offers to have a staff member take us back to the resort. Admittedly it is only a 5mn drive to the Hunter Valley Crown Plaza, but in this still abysmal weather, we feel like VIPs enjoying door to door service in the SUV.

I collapse into bed, feeling very full and content, hoping the weather cooperates for our return flight the next morning. Unbeknownst to Mr T I have already negotiated with the resort a possible extended stay in case of bad weather, however we both have different ideas as far as inclement weather goes and where I see grey, low rain clouds he looks for blue gaps to fly thru. So, at the first sign of blue sky, we’re back in the air, bound for home and dreaming of our next visit .

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Sausage rolls. Need I say more? It is Terry’s and the kids’ favourite food, and unfortunately for them since we switched to a paleo style diet, it disappeared from the menu. Because, you know, pastry is supposed to be out…
Until I came up with a paleo friendly version which opened all sorts of possibilities and Anne then begged for these Beef and Thyme sausage rolls she read about in Pete Evans Lunch Box ( I know she is serious when she snatches my cookbooks and returns them with dog earmarked pages! )

I must admit, there is a lot to love about these little morsels: the pastry is a cinch to make, so is the filling. They don’t look particularly pretty but they taste delicious and I like the fact that there is no “fillers” inside, it is just meat and vegetables ( which can be left out if vegetables are not your thing ). And most importantly, these will keep in the fridge for a few days kept in an airtight container, or can be frozen uncooked for up to 3 months. This means that they are perfect for lunch boxes ( Ask Pete Evans ) or batch cooking, as I have been doing in the past few weeks.

Since we’ve acquired our little plane, Mr T and I have been out flying whenever the opportunity arises. So far, the trips have been short and limited to week days due to weekend commitments. I like to think that we’re practising for a big adventure later in the year. Though it won’t be as grand and long as our previous sailing voyages, we’re still excited to go on a flying safari ( just saying the words gives me the bumps! ) Preparations are in full swings, destination research and flying practise take up most of our time, pretty much like planning an ocean crossing did. Except that instead of provisioning a boat, I am now provisioning my own house, knowing that Marc and Anne will remain home for a few weeks. Don’t be concerned, they are old enough to look after themselves, one is a 9th grader, the other is working. And we are lucky enough to have family around for support and a dog for company. As long as I make sure the freezer is full of these sausage rolls, they’ll be fine.

Beef and Thyme Sausage Rolls

Adapted from Pete Evans Lunch Box

Makes 24 small rolls ( snack size )

Ingredients

A batch of paleo pastry
1/3 cup of olive oil, butter or other animal fat, melted
2 onions chopped
4 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tsp finely chopped thyme
700g beef mince ( or a mix of beef and pork if desired )
100g grated carrots
2 eggs
2 tsp dijon mustard
2 tbsp tomato ketchup ( Pete says homemade, but I used Heinz so technically it is not Paleo )
2 tsp sea salt
2 tbsp parsley, chopped
1tsp ground black pepper
1 egg
a pinch of salt

  1. Make the egg wash: whisk the egg, salt and a tbsp pf water in a small bowl. Set aside
    Pre-heat the oven to 220C. Line the baking tray with baking papers.
  2. Heat 2 tbsp of the fat in a frying pan, add the onion and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until translucent.Add the garlic, thyme and cook for another minute. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
  3. In the bowl of a food processor, combine the remaining fat with the mince, carrots, eggs, mustard, tomato ketchup and salt. Pulse a few times to combine. Add the parsley, pepper and cooled onion mixture with any extra fat from the pan, and pulse a few more times to form a paste. If you do not have a food processor, you can of course mix it all by hand in a large bowl until it becomes squishy between your fingers ( that was my method on the boat, where my food processor wasn’t big enough for large batches )
    Divide the mixture into 4 even portions and set aside to chill
  4. In the meantime, divide the batch of paleo pastry into 4 sheets. Place one sheet on some baking paper with the long sides facing you. Pipe one portion of the sausage mix along the long side, at a thickness of approx 4 cm leaving a 1cm gap along the edge. Brush the pastry lightly with egg wash and starting with the edge closest to you, roll up with the help of the baking paper to enclose the filling. When done, carefully peel away the baking paper and turn the roll so that the seam is underneath. Transfer to the prepared tray. Re[eat with the other 3 pastry sheets and remaining sausage mixture. Brush the top of the rolls with the rest of the egg wash.
  5. Bake for 10 minutes, then rotate the trays and bake for another 10 minutes or until the pastry is golden ( I also use a metal skewer to test that the meat is well cooked inside ). Allow to stand for 5 minutes before cutting into 4 small sausage rolls ( or 12 larger ones if you prefer ). The kids like them served with tomato ketchup, I prefer a more gourmet tomato relish, but each to their own.fullsizeoutput_3142.jpeg

Mr T: “ I have a couple of free days this week and I need to do some flying practise. Where do you want to go?”

Me: “ Mmmmm… Hunter Valley? It is only a 30mn flight from Sydney, we could spend 2 nights wine tasting and relaxing.”

 

48 hours later, we find ourselves flying north landing at Cessnock airport, met by my girlfriend Elaine who drove down from the Central Coast. Our friendship goes back 25 years or more, and neither of us think it odd to take off at such short notice. Hence she enthusiastically answered my impromptu call to join us for a day, as she always does when a food excursion is involved and she happened to be free!

 

The Hunter Valley is the oldest wine region in Australia, with first vineyards planted in the early 1800’s, some still in production today. Its proximity to Sydney and the 150 cellar doors open for wine tasting makes it also the most visited wine growing area, though in our case, we‘ve only ever been once, back in the late 1980’s. These were the days when Tyrrell’s “Long Flat Red” was our house wine and oaky chardonnay was the white wine of choice.
Then we moved to the tropics, went sailing, had kids and travelled a bit. Our taste in wine shifted to lighter styles like sauvignon blanc or pinot noir, varieties more suited to cold climate.
It is only since our return to Sydney that I have regained an interest in Hunter Valley wines, partly thanks to Elaine, who is a huge fan of the region. I recently told her that I was not keen on the heavy chardonnay any longer and was yet to find a Hunter’s wine that I like. She has since made it a mission to convert me and gladly offered to be our tour guide, taking us to her favourite vineyards.

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So, after checking in at our accomodation, we drive to Keith Tulloch Wine. It is a small family owned vineyard, winery and cellar door estate which produces one of the best semillons and shiraz, according to our friend. Being early in the week, we pretty much have the tasting lounge to ourselves, overlooking the vines and the Brokenback Range and allowing us to take in the atmosphere. There is a fee of $5 per person to taste the 8 current release wines on offer ( $25 per person for the premium selection ) which is refundable on purchase. We start with the light 2017 Semillon, followed by 2017 Chardonnay, 2017 PERDIEM Pinot Gris, 2017 PERDIEM Off-dry Semillon, then move on to the 2017 Rose, 2016 Shiraz Viognier, 2016 Forres Blend and 2014 The Kester Shiraz. I am by no means a wine expert so will spare you the description of each wine. Though I do enjoy educating my palate and tasting different styles, I believe that the best wine is the one you enjoy drinking at the time. And while I try to find adequate words to express appreciation ( or lack thereof ), Mr T is generally more direct with his verdict, proclaiming “ this is good” or “ not this one”. I am surprised how light and easy to drink the Chardonnay is, and we debate for a while wether the Shiraz is suitable for a BBQ ( Elaine thinks it is, I would rather have it with a roast ). In the end, I order a case to be delivered at home, conveniently leaving us free to walk up to the next vineyard.

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Our wine selection shipped to the house a week later. Notice the Semillon was the first to be drunk!

Elaine had planned to introduce us to her favourite Chardonnay from Scarborough Wine Co. just across the road from Keith Tulloch’s, but they are closed on Tuesdays. Luckily, her next favourite, Thomas Wines is a few hundred meters up the road and it only takes a few minutes to wander up.
Thomas Wines is located within the Estate Tuscany, a popular wedding destination and home of the Brokenback Bar. We actually decide to stop for a snack at the bar, as we’re feeling peckish (breakfast was a long time ago!) and don’t want to do our next tasting on an empty stomach. Mr T is doing the ordering and his idea of a snack is a charcuterie board and a cheese board, “just to tie us over until dinner!” It is indeed a lovely collection of local produce including cured meats, terrines and yummy cheeses. We must have been hungry after all because we manage to finish both boards.

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Just a small snack between wine tastings

As often happens with Mr T when wine tasting, he tires of wine and prefers a refreshing lager. Fortunately for him, there is the Matilday Bay Brewhouse across the road, so while we girls make our way to Thomas Wines after lunch, he waves us goodbye with a “ I’ll be waiting at the pub!”

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Originally from MacLaren Vale, South Australia, Andrew Thomas set out to specialise in producing Semillon and Shiraz, the signature varieties of the Hunter Valley. The tasting room is bright and spacious, the lady in attendance very knowledgeable and friendly, and once again we are the only people there. Thomas Wines produces 6 Semillon wines and one Two of a Kind Semillon Sauvignon Blanc. I think I am acquiring a taste for Semillon, even the hint of Sauvignon Blanc now tastes odd.

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Photo credit : Thomas Wines

After all this thirsty work, we collect Terry who had a beer tasting of his own and return to the hotel for a dip in the pool ( it’s early autumn and the weather is stifling hot, but there is weather change coming, we’re told …)

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We are staying at the Crown Plaza. The last time we visited the Hunter, I had chosen a quaint Bed and Breakfast up in the hills. I enjoyed the company and the sweet attention to details ( I still remember being served an afternoon snack of dates filled with blue cheese and a glass of chilled sparkling in the garden…a treat back in these days!) but Mr T was not keen on sharing bathroom facilities and doing small talk with strangers. That was years ago and I have learned since, privacy and convenience matter more than anything else. The Crowne Plaza fits the bill perfectly: the rooms are big-hotel corporate style, fairly standard, there is a bar, a restaurant on-site and most importantly, it is within a 5 minute walk from the airport. That alone makes it the perfect choice for us, considering that we can park the plane across the road at Cessnock airport and walk across to the hotel.

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There are 2 types of accomodation: twin rooms in the main building or villas scattered around the grounds. Elaine is staying in the main building, which is more convenient to access the resort facilities, while we booked a villa guest room supposed to be quieter and generally offering more privacy. Because of an issue with the room I originally booked, we are upgraded to a one bedroom villa, giving us even more space and privacy!

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Dinner is at Redsalt, the resort signature’s restaurant. It is a large space where buffet breakfast is also served, but only a section of the restaurant is open for dinner. The a-la-carte menu features fresh local produce and wines as you would expect.

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For entrees, Elaine and I decide to share a salad of Roasted Genoa fig salad. I am not a fond of figs myself so I let Elaine have my share, but really enjoy the mix of artichoke, chili labna, quinoa, pumpkin and kale that comes with the figs.

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Terry, follows the waitress’ recommendation and orders the night’s special: smoked Wallis Lake rock oysters on ricotta and crispy toasts. I thought it was quite a delicate dish, not overly smokey.

Our choice of mains pretty much reflects the personalities around the table:

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Elaine always orders fish or chicken so, unsurprisingly she goes for the roasted King fish with carrot puree, grilled asparagus, preserved lemon and tarragon dressing. I tell her it is a safe dish, she replies “there was no chicken option on the menu!”

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Mr T takes 2 minutes to decide on the “man’s meal”, grass fed sirloin served with chips, snow peas, watercress salad and pepper jus.

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As usual, I pick the one dish that I know I’d never cook at home, which is the Dukkah crusted Kangaroo filet with beetroot mash, braised silverbeet and agro dolce sauce. “ I knew you’d order the kangaroo” says Elaine. We all enjoy our meals, though Mr T is a little disappointed with the size of his steak and makes up for it by ordering a side of cauliflower gratin.

I wish we had enough room for dessert, but I think the wine is catching up with us and all we can think of is dropping into bed. We bid our friend goodnight, envious of her staying down the corridor in the main building and waddle out in the dark to our villa. Sleep will come easy tonight.

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Sometime last year, I mentioned a new project Mr T and I embarked on, involving flying a light airplane. There wasn’t much to report at the time, mostly because we were busy studying and bringing the qualifications up to speed ( that’s for him ) and getting familiar with the new jargon and skill sets ( that’s for me ). After a few practise day trips around country NSW, things came to a halt for a while ( like life…you know…) Until Mr T finally obtained his Instrument Rating which means we could fly in any conditions. So, on one of these rare free weekends ( he usually is busy skippering fishing boats ) , we grabbed the opportunity to dust the airplane out of the hangar and took off ( literally ).

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Destination was Coffs Harbour, on the NSW mid north coast. We know the town well, having stopped there several times during our cruising days, seeking shelter in the inner harbour. It is also an Australian port of entry, used by many yachts to clear into the country after a Pacific crossing. We were one of these, 10 years go, limping into the harbour’s marina after a harrowing 7 day passage from New Caledonia. The initial plan had been to proudly sail into Sydney Harbour after a 3 year navigation from Europe, as it was to be our last ocean crossing. However, 2 days out of Noumea we were hit by a massive storm cell and battered by 60 knots winds we ended up diverting to Coffs Harbour. The kids jumped and kissed the ground that day, greeted by Australian Customs and Quarantine officers, who shook their heads trying to figure out if we were either brave or stupid.

That was then. We have been back a few times since, visiting Mr T’s sister and her family or stopping overnight on the way to Queensland. Somehow though it’s alway felt like a passing visit through this wonderful holiday spot, tucked between mountain ranges and sandy beaches.

This time we are flying in, hoping to find time to explore the region a little while catching up with family. Anne is coming along, keen for a break though she is packing her school bag as she has assignments to work on.

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The flight from Bankstown Airport takes 90 minutes. It is a beautiful day and we are blessed with gorgeous uninterrupted views of the coast all the way. Mr T lands us perfectly at Coffs Harbour Regional Airport, parking in the General Aviation area, opposite the Aeroclub. A quick phone call to Geoff, from Avis, ensures we’re being picked up to collect our rental car and within 1/2 h from landing we’re settled at our accomodation, the Observatory Holiday Apartments.

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Looking up from the railway station, the Esplanade, the harbour. The view in the late afternoon light

Ours is a 2 bedroom apartment, with a spacious lounge and dining area, basic kitchen but since we don’t plan to cook much, it’s plenty adequate. There is a balcony overlooking the train station directly below, which concerns me initially but looking beyond is the harbour framed by the Esplanade, Mutton Island Nature Reserve and Corambirra Point. This view will turn out to be the reason for me to get up at 5am, not to miss the sunrise!! And the train noise I was fearing was inexistent ( maybe they didn’t run that weekend or I slept thru it, not sure )

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Same view from our balcony, in the morning

Emily, at reception is full of advice as to where to eat, what to do and mentions that we are within walking distance from the restaurant precinct. But whenever we holiday in small towns, we’re used to drive everywhere so we hop in the car anyway and find a dozen restaurants within one block! We decide to leave the car parked in the street and indeed walk the 3 minutes it took to reach Element Bar for dinner.

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Located on Harbour Drive, this place seems to be where Coffs people go on a friday night. It is 6.30pm, all tables are taken or booked and we end up sitting on a low lounge beside a coffee table.

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While not as comfortable as we’d like, we’re taken by the menu, full of our favourites:

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buffalo chicken wings, sweet potato fries,

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fried calamari,

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onion rings

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and bourbon braised beef ribs. Obviously we are ditching the paleo diet this weekend. Washed down with Coopers on tap, Mr T is happy! The food is super tasty, servings are so huge the 3 of us can’t possibly finish our meal and end up bringing leftover back to the apartment ( Anne can vouch for chicken wings and sweet potato fries for breakfast !)

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We wake up the next morning to a glorious sunrise, skip breakfast still full from dinner and leave Anne to her schoolwork while we visit Mr T’s sister, Judy, who leaves in Boambee, a few kilometres south of Coffs. Over coffee and fruit cake, we chat and organise to go to dinner later on. When Judy casually mentions that the Growers Market in Bellingen is on, I quickly check out the time and drag ourselves on the road before the markets close.

It is a 30 minutes drive to Bellingen, a town of 3000 people renown for its mix of hippies and farmers. It is said to attract these after an alternative lifestyle, a concept totally lost on Mr T whose interest I manage to pick by the mention of bountiful food to be found. Fertile soil and semi tropical climate combine to form the ideal environment for growing organic produce, and most are sold at the colourful market.
There are a few fresh produce stalls, but what draw our attention are the exotic teas and spices. Having suffered bouts of illness lately, we’re keen on restoring health thru food rather than medication so anything boasting antioxidants or anti-inflammatory properties catches our eye.

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Like this pre-mixed turmeric tea, made of a combination of turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, black pepper and shredded coconut.

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Photo credit: My Blue Tea

Or that Blue Tea made of butterfly pea flowers. Whether these work or not is up for debate, Mr T swears by the turmeric, I just love the colour of blue tea.

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Then we’re lured by the aromas of the curries prepared by the girls at Off The Rayles, offering pre-packed curry spice mixes ( of course, we could make our own, but these little pouches will come in handy when we want curry in a hurry!).

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What I brought home from Bellingen market

Likewise with the Bengal chutney and macadamia nut butter found at Jenny’s Kitchen.

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While I browse for a while, purchasing goat’s milk soap here, feeling silk dresses there, Mr T is busy on his phone trying to locate an old friend of his, Keith, he used to fly with. Both pilots, Keith and Mr T used to own and run an aerial promotions business in the mid 1960s, performing aerobatics shows, stunt flying and sky writing. One went on to become an acclaimed flying instructor, the other to run an aviation charter business, and the last time we saw Keith and his wife Dianne was 30 years ago while driving thru Coffs. We left messages at the Aeroclub if anyone knew of his whereabouts, honestly not holding much hope of finding him. Then, lo and behold, after much searching on the internet, Terry found his number in the White Pages ( remember these??), called and arranged for us to visit them at their house nearby.
That was quite an emotional visit, watching these 2 flying legends reminiscing about the antics they used to get up to. Time marches on all of us, and sadly Keith can no longer fly, but he can still instruct from the ground, he says. We part ways, Mr T promising to do a flyover on our way back and already planning a return visit hopefully sooner than in 30 years!

We make it back to the apartment, in time to get changed, enjoy a pre-dinner drink and pick up Anne who made most of the day studying. Dinner is at Latitude 30, joined by Judy, her daughter Kim and husband Derek. The restaurant is a local’s favourite, overlooking the harbour and features local seafood ( of course! ).

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While Kim and Derek ponder whether to order the seafood platter again ( they’re regulars here ), Mr T and I decide to order from the tapas/share plate/ entree menu rather than the mains. Too much snacking on fruit cakes and biscuits during the day, unfortunately mean a much reduced appetite. Darn!

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We order an oyster platter to share: fresh from Nambucca Head, they are a mix of natural with a shallots and sherry vinegar dressing, japanese topped with pickled ginger and mirin vinegar dressing, kilpatrick with streaky bacon, tamarind and black pepper caramel sauce and finally crumbed with wasabi aioli and fish roe.

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I can’t go past the soft shell baby mud crab. It comes crumbed and deep fried, with a thai chili cucumber salad. Unlike the oyster platter, I don’t have to share, as I am the only one partial to soft shell crab.

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Mr T loves his plate of seared scallops, topped with toasted almonds on a bed of romesco sauce.

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Anne completely eschews her low carb diet and orders the spanish seafood paella. It is a signature dish and comes piled with prawns, mussels, salmon, scallops, octopus and chorizo atop safron rice. She loves it and tries her hardest to eat it all, but admits defeat and offers the mussels and some rice for Mr T and I to finish. We graciously accept, as we’re somehow still peckish and realise we could have at least ordered a side dish to share.

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Both Anne and Mr T fix this conundrum later on by stopping for ice cream at the Cold Rock Ice Creamery on the way back to the apartment. Not the gourmet ending to the day I was hoping for, a happy one nevertheless.

I set up our alarm early enough to wake up way before sunrise the next day, as I plan to take a walk down the jetty and hopefully take decent photos of the sun rising. It’s a slow and painful start out of bed but once out the door we’re glad to be walking off last night’s libations. The walk to the Esplanade and jetty only takes 10 minutes and I notice half a dozen people also setting up with tripods on the beach waiting for the sunrise like me.

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It is a popular spot for photos, and while we wait for the light, we watch trawlers motor out of the harbour, people climbing up Muttonbird island for early exercise, cruising yachts bobbing on their moorings waking up to the day,…It brings back memories of cruising friends tying to these same moorings years ago, waiting for clearance and Coffs Harbour becoming their first taste of Australia. If they read this post, they will know who they are.
By 7am, the sun is well and truly up and you’ll never guess what is setting up on our way back to the apartment. Another growers market at the Jetty!

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This time I do buy fresh produce to take home on the plane, mostly avocados and bananas. And because we’re quite hungry this morning and don’t feel like cereals ( we always bring them as emergency rations ), we order a thai breakfast at a little stall who is just unpacking but somehow manages to cook samosas, fried rice and omelette in no time for us to take back.

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The rest of the morning is spent leisurely packing ( it is Sunday after all ), and with a few hours up our sleeve before the flight home, we decide to be real tourists and drive inland to the Forest Sky Pier lookout, then become hopelessly lost in the rainforest trying to find a way north other than on the highway. I must say being lost here isn’t that unpleasant and it is quite a scenic drive thru green meadows, under tree canopies and past road signs to wineries or honey farms.

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We drive as far as Woolgoolga, recognisable by its large Indian temple on the side of the road. Sikhs from north west india are said to have settled here in the early 1900’s, after arriving in Australia to work in the Queensland cane fields. The milder climate in Coffs Harbour was apparently more attractive and they found work banana farming. Today’s indian population is descendants from these early settlers and reported to make up 25% of the local population. This would explain the unusually high number of indian restaurants all over town. Not that we are in for an indian lunch. After driving to the headland and taking in the fabulous view over the golden beaches, I manage to convince Mr T to make one last lunch stop on the promise it will be a light one.

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Quickly thinking on my feet, I spot what look a popular choice, Blue Bottles Brasserie, across from the caravan park. We quickly grab the one remaining table available and glance at the menu, looking for the lightest item we can find. Mr T orders the Lost Little Piggy, a version of bacon and egg roll which is anything but light as it comes with 2 fried eggs, a pile of bacon and house tomato relish on turkish bread. “Beside a bowl of fries, it was the cheapest meal on the menu, I thought it would be small “ he said.

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Anne, still on a carb roll orders the Tipsy Fish Flathead, beer battered fish with a substantial amount of chips. There is salad too, but that does not compare with the chips and the mango smoothie.

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As for me, I feel virtuous and choose the Seared Scallop salad with greens, seaweed, pickled ginger, beansprouts in japanese dressing. At least one of us stuck to the brief!

I think one of the things I love the most about these country road trips, is the lack of traffic and the ease it takes to drive from one location to another. The mid north coast is no exception, as the 30 kilometers drive back to the airport was a breeze on the highway. Dropping off Mr T and Anne at the plane first ( no formalities ), I returned the rental car at the main airport dropping the keys in a box, getting a lift back from the lovely lady ( whose name escapes me ) and voila. By 3pm, we were back in the air, Sydney bound.

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