As the year comes to an end I find myself slightly panicky realising all the things I set out to do a few months ago, thinking there was plenty of time and now facing half-started jobs with little chance of completion until sometime in January or even later.
That goes from the repainting of our guest bathroom to the cleaning of my photo files, or the sorting of the thousands of notes taken during our travels waiting to be turned into stories and posts. Many of them are still in dot format due to me being busy with other ( more pressing ? ) projects. I have been procrastinating for a while, writing posts in my head and believing it would only be a matter of remembering and putting pen to paper at a more convenient time.
Except that by the time I manage to sit down long enough to write, weeks or months have elapsed, papers are piling up and I can’t decide which story to tell.
Take restaurant reviews for examples. Not that I see myself as a reviewer as such, but if I find a memorable eating place, I like to share the experience. And this year has been full of them, we have been fortunate enough to drive and fly around the East Coast of Australia, finding some gems along the way. Though I haven’t gotten around to post about them this year, there are at least a dozen deserving of a mention, ranging from Special occasions treats, to Casual finds and Local haunts. So in a last ditch effort to write my final post for 2018, I decided to give you my 3 stand outs in the Special Occasions/Bucket List category. Some are pricey others not so much, some are in a stunning location others not quite, but all offer fantastic food, showcasing the best of Australian produce ( and that is coming from a French girl !! )
Today we are off exploring the wild west of Tasmania.
Buoyed by the wonderful time we had hiking around Dove Lake, I have planned a morning hike to Montezuma Falls, then a drive to Strahan hoping to catch a boat for a cruise on the Gordon river after lunch, followed by another scenic drive thru the southern part of the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park to spend the night at the Derwent Bridge Wilderness Hotel. Google Map shows it should take over 3 hours to drive the 210km and I am allowing a couple of hours each for the hike and the river cruise. I think it’s a workable itinerary, Mr T has his doubts but goes along anyway muttering something about winding roads and rainy weather.
We skip breakfast, not by choice, but as a result of the kitchen opening at 7.30am, too late for us keen to hit the road early and beat the tour buses. It takes 1 hour to reach the small car park at the entrance to the Montezuma Falls hiking trail, then it is an easy walk on a track that was originally used for trams, back in the late 1800s when the area was cleared for gold and silver mining.
The path is pretty flat and well maintained, and because the falls are a little out of the way and not as famous as Dove Lake, there are hardly any selfie stick-wielding tourists. The few who make it here tend to make it a day excursion from Strahan and arrive late morning, so I guess it pays to come in early so you can have the place to yourself. The hike thru the rainforest is lovely and tranquil, ending up at the base of the highest waterfall in Tasmania ( 104 meters ).
You can either climb over a few boulders for a closer look at the bottom of the falls or cross a suspension bridge for a better view of the scenery. Either way, it is spectacular and we spend a while there, until a couple of tourists arrived, our cue to return the same way we came.
Overall, it took 2/1/2 hours to hike the 10.7 kilometres, I thought the day was off to a great start but Anne was unimpressed: she was hungry, there were too many bugs for her liking, the walk was too long… I had to promise a nice lunch at our next stop in Strahan.
Except that I remember reading about the Henty sand dunes on the way there, so I ask Mr T to make a side stop. The picnic area is deserted but for another couple of tourists who have come equipped with large cardboards to slide down the dunes. We are so ill prepared compared to them, one look up the hill and both Anne and Mr T ask what is the plan once at the top. I shrug my shoulders, point to my camera and march on up in a who’s-with-me kind of way. The hill is not very high, though high enough for a good workout ( mountain climbers anyone? ) and considering how unfit we all are, I am pleased we all make it to the top ( though in hindsight, it might not have been such a smart move for Mr T who is still recovering from a pulmonary embolism! ). The view at the top is unexpected: it is a vast expanse of sand for a couple of miles, with the ocean far away in the distance.
I cannot convince the crew to venture further out, by then the weather has turned quite windy and rain starts to threaten, so we retreat back to the car and look forward to a nice warm lunch on the river cruise.
Well, that was the plan, until we realise that the boats leave either early morning or mid-afternoon, neither options suitable to us today. Plan B is to try anyone of Strahan’s cafes near the waterfront, but that idea is shelved after several attempts to find somewhere to park the car that doesn’t involve walking in the rain.
Besides, time is running fast and Mr T begins to worry about reaching Derwent Bridge in the dark, so we do the Steen thing and pick up some provisions at the local service station for a picnic lunch and drive off. We did find a decent carpark on the way out of town, but too late, we have bread rolls, cold sausages, and apples, set for a car snack!
The drive to Derwent Bridge along the Lyell Highway takes hours. Google maps stated it would take just 2 hours to complete the 126 km journey, but of course, it was counting without the couple of stops we make along the way.
One is just outside the old mining town of Queenstown. We didn’t venture in the town itself, which was established in the late 19th century after gold was discovered in the surrounding mountains. It became, and still is the centre of Mount Lyell mining district, had numerous smelting works, brick-works, and sawmills. Owing to a combination of tree removal for use in the smelters and the smelter fumes (for about 40 years), and the heavy annual rainfall, the erosion of the shallow topsoil back to the harder rock profile has contributed to the stark state of the mountains for many decades and many describe the landscape as moonlike.
Indeed the area looks devastated and bare of vegetation, showing odd pastel shades emanating from the rocks. We briefly stopped at the Iron Blow lookout where iron ore was found and mined for many many years in the now bare hills behind Queenstown. There is a cantilevered walkway that affords a view down into the former open cut mine as well as spectacular views across the almost ghost towns of Gormanston and Linda and on to the mountains of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area that surround Lake Burbury. As I stood at the edge of the walkway, windswept and cold, I reflected on the contrast between the ruined vegetation washed down by acid rain over the years and the millennial forest preserved within the realm of the National Parks.
Continuing on, the Lyell Highway is a narrow and winding drive via Tasmania’s newest hydro dam and trout fishery, Lake Burbury, then across 60 km of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area through the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park on the way to Lake St Clair. We pass many lookouts, starting points to hiking trails into the wilderness but we don’t stop due to time constraints and also because the rain is now relentless making getting out of the car for photos an exercise in frustration.
It is late afternoon by the time we arrive at our final destination, the Derwent Bridge Wilderness Hotel. Located on the roadside, this lodge style hotel is a popular stopover for those travelling to and from the West Coast as it sits half way between Hobart and Strahan. It offers a mix of backpackers accomodation ( with dormitory rooms ) and hotel rooms, all sharing bathroom facilities except for one Family Ensuite which I am glad we booked in advance. While the room is spacious enough for a queen size bed, 2 bunk beds and a table setting, it comes with no fridge, the ensuite is on the small size and there is a definite lack of natural light with the front door doubling up as the only window.
Mr T is feeling early signs of claustrophobia so I quickly usher him and Anne out of the room and into the bar and dining area. There, comfy lounges and a roaring fire greet us, though sitting is at a premium as most spots are already taken. You see, Lake St Clair is the starting point (or destination) for those who want to walk the Overland Track between Lake St Clair and Cradle Mountain. The Overland track has a world-famous reputation and many trekkers from around the world stay at the hotel before starting or completing the track. So the place is filling up fast with hikers as well as people in motorhomes or caravans staying on the vast parking lot outside ( where camping is free ) and coming in to enjoy a drink and a hearty meal.
For the hotel has earned a reputation for its kitchen, led by Sri Lankan chef Ima de Silva, who not only offers standard pub fare like porterhouse steak, lamb shank, and roast chicken but also local delicacies such as river trout and Ima’s own Sri Lankan curry which seems to attract curry lovers from everywhere. Of course, it is Mr T’s choice, jumping at the opportunity to enjoy something warm and spicy on this cold night, while I order the river trout. For some reason, Anne eschews the mains selection and goes for the chicken and vegetable soup. It turns out to be quite a large serve, made even more filling with the addition of garlic bread!
The lamb curry comes in its own bowl and accompanied with rice byriani, a fried soft egg, and crunchy pappadum along with daintily plated condiments. Mr T is wowed first by the presentation then by the taste, declaring it the best curry he’s had in a long time. He “generously” shares a spoonful after I ask for a taste, and I agree it’s pretty darned tasty. I leave him to lick his bowls clean and tuck into my river trout which seems a little bland in comparison to the richly spiced curry. Not that I don’t like it, I do, the fish is flaky to perfection, smothered with garlic herb butter and sitting on a tangy rhubarb sauce. Served with plain vegetables and a square of potato gratin, it is simple but deeply satisfying. I imagine the other guests feel the same though a quick look around the dining room reveals the curry eclipsing most requests.
We reluctantly leave the warmth of the main lodge and retire to our room, where thankfully sleep comes easy.
The alarm rings at 5am the next morning, a result of me convincing Mr T to get up early for sunrise shots over Lake St Clair, 5 km away.
Situated at the southern end of Cradle Mountain – Lake St Clair National Park, the lake fills a valley that was carved out by ice during several glaciations over the last two million years. It is the deepest freshwater lake in Australia (160 m ) and the source of the Derwent River. According to our guide book, spectacular mountain peaks covered in snow for much of the year surround the lake. Sadly for us, a combination of bad weather and dim early morning light means that the lake and its foreshore blends with the surrounding hills and the misty clouds in various shades of grey. We’ve driven to the visitor centre so early that it is not opened yet so we are missing out on the displays and activities inside. On the positive side, we are ahead of the tourist crowds which allows us to walk around in total peace and quiet. The hike of the day is a short stroll to the dock, where a ferry service operates daily to cross the lake, something I would love to do but Mr T points out that we should have allowed 2 full days to enjoy any kind of hikes in the area. As it is, he has his eyes on the clock and reminds me that we have a 250 km drive to Port Arthur ahead of us. In theory, it should take no more than 3 1/2 hours but we have a couple of places to visit along the way so we expect a full day on the road.
I wait a few more minutes hoping for the sun to break thru the clouds, exploring the shore trying to get a close-up view of Pumphouse Point, the definite upmarket accommodation option but entrance to the estate is via a heavy gate, which is closed overnight. Eventually admitting defeat we drive back to the hotel just in time for breakfast and a cute encounter with the local wildlife in the form of a wallaby or two.
** We visited Tasmania in January 2018 and a few changes have happened since I started to write this post. The most notable one is that chef Ima no longer works at the Derwent Bridge Wilderness Hotel and has relocated to the Cape Wickham Golf Course King Island. The Hotel still serves curries, prepared by staff reportedly trained by chef Ima!
Head cheese. Sounds weird, but that’s the English translation for French “Fromage de Tete” which has nothing to do with cheese, as it is a pork terrine made with a pigs’ head. Before you think I lost my mind, I must say this dish was part of our Halloween menu, so weirdness was allowed, if not encouraged, as far as cooking creations were concerned.
Come to think of it, Fromage de Tete is quite a common dish in France where nose to tail cooking is the norm. In fact, every traiteur in the country has his/her own version of it and I remember it appearing quite often in the school canteen and work cafeteria. It is definitely a rarity in Australia, where country terrines are rather made with chicken liver and ground pork. I suspect people have issues with the head thing, nobody I know would even think of cooking a pig’s head.
I had to order one from the butcher a week ahead, after finding out that he usually discards them. He gave me a funny look when I came to collect it and asked for it to be cut in half as the whole head would not fit in my stock pot. “ What are you making?” he asked. “ Head cheese!” Blank look. “Brawn!” his eyes lit up and then he smiled and said “ yes, that’s the best cut for it. Good luck with it! “ I ordered a few pigs trotters as well for good measure ( and extra collagen ), then headed home with a boot full of hog parts!
This dish is based on a recipe from a guy called Hank Shaw, whose focus is on fishing, foraging, hunting and food writing ( not necessarily in that order ). There are dozens of recipes for Fromage de Tete, some more complicated than others, I found his online. It looks time consuming but is quite easy to follow, with no technical skills required, only a little patience and the inclination to get your hands “dirty” picking meat of the pig’s head. Squeamish people maybe best stay away from this dish…
It calls for a large stock pot ( enough to hold at least half a head ), a few common ingredients used to make stock and a decent amount of French Quatre Epices ( 4 spice mix easy to make yourself with white pepper, clove, nutmeg and dried ginger )
I started preparing this 2 days before our Halloween dinner party, allowing it to set and the flavours to develop. There was enough meat to make 2 batches, one shaped in a skull mould for the party, the other transferred in a traditional Le Creuset terrine dish. As a bonus, I ended up with enough pork stock to use for another 12 dishes…
The end result was quite tasty, very rich and meaty with a subtle hint of herbs and spices. Hank Shaw refers to it as a meat bomb and indeed the kids mentioned it was like eating meat in jelly, which is exactly what it is. And as good as it is on its own, it benefits from the addition of sharp mustard or some sort of pickles to cut thru the somewhat fatty and gelatinous texture.
Or try a sauce ravigote, another typical French fare, heavily seasoned with green herbs, shallots capers and a hefty dose of red wine vinegar. This is like vinaigrette on steroids, tangy and sharp, poured over a few slices it really brings this terrine to next level. I gave some samples away to family and to some French people I happen to buy deli food from at our local market, all raved about how nice it was. For some it was a new flavour combination, for others like me, it was a taste of home…
French Head Cheese or Fromage de Tete
Adapted from Hank Shaw, Hunter. Angler. Gardener. Cook
Makes 2 terrines, enough to feed 20 people as an appetiser
1 half a pig’s head, skin on, including ears and tongue. Get your butcher to cut it for you
1 pig’s trotter, whole or cut in half
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp cracked black peppercorn
5 allspice berries, cracked
8 juniper berries, cracked
1 tbsp dried thyme
1 carrot, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 star anise
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup white wine ( I used an inexpensive chardonnay )
1 tbsp french quatre epices
- Put the half pig’s head in a large stockpot and cover with cold water. Add the pig’s trotter. Turn the heat to medium-high, cover and bring to a simmer. Skim any grey scum that floats to the surface then add all the herbs, spices, and vinegar. Simmer very gently for 3 hours or until the meat falls apart.
- Let it cool down and once cool enough to handle, take the head out of the pot and tear the meat off. If you’re not a tactile and hands-on kind of cook, this will seem gross and messy as there is plenty of meat, fat and cartilagineous matter to sink your fingers in. Discard stringy tendons, eyeball, bones and teeth ( obviously ) and anything else that looks too weird ( bearing in mind the whole thing IS weird! )
- Any pieces of meat like the cheeks and tongue, I chop roughly. Fat and cartilage gets cut in smaller pieces, as you don’t want to have too big chunks showing thru. Tempted as I was to use the food processor, I didn’t trust it to not turn the whole mixture into mush so I hand cut everything to keep the texture.
- Transfer the meat mix in a large bowl and add the quatre epices. Mix well and set aside while you deal with the broth.
- Ladle out about 1 litre of the broth, strain thru a cheesecloth into a pot with the white wine. Boil away until the liquid is reduced by about half.
- Pour the meat mixture into the pot, add salt to taste ( up to a tablespoon ). Taste regularly for the right balance of saltiness and acidity, adding more red wine vinegar if necessary, a tablespoon at a time. Simmer gently for 15 minutes to allow infusing into the collagen-rich broth.
- When ready, remove all the solids with a slotted spoon and pack them into 2 terrine pans ( or as in my case, 1 terrine pan and 1 silicone skull mould! ). Pour enough of the reduced broth to fill any crevices in the terrine and enough to cover the top of the meat. Cover the terrine with plastic wrap or a lid and chill in the fridge for at least 24 hours to set. It will keep in the cold for up to 10 days.
- Serve cold, sliced thinly with hot mustard, pickles or sauce ravigote ( recipe below ) as part of a charcuterie board or for a light lunch along with a green salad and crusty bread.
This French sauce is quite versatile and can be served with fish, grilled meat or of course, Fromage de Tete! Mine is the cold version, based on a vinaigrette and heavily loaded with fresh herbs. Other cooks include eggs, garlic or mayonnaise and there is also a hot version incorporating meat stock.
Makes 2 cups
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tbsp dijon mustard
salt and black pepper, to taste
1 cup sunflower, grapeseed or light olive oil ( extra virgin olive oil is too strong )
1/2 cup chopped chives
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup chopped dill
1/2 cup chopped tarragon
1/4 cup capers, rinsed and chopped
2 small french shallots, peeled and chopped
- In a blender, put the red wine vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper. With the motor running, slowly drizzle the oil in until emulsified.
- Transfer to a bowl along with the herbs, capers and shallots. Stir everything to combine.
- Keep covered in the fridge until ready to use. It will keep cold for a few days ( weeks?)
For someone who never used to do Halloween, we seem to be hooked and hosted our second Halloween themed lunch last Sunday. As usual, the venue was our house and the guests were the kids and grandkids with the addition this year of Terry’s niece Leanne and husband Kasten, as well as a few friends.
We gave our Halloween a German twist this year, somehow inspired by the leather apron I always wear when entertaining and often associated with lederhosen. Up for the challenge, I spent a while browsing Pinterest and various German sites for ideas, finally deciding to turn the house into a Haunted Castle of sorts with appropriate gory German food ( no offense to our German friends, we love German food, just made it gory for the occasion !)
Many trips were made to The Party People shop with Anne ( I need a teenager to help me channel the spookiness in me ), adding to our existing collection of Halloween props and I subjected Mr T and the kids to a couple of “rehearsal dinners” experimenting with German-style recipes ( none of which made the cut on the night, judged too fancy and not suitable for party food! )
As always, dressing up was optional but highly encouraged and it was great to see everyone get into the spirit this year.
My outfit was supposed to be a Bavarian waitress dress but after trying it on and looking totally ridiculous I went back to my usual witch costume, this year centered around an ostrich feathered top I bought recently. Not that anyone could see any of it, as I wore the leather apron over it most of the time! Heavy eye makeup and blue contacts that no one noticed completed the look.
Anne came as a teenager dressed in black ( emo or goth, I am sure I am getting it wrong! ) which was not much different to her everyday look, though the makeup definitely was. Marc was a scientist of some kind, finding an old lab coat from homeschooling days and borrowing old glass frames from his father.
Mr T found that his grim ripper costume was so comfortable last year, he decided to wear it again.
Poor Sam, put up with a lion mane for a while, then shook it off. He could not do anything about the Happy Potter makeup the kids drew on his face though!
Then the guests arrived.
Malcolm, Danielle and their kids Harry and Hannah came as a motley crue of fishermen, a cast member of American Horror Story, and a kids version of a zombie queen of hearts. I nearly gasped when I saw Hannah’s head “stabbed” by the hacksaw.
Craig was a hilarious Cat in the Hat, accompanied by Kathy the witch and young Jesse looking terrifying as a junior grim ripper.
Then Leanne and Kasten walked in, one a witch and the other very Bavarian looking with a plaided shirt, high socks, hiking boots and hat to suit. If anyone won a prize for sticking to the brief it was Kasten.
Shelley only wore her devil ears and not much else, but arrived claiming all her dressing up effort went into the malevolent cake she baked, even naming it Maleficent! I’ll take that!
Jai was an army officer for the day and went by the fitting name of Captain Jai.
Tania came straight from the airport, returning from a work trip and only had time to get changed in black clothes.
Black clad witch was very popular again with Sharon arriving late, all dolled up with hat, see-thru dress and gold trimmings. Her daughter Lauren looked gorgeous as a good/bad zombie, as did her brothers as a zebra and hospital patient ( even asking me for a bandaid for a real life injury!)
Last but not least, our young french friend, Manon, arrived dressed in Halloween colours of orange and black, intrigued by the menu and the amount of washing up involved. Still she was a great assistant in the kitchen, eager to help and learn about this new custom.
Ok, the scene set with all the players, on to the food!
As is the case in Aussie culture, guests ask what they can bring to the party. Coming from France, where the host usually supplies everything from food to drinks and decorations, it took me a while to get used to the fact that people want to contribute, if not show of their cooking skills. Nowadays, I tend to become a bit of a dictator, once the theme has been settled on, hinting at desirable dishes if not instructing people to check out Pinterest for ideas. For fun, Anne and I rebranded some of the dishes’ names to keep with the ghoulish theme.
Thus came Danielle with Mummy Hotdogs.
Sharon provided a plate of cold meats from the local German butcher.
Craig provided us with freshly baked pretzels, matched with Ozbada, a bavarian beer cheese dip nicknamed Cheese from the Heart for the occasion.
I put together a smoked salmon snack on pumpernickel bread
and this unusual entree of skewered black pudding, apple sauce and scallops inspired by our last trip to Mudgee.
One of the most anticipated and fun dishes however was homemade brawn shaped in a skull mold. I called it “Pressed Head “ but could not tell anyone it was made out of a pig’s head, lest they were put off by the idea. I had to wait until the last minute, once the “terrine” was unveiled and dressed to reveal the unusual truth. The dish itself, while spooky looking, was quite tasty though it needed a tangy accompaniment like pickles or vinegary sauce to cut through the cold fatty taste of the terrine. All I had on the day was hot mustard, which was good but I made a mental note to try something sharper next. Still, I was pleased to see how well received it was!
I took care of all main dishes and served them hot, on a large table outside.
We had Ghoulish Goulash,
Cheesy Maggots ( spatzle ) , Sauerkraut, Braised Red Cabbage,
Potato Salad ( the only cold option, brought over by Shelley )
and my favorite of the night: a mix of sausages, bacon and roasted pig’s head. I called it the Slaughter Plate. Mr T had warned me that it would be a test of our guests’ sense of humour and adventurous tastebuds, and to be prepared for people to never return for dinner. I am pleased to report that most saw the funny side of it and partook in the sharing of the pig’s head, particularly the snapping of the crackling and fighting over the melt in your mouth cheeks.
Then it was time for dessert, with no less than 3 sweet offerings ( and countless lollies but these don’t count really ).
Being Craig’s birthday a couple of days prior, Kathy brought in a slab of chocolate cake decorated with Halloween colours and a birthday message.
I had asked Shelley to make some cupcakes and assumed she was working on two dozens zombie cupcakes as per her last text.
Then she walked in with this beautiful cherry ripe mud cake, ornately decorated with red roses, strawberries, chocolate shards and horns, nonchalantly saying it was just as easy to make one single cake. She called it Maleficent.
The final dessert was Kasten’s signature cinnamon rolls. I first tasted them a couple of years ago when him and Leanne visited us on the boat, and he baked us a batch one morning. I still remember waking up to the smell of heaven, and the kids running out of their cabins at the speed of light! Kasten insists that these rolls are best fresh out of the oven, so they were baked at the last minute and handed out sticky and piping hot, the cream cheese frosting oozing out of the yeasty folds. Most people had already eaten one or two slices of chocolate cake, so how they managed to fit a cinnamon roll as well is a testament to how good they were. My phone was buzzing the next day with comments and requests for the recipe, which I will try to pry out of Kasten one day.
The afternoon flew by. The kids found the lolly jars, slipped out of their costumes into the swimming pool until the cold brought them back in. People talked, ate and drank well into the evening, and it wasn’t until someone mentioned school the next day that the party slowly came to an end. As I write, the ghosts and other ghouls are still standing guard at the front door, ready to greet anyone knocking tonight. Happy Halloween!
On our second day in Mudgee we wake up to rain and thunderstorm! I mean, serious downpour that lasts for hours and has us mesmerised, watching the surrounding vineyards being drenched and very glad the plane is under shelter.
We ditch the original plan to have breakfast in town, preferring a lazy morning in bed, munching on leftover bread and cheese and sipping copious cups of tea. We have been provided with a local tourist brochure showing 4 tourist drives centred around Mudgee. I realise that yesterday’s drive south to Rylstone was one of them, so when the rain finally eases we decide to go north on Tourist Drive A for a bit of exploring north of Mudgee.
We pass at least half a dozen wineries within a 10 minute drive from the airport and I make a mental note to visit later in the day as neither of us feel like late morning wine tasting. The road takes us to Gulgong, described in its roaring days as “the hub of the world”.
This was during the gold rush era of the late 1800’s, after gold was discovered in Red Hill in 1870 and the official estimate of the district population was 20,000 people. These booming days are long gone but the town has retained most of its original streetscape and buildings, and was featured on the original $10 note.
Around 130 of Gulgong’s buildings are heritage listed nowadays, including the Prince of Wales Opera House built in 1871 and the oldest still-operating Opera House in the Southern hemisphere. Unfortunately it was close on the day of our visit, as were the couple of vintage homeware shops I had my sights on ( another reminder to schedule our next road trip for the later part of the week ! ) Still, the wander along the quaint main streets of Mayne and Herbert has its rewards. One of them is walking in a vintage shop full of colonial artefacts and a large collection of old violins, and being treated to an impromptu performance by its owner Allan Walsh.
We have a little chat, discussing the provenance of these violins, the welcomed rain and his love of country life. It is not until much later that I found out that Mr Walsh is ( or used to be ) a singer, guitarist and fiddle player who was one of the first musicians to play on the steps of the Sydney Opera House back in 1973. He also happens to be a farmer and, like most NSW farmers, has suffered from the drought that’s been gripping central Australia for a few years now. Not that he told us at the time, but knowing how spending time in the shop is his solace in these hard times, I wish I had bought something from him.
Next stop was supposed to be a short visit to the Gulgong Pioneers museum. As soon as we entered we were handed a map of the 5000sqm venue, and were transported into the distant past thanks to dozens of exhibits describing the early Australian way of life.
Over 60,000 donated items are on display, ranging from firearms to gramophones, folks bedrooms or farm machinery. Mr T was particularly taken by the military exhibit, while I could have spent hours studying old kitchen items. We ended up whiling away a couple of hours, Mr T saying that it made him feel old as he remembers using a lot of the items growing up ( like this esky or some of these phones… )
and myself arguing the case for being a hoarder! I can only imagine all the stories behind these objects…
Having worked an appetite, I let mr T pick lunch, knowing it had to be light as we had big dinner plans. Off all the trendy cafes around, he chose the one called the Gobble and Go cafe, I suspect because of the name and he knew I would have fun with it. We ordered a simple steak and kidney pie ( for him ) and a cheese and ham toasted sandwich ( for me, I know it is unusually simple, but I was saving myself for later ), accompanied by cappucinos. Service was friendly and fast, the pie was quite strong in flavour, coffees nice and warm, just what was needed on this rainy day.
We could not drive back home without at least one wine tasting, so on recommendation by Alexey, our host, we stopped at Bunnamagoo Estate Wines. The original Bunnamagoo homestead was built in 1827 in Rockley, south of Bathurst and was one of the first pastoral settlements west of the Dividing ranges. It was also one of the earlier vineyards in the colony as well as their other vineyard in Euranderee near Mudgee. The property has passed thru many owners over the years, the latest being the Paspaley family, otherwise known for its pioneering role in the Australian South Seas pearling industry. The cellar door is located next to the winery, in Eurunderee, and overlooks the expansive Bunnamagoo estate.
We are greeted by the resident pooch at the door, who kindly moves aside to let us in. Service is warm and friendly, the lady being generous with her advice and pouring…it is indeed a very civilised, unhurried tasting, during which one staff member walks in looking for a bottle of rose to try as he is asked by a customer to pair a wine with antipasto platter. I press for more details and he tells me that Bunnamagoo Estate is sponsoring a big dinner in Sydney for a private client and part of the brief is wine pairing. I sigh and tell him I want his job! If only I knew more about wine apart from the fact that a good wine is the one you like to drink! Finding plenty that I like here, we order a few cases of Sparkling, Rose, Riesling, Semillon and Shiraz. Some are ready to drink, others will be kept hidden for later. Mr T shakes his head in doubt, grateful that we have our own plane to carry it all and rushes me past the Paspaley pearls display before I get a chance to see something else I like ( yes, the pearls are for sale !)
By then, it is mid afternoon and we decide to stop by the Mudgee Brewing company so that Mr T can do a beer tasting of his own.
Lunch service is well and truly over and we pretty much have the place to ourselves. All beers are brewed onsite, and you have the option of tasting 4 signature beers for $7 or 8 beers on tap for $12. Mr T chooses the former, the servings are half the size of a normal beer, enough for him to work out that his favourite is the Anzac Pale Ale. Another round of these follow, though I can only handle a peppermint tea, as I am trying to balance the effect of the earlier wine tasting. Still, I grab the menu to check out the food offerings, to the alarm of the young waitress who runs up to me saying it is too late for food. I reply I am only looking in case we’d like to come over for breakfast tomorrow, however I think we’d need to be hungry for pancakes, big plates of bacon and eggs or corn fritters…
After a rest back at the Hangar House, it is finally time for dinner. Tonight we are eating at Blue Wren, literally a stone throw from our accomodation. We could walk there thru the vineyard, but play it safe and drive as it is still drizzling.
The property includes a small vineyard, animal farm, luxury accomodation in a renovated farmhouse, a wedding venue in the large Wisteria Hall, and of course a restaurant, The Chef’s Kitchen. Located in what was once the wine storage cellar, it is a novel dining concept where guests are invited to dine either at an intimate table or positioned at a place at the Chef’s table, not dissimilar to my kitchen bench at home, if I may say so.
We are greeted by Paul, the manager, who ushers us to a table by the window, where I have a great view of the kitchen. The space is warm and cosy, designed to accomodate 26 guests, with a long communal table running thru the centre and individual tables around. We are in for a treat tonight, as there are only 8 of us dining and it is the restaurant’s new chef Nathan and his wife Aki’s third day ( indeed the anticipation has been building up all day, as everyone we met earlier exclaimed “ oh, they have a new chef !” once we mentionned going to Blue Wren for dinner ). The menu consists of 5 course degustation ( $90) showcasing local produce. For an additional $49, you can have pairing wines and I like the fact that they partner up with their friends aka other local vineyards, no doubt out of necessity ( theirs is a boutique vineyard with a limited range ) but also allowing guests to taste other Mudgee wines ( very handy for these who can only do a couple of cellar doors in a day…)
So the feast begins with a welcome amuse bouche of creamed corn veloute in a salty popcorn rimmed shot glass with a few drops of basil oil. I am interested to see Mr T enjoy it as he normally would order a beer upon sitting down.
The first drinks come, a Craigmoore Sparkling wine shortly followed by the first course of 2 freshly shucked pacific oysters dressed 2 ways: one with soy miring gel and the other one in mignonette. One could say that there is nothing new on the plate, but we happen to love these familiar flavours and you can’t beat the freshness of Coffin Bay oysters.
The second course consists of scallops teamed with boudin noir, cauliflower puree and pears. The mix of flavours seems odd on paper but one bite and who would have thought scallops and black pudding go so well together? It is a visually striking dish, showing much restraint with the scallops barely steamed, just the right amount of black pudding, and the addition of pickled pear bits to tie it all together. Mr T initially thinks he needs more on his plate, but then agrees that sometime less is more. The matching Blacklea 2017 Shiraz Rose makes it even more enjoyable.
Next comes a salad of beetroot and witlof, with goat cheese sorbet. The sorbet is actually more like snow and the beetroot is sliced super thinly carpaccio-style while the witlof is partly shredded and top of the leaves left whole. There is a nice crunch from walnuts pieces scattered, all sprinkled with chervil and a balsamic dressing. It is delicious salad, once again bringing us back into familiar flavours territory ( though I am yet to convert the goat fetta I normally use into snow !) and the accompanying glass of Peterson’s Chardonnay a nice match.
The fourth course is meant to be the main. It is rolled chicken breast, wrapped in prosciutto, topped with fried strips of ginger, placed on a bed of enoki mushrooms and served in dashi broth. Mr T has mixed feelings about this, he finds the breast too dry and would enjoy it more if it was the thigh meat. I tend to agree with him, but the dashi broth makes up for any shortcomings in my book. Man, that broth! I love it so much I could drink it from the plate. I even offer Mr T to swap my glass of Lowe 2016 Pinot Noir, for his broth. But I am too late for it, as he’s finished it already. Funny that!
The light asian influence continues with dessert.I adore pandan flavour, and have been known to add it to pancakes, puddings, even steamed rice. Most times, I would need to head to an asian restaurant for a pandan fix so I am like giddy with excitement when a plate of pandan pannacotta arrives served with sticky rice wafer and a dollop of coconut cream. We finally taste Blue Wren Vescato, which is an unusual way of using their Verdehlo grapes in a Moscato style wine. The result is a not overly sweet dessert wine with a slight fizz, which goes ever so well with the pannacotta.
At that point I have to say that dinner features a distinct lack of carbs, which is fine by me and I barely noticed it until Mr T commented he’d love some bread with his broth. The resulting feeling is that of satisfaction rather than stuffiness.
I declare myself in foodie heaven and say so to Paul who spends a bit of time chatting with us ( as he does with the other guests ) at the end of the meal. It turns out that he hails from the Shire, like Mr T, so they both share common memories of people and places. We compliment him and the team for a very enjoyable evening with a difference. I thought that watching the husband and wife team at work would be a noisy distraction, but I was proven wrong: they are both so organised and calm, chef Nathan somehow managing to carry out a quiet conversation with guests at his counter ( sorry, table ) while plating up. Aki, in the background, tends to the “business” side with the look of a woman on a mission, I can’t see any items out of place in that kitchen. If only I could say the same of mine.
One last thing to mention is the individual cards handed for each course, with a brief description of the dish being served. I thought it was a nice touch, with a drawing of the animal farms by Chef Nathan’s mum, not only is it convenient to write notes on but also makes for a lovely personable memento.