Hunter Valley food hunt, New South Wales, Australia

What better way to follow up a trip to the South Australia wine regions than an encore weekend to Hunter Valley? The two regions are a stark contrast. While SA had a laid back vibe with its myriad of heritage towns and artisan producers, Hunter Valley was more commercial, with over a 150(!) wineries packed into the small region. It is busy with coach-loads of tourists, resorts and to my surprise, chain ‘artisan’ shops. Okay, my disappointment is showing.

The region of Hunter Valley covers the villages of Lovedale, Mount View, Broke Fordwich, Cessnock and at its epicentre, Pokolbin, where some of the original pioneering wineries are located.

Our first stop was lunch at Emerson’s Restaurant at Adina Vineyard in Lovedale. We sat outside on the patio overlooking the vineyards and guesthouses, but it was a muggy day and the hovering flies didn’t quite set the mood. We started with a salad of salt roasted baby beets, crumbed and deep-fried Binnorie labna with a honey truffle dressing. This looked beautiful, tasted refreshing, and whetted our appetite for more. The second shared dish was pork croquettes with smoked paprika aioli. I loved the egg carton presentation, but the croquettes tasted like paste. The texture was mealy, and the flavour was bland. Very disappointing.

The mains came in small or large sizes; though it’s a bit of a misnomer. The ‘small’ is actually very generous, and is to share between two. The large is to share between groups of 4 or larger. We shared a fresh seafood spaghettini and pan-fried cod with cassoulet of beans, vegetables and chorizo. The servings are huge, and we really should have only ordered one entrée to share. The spaghettini was beautifully cooked; the sauce was fresh and light, though somehow creamy enough to cling tantalisingly to each strand. And the fish was succulent, with a perfectly crispy skin.

I was keen to discover the local artisan food producers around Hunter Valley, so we stopped at Hunter Valley Chocolate Company (the main branch at Pokolbin) which as it turns out is really just a haphazard retail store selling overpriced confectionery from around Australia, and surprisingly New Zealand. It was slow work trying to maneuverer around the crowds of tourists buying ice-cream. Further down the road was The Smelly Cheese Company, which has helpful staff, but the layout is that of a hoarder’s pantry and it was also expensive. It was certainly not what we expected.

An almost shining light at the end of the trip was when a very helpful staff at Mount Pleasant Winery told us about Binnorie Dairy and their famous marinated feta. He said it was so smooth, you could spread it on bread in lieu of butter. We had already tasted their labna at Emerson’s.  The lady at the counter was not what you would call friendly. She however, did give us tastings of the remarkably delicious cow and goat feta. We bought one of each, and yes, it is really that good.

BL had a surprise up his sleeve. For our dinner, he booked us into Molines Bistro. The drive up Mount View road has spectacular vistas of Hunter Valley, the rolling hills festooned with vineyards, with the range as a backdrop. And as you walk into the French provincial looking tree-framed courtyard, another glorious view opens up in front of you.

The menu is extensive which makes for a difficult decision; there’s 10 options each for entrée and mains. An amuse bouche of the lightest cheese gougeres started the journey and lead the way for our shared charcuterie entrée. This was not just beautiful to look at, but each element on the plate was absolutely delicious. The duck liver pate was unctuous and silky smooth; the terrine de champagne and rabbit rillettes was full of flavour. The parma ham with piel de sapo melon was refreshing, along with the pickled vegetable and the eschallote jam. It was just a stunning platter of textures and tastes.

I chose the little roast of suckling pig that came on a parsnip puree with muscat jus. This was spectacularly tender, as was the crumbed pork. The only let down was that the puffed crackling was soggy, rather than crunchy. BL’s twice roasted duckling was twice as large and nearly as delicious. It came on braised red cabbage with an orange glaze.

We would have loved to try a dessert, but we barely finished the large servings. Our nightcap of peppermint tea was served in the most delicate china, with a couple of friands (so we got our dessert after all).  I loved Molines Bistro, the cuisine, the view and the service was all exemplary.

Our last meal at Hunter Valley was at Verandah Restaurant, where we indulged in their famous tapas tower. For $80 for 2, this was disappointing. Maybe it had a tough act to follow, but the food was uninspiring. The pork belly was dry, the chicken was bland, and the olives were dull. For that we could have gotten two charcuterie platters at Molines Bistro, with funds to spare.

Hunter Valley has its gems, but surprisingly, you have to hunt (*grin) for them. The proximity to Sydney has its appeal, but I can’t see myself making another trip up here unless I have guests.

Emersons
492 Lovedale Road, Lovedale
Ph: 02-4930 7029
Breakfast: Sat & Sun 8am – 11pm
Lunch: Wed – Sun 11am – 3pm
Dinner: Thu – Sun 6 – 10pm

Binnorie Dairy
Tuscany Wine Estate, Cnr Hermitage Rd & Mistletoe Lane, Pokolbin
Ph: 02-4998 6660
Open 7 days: 10am – 5pm (4pm on Sun)

Molines Bistro at Tallavera Grove
749 Mount View Road
Ph: 02-4990 9553
Lunch: Thurs – Mon noon – 3pm
Dinner: Fri & Sat 7 – 9pm (booking is essential)

Verandah Restaurant
151 Palmers Lane, Pokolbin
Ph: 02-4998 7231
Thurs – Sun: 12 – 10pm

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