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This article appears in Volume 29: The Taste Issue
Our plane swoops so low over Sydney Harbour that I can make out the armadillo-esque sails of its iconic Opera House. However, I’m heading somewhere lesser-known and far more bucolic. Despite the fact that I‘ve been averaging seven courses per meal for nearly two weeks, I’m looking forward to this part of my gourmet grand tour most of all: the Hunter Valley. After all, this is the countryside region where concepts such as “local sourcing” and “farm-to-table” eating first emerged in Australia.
After lunching at Pretty Beach House, an immaculate hideaway in Bouddi National Park, we pull into Bar Botanica, a rustic gelateria and gin bar housed in a romantic 1970s mud cottage. The menu reads like a summer stroll through its garden (honeycomb and lavender, anyone?), while the interior blooms with luscious murals of petals and pomegranates by local artist Nicole Berlach. “We have an agreement with our neighbour, who’s a florist. She does our flowers once a week and we pay her in ice cream and coffee,” explains ex-Sydneysider Julia Hughes, as she serenely sips an iced long black (the Aussie equivalent of an americano) against a backdrop of tumbling roses. This agreement seems to embody much of the appeal for young creatives to flee the city and set up cottage food businesses: there’s a supportive community and the space to create something beautiful without the pressures of high rent and ruthless competition.
As the sun sets, golden vineyards cascade all the way to the Brokenback Range, parting around imposing farmhouses with shady porches and cavernous cellars. However even here, in this bastion of good taste and old money, change is afoot. “We call this one The Enneagram, because it’s made from nine types of grape. It’s our Willy Wonka blend: just the right amount of bonkers,” explains winemaker Ebony Tinkler, as she splashes what looks like cherry juice into my glass. We’re sitting on stools made from barrel racks in a converted church filled with paintings by her friends, while Eighties hip-hop echoes around the bell tower. Tinkler and her husband, Usher, are part of a new wave of young vintners keen to attract a more diverse crowd to the valley. “We all swap ideas and spur each other on to push the boundaries. And drink a lot, naturally,” she adds with a playful smile. Dutifully, I raise my glass.
The Hunter Valley wasn’t always this open to change, however. “When I first arrived, people insisted on having their steak burnt to a cinder. I had to ask myself whether they were ready for mushroom risotto. My god!” Gesticulating so enthusiastically that he knocks over a wine glass and with an accent as thick as the crème brûlée served at his famed hilltop restaurant, Robert Molines could hardly be more French – and with its chalkboards, baskets of lemons and terrace canopied with twisting wisteria, Bistro Molines itself could have been transported whole from his native Provence. Yet there is also something innately Australian in Molines’ values – his affinity with nature recently led him to tumble into a stream as he reached for a bunch of wild watercress, while his egalitarianism sees him bantering with the teenager washing the pots and personally prepping vegetables. “I came here in 1977 with nothing and bought 17 hectares for a few thousand dollars. I’m 68 now and people offer to buy it off me all the time, but it’s not for sale. My family and my home are the achievements of my life. My roots are here and I’ll be doing this,” he gestures around the restaurant to the valley beyond, “forever.”
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