Cloistered in our concrete jungle, we citysiders don’t know what we’re missing. With apologies to those who do venture further west than Newtown, isn’t it time we all partook of some country air? The Hunter Valley is barely two hours from Sydney so get in your car or train or bus and just go!

Hunter Valley Tourism has, over the past decade, made a concerted effort to attract visitors nationwide and beyond, and if the area isn’t patronised as it should be, the local wines -“ and food -“ certainly aren’t to blame.

Top-of-the-range restaurants abound and, together with vineyards ranging from the boutique to the mass-producers, they make this a region worth at least a weekend away.

The area’s restaurants have been coaxing executive chefs away from the bright lights and big city environment of Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. One high point of Bite’s visit to the Valley was a degustation meal at the Hunter Valley Gardens Lodge where chef de cuisine Darren Ho worked his magic both on the plate and with the wine matching.

It was, in a word, sublime. Although rather meat-oriented, the meal cascaded over our palates with nary a break in ecstasy, our appetites only enhanced by the fairy-lit surrounds in the gardens.

First out of the starter’s post were the caramelised sea scallops stuffed with black truffle salsa. Served on wilted arugula, the essence of the truffles married superbly with the just-cooked scallops; only the presence of other diners prevented me from licking those black skerricks from the plate. Teamed with (oh bliss!) a 1993 Tyrrells Vat 1 Semillon, it set the tone for the five courses to follow. I saw God; she saw what I was eating, and we were both well pleased.

This ambrosia was followed by more of the same. Ocean Trout with squid ink tagliatelle and gazpacho sauce; barbecue duck with plum glaze and rocket macadamia pesto; roast loin of Mandalong lamb with Balsamico jus -¦ the dishes just kept on coming. And each course was matched perfectly with premium wines.

The purpose of our visit was to attend the Bimbadgen Blues festival and, despite the inclement weather, there was a turnout of almost 3,000 people to the estate. An annual event, Bimbadgen Blues is seven hours of non-stop music provided by Australian blues legends. Combined with fine wines, festival-style cuisine from Esca restaurant, not to mention the views across the Hunter Valley to the Barrington Tops, it was a day to remember.

Launched in December 1999, Esca has a menu which features ironbark wood-fired spit-roasted meats such as duck, chicken and pig, and was recently acknowledged by the Restaurant and Catering Association as Best Winery Restaurant NSW 2001.

A range of produce used at Esca is sourced locally or grown on the estate and includes Bimbadgen dam-raised yabbies and a wide selection of herbs. Its cellar comprises an impressive selection of wines from the 20-year old estate as well as tipples from other boutique wineries, and vintage and classic wines from more established vineyards.

With its stupendous views across the Valley, Esca is the perfect place for lunch. Try the warm king prawn, asparagus, confit kipflers, chervil and truffle dressing salad, or perhaps the wood spit-roasted duck, shaved fennel and watercress salad, tarragon dumpling and orange vinaigrette.

Perhaps the nicest thing about Esca is that each plate has that enviable marriage of flavours without being snobby about it. And as for the prices? Well, if you could compare the quality to Sydney, you’ll find the prices entirely reasonable.

Only a decade ago, one could drive through Cessnock and on towards Singleton and beyond with nary a signpost to tell you which vineyard was where. Now there’s a thriving PR machine and an even busier common marketplace and, while local estates and restaurants don’t exactly tread on each other to get precedence, they are doing all they can to make themselves look the best they can be.

You, the tourist, are in a buyer’s market. There’s so much to see, do, taste, feel and experience that you alone call the shots.


Sarah Bacon travelled as a guest of her girlfriend’s American Express Card.

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