DARK, heavy storm clouds converge in the sky just as the early autumn wind starts to pick up speed. In the distance, flashes of lightning can be seen spreading across the sky, their movements rather similar to the vein patterns on a dicotyledonous leaf. These bright sparks are quickly followed by loud claps of thunder which sound significantly louder as they echo off the nearby Brokenback Range.
With the storm fast catching up, I hurriedly step on the accelerator and nudge the car faster. The cluster of swirling dead leaves just a little further up the lonely stretch lends perspective to the might of the growing tempest. I‘m definitely concerned. Driving during a heavy downpour under the influence of low visibility is definitely not my idea of a leisurely drive through New South Wales‘ picturesque Hunter Valley.
A warm sense of relief overwhelms me the moment Hermitage Road comes into sight. Within the next couple of minutes, I manage to park my car and make a quick dash for the nearest building. Then, as if on cue, the heavens start to open up. By this time, the distant verdant hills are no longer visible. A thick veil of torrential downpour has descended on the valley, wrapping it tightly like shawl around a woman‘s neck during a cold day.
Forced to drive faster than usual by the approaching storm earlier, I realise that I‘ve arrived at my destination well ahead of time. I still have a good half an hour to spare before Muse Kitchen is ready for my lunch reservation. While waiting, I decide to nip into the shop next door and check out its artisan chocolates.
The sweet aroma of the rich chocolate wafting in the air embraces me as soon as I step into the warm interior. Coupled with the sight of so many tantalising chocolates on display, the raging storm outside quickly fades into distant memory.
Named Cocoa Nib, the shop showcases a high degree of versatility in its products. I like this creative name very much and whoever came up with it is very clever. It conjures images of the very ingredient that every chocolate product is made from — bits of fermented cocoa beans that have been carefully roasted and crushed.
Once only available to master chocolate makers, cocoa nibs are now widely available at neighbourhood health food or gourmet grocery stores. Favoured for their intense chocolate taste, these dark brown bits are gaining popularity and can be used in many ways, for example baked in fancy desserts and folded into ice cream, just to name a few.
Many people believe that good things comes in threes and this belief holds true for Cocoa Nib. This 3-year-old establishment is the final result of pastry chef Aymee Slaviero‘s life-long dream. Three years prior to this, Slaviero started a stall at Newcastle‘s popular Olive Tree Markets. That stall in itself was launched after Slaviero successfully conducted three years of trial and error at her own home kitchen.
With Easter just around the corner (at the time of writing), I couldn‘t have chosen a better time to visit. This is one of Cocoa Nib‘s busiest and most exciting time of the year when Slaviero gets her creative juices flowing and comes up with interesting products for this widely anticipated annual religious celebration. The wide selection of delicately-decorated Easter bunnies and eggs of every imaginable colour and design arranged attractively on the shelves is indeed mind boggling.
Work on the Easter range takes place well in advance for Slaviero. About a month prior, she starts going online to gain inspiration and also get an idea about this year‘s projected trends. Once that has been dispensed with, she proceeds to set the wheels of the time consuming and laborious production process in motion.
Production starts with Slaviero preparing a wide range of hollow moulds. These come in the shape of chicken, rabbit, frog, eggs and sometimes even the nondescript dinosaur. She then painstakingly decorates each piece by hand before casting the lot in either milk or dark chocolate.
During that time, Slaviero ensures that all the necessary chocolate types are tempered simultaneously to enable her to layer the chocolate seamlessly in the moulds. She‘d usually start with the eyes and dark features before finishing off with the white parts, followed by the decorations a few hours later. In between each casting, Slaviero would meticulously polish the moulds to ensure that the end product emerges smooth and shiny.
As I walk across the floor, the sight of a golden ray of sunshine piercing in through a window from across the room makes me stop in my tracks. Scanning the scene outside, I‘m delighted to note that the storm has finally blown over! A quick check with my watch tells me that it‘s nearly time for me to head over for my lunch.
Before leaving, I manage to grab several bags of Cocoa Nib‘s popular bite-sized goodies. Everything looks so delicious but I know I have to restraint myself. Finally, after much contemplation, I settle for the macadamia butter crunch and peanut brittle. The former consists of crisp brittle butter toffee layers covered in rich milk chocolate and topped with crunchy roasted Australian macadamia nuts.
Once at the checkout counter, I find my earlier rock solid resolve wavering. It starts to cave the moment my gaze falls on the tantalising range of hand crafted praline chocolates in a refrigerated display cabinet right in front of me. With 18 to 25 enticing flavours such as raspberry, hazelnut caramel mousse, cinnamon and a range of tea-infused creations to choose from, I soon forgive myself for making quite a sizeable side purchase.
A DASH OF FRENCH COUNTRYSIDE
Walking back into the courtyard happy as a lark, I cannot help but stare at the stunning Hunter Valley landscape after the rain. Putting my lunch on temporary hold, I decide to take full advantage of the moment and take as many photographs as possible. The buildings that form the sprawling Keith Tulloch Winery look almost magical with the crisp noon sunshine dancing around them.
Once inside the soft-toned two-storey cottage that is home to Muse Kitchen, I notice there are two separate dining areas filled with subtle music and diners enjoying their meals while immersed in their own private discussions.
The overall setup here is simply stunning. The air is filled with subtle fragrances of fresh flowers and the wooden tables and chairs are neatly spaced out to promote privacy. Coupled with the well laid out cutlery, the whole place looks like it‘s from a place somewhere in provincial France!
Over the next hour and a half I give my senses a free rein, immersing myself in the culinary genius of chef-cum-owner, Troy Roades-Brown. To start, I settle for the warm organic Ciabatta with some Lescure butter. Combined with the delicious Olio Mio olive oil, this appetiser turns out to be a balanced melting pot of pure satisfaction. The underpinning flavour of the fresh Italian white bread makes me look forward to my main dish.
Noticing that the menu does not specify the type of fish served, I decide to play a personal guessing game. The wait-staff breaks into a wide grin when I inform him that I prefer not to know the type of fish served until the dish reaches my table. Then, I take out a piece of paper and write down my prediction before putting it safely aside.
We both have a good laugh later when my prediction turns out to be correct. I was almost certain the chef would use Barramundi as this native fish is found abundantly in Australia‘s northern tropical waters. Its flesh has a firm, moist texture and large flakes while the few bones are large and easy to remove. Many people like this fish for its sweet, buttery flavour.
My pan fried barramundi is served on a bed of lightly sauteed broccoli and thinly sliced crunchy almonds. Mixed with the tasty vinaigrette, this dish certainly befits the elegant ambience surrounding me.
The third and final serving sees me end my delightful afternoon with a feast for the eyes. The colourful fig and raspberry torte is served with salted caramel and fresh dates. Together with a generous helping of creme fraiche, this dessert provides for the most delightful end to my three course meal.
HUNTER VALLEY DELIGHTS
I spend the remainder of the afternoon hopping from one vineyard to another, enjoying the glorious late afternoon weather and sampling prize winning products that major Hunter Valley establishments are famous for.
Before long, it‘s time for me to head back to my room in Chateau Elan. During the drive back, I ponder upon the day‘s events and realise how fortunate I am to have had the opportunity to visit so many interesting places.
I begin to mentally prepare myself for a quiet night as soon as the car banks to the right and enters Vintage Drive. I hadn‘t realised that Hunter Valley would have yet another surprise in store for me.
A series of low yet audible growling sounds attract my attention as soon as I alight. Turning around, I notice a mob of kangaroos grazing by the crest of a nearby hillock. The adults must have been alerted to my presence and raised the alarm to warn their joeys.
Not wishing to waste the opportunity of having a close encounter with the wild marsupials, I quietly creep closer to get a better look. Transfixed, I study the gentle creatures for a good 20 minutes before the entire group decide to hop off into the sunset.
This unexpected encounter is indeed a fitting end to my visit here in Hunter Valley. I‘ve seen and done a lot during this short sojourn and tonight I‘ll surely dream of chocolates, tantalising desserts and grazing kangaroos in my sleep. As for the many other interesting places and sights here that I‘ve yet to experience, they‘ll simply have to wait for my next return.