Bilby Bites - the food blog from Bilby Marketing

Dining Down Under (Part 1)

What’s the difference between Australia and a pot of yogurt? The answer to this 'hilarious' joke is to do with one having a lack of culture and you can probably guess it isn’t the yoghurt. I’ve heard this joke a lot over the years but like most cultural generalisations – the Irish are daft, the British don’t wash, the French wear garlic necklaces – there isn’t a lot of truth in it. I’ve recently returned from a fantastic trip to Australia to visit my family & friends and it was a 3 week cultural feast. The food and wine culture in Australia is thriving as it has been for the last 10-15 years. I happily drowned myself in this particular culture, but also managed to dabble in surf culture (vicariously through friends in Cronulla rather than by leaping on a board myself), art, history and more food!!

In this 3 part series, I aim to pass on my experience of Down Under Dining, taking in Sydney, the Hunter Valley, the Central Coast and the Sunshine Coast of QLD. I am well aware that this isn’t exactly local food, as Australia is 10,000 miles from the South West, but as I am Australian I figure I can safely post a blog relating to Australian food without comprimising my site principles too much.

My sister lives in the Hunter Valley in Australia and this was my first stop. You can’t get much better than the Hunter Valley for the full Australian gourmet experience. I got off the plane in Sydney after a 24 hour journey, jumped into a mini-bus with a family returning from Fiji and headed for Medowie, near Newcastle. Within 48 hours I was on the foody treadmill. If you’ve been to Australia, you will know that it is dotted with the sort of American shopping malls that are sprawling and a little lacking in character, but cool (as in temperature), convenient and reliably predictable. I visited many of these on my trip, but my most memorable was the Charlestown Square Shopping Centre where my sister took me to a great sushi bar in the main food hall. I say great, it was pretty bog standard I think, but for the first time in my life I had a chicken teriyaki rice paper wrap and I loved it. Wheat doesn’t particularly like me, although I am not allergic to it, so I often try to avoid it in favour of rice or corn based alternatives. The rice paper wrap is perfect - I love the soft and squidgy texture particularly. The wrap simply contained chicken, teriyaki sauce, grated carrot, lettuce and cucumber. I believe these rolls are quite popular in Australia and America and maybe in some of the bigger cities in the UK, but this was my first one ever. Yesterday, I bought 10 packets of Vietnamese Rice Flour Pancakes made by Blue Dragon from The Asian Cookshop. I hope I like them as this is a lot of rolls, but I plan to have them for lunch instead of sandwiches and my first experience was so good I am convinced I’m a complete convert.

The town of Morpeth, in the Hunter Valley, has always been a favourite of mine having been there a couple of times when I was younger on school trips and ‘ladies who lunch’ days. I was very excited to find out about 18 months ago that my sister had bought a house only 20 minutes from there. We spent a day wandering around the National Trust-classified town looking at all the boutique clothes shops, antique shops, sweet shops and oohing & aahing at the architecture – well, I did anyway. My one regret was that we didn’t get to eat at Arnott’s Bakehouse Restaurant. It is quite expensive and we were only looking for a low-key lunch after having eaten a fair amount over the previous few days. The building that houses the restaurant was built c.1890 and is fairly typical of Morpeth’s architecture style, with a large, ornate verandah that sits above the footpath and heritage coloured paint work. Arnott’s are the quintessential Australian baking family so the name is well-know over there. William Arnott opened his first bakery in West Maitland, NSW in 1853. After a few challenging years in the first bakery, he moved to 148 Swan Street, Morpeth in 1862. Today this building houses the restaurant and Morpeth Sourdough bakehouse & shop. Their bread is all natural, using no baker’s yeast, preservatives, raising agents, emulsifiers, stabilisers, extenders or bulking agents. The range includes sourdough, ciabatta, baguettes, fruit & nut loaf and casalinga which is a sourdough traditionally baked on the floor of the oven with a thick crust and bubbly texture. They sell their products all over NSW – in my travels I saw them all over the Hunter Valley, Newcastle, the Central Coast and Sydney. I only tasted the straight sourdough bread but it was moist, soft, and incredibly moreish. I’ve been away for 3 years and in this time it seems to have taken off in popularity with most of my friends having tried and loved it.

We finished off our lovely day in Morpeth with a trip to the Morpeth Wine Cellar, located in the historic sandstone building known as the Surgeons House, built c.1850. My sister is a bit of a wine fan, much moreso than me nowadays, and we tasted several of the cellar offerings. My personal favourite was the 2009 Verdelho which I promptly bought a bottle of to take back to my sister’s for our evening tipple. We also tried the late pick Verdelho which was equally lovely, but I was very keen on buying the Velour Cream – a Morpeth Wine Cellar cream liqueur – so by-passed the sticky. My sister headed straight for a tasting of the Butterscotch Moonshine as an anniversary present for my brother-in-law. I had one sniff of this and thought better of it knowing that I would struggle to walk straight even after one small taste. My sister bravely forged ahead and what followed was an awful lot of face pulling as the force of the alcohol hit. It was apparently positive face pulling however and she immediately bought a bottle. She assured me that it had a smooth, creamy aftertaste. We both headed out of the cellar door with our paper bags and their clinking contents, very pleased with ourselves. Our drive back over old, wooden bridges, through green fields dotted with horses and typically Australian country towns made for the perfect ending to my ideal day.

To end my trip to see my sister & family we spent the last two nights in Pokolbin which is the heart of the Hunter Valley wine scene. My sister and brother-in-law were having a re-affirmation ceremony to celebrate 10 years of marriage with a breakfast at Peterson’s Champagne House. It was fabulous and if you are ever stuck for ideas on how to celebrate an important anniversary I would recommend this. We were offered a glass of Petersons Cuvee to start – beats my usual apple juice - and the breakfast that followed was definitely worth remembering. We had immediate access to fruit platters on each table which included strawberries and melon that were beautifully ripe and juicy. Then came the serious business of the Magnum breakfast involving bacon, scrambled eggs, sausage, grilled tomato, hash browns & thick cut toast. There was nothing puny about the portion sizes here either. I had no need for any lunch that day, put it that way, although I managed a few antipasto treats and a few potato wedges just to keep me going.

Following on from our gargantuan breakfast, we were collected by a mini-bus that proceeded to take us to several of the vineyards in the immediate area. Tempus Two was first stop, where my lovely brother-in-law proceeded to buy me a bottle of their 2009 Botrytis Semillon sticky which has always been a favourite of mine. We couldn’t avoid popping into the Hunter Valley Smelly Cheese Shop before we all left, given that it is a perfect example of the high gourmet standard for the region. There can’t be a single Australian delicacy that you won’t find squirreled away somewhere in this shop including an endless array of cheeses, Wasabi Macadamia Nuts, various scented olive oils from the Pukara Estate and River Flats including the obligatory Wasabi flavour (Wasabi has taken over Australia), Dukkah, Lavosh, chocolates, chutneys and my favourite brand of mayonaisses – Doodles Creek – which you will be happy to find out has a Wasabi product in it’s range. I didn’t try these mayonaisses, but I’m definitely going to have to on my next visit. The rest of our day centred around the Small Winemakers Centre which showcases some of the smaller winemakers in the region, the Blue Tongue Brewery and Drayton's Family Wines. In the evening we headed for Harrigan's Irish Pub which is no gourmet haven I have to say, but after a full day of food and wine heaven it was OK to bow to the needs of small children and head for a family-friendly environment where I ate a very basic Chicken Caesar Salad, one of the healthiest options on the menu. It wasn’t the greatest culinary high I could have left the Hunter Valley on, but I had a wonderful time and wasn’t in the least bit disappointed with our evening.

Part 2 of my Dining Down Under tale takes in my trip to QLD where I sample my first Thai meal of the trip, Maroochydore Shopping Centre (yes, another shopping centre), Poet’s Café in Montville and The Boatshed at Cotton Tree.