When Roberts Circa 1876 restaurant executive chef George Francisco came in to work one morning last spring, there was a long patch of freshly furrowed earth where grapevines had been the day before. He had talked to owner Matt Cowley about his idea of extending a small vegetable garden behind the kitchen, but overnight he suddenly had a space where five rows of muscat vines had stood. Matt’s a hands-on kind of guy dressed in work boots rather than a suit, and never does anything by halves. He and George take the concept of sustainable produce and paddock to plate very seriously.
Now the Hunter Valley restaurant has a thriving garden with busy chooks clucking down one end, a tangle of snow peas and beans, endless supplies of four types of lettuce, and strawberries already planted for the new season in a bathtub on a bed of straw. Not to mention kale, cauliflower, zucchini and lots of herbs including pineapple sage. George also grows orange and yellow cherry tomatoes because “it’s good to have a change from red ones and their flavour is so sweet”. Even in winter the garden flourishes.
The hens are moved every two weeks to add manure to the soil. They’re fed food scraps from the restaurant and provide fresh eggs for breakfast at next door’s Peppers Convent. I visit this ludicrously photogenic and fertile corner of the Hunter Valley on an early winter’s day. The sun is warm on my back. It’s late morning and George shows me around before the lunch rush starts.
“The size of the garden was a complete surprise,” he says. “Sustainable food sources is the right thing to do.”
George’s first stab at growing was inheriting a herb garden in a car park at the Napa Valley restaurant where he worked in California, and further developed his interest in hip San Francisco. The Italian-born, American-raised chef says his latest gardening project is continuing life lessons already learned in the US. He previously worked at the much-celebrated Jonah’s at Whale Beach in Sydney’s northern suburbs, and in Queensland’s Surfer’s Paradise, but this place is where he’s been able to fully realize his earthy passion.
The Hunter Valley (official name Hunter Region) is about two-and-a-half-hours drive north of Sydney, and was once an Aboriginal healing ground. It’s now a curious combination of coal mines, viticulture, wine making, tourism, beef and dairy farming. Roberts restaurant is an institution in the area.
Matt also owns Peppers Convent, which was once home to the Brigidine Order of Nuns at Coonamble in New South Wales before being carefully transported 600km to where it now sits in the Pepper Tree Estate today. The former convent is a country wedding venue and romantic retreat.
The restaurant has a large collection of awards, and is the dining focus for Peppers Convent which is a two-minute stroll away. The Convent is also a historic building and the grand old dame has just undergone a much-needed facelift.
Back to the garden tour. George has a green thumb but wisely employed local advisers in organic and sustainable agriculture to help. His greenhouse supplies produce in the winter months. All veges and herbs are grown from seed and he also harvests the pepper trees on the restaurant grounds. The leaves and tiny berries were used by colonial settlers before pepper was imported from the West Indies.
“Outdoor produce grown from self-seeding plants is stronger than supplied seedlings which are fostered from hothouse conditions,” says George. “What seeds the hens don’t find grow the best – survival of the fittest I guess.”
The restaurant itself stems from a small building called Halls Cottage (the nearby road is Halls Road), built in 1876. It’s been meticulously preserved in the colonial style, filled with antiques and featuring roaring open fireplaces. One intimate room has only a table set for two and is known as the Proposal Room, where up to 1,000 couples have celebrated popping the question. The main dining room seats more than 60 guests and has a Sunday lunch special menu. The extensive wine list includes the full range of Tower Wines, of course. There’s a chapel at the rear of the property. Like the Convent next door, it’s popular for weddings.
Robert’s is believed to have a resident ghost, a woman grieving for her child drowned in a bathtub, although George says he’s never noticed anything that goes bump in the night.
My daughter Fran and I have lunch at Robert’s: A warm celeriac amuse-bouche, two main courses of pork belly and a hearty burger (the beef from Matt’s farm), accompanied by garden veges and crunchy/creamy polenta croquettes, two glasses of Tower Estate’s Tasmanian Pinot Noir 2010, and dessert (a heavenly panna cotta with a wickedly trembling erotic black nipple) for $A87. A good deal for top winter nosh in front of the fire with an uninterrupted view out to the vines and garden. The menu is mod Oz and European-Mediterranean. I also recommend the tempura ricotta zucchini flowers, $A24. Consume slowly, because they melt in your mouth. George grows the zucchini flowers, au natural. The wine list heavily features local wines. It’s quite long, so I suggest a local wine tasting before you eat lunch is a good idea.
- Roberts Circa 1876, tel (02) 4998 7330, Halls Road, Pokolbin, Hunter Valley
- Open seven days for lunch and dinner
- Peppers Convent, 88 Halls Rd, Pokolbin NSW 2320, (02) 4998 4999
*All images copyright Taste for Travel