Australia's favourite food blogger Not Quite Nigella, aka Lorraine Elliott, is dazzled by the personal stories and the food at the Wolgan Valley Resort and Spa.
"Honey, we're home!" I say to Mr NQN, as I fit the key through the door of our homestead. Our home for the next two nights is my what I truly wish was my home away from home: Wolgan Valley Resort and Spa in Sydney's Blue Mountains.
This is my third visit to the exquisite property, which is nestled against the mountains that rise up from the valley. We are attending Qantas’ epiQure event at Wolgan Valley, bringing acclaimed chef Brett Graham from The Ledbury of London. He is the only Australian chef to hold three Michelin stars. With him is Neil Perry of the Rockpool empire. epiQure is a frequent flyer program designed to match Qantas's business and first class passengers with wine and food-related experiences and they hold approximately fifty exclusive events a year.
It is Mr NQN's first time here and I'm eager to show him the property. The welcome starts from the beginning where we park our car. Details like addressing people by their name and welcoming people back are replete here and serve to make you feel as though you are family. The general manager Joost Heymeijer has been here since the beginning of construction eight years ago, and his easygoing, comfortable manner belies his eye for precision and detail.
At Wolgan Valley, there are 36 Federation-style heritage suites, each 83 square metres in size, constructed out of wood and stone. The emblem for the Wollemi pine is echoed throughout the soft furnishings. As temperatures are a few degrees colder in the Blue Mountains, the double-sided fireplace provides comfort and warmth. The main lounge area is luxurious yet comfortable, and faces the suite's private lap pool with towels at the ready for a pre-dinner dip.
The bedroom's main focus is the four poster bed with canopy sides. It's supremely comfortable and sells well. There's a working desk and a second television. An enormous walk-in closet joins the bedroom. Every time I pass the bed, I pat the decorative wooden wombat's smooth bottom for good luck.
The bathroom is light and spacious, and given an extra burst of warmth and sunshine from the skylight. There are double basins, two shower heads, a roomy tub meant for two and the toilet and bidet are in a separate room. It is stocked with Sodashi and Ikou amenities.
After dropping our bags, we head to the first event on the program: a tour of the 1832 heritage homestead with Brett and Neil. There are glasses of wines and olives to welcome guests, and they explain that the 1832 homestead was designed with Ian Kiernan to resemble the way it looked when Charles Darwin visited in 1836.
The gardens, which seem to expand each time I visit, are tended to by the team of gardeners, growing produce for the kitchen garden.
Dinner that evening has Neil in the kitchen and Brett as a guest, while his assistant chefs Lawrence McCarthy and Anthony Schifilliti prepare some dishes from The Ledbury. It's a restaurant that has won many accolades, including two Michelin stars and currently stands at number 13 in the 50 Best Restaurants of the World list. It is also the restaurant that drew world attention during the London riots when footage was released of the chefs defending themselves against thugs with fry baskets and rolling pins.
Born in Newcastle, Australia, Brett's roots are important to him, although he lives in London and his accent had a British hint to it. Ten years ago he started a scholarship for young chefs. The prize is a trip to Europe and the idea is to inspire them through travel and to bring their experience back to Newcastle. His return to Australia this month was for a Starlight foundation dinner organised by Neil Perry that saw Thomas Keller, Heston Blumenthal, Grant Achatz, Ben Shewry and Phil Wood cooking and raising over $800,000 for charity.
He grew up in Williamtown away from shops and a typical meal was usually steak and vegetables eaten late. "There was no salt, butter or margarine on the table. My mum actually, I love her dearly, but she didn't teach me how to cook. If there was a sauce it wasn't extravagant, it was simple. I had no inkling that there was the next level of cooking." He recalls being amazed and inquisitive about food as a result of his upbringing.
At the age of 16 while working at Schratchleys, his boss gave him a cookbook and told him that he had to go to the cookbook author's restaurant in Sydney. "He said that if you try very hard this could be your story." The book was Neil Perry's Rockpool. After arriving in Sydney, he did work experience at Restaurant 41 "I saw them doing things that I had never seen before like peeling asparagus and passing mashed potato through the sieve twice. I was taken by the quality of what they were serving." He then went to Banc to work under Liam Tomlin.
"Liam was a tough man. After six months everyone had left and a new brigade began. It was a tough place to work. We were working 100 hours a week. I got a wake-up call to how focused you should be when cooking. I think we lost thirty five staff in the first six months."
The dinner that evening features courses from both Neil and Brett and is served in the Wolgan Dining Room. This was a dish from Neil and he tell us that it reflects his love for Moroccan cuisine. The soft, creamy tuna tartare is sliced into small cubes and is served with an aromatic Moroccan eggplant salad, a sweet spicy harissa and a heady cumin mayonnaise. The sweet, spiciness of the harissa went well with the creamy eggplant and tuna while the cumin in sparing amounts added aroma.
This is one of Neil's signature dishes. The congee is a rice porridge that he describes as "Chinese risotto". It's an exercise in textures with the soft rice, plump corn kernels, anise scented peanuts, large pockets of spanner crab, crunchy crumbs all brought together with spicy, earthy chilli oil with a lingering bite at the end.
The last savoury course was a beef course by Brett. He usually uses a grass fed Belted Galloway beef, which he describes as intensely aromatic and aged, almost like a salami flavour and slightly gamey. As the beef isn't available here, they sourced a Speckle Park beef, which is served with a juniper branch ash-coated celeriac and an emulsion made out of soft boiled eggs, juniper, truffle juice and sherry vinegar, garlic and spinach puree and sorrel leaves, with a disc of juicy, rich smoked bone marrow on top. The sauce is made up of the beef trimmings roasted off, pickled walnuts and fermented garlic similar to sauerkraut.
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