Nine steps to Hunter Valley treasure

There's nothing wrong with injecting a bit of pomp and ceremony into your dining experience – especially when you can do it just a few hours outside of Sydney.

Australia's favourite food blogger, Not Quite Nigella,aka Lorraine Elliott travels to the Hunter Valley to unearth some of the region's real treasures.

I’ve never been one of those people that has only thought that hotels and places to stay are a place to simply lay their head. To me, a hotel is a home away from home and I like to bury myself in the hotel room, just me and the bath, room service, mini bar and the internet connection and TV and I’m happy as a clam. It’s probably why I am so fussy about the rooms that I stay in – just call me Adrian Monk. And if we are assigning blame it should probably go to my parents who are similarly finicky. And although I know it is a rite of passage for many, I have never backpacked. In fact my sister tried backpacking once and after a night fled to a hotel. You see it’s simply not in our gene pool, as silly as that sounds…

So when Mr NQN and I were invited to visit the Hunter Valley on the first weekend of the Hunter Valley Food & Wine Festival in June and visit the exclusive adults only Tower Lodge we were very excited. For only last year did it win the "Global Luxury Lodge” award at the World Luxury Hotel Awards. A member of the prestigious Relais & Chteaux group, they proudly display the golden fleur de lys emblem at every turn. And our agenda for our time there was perfect. It would start with a high tea, plenty of time in the room itself and then finish off with dinner at Nine the intriguing restaurant set 9 feet under the ground. And we wouldn’t have to step off the grounds if we didn’t want to.

I’m a nervous driver all the way up the Pacific Highway but once I hit the freeway things are good. We arrive at Tower Lodge 2.5 hours after departing Sydney (two hours for most but I’m on my Ps and 90kms/hour is my limit). Established in 2000 it is decorated in a Spanish mission style and features turrets and imposing towers.

Each of the twelve rooms is decorated uniquely although all of them have antique doors, unique bedheads and double baths with each room having a different personality. There is a heated outdoor pool, sauna and a gym on the premises and we walk through the stunning guest lounge and bypass the library and baronial dining room.

We’re shown to our room, number '6' – and it is a beauty. It is replete with whimsical touches, antiques, painting and the pair of wooden boot-lasts to greet us. The bathroom is enormous with a bath and there are two antique shower heads (pretty but they do splash every-which-way), Molton Brown toiletries, robes and slippers and a stunning bed which I immediately fall upon messing it up. A plate of dried fruit and sweets greets us and there are several places for curling up and lounging and stretching upon as if you were Goldilocks trying to find a place to rest.

High Tea, High Champagne

Our high tea is scheduled for 3pm but having had a small breakfast and no lunch we’re very peckish so we ask if we can have it at 2pm instead and it is no problem at all. The high tea here is $42 per person of $56 for the champagne high tea. And there is also afternoon tea which is offered complimentary to all guests between the hours of 3.30pm-5pm. Civilised! As it is only available on Saturdays and Sundays it books up quickly and is only available for 15 or so diners and we witness a large group experiencing disappointment at not having a cooking for this.

We’re not silly, we go for the champagne high tea. After all there is no driving needed this evening as we are dining in house. Andreas the matre de maison or the host lives on the premises and greets us and explains the high tea to us. He is from a three generation hospitality family and aims to bring a old world European touch to the lodge. Speaking of finding places to perch we have a beauty of a spot. Right in front of the crackling fireplace it is exactly where we want to be and the swaying crackling flames lull us into relaxing (and there’s no internet in the rooms so work simply cannot be done). We start with some Taittinger champagne bubbles.

Andreas hands us the menu telling us that the most pressing decision we will have to make is to choose a type of tea. I go for the Tower Blend which is an Earl Grey with vanilla and rose petals which is lovely and vanillary with the bergamot and we also choose the strawberries and champagne herbal tea which is a green tea and smells divine and is mild in flavour.

The three tier stand arrives and we start from the bottom. There are three types of sandwiches, a ham cheese and chutney triangle which is delicious with a lovely sweet and slightly tangy chutney; a smoked salmon and cream cheese which is my favourite and the chicken and mint which comes on a soft black bread.

We try the scone layer next. Now the scones aren’t warmed whereas I always like them warm so I will deduct one point for that but they are very moist. Usually Mr NQN won’t eat scones as they’re too dry but the moistness makes them hard to resist along with the house made raspberry jam and whipped cream (no clotted cream). In fact I wished there were more scones because they were so moreish. The melting moment on the tier was beautifully short and sweet. Our third tier which is when I usually hit my sugar wall holds much promise.

There is a chocolate brownie sandwich cookie which has two layers of soft, squidgy brownie wedged together with some chocolate ganache, a lemon meringue tart which Mr NQN likes but I prefer my lemon curd more tangy to contrast with the sweet meringue top; a macaron which was unfortunately not very good as it was a plain almond one and had a large air pocket which prevented it from absorbing the moisture from the filling and a shot glass of panna cotta. The panna cotta was a vanilla one topped with balls of poached apple suspended in apple jelly and caused some rapturous moaning.

We sit back and enjoy our tea and get ready to take a nap back in our room such is the relaxing and lulling effect of the fire and then who should pop their head around the corner but my journo friend Heather and her daughter Kelly and their wombat mascot. They’re here for high tea too and interestingly they get a slightly different high tea-no macaron but fresh marshmallows and instead of raspberry jam they get marmalade. Heather asks for her scones to be heated and the raspberry jam.

En garde! Sabrage!

We slowly make our way back to the room but not before wandering around the grounds. If we were so inclined we could play golf on their 18 hole golf course called "The Dinks” but who are we kidding? In our room I curl up on the day bed while Mr NQN reclines and reads his book before drifting off to sleep while the brightness falls and descends into dark. It’s an afternoon of relaxing and crucial napping and before we know it it’s time to get ready for dinner. Doing his duty as a Finn, he goes to switch on the sauna for some of his favourite Finnish ritual but unfortunately power is out to that whole side of the building. I run the bath and switch on the spa bubbles instead.

We get ready for the 7pm sabrage. What is sabrage? It is somewhat of a lost art form here in Australia but in Europe it is a tradition in some restaurants. Sabrage involves opening a champagne bottle with a sword in a very dramatic fashion. In some restaurants the first bottle of champagne in the evening is opened by sabrage and every evening at 7pm either a bottle of champagne is opened or another interesting tid bit occurs here at the lodge to make it more of an experience for guests.

Andreas fastens a length of string to the cork as a safety precaution (as the cork can fly out) and then takes the African blonde buffalo horn handled sword which is actually blunt on both sides. He loosens the metal collar and positions it just above the cork. He finds the seam, which is key and then with one swift motion slides the sword against the bottle and clips it just under the fat piece of glass around the rim and voila! The whole top comes off with cork, metal collar, and a smooth edged piece of glass.

Andreas has sabraged approximately 250 bottles and out of that number has only had a fail rate of 20 and that is mostly due to manufacturing defects or particularly old bottles that have suffered a knock. And what happens when a bottle goes wrong? Well one is left holding the round base of the bottle while champagne goes everywhere. And yes it has happened to him and a bottle of 1919 Krug champagne!

And would you ever shake the bottle before sabraging it? Only if you want a missile! Shaken champagne corks can travel up to 50 metres (164 feet) and if you’re after a little bit of an effect, Dom Perignon bottles always release some champagne due to the narrow neck of the bottle. And yes you can do this with sparkling wine and it is said to be easier with it as they have larger bubbles which means less volatility in the bottle. Our lesson for the day learnt, we take our drinks in the library with the soothing aqua colour scheme before we adjourn downstairs for dinner at Nine.

Nine Feet Under

Formerly the legendary Len Evans’s cellar who helped the Australian wine industry immeasurably, it was used as a storage place before it was restored to become Nine the restaurant. The theme Nine is echoed throughout the whole concept. The restaurant is nine feet under, there are nine courses in the degustation menu, they have nine menus throughout the year (two for each of the four seasons plus a vegetarian menu) and it was open on the December 9, 2009.

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