Spicer's Guesthouse - Bringing Europe to the Hunter
If you’re looking for a home away from home in the Hunter Valley, there’s something comfortably familiar about Spicers Guesthouse Retreat. Whether it’s the brick block buildings and walls of solid sandstone that carry with them three decades of memories from its former life as Peppers, or the spectacular wall of wine that pays tribute to local winemaking legends, a visit to Spicers Guesthouse feels like spending time with old friends. And that’s just the way General Manager Mark Whitnell likes it.
“Spicers is all about relaxed luxury. It's about surprising and delighting our customers,” he said.
“Having the name 'Guesthouse' is a super thing for us because, fundamentally, we're welcoming guests into our house and it seems to be that guests are responding to that, feeling like it's relaxed, it's casual, it's coming into our home...
"People are already telling us this where they come to chill out, and they will absolutely be back. It’s their ‘go-to’ place now."
The former Peppers Guest House was purchased by Spicers Retreats in 2016, becoming the company’s ninth - and largest - property in their expanding portfolio of boutique tourist accommodation.
With 49 accommodation rooms including a four-bedroom standalone cottage, conference facilities, a restaurant and almost 40 acres of picturesque countryside, Spicers Guesthouse Retreat offers a more event-focused alternative to the company’s neighbouring property, Spicers Vineyards Estate.
Spicers spent two years, and in excess of $30 million, bringing owner Jude Turner’s vision for the historic property to life, before unveiling the completed renovations in November last year. “It was greatly anticipated,” Mark said.
“I think the way we as staff looked at it as we were gearing up to reopen, was that the Guesthouse was ‘asleep’ for a couple of years while it underwent a significant refurbishment and we had the great privilege of reawakening the old girl and bringing her back to life.
“I think it brings something fresh and new but still boutique, of a very high end but very approachable and affordable option to accommodation in the Hunter Valley.”
All the existing buildings were extensively refurbished, while a series of new spaces, including a cosy sandstone firepit and the striking infinity edge pool, were also constructed to deliver a five-star experience for guests.
A custom-designed “wine wall” is also a popular talking point, featuring a selection of vintages that pay homage to the history of the region, while also in effect doubling as the wine list for the on-site restaurant.
“The wine wall was designed perhaps with the view in mind that it would be incredibly visually appealing,” Mark said.
But as we moved through the project, we were really keen to make sure that we paid great
homage to those legends. If you look at the top of the wine wall where there is a triangular section, every wine in that area represents one of the inducted legends of the Hunter wine industry and the idea, as we slowly develop it, is to be able to stop and talk about one of them, whether it’s Tyrrell's, Brokenwood, Drayton’s, Mount Pleasant or whoever.
“Wine is so subjective that I don't want to particularly be telling people what they should be tasting on their back palate, but we are in wine country, so I find people really are interested in the stories.”
The former Chez Pok restaurant was completely transformed during the renovations by multi-hatted Executive Chef Cameron Matthews, becoming the true centrepiece of the retreat. Renamed Eremo, which means hermitage, the restaurant offers a modern contemporary Italian menu that ties in nicely with the European feel of the Guesthouse experience.
"Guesthouse is not a common word in Australia. To me, it feels quite European, and it's fortunate that the restaurant, being Italian, also provides that sort of European influence in the property,” Mark said.
“When we created Eremo, we really wanted to pick up a piece of Italy and drop it in the Hunter, and so what followed were discussions around what that would look like, what would it feel like, what would be the compelling attraction and what would the food look like?
“As I said before, it's about bringing guests into our home and making them feel very, very welcome, so the food style reflects that. We don't bring out bread on a side plate, we bring it out on a plate, and people pick it up and rip it to pieces and dip it in oil because that's what family dinner is like around the table in a European country like Italy.”
For Executive Chef Cameron Matthews, Eremo feels almost like returning to his roots, having started his career as a chef working for an Italian family.
But after years running hatted restaurants, including ten years at various Spicers Retreats, diners should expect far more from a visit to Eremo than the standard Italian fare.
“My first ten years of my career were actually spent with the one Italian family down in Brice in northwest Victoria, so for me to be cooking Italian again almost feels like, not a home-coming, but very familiar and very comfortable,” Cameron said.
“For the people that know me and know my food from Queensland (at Spicers Clovelly Estate), we were cooking a very different style up there. It was very much modern European and very fine dining — lots of bells and whistles and plating stuff up with tweezers and whatnot.
“Whereas here it's all about flavour and taste and a whole new palette of fantastic ingredients. “We're still trying to work out what to classify ourselves as (at Eremo). I suppose the best way of describing it is that we are trying to create our own little region of Italy here in the Hunter Valley.
“We’re not cooking classic Italian. We're cooking in an Italian way, but it's an Italian way that no-one's seen before in the fact that we're not in Italy, we're in the Hunter Valley.
“We’re trying to take that traditional love, care, attention to detail, the conviviality over food, the connection over food, the sharing of food, and wine, and inject that into what we're doing as a restaurant. It's more about the feel of the Italian cuisine than Italian cuisine per se.
“We want people to put down their mobile phones and talk to each other over food. It’s about connecting with people. It's about having a shared table of amazing food with amazing wines and sharing amazing company.”
While the restaurant offers an a la carte menu, it is the special ‘avido’ selection that really has Cameron excited.
Italian for “greedy”, avido is more of an experience than a meal, with guests who choose this option being treated to around four sets of food shared among the table. There is no set menu for the avido, with Cameron making it up as he goes along based on each table’s general preferences or the meat, seafood and produce he has on hand.
This paves the way for a far more creative offering of dishes that can make the most of smaller batches of ingredients obtained from local producers.
“It’s food that is plated to share, and it's kind of loosely four sets of food,” Cameron said.
“We sort of do snacky stuff, and some lighter kind of entrées to start, and then the second set is pasta-based. The third set is main course-based, and then we serve a set of desserts. We try not to say the word courses, because then people go, ‘so it's a four-course degustation or a five-course degustation’. No, it's not. It's avido.
“What I want each set to look like, I guess, is the type of food I used to have and experience when I had dinner with the Italian family that I worked for. On Sunday afternoons when we'd closed we'd take up all the food that we'd cooked throughout the week and put it in the middle of the table, sit under the wisteria tree, have a couple of glasses of wine, and share all this food.
“We’d have some crispy fried zucchini flowers maybe to start, and whatever risotto we had left over we would cook up off and turn it to arancini and some fish or whatever. There would also be a couple of bowls of pasta in the middle of the table, some meat, some salad and some potatoes, and a glass of wine. It was amazing – and so memorable.
“That's what the avido is about. It's about the feeling of sitting under a wisteria tree with people that you love and care about and enjoying it — feeling the sun on your back, taking it easy, relaxing. All those amazing things that we don't really do these days because everyone's busy and they’re too busy looking at Instagram.
“Avido is where we actually get creative, and it's where the value is in the love, care and attention to detail because we can cook truly passionately and truly from our hearts. And hopefully, it shows through.”
Eremo at Spicers Guesthouse Retreat in Pokolbin is open 7 days for breakfast and dinner, with extended trading hours over lunch on the weekend. For more information visit www.spicersretreats.com/retreats/spicers-guesthouse