There’s nothing quite like the start of spring to get you out and about to explore the local area. After the long cold months of winter, which lend themselves to cosying up with a glass of red and a good book, the arrival of spring’s crisp, clear days offers the perfect motivation to peel off those heavy layers and emerge, like a newborn chick, looking for a fresh adventure.
As one of the oldest wine-producing regions in the country, the Hunter Valley’s wine tasting trails are always a good choice for those seeking to make the most of the warmer weather with a day trip to the vineyards.
But the tastes of the region go beyond its world-renowned wines, with the Hunter home to a wide variety of local produce, which you can source fresh from the farm gate or factory.
From olive groves to macadamia nut farms, and cheese factories to chocolatiers, some of the most mouth-watering local produce and handcrafted products can be found right on your doorstep.
And just as spring is a time of renewal for Mother Nature; it’s also a time of change for local producers, who often use this time of year to freshen up their offerings with fresh seasonal flavours.
For the past 20 years, The Hunter Valley Chocolate Company has been creating the finest chocolate products for those looking to indulge in something truly special.
The artisan chocolate makers lovingly craft their wares using only the highest quality Belgian or Swiss couverture chocolate, together with Australian dried fruits and nuts, and distilled pure fruit oil infusions.
The business began as a simple idea to set up a small chocolate shop in Hunter wine country but has grown into a booming venture that now includes three shops and 40 staff.
Owner Jo Clarke said Hunter Valley Chocolate Company was conscious about using a quality Swiss or Belgium couverture as the basis for their range of products “because it is like any recipe that is prepared by a chef - the best result comes from using top-quality ingredients.”
Hunter Valley Chocolate Company produces an amazing array of handcrafted products, which are available seven days a week online as well as in-store at their “Twenty-3-Twenty” Chocolate & Fudge Factory on Broke Road and their retail outlets at Hunter Valley Gardens and Peterson’s House.
There’s sure to be something to cater to every taste bud, with dark, milk and white buttons and blocks a staple of the range.
Those looking for a chocolate-coated treat can choose from a selection of nuts including the ever-popular almonds and macadamias, as well as ginger, liquorice, honeycomb and orange peel, while their famous chilli chocolate range was inspired by a request from a pair of Scandinavian tourists around 16 years ago.
The chocolate makers are always experimenting with new additions to the range, recently tapping into the ongoing “unicorn” trend with a multicoloured masterpiece known as Unicorn Bark.
Made with a thinly-spread layer of white Belgian chocolate, tinted with a veritable rainbow of colours, the “bark” tips over into the magical unicorn realm with a generous scattering of edible sprinkle mix.
Another popular speciality item on the menu is the patriotic “Aussie Mates” range of moulded milk Belgian couverture chocolates, featuring shapes inspired by our native wildlife including koalas, kangaroos and echidnas among others.
While chocolate is a natural accompaniment for our Hunter wines, those looking for a savoury snack for their tasting plate should head to McDonalds Road Pokolbin to check out the handcrafted creations on offer at the Hunter Valley Cheese Factory.
Established in 1995 by Peter Curtis and Rosalia Lambert with the assistance of industry colleagues, the boutique artisan cheesery is a must-visit for those seeking the finest local produce.
For more than 20 years master cheesemaker David Bower has been carefully crafting the mouth-watering dairy delicacies on offer at the factory, from the deliciously oozy Branxton Brie to the soft creaminess of Riley’s Fromage Blanc, as well as a wide range of cheddars, blue vein, goat’s cheese, fetta and more.
The best news for cheese lovers is that now is the ideal time of the year to check out what’s on offer at the factory, according to Rosalia.
“Spring milk is considered the best for cheesemaking; cheese made during spring is a result of lush green feed and abundant milk supply,” she said.
“Our ever-popular Riley’s Fromage Blanc is at its flavoursome low fat best in spring - a little like Persian Feta, it is the French style of fresh cheese.
"This spring we are also doing a promotion on the ‘Wonders of Fresh Cheese’, which looks at its uses, flavours to add, not to add, how to cook with, which wines, beers and spirits to match and at what time of the day.”
September 29 is also a key date to add to the diary for those interested in delving deeper into the world of cheese, with Hunter Valley Cheese Factory hosting its Spring Cheesemaking Workshop.
Led more than ably by artisan cheesemaker David Bower, the two-and-a-half-hour session will see participants learn about the craft of cheesemaking, including the origins of cheese, cheese ingredients, ripening principles, milk quality, cheesemaking, storage, ageing and food matching.
Rosalia, an Affineur and Fromager, will also take participants through a cheese tasting appreciation and wine matching session, with a selection of recipes and the cheeses that are produced available to take home at the end of the workshop to enjoy with family and friends.
Those keen to put together their own spring antipasto platter can add some locally-grown olives to the mix following a visit to The Hunter Olive Centre at Pokolbin Estate Vineyard.
Established within the picturesque grounds of the Pokolbin vineyard, which is located around three minutes down the road from the Hunter Valley Cheese Factory on McDonalds Road, the Hunter Olive Centre was launched in late 2003 to showcase some of the finest gourmet foods produced in the Hunter Valley.
Now one of the largest speciality food outlets in the region, the Hunter Olive Centre stocks more than 400 locally-made products, with up to 60 available for tasting at any one time.
Tastings are held daily from 10am to 4pm, with products for sale including everything from olives, extra virgin olive oil, jams, preserves, conserves, mustard, oil dippers, vinegars, chutneys, dukkah, chilli products, confectionery, jerky, and a selection of herbs and spices.
The Hunter Olive Centre produces a large range of in-house products, including a delicious assortment of kalamata and manzanillo olives flavoured in brine and various spices including port wine and garlic, tamarind, lime and chilli, Tuscan herb and garlic, chilli and garlic and traditional. These make a beautiful addition to a cheese or antipasto platter or added to the top of a wood-fired pizza for some extra pizazz.
Plenty of olives are also on offer on Hermitage Road at Tintilla Estate, which makes the most of ideal growing conditions in the vineyard to produce a range of different varieties.
The olive trees were planted in stages from 1994 onwards, starting with Spanish varieties Manzanillo and Sevillano, which have proved well suited to the soil and climate producing excellent quality fruit.
The Sevillanos are almost large enough to be a meal in themselves, while the Frantoio is a small Tuscan variety with a fine nutty flavour. Mission, Verdale and UC13a6, an Egyptian olive, complete the olive selection, with all of the fruit handpicked, debittered and fermented before bottling with various traditional herbs and spices including garlic, lemon, oregano and a few secret family recipes to enhance their taste.
Tintilla Estate’s olives are also combined with anchovies, capers, lemon juice, Dijon mustard and garlic to create a heavenly olive tapenade, with a little bit of Merlot added for flavour and softness.
Renowned local chef and restauranteur Matt Dillow (of The Deck Café) has also got you covered when it comes to locally-grown and made products, with Matt’s Produce offering a magnificent taste of chef-only flavours for the home kitchen.
Selling gourmet condiments worthy of fine diners and food and wine connoisseurs, Matt’s Produce is the perfect place to explore when you want to create meals that leave a lasting impression or serve tapas with a twist.
The Apple Balsamic Glaze is the perfect accompaniment for fresh crusty bread, combined with Matt’s Rosemary and Parmesan Oil to create a restaurant-worthy dip, while his Quince Jam is great with cheese plates or served on the side with duck or roast pork.
His sauces and marinades are perfect for creating slow-cooked masterpieces or adding an extra special touch to your barbecue plate, while the selection of preserves and relishes are the ideal accompaniment to a range of lighter style spring dishes.
Adding a bit of sweetness to the mix of local producers is Hunter Honey Hive, whose range of raw, flavour-infused, creamed and manuka honeys are available through Ye Olde General Store and Pokolbin Farm Shop, while Cupcake Espresso at the Hunter Valley Gardens Shopping Village offers a wide variety of delectable cupcake treats, as well as a “surprise flavour of the week” that ensures you’ll never know what will be in store.