A religious foodie experience in the Hunter

Trent Barrett … has maintained Circa 1876’s reputation as a foodie destination. Image: David Hill.
Trent Barrett … has maintained Circa 1876’s reputation as a foodie destination. Image: David Hill.

The Convent, at the end of a quiet road right in the middle of the Hunter Valley’s fabled Pokolbin wine-growing area, has several wow factors going for it.

You know from the moment you drive through its magnificent gardens that you’re somewhere special.

The Convent … somewhere special to stay in the Hunter Valley. Image: David Hill

The Convent … somewhere special to stay in the Hunter Valley. Image: David Hill

That feeling continues as you check in, via the sumptuously and tastefully decorated reception area.

And, yes, it is a former convent, once occupied by the Brigadine order of nuns, and one that was fastidiously dismembered at its original location of Coonamble, some 600 kilometres to the north-west of its new home in the Hunter’s Pepper Tree complex.

Its new owners, the Escarpment Group, which has ventured for the first time outside the Blue Mountains, has largely retained what was previously so charming about the complex.

The Convent … grounds featuring a lake and magnificent gardens. Image: David Hill

The Convent … grounds featuring a lake and magnificent gardens. Image: David Hill

The rooms are a little cramped, though — it used to be a real convent, remember — and ours certainly lacked storage space and a degree of sophistication in its appointments.

Our room did have direct access to the broad first floor veranda with its wonderful vista over the gardens, but it was a space shared with other rooms and lacked a bit of privacy.

On weekends, The Convent, with its own chapel, is an absolute magnet for weddings and the photogenic appeal is readily understandable.

The Convent’s broad upstairs verandah … setting for a fine outlook over the gardens. Image: David Hill

The Convent’s broad upstairs verandah … setting for a fine outlook over the gardens. Image: David Hill

And then there’s the food at the legendary Circa 1876, which was founded well over 20 years ago in the complex’s historic slab cottage by Robert Molines and originally known simply as Robert’s Restaurant.

Under executive chef Trent Barrett, it has quite rightly retained its reputation as a foodie destination in its own right. Even on a Tuesday night, when occupancy at the hotel wasn’t at a premium, Circa 1876 was packed.

To put it simply, the food is sensational — all of it seemingly, but especially if you ordered one of Trent’s tasting menus, as the Woman with Altitude and I did.

Circa 1876 … put simply, the food is sensational, and appropriately sensationally presented. Image: David Hill

Circa 1876 … put simply, the food is sensational, and appropriately sensationally presented. Image: David Hill

The current degustation line-up includes delights such as sesame-crusted yellow-fin tuna, crispy-skin jumbo quail, confit pork belly and bonito-crusted scampi, cherry-glazed duck breast, and a duo of custard tart and strawberries with cream.

All come with elaborately constructed accompaniments, the tuna, for instance, with soft-cooked pullet egg, olive cheeks, chipotle aioli, wasabi roe, fresh garden peas and lime.

And don’t for a minute think that Trent’s strawberries with cream are like the ones you’d throw together in your kitchen. His version consists of nitrogen-poached strawberry mousse, vanilla and strawberry ice cream, strawberry jelly, strawberry hone, dehydrated strawberries, sweet crumble and the finest of cream. Don’t try it at home unless you’re the most accomplished of cooks.

Circa 1876 … located in an historic slab hut with adjacent cottage garden. Image: David Hill

Circa 1876 … located in an historic slab hut with adjacent cottage garden. Image: David Hill

I’m sure that the food would have gone down even more of a treat if we’d selected to have the matching wines chosen for each course, just as I’m sure that many of the ingredients are home-drown in the cottage garden adjacent to the restaurant contribute to the overall quality.

There is also a vegetarian degustation option, featuring delights such as ‘Textures of Beetroot’, with its trio of beetroot gnocchi, smoked beetroots and beetroot chips, served with mulberry gel and fennel.

It’s a fabulous experience, especially with a golf cart on the ready to take us the few hundred metres to our room.