July 8, 2019
Should you find yourself wandering through Eremo Restaurant an hour or so before evening service, you’ll see something quite lovely. All of the kitchen staff – from the towering figure of Spicers executive chef of the Hunter Valley, Cameron Matthews, to the most fresh-faced kitchen hand – gathered at one long table, sharing ‘family dinner’.
It’s the term used in restaurants around the world to define that moment when tools are downed, seats are taken and a meal is shared among the family that is the culinary team. For Matthews, cultivating a happy and inclusive workspace is key and it’s hard not to perceive that in the wondrous food that emerges from his contented kitchen.
Eremo is the jewel in the crown of Spicers Guesthouse, in the heart of Hunter Valley wine country, but if all this talk of family and guesthouses is bringing to mind images of a humble roof over your head, think again. Yes, the staff are warm and welcoming but they’re also highly skilled and well-travelled. And yes, the décor is homely – in the way that you might imagine the décor of your dream ‘one day’ abode to be.
This 45-room retreat (plus four-bedroom guest cottage) opened its doors in November 2018 after an 18-month long renovation which has taking a once iconic property (first opened in 1984) to new heights.
Combining contemporary luxury with early colonial-style simplicity, the whitewashed buildings edged with deep, grapevine-shaded verandahs exude a steady tranquility that sits beautifully in its all-Australian surrounds. Gum trees tower in the distance, while kangaroos graze peacefully and Brokenback Mountain stands in dramatic profile against the blue sky. Before long, the pressures of the city seem far, far away.
Our room, a Hunter Suite, is a luxurious retreat overlooking the outdoor pool, which has a heated spa. It’s a cool weekend but hardier souls than us take to the spa at dusk, champagne flutes in hand, to watch the sun drop behind Brokenback’s towering cliff face. In our suite, all is plush comfort, from the signature Spicers bed, to the roomy en suite’s deep bath and rain shower. Our own living room provides yet another option for lounging in comfort.
The suite reflects Spicers’ signature take on luxury – chic and unfussy, excessive trimmings are eschewed for a focus on quality and texture. Against the mostly white colour scheme sit tobacco leather chairs, thick indigo throws, sophisticated coffee table reading and moody photographic prints. It’s calming, all this visual simplicity, and we find ourselves slowing down, ditching our smartphones and tuning into each other and our beautiful surrounds.
For interior design buffs, Guesthouse’s main lounge, adjacent to the bar, is a highlight. Around a big fireplace huge sofas and deep easy chairs invite occupation. They’re layered with thick throws and cushions (every cushion in the place is plumped with a vertical indent on top – I call it the Spicers chop), and surrounded by yet more lovely books and even a piano. It’s how one imagines Australia’s more tasteful cattle barons might live.
A short step from the lounge is the bar, which, along with Eremo, forms the heart of this place. Extraordinary Hunter Valley wines and Cam Matthews’ modern Italian food are key to your Guesthouse experience.
Order à la carte, or from the Avido Menu – a chef’s selection of dishes, served share style. Matthews cleverly combines almost peasant-like flavours (suckling pig, polenta, braised veal shin) with inspired presentation and even a nod to plant-based fashion. At the end of the day, ingredients, and respect for them, drives this kitchen.
Hiramas kingfish crudo is art on a plate, with almonds and agrodolce peppers finished with a tumble of prosciutto. Pillowy burrata comes with roasted watermelon (Matthews’ secret recipe) and watermelon molasses.
Merrfield suckling pork with polenta and grilled greens is a more rustic affair, redolent of regional Italian cooking, while the grilled grass-fed sirloin with salsa di cacciatore affumicato pairs beautifully with a Hunter Valley shiraz.
Competing for our attention with the food on the plate is the wine in our glass – wine guru sommelier Cameron Brooksby (whose more prosaic titles is food and beverage manager) takes seriously his and Guesthouse’s role in nurturing relationships with the Hunter’s up and coming wine talents.
We are introduced to Vinden Headcase Single Barrel Chardonnay (chardonnay is having a moment in case you didn’t know), the work of Vinden Estates’ second generation winemaker Angus Vinden. Another treat is the extraordinary Usher Tinker Shiraz Reserve 2017 – Usher is a scion of the Tinkler family, whose roots in Pokolbin go back to the end of World War II. Shiraz is a Hunter Valley specialty (the other being Semillon) and this wine is about as good as it gets.
All of this sits against the backdrop of Guesthouse’s early status as the gathering place for the region’s winemaking community. In tribute to this stands the Legends Wine Wall, a spectacular collection of bottles that literally takes up a whole wall in an annex to Eremo.
A nearby photo of the eponymous ‘legends’ gathered on the grass in front of the original Guesthouse shows them all in their mustachioed glory (this being the 1980s) and is a fascinating history piece for wine buffs.
While Eremo bears multiple visits, Guesthouse also offers transfers to dinner at Botanica, the restaurant Spicers Vineyards Estate. Here, up and coming talent Shayne Mansfield produces distinctive regional cuisine with a plant-based slant. Vineyards is also home to Spa Anise, where the signature Vino Spa Ritual treatment taps nicely into the wine theme.
Looking for more active pursuits? Guesthouse has bikes that you can borrow for a tootle around Pokolbin’s vineyards (Tyrell’s is highly recommended, while Usher Tinkler and Vinden Estate are a little further afield). Helicopter rides and hot air balloons are popular with lots of visitors, while the region has four championship golf courses and Guesthouse has a tennis court for guests.
Personally, after a busy day of wine tasting I can’t resist the lure of the fire pit in front of the bar, where staff will bring you a drink and a blanket so you can watch roos graze in the fields below until it’s too dark to see anymore. Another day in paradise draws to a close.
Words by Jane Scott.