AWOL on the Hawkesbury food trail...


February

Ducks, vegies and a wine surprise...

When considering the impact of food miles, one of the great advantages of the fertile Hawkesbury region is that it’s only about an hour’s drive northwest from Sydney. The Hawkesbury River is well known of course, but there are four other rivers in the region, plus 17 small towns and a lot of National Parkland, which all add up to an incredibly fertile environment for everything from fruit and vegetables to ducks.

Roy and Amir began their Hawkesbury food trail at one of Pepe Bonaccardo’s duck farms. He started in 1974 with just a few Pekin ducks in his backyard, and now has a string of farms. More and more people now argue that free range means better, happier, healthier, tastier birds. Pepe’s CEO explains that according to recent research once out of the barn, the birds actually get more stressed because of predators like snakes or foxes for example. Despite being home to thousands of ducks, there was virtually no smell. The birds live a happy, free-range life in huge barns cleaned out every two days. Wheat feed, fresh water, wood shavings on the ground – there are even fans to keep them cool.

Pepe’s has two breeds of duck: Pekin and Grimaud-Pekin. Amir likes the Duck dishes for their richness and wine/cocktail pairing opportunities and Roy observes that the flavour of Grimaud-Pekin is outstanding if you like your duck medium rare and tender. In any case the birds here are magnificent. The breeds originally come (regularly, as eggs for hatching) from the expert breeders in France, which is why the team has come here.

So after seeing how the property works, Amir and Roy picked up a couple of whole ducks as well as some of Pepe’s delicious smoked duck breast and duck sausage. Roy wants to bring out the stronger smoked flavours and Amir thought it would pair perfectly with the Smoky Robinson cocktail or a bottle of the ’09 Wenninger Blaufrankisch. Keep an eye on our Facebook page to find out when we will feature this special dish at The Owl House this month.

And so it was on to Hawkesbury Vegetable Farm. Farmed by Joe Sultana and his family for some 18 years, the 20-acre plot takes the work of Joe and his six children to weed, tend and plant every day, but the pesticide-free benefits are there for everyone to enjoy. Visitors are welcome to tour the property for a small fee, and in getting back to the intense freshness of varieties selected for taste not supermarket shelf life, it is easy to see why they come. If you spot something you like, Joe or his children will pick it for you along the way. Happily for fresh veggie lovers, you can also see Joe at Flemington markets, which is the only other place he sells his produce.

When Roy and Amir visit there are bright white, yellow and green zucchinis, cucumbers, multi-coloured peppers, eggplants, corn, radishes, leeks, beetroot, chicory and endives amongst the rows. The earthy Jerusalem artichoke, which Amir and Roy love, wasn’t in season, which will make them all the more enjoyed when they are rotated back on. These are the realities of seasonality and freshness and should be celebrated not mourned. Roy says they “will be cooking with lots of baby eggplants and zucchinis in the coming months, while they are at their best. This is the secret to preparing great food, at the restaurant as well as at home”.

Rain clouds are setting in as Roy and Amir arrive on the outskirts of historic Windsor. It was crucial farmland in Sydney's early colonial days, but who knew the Hawkesbury might be prime grape growing country today? Certainly not Amir, who was sceptical about such an overlooked area. All that was before his visit to Jubilee Vineyard however.

The estate hugs a lake, with vines tiered gently down a hill to the water’s edge. Parts of the vineyard have been here since 1882 and today owner Ray Hayek produces wine using known red and white varietals, including a lovely early harvest sparkling methode champenoise.

But for Amir it was the little-known Chambourcin varietal that was most exciting. A French-American hybrid only available since 1963, it has a good resistance to fungal disease. As the February rain fell the significance of that in a humid microclimate like the Hawkesbury was clear. Breeders, growers and producers taking smart chances with varieties that suit the local climate deserve their success.

Amir nearly fell of his bar stool when he tried a red Chambourcin that had spent almost a decade in the bottle: the fruit is still youthful with great length and balance. He plans to feature a couple of bottles of this 2004 vintage on The Owl House wine list. The Smoke and earth floor characteristics will complement the Smoked duck breast perfectly.

At the end of a second food trail some exciting things have transpired in the kitchen. There’s not enough data here to make claims about Hawkesbury terroir, but this rich river land revealed enough quality and surprises to make a return to look for more a certainty.