If you’ve ever heard the saying, “Every no get you closer to a yes”, then chef George Francisco’s persistence will make sense to you. Throughout his career, Francisco always wanted a kitchen garden. He’s tried to set one up in every job he’s had; in America (where he’s from) and Australia (where he’s lived for 13 years), from a few tomatoes in a car park, to cutting rosemary out of a neighbour’s garden (resulting in complaints). Now, at Circa 1876 in the Hunter Valley (which has changed recently from Roberts Circa 1876 to recognise Francisco’s transformation of the restaurant in the last four years), he’s finally got the garden of his dreams.
“The existing herb garden was already the best one I’ve had. I told the owner I wanted something bigger. A couple of weeks later there was heavy machinery, and he was pulling up vines to make more room,” says Francisco. Although now it’s full of lush vegetables such as tomatoes, pumpkin, strawberries and kale as well as a pen of chickens and a beehive, it didn’t happen overnight. “I realised I needed help and I asked people, ‘Do you know any hippies who can grow vegetables?’. I found the perfect person – trained in permaculture. The first thing she did was sit in the garden for three days to get a feel for the weather to, “see where the sun goes, where the wind goes ...”
Now that the garden is established each season brings new inspiration. Autumn’s menu includes a roulade of duck breast and jamon with pickled baby beetroot and braised beetroot greens; and a parcel of ocean trout and kingfish with celeriac, creamed garlic spinach and ocean trout roe. The produce is the star. Chefs are often seen popping out in the middle of service to cut a few extra herbs as dishes are ordered. Whatever he can’t grow himself, Francisco sources from neighbouring farms, including beef. If you’re planning a wedding here, he consults with the couple to create their menu and grows the vegetables months in advance specifically for it.
It’s easy to look around the verdant venue and imagine a wedding. The original cottage from 1876 acts as the entrance to the restaurant; the former cooking quarters have been transformed into a Champagne Tattinger Lounge (the best use for a kitchen other than cooking we’ve heard of) and the aesthetic is carried through to the restaurant, with dark wooden beams overhead and a sandstone fireplace. There’s even an aisle of trees directly next to the restaurant.
If you’re concerned driving back to your hotel won’t allow you to taste all the Hunter Valley semillons, boutique hotel Peppers Convent is a short walk up a grand, gravel driveway. A restored convent built in 1909, the exterior is reminiscent of a grand old mansion a governor might have resided in, with opulent French baroque interiors. Each room is filled with beautiful antique furniture. Wake up with a swim in the pool at dawn and a walk in the surrounding fields to ease the hangover.
64 Halls Road, Pokolbin
(02) 4998 4998