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Saturday 21 March 2015

A Hunter Valley icon gets a new look and vibe

Twenty-five years on and Peppers Convent remains the most gracious address in the Hunter Valley; a perfect splurge destination for wine lovers, gourmets or simply lovers. 

Set among beautiful gardens and vineyards, The Convent was built in 1909 and transported to Pokolbin in 1990. It was once home to the Brigidine Order of nuns in Coonamble in country New South Wales. 

The Convent is currently being lovingly upgraded by owners Matt and Karlie Cowley and has the unique ambience of an indulgent French hotel combined with the character of an Australian country guesthouse. 

It is luxurious but not stuffy and just far enough away from the main road to be an oasis of calm, even on busy weekends in the Hunter. 

The Convent has 17 delightfully idiosyncratic bedrooms; with public areas being made over by interior design expert Karlie and her team, although the old-fashioned bathrooms, are not currently of the high standard of the rest of the property, which generally reminds one of a Relais & Chateau hostelry. 
On-site facilities include a swimming pool, heated spa pavilion, tennis court, boules and a front desk that is manned 24 hours a day. 

The Convent also recently opened the second restaurant on its estate, Eighty Eight. Together with its sister restaurant Circa 1876, Eighty Eight is headed up by executive chef George Francisco, who says the eatery's focus is on sustainable, ethically sourced and grown produce.

All items on this menu are ethically sourced,” American-born Francisco says. “They are organically grown on the property, gathered or acquired locally or sustainably farmed. The ingredients have been nurtured by nature, prepared with respect and cooked with love.”
Chef George Francisco in his potager
There is a strong focus on catering for diners with dietary requirements, including allergies and intolerances. “You can eat vegan, raw and dairy-free – gluten-free, no problem,” says the chef.
Matt and Karlie Cowley say Eighty Eight offers “a relaxed setting and a nurturing, comfort-foods menu” and its is open daily for breakfast and lunch and for dinner on Friday-Saturday, as well as serving high teas.

The adjacent Circa 1876, next door to the Pepper Tree Wines cellar door, is more formal, but not overly so, also with many ingredients sourced from Francisco's organic kitchen garden. 

Open for lunch and dinner it has a menu offering dishes like pan-seared venison with cracked pepper, truffle-scented quinoa, porcini veloute and saffron gel, or  spanner crab pasta with lemon, garlic, chilli flakes and Parmigiano–Reggiano. 

Unfortunately the service was very slapdash on my most recent visit, hopefully an aberration for The Convent complex is a very special place well worthy of a side trip for anyone visiting Sydney who loves good food, wine and being pampered. 

Peppers Convent, 88 Halls Road, Pokolbin, 2320, NSW. (02) 4998 4999.

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