As Australians, ‘travel’ is often associated with long, expensive flights and having to set aside a huge chunk of precious time, which is why it’s easy to overlook how many country towns around New South Wales can give you enough difference in the atmosphere, architecture and landscape to feel like a holiday for a fraction of the time and money.
Enter Maitland, a two to three hour drive north from Sydney, and a quintessential ‘small town’ in Australia with all its charm, historic buildings, surrounded by farmland and countryside and a surprising variety of culinary treasures to sample`. There’s just enough to do for you to feel like you can thoroughly explore the town in a single weekend but you would be rewarded with extra for staying a bit longer.
Glenellyn House could have jumped straight out of a home living magazine. It’s the ‘servants quarters’ of a larger property but you would barely be able to tell with how quiet it is, and you’re certainly living more like a king than a servant. Impeccably clean with an enormous living room and boasting amenities from bathrobes to a great tea and shampoo/conditioner selection, you can really feel the amount of care that went into furnishing every detail of the space. We spent our evenings just relaxing in front of the fireplace, enjoying the peacefulness, and enjoyed a breakfast hamper in the morning which was filled with a selection of local jams, breads, pastries, fruits and chocolate.
EAT YOUR WAY THROUGH
Icky Sticky Patisserie
Head to Icky Sticky Patisserie on a Saturday morning and people are buying pastries for takeaway, 3 stacks of takeaway boxes at a time. It’s for good reason – this patisserie is the best kept secret of Maitland, bar none.
Owners Jessica and husband Phil – a Maitland native who trained locally at Newcastle pastry school – met at the World Skills Competition where they won their respective categories of fashion and pastry making. After training at the Ritz and running restaurants in Melbourne, they moved back to Maitland and started this store in 2013 with the desire to make a proper patisserie with the best ingredients, all baked fresh in house.
I’m not much of a sweet breakfast person so two tasting platters of a platter of incredible-looking sweets and pastries at 9AM in the morning made me dread not being able to finish most of it. One taste of the pastries and the problem quickly became holding back from eating it all.
I think what made Icky Sticky Patisserie stand out was an exquisite freshness, lightness and balance to every pastry on the board. From the berry garnishes and down to the dough and mix of flavours, nothing felt like it was weighing on the tongue or sitting heavy in the stomach.
The friand was light and fluffy, cut though with a raspberry tang, and the sweet, fresh blueberries enhanced with a hint of cream cheese in the Danish. I avoid most almond croissants because the blend of powdered sugar and marzipan quickly becomes cloying, but the sweetness was well restrained and you never tasted the oiliness, only the satisfying light crunch of puffed up pastry. The dessert cakes had a great combination of textures and flavours. I have to admit the panna cotta was my favourite – a beautiful soft shortbread, shot of raspberry gel and creamy cheesiness perfectly set in layers.
The theme of prodigal sons and daughters of Maitland returning to their hometown to help it flourish certainly seemed to be a theme that came through in a lot of places we visited. Coquun, meaning ‘freshwater’ is the Indigenous name for the river running parallel to Maitland’s high street, named by the native Wonarrua people. Owner Daniel took the time to chat with us about returning to ‘Maito’ after moving to Sydney for years and introduce the restaurant and its thoughtful, subtle references to his heritage — the ‘bonsai’ tree that’s actually a native plant in the middle of the bar area downstairs, the beautiful painting on one wall by his sister and the ‘I ♥️ Maito’ painting mounted behind the bar by Sydney artist Nell, who is herself a Maitland native.
Move upstairs and you step into a more formal dining area, full of high ceilings and unique windows that reminded me irresistibly of the Sydney Opera House. Coquun’s cuisine features Indigenous influences and the little amuse-bouche of roasted mushrooms in a Warrigal greens pesto actually stole the spotlight for the evening for me. I could legitimately have eaten that pesto by the spoonful – it has a peppery bitterness reminiscent of rocket that enhanced the mushroom amazingly.
My karay (meat) dish was beef cheek, polenta, cavolo nero, wattle seed jus and muntries chutney ($33.80) – the beef was melt-in-your-mouth and well-seasoned and while I might have gone a little lighter on the sweet jus and chutney so the beef flavours could shine a bit more, this was certainly a unique blend of flavours and textures.
You can still see the remnants of the Rigby’s past as a stationery and then antique store in the peeling gold lettering of its front window. It still has the cosy, warm feeling of an antique shop at night, filled with lamplight and lounges at the front, opposite a fully stocked bar with a great cocktail selection and plenty of space at the back for large dinner groups.
Perhaps country NSW is not the place you’d think to order pan seared scallops ($20) but since it was on the menu, I had to give it a try and it was well cooked, fresh and had a beautiful caramelised, smoky fennel relish to round off the dish.
The salt-baked beetroot accompanying the braised lamb shoulder, salt baked beetroot, fried onions, eggplant, labna, salsa verde ($38) was unevenly salty in parts because of the way it’s cooked in a crust, but added an unusual texture and flavour to the beetroot that I really enjoyed. The lamb was presented beautifully and despite the slightly hard crust on the outside, was actually quite tender inside.
The mousse-like texture in the chocolate marquis paired with sour cherry and light touch on sugar prevented it from being overwhelming and feels like a no-obligations sweet chaser to the savoury dishes and completed a very satisfying meal.
EXPLORE YOUR WAY THROUGH
Maitland High Street, Hunter River walk and Aroma Coffee & Chocolate Festival
The advantage of visiting a smaller town is that you have enough time to feel like you’ve thoroughly explored every single store down its single High St. Make sure you go slowly to soak in the care put towards the interiors of stores like Dennerley Leather Designs, and the High Street Barber Shop, Maitland City Council building’s architectural details, and then step out
The Aroma Coffee & Chocolate Festival happens every year in August and is a great way to sample the wares of small businesses in the Hunter Region. From makers of beautiful porcelain mugs to artisan chocolate producers, there’s something so special about a food festival atmosphere, live music and bustle but without the crowds and chaos that sometimes can make Sydney festivals overwhelming. We were also lucky enough to see The Levee Street Gallery, which features ingenious artwork painted onto cling wrap and strung between the poles on the street for some fun with transparent canvases.
Maitland Regional Art Gallery
The gothic building style of the Maitland Regional Gallery definitely carries European influences in its roots and is also perfectly sized to fit in as an activity in your day. We enjoyed an exhibition of Del Kathryn Barton’s works on Australian artists. I’d definitely recommend the honey roasted pumpkin omelette for anyone looking to fill their vegetable quota of the week when dining at Seraphine, the gallery’s airy restaurant on the ground floor.
You’d be forgiven for thinking you had stepped back in time in Morpeth when you drive into the main street of this township and that’s part of its charm. The best place to start is Campbell’s Store, a complex built in 1835 that now houses Morpeth Antique Centre, which serves as a sort of museum of the township and region’s history. Many of their wares are housed in small, themed glass rooms so you feel like you’re part of a museum exhibit as you step in to look at a selection of vintage books, buttons, hats and porcelain teapots. The building opens out back into an interconnected series of antique and artisan stores, including Morpeth Gift Gallery which has an entire section devoted to teddy bear collectibles.
It’s fitting that the entire walk ends with Morpeth Ginger Beer Factory & Gourmet Foods, which is filled with local and international condiments, sauces and produce, along with local honey and ginger beer for you to sample. Before you leave, make sure you indulge in a blast from the past by heading to Miss Lily’s Lollies, the candy store across the road, which is filled with both nostalgic international and local candies from primary school playgrounds long ago.
If you’re looking for a wholesome and peaceful getaway in the upcoming Christmas break coming up, a great weekend trip away may be closer to home than you think.
I Ate My Way Through travelled as guests of Visit NSW.