The Clare Valley in South Australia has long been renowned for its superb wine. If the owners of the newly redeveloped Watervale Hotel and organisers of the inaugural Clare Valley Festival of the Lamb have their way, this picturesque and fertile area will soon be just as well-known for its exceptional produce and food.
Two weeks ago, I took a drive north of Adelaide to the beautiful Clare Valley’s Watervale Hotel. Following up an invitation from the owners of the Watervale Hotel to check out their redevelopment progress, I’m keen to meet them. My visit includes a tour of their organic, biodynamic Penobscot Farm, the main supplier of organic produce for their menu, located only a short distance from the hotel.
It’s a pleasure to meet the warm and welcoming hotel owners Warrick Duthy and Nicola Palmer. Their labour of love has been two and a half years in the making and I am excited to discover their redevelopment is unique and outstanding on a number of levels.
Both of the Watervale Hotel’s new custodians have regional hospitality in their blood. Nicola’s parents Dave and Diana Palmer are the well-loved owners of Skillogalee Winery, a mere five minutes down the road, where Nicola previously held the position of head chef and restaurant manager for many years. Warrick is part owner and managing director of Kilikanoon Wines and holds leadership roles in the Clare Valley Alliance’s tourism body and the Clare Valley Wine and Grape Association.
Warrick and Nicola’s heart and soul for the Clare Valley Region is clearly evident. We converse on the veranda bar of the Watervale Hotel which overlooks their Kitchen Gardens across the road. Adorable Frankie, their loveable pooch, seeks some attention while we chat about the Clare Valley region, what it means to people, and their plans for the hotel.
Warrick tells me, ‘diversity of the area is key’. His desire is for the Clare Valley Region to be as renowned for its produce and food as much as it is for their wine. He and Nicola are passionate about providing a ‘paddock to plate’ menu with organic and biodynamic produce sourced from their nearby Penobscot Farm. Warrick and Nicola tell me they actually owned the farm before purchasing the Watervale Hotel, ‘We went there for dinner one night and ended up buying the place’.
The Watervale Hotel redevelopment includes the establishment of Kitchen Gardens. Located across the road from the hotel, the Kitchen Gardens will ensure an abundant supply of fresh herbs, edible flowers and native foods throughout the seasons.
However, the crown jewel in the Watervale Hotel’s food chain and what really spoils diners, is their lovingly tended Penobscot Farm. Nicola and Warrick have established an organic, biodynamic farm not far from the hotel, which has a full-time gardener Jared. Harnessing the power of nature, the farm is firmly rooted in permaculture principles.
Talented Nicola not only project managed the Watervale Hotel’s entire redevelopment but also masterminded its interior and exterior design work. As a long-time restaurant owner myself, albeit on a much smaller scale, I am more than impressed with Nicola’s style and attention to detail. From the open, multipurpose ‘theatre kitchen’ with high-end culinary equipment and lavishly decorated cool room doors to the opulent bar stools, stunning local artwork and decorative bathroom features.
The menu at the Watervale Hotel will be driven by the farm’s organic produce. The creativity of their kitchen team will determine how best to use Penobscot Farm’s abundance of seasonal produce. The redevelopment has attracted a skilled team of chefs to the region (some with michelin star restaurant experience) to lead their September 1st opening under the guidance of General Manager and Head Chef Nicola.
Warrick and Nicola are reviving an interesting slice of the hotel’s history with the establishment of the historic ‘Hell Hole’ The Hell Hole is a room where guests can be willingly locked in for seven courses. Originally the old gaol built in 1868, the Hell Hole will now cater for boardroom seating of up to 18 people.
The Watervale Hotel’s ‘Hell Hole’ private dining room, originally the old gaol built in 1868
The Hell Hole hails from the original decision of the (first) female publican to ‘clean the hotel up’. There had been two deaths due to gambling fights when this astute woman came up with the solution of building the Hell Hole – to lock up drunk and disorderly guests. Nicola and Warrick’s clever decision to install a huge, outdoor Argentinian asado style barbecue and rotisserie to provide various ways of cooking with fire, further brings this ‘fires of hell’ history to life.
The locals can be assured they have not been forgotten. Feedback from local residents was taken into consideration in the planning stages, and the new owners are specifically including a family friendly beer garden which opens out to the back – a much safer option for children than opening onto a busy main road. Other exciting outdoor plans include a large wood pizza and empanada oven.
The Watervale Hotel redevelopment will benefit the Clare Valley region in various ways. Not only will the locals love their flashy new pub, it will also draw tourists from afar who want to enjoy a culinary experience like no other in this state. The redevelopment will also benefit the hospitality industry. Their multipurpose kitchen incorporating a long chefs table – it’s a large, beautiful natural light-filled open space – is a chefs dream kitchen. It will be utilised not only for preparation and service, but also for cooking demonstrations, cooking classes and training.
It’s easy to predict the Watervale Hotel will become a destination within itself. Warrick foresees bus groups stopping by on their way to the Flinders Ranges. The Clare Valley is a half-way point between Adelaide and the Flinders Ranges, so it’s a logical choice to stop and enjoy lunch at this unique hotel.
The concept of regional diversity will be further stimulated by the Mintaro Progress Association’s ‘Clare Valley Festival of the Lamb’. This year’s inaugural festival will run from 16th – 22nd September and is the brainchild of local Mintaro resident and passionate foodie Simon Millcock. Simon is a partner in the international cultural chef exchange program Chef Outta Water and has a longstanding career in economic development.
With more than fifteen events throughout ten venues and fifteen chefs showcasing six local lamb producers, there are ten wineries involved in this year’s Clare Valley Festival of the Lamb which will become an annual ‘much looked forward to’ spring equinox event. The Festival of the Lamb will celebrate both the premier time in this region for quality new-season lamb and the first buds of the grapevines. The Festival’s diverse program is aimed at encouraging tourism and bringing the community together. Tours of two historic sheep stations, long lamb lunches and dinners, meet the producer events and a ‘Political Roast’ degustation lunch at the Watervale Hotel are a small sample of what’s on offer this year.
For more information on this groundbreaking redevelopment and to connect via the ‘Watervale Epicurean Society’ check out the Watervale Hotel’s beautiful website. The Watervale Hotel is holding a few special events for the Festival of the Lamb, which will see Townsville’s A Touch of Salt Restaurant’s talented Chef Michael Brine provide his hands on deck in the kitchen. Tickets will sell out quickly as numbers are limited with the COVID restrictions, so remember to book soon.
Where: The Watervale Hotel, 37 Main North Road, Watervale SA 5452 (one and a half hour’s drive from Adelaide city)
When: 11 am – 9 pm daily from 1st of September 2020
Accommodation: A six-bedroom guesthouse is available for hire next door to the hotel
Contact: 08 8843 0229 or via website Watervale Hotel