branch­ing out



T ak­ing a wrong turn in the Hunter Val­ley of NSW proved a for­tu­nate mis­take for a Syd­ney cou­ple who, dream­ing of es­tab­lish­ing an olive grove to sup­ply oil to their pop­u­lar Syd­ney Ital­ian restau­rant, Buon Ri­cordo, hap­pened upon the per­fect spot. “We’d just re­turned from a trip to Italy with an idea of what we wanted,” says Gemma Cun­ning­ham, who, along with her hus­band, Naples-born chef Ar­mando Per­cuoco, was cap­ti­vated when she found her­self on the his­toric Great North Road dur­ing a drive to the renowned Hunter Val­ley wine re­gion. “We loved the hills, the streams and the val­ley,” says Ar­mando. “I rang a real es­tate agent and Val­ley­field was the first place she showed us.” That was more than 20 years ago, when the 93-hectare prop­erty — nes­tled in La­guna be­tween the Yengo and Wata­gans Na­tional Parks — had very few trees and lit­tle more than a tiny shack to ac­com­pany the orig­i­nal home­stead. Over a cen­tury old and in a state of dis­re­pair, the main house was dan­ger­ous to even step in­side. “You would touch the tim­ber and it was like cob­webs,” says Gemma, “All kinds of an­i­mals had made their homes there.” The cou­ple lived in the shack for a year, di­vid­ing their time be­tween the Hunter Val­ley and Syd­ney’s east­ern suburbs while they got to work plant­ing olive trees, be­fore turn­ing their fo­cus to the house. While few el­e­ments could be sal­vaged, in­clud­ing some win­dows and floor­ing, Ar­mando took a photograph be­fore re­build­ing be­gan in an ef­fort to repli­cate the orig­i­nal struc­ture. “I very much kept to the Aus­tralian style when de­sign­ing the house be­cause it’s a his­toric prop­erty,” says Ar­mando, who has the orig­i­nal deeds to Val­ley­field from 1839. An ex­ten­sion the cou­ple com­pleted last year might be the ex­cep­tion, when they de­cided that more time spent at the farm called for ad­di­tional space. “It was the per­fect size for a week­ender but not to live full time,” says Gemma. La­guna’s prox­im­ity to Syd­ney ap­pealed to the pair. “It’s not overly de­vel­oped and still quite wild — you’ve got all the bush­land as well as this gor­geous lit­tle vil­lage,” says Gemma. Af­ter a de­mand­ing week­end at the restau­rant, Ar­mando looks for­ward to his Sun­day af­ter­noon drive up to Val­ley­field. “I’m busy in the gar­den for three days, but it’s a com­pletely dif­fer­ent work en­vi­ron­ment,” he says. “For me, it’s the seren­ity I most look for­ward to.” The cou­ple’s olive grove, along with the or­chard that pro­duces figs, or­anges and pears, among other crops, keeps Ar­mando out­doors much of the time. How­ever, get­ting the gar­den to where it is to­day has not been with­out chal­lenges. >

“Gemma and I thought we knew ev­ery­thing about gar­den­ing, so we started to build one,” says Ar­mando. “Eight years later, we were sit­ting on the ve­ran­dah hav­ing drinks and I asked, ‘Tell me hon­estly, do you like what we’ve done here?’” When Gemma an­swered no, Ar­mando agreed and the pair en­listed Cen­tral Coast-based land­scape de­signer Michael Cooke to take over. Michael de­signed a curv­ing and ex­pan­sive gar­den over 2.5 hectares that pro­vides am­ple space for the cou­ple’s sculp­ture col­lec­tion, as well as an arc of Seville orange trees and a sweep­ing drive­way. “We’ve learnt along the way,” says Gemma. “Some­times if you don’t have the eye, or the knowl­edge, it’s good to call in the ex­perts!” Most of their en­ter­tain­ing is done at Val­ley­field rather than in Syd­ney. “Be­fore we had the place here, we would al­ways be in the city spend­ing ev­ery night in restau­rants,” says Gemma, adding that it’s a nice change to sim­ply sit un­der the stars with a glass of wine. Ar­mando loves ex­per­i­ment­ing in the kitchen and mak­ing din­ner for friends. “Some­times I cook Ital­ian, but mostly I like to try some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent, like Le­banese or In­dian,” he says. The or­chard and gar­den pro­vide plen­ti­ful pro­duce, and al­though most of the herbs at the restau­rant are from Val­ley­field, Ar­mando prefers to save his veg­etable bounty for home-cooked meals. “In the last three weeks I’ve grown around 20 egg­plants,” he says. “They’re not go­ing to be taken to the restau­rant — we need boxes and boxes — so I just cook them here at home.” The gar­den also sup­plies the mak­ings of a food range in­clud­ing mar­malade and chilli paste, which can be bought at lo­cal bar and café, Great North­ern Trad­ing Post, as well as on­line and in their Padding­ton restau­rant. Ev­ery­thing is made on­site in the cou­ple’s barn with the ex­cep­tion of the olive oil, which is pro­cessed 45 min­utes away in Lovedale and re­turned to Val­ley­field in vats for bot­tling and la­belling. A short walk through the gar­den leads to the guest­house, which of­fers bou­tique ac­com­mo­da­tion. Guests are ad­vised to keep a keen eye out for vis­it­ing kan­ga­roos at dawn and dusk, and to help them­selves to any­thing edi­ble from the gar­den. Over the win­ter months, when he’s not in the kitchen, Ar­mando can be found re­lax­ing in front of the big, open fire­place with a good book and a glass of red wine from lo­cal favourites Tyrrell’s or Scar­bor­ough. “We are very lucky here,” says Gemma. “When you en­ter the prop­erty through the cause­way over the lit­tle creek, that drive across the wa­ter — even though it’s just a few feet — re­ally brings you into an­other world.”

Gemma Cun­ning­ham and Ar­mando Per­cuoco out­side the barn at Val­ley­field where they store vats of olive oil for bot­tling and la­belling. FAC­ING PAGE They have planted 1200 olive trees, sup­ply­ing all the oil to Ar­mando’s restau­rant, Buon Ri­cordo.

Gemma and Ar­mando in the olive grove. FAC­ING PAGE, CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP LEFT In the liv­ing room, a paint­ing by Wendy Stokes over­looks a Mon­ica Ar­mani cof­fee ta­ble; a home li­brary in­cludes cookbooks by friends in­clud­ing Shan­non Ben­nett, Neil Perry and Tet­suya Wakuda; Ar­mando’s ex­tra vir­gin olive oil is bot­tled and la­belled on­site; a Blue Seal com­mer­cial stove gets plenty of use in the kitchen; Chooks by Lucy Cul­li­ton hangs in the din­ing room above Philippe Starck ‘Costes’ chairs and a Ni­cholas Dat­tner ta­ble made from re­cy­cled yel­low stringy­bark; the ve­ran­dah over­looks the land­scaped gar­den. For stock­ist de­tails,

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