A WRONG TURN IN THE HUNTER REGION OF NSW LED CHEF ARMANDO PERCUOCO AND HIS WIFE, GEMMA, TO THE VALLEY OF THEIR DREAMS.
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,