Adam Liaw is coming clean about his long-standing love affair with the Hunter Valley.
The author, television presenter and host of SBS TV's The Cook Up has partnered with Lilydale Free Range Chicken to hero regional Australian producers on a new cooking platform called "Cooking With Lily".
He also hopes to build on the COVID lockdown trend of cooking from scratch at home, and to encourage people to search for and use local ingredients.
Joining him on his quest is MasterChef Australia alumni Brendan Pang, who puts the spotlight on the Margaret River region of Western Australia, and well-known food creator Jessica Nguyen, who takes a deep dive into Victoria's Yarra Valley.
The trio have filmed inspirational videos mapping their "taste trails" across Australia, sharing recipes, tips and tricks along the way.
"I've travelled the world, hungry for inspiration. It was found right on my doorstep in the Hunter Valley," Liaw says.
"I often visit the local farmers there for ingredients for my dishes. Each producer is dedicated to one thing, which makes them incredible at what they do."
One such producer is Bellbird Garlic, a small farm run by Peter and Michelle Forster that organically grows giant garlic and specialises in processing it into cold smoked and black garlic. They swapped their suburban home on the Central Coast for the Hunter Valley five years ago.
"You'll often see them at the markets," Liaw says.
"Black garlic has roots in Korean cuisine, but just like regular garlic it can be used for just about anything. With its softer, molasses-like flavour, it's a more delicate option for your chicken dish compared to the raw bulb.
"When regular garlic bulbs are fermented under heat, the process turns the garlic clove dark, changing the flavour to a sweet taste that's complex and fragrant, slightly like licorice. This is 'black garlic'."
On the Cooking With Lily online hub Liaw shares a recipe for butterflied chicken with black garlic chimichurri and farm salad.
"When creating the recipe I really just wanted to choose some great ingredients and let them be themselves," he explains.
"From fabulous vegetables to unique black garlic and the best free-range chicken, every ingredient tastes just like it should."
Liaw also visits Muswellbrook's Pukara Estate and Phoenix Park Farm, adjacent to the Hunter River near Morpeth, and uses produce from both for his chicken dish. He also pays a visit to Hanging Tree Wines at Pokolbin.
"The Hunter Valley is a fabulous wine region that is just growing better and better," Liaw says.
"I think wine regions attract people who don't just love wine, but love good food, and the Hunter is full of people who are dedicated to fantastic produce.
"Over the years, it has expanded far beyond great wine, and with that has grown the reputation of the Hunter as a centre for great food generally."
He encourages people to embrace the joys of home cooking ("Cooking doesn't need to be complicated. In fact, I think if you cook more simply the food almost always tastes better") and, in so doing, support local farmers.
"With all the environmental challenges we've had in recent years I think we all understand the value of our agricultural systems," he says.
"The closer we get to how our food is produced, the better, and the best way to do that is to take responsibility for that yourself. I visit a lot of farms, particularly with my children, and they always come away from it with a bit of knowledge and also have a really fun day out."
Nguyen visits Yarra Valley Truffles, one of Victoria's longest-serving producers of the culinary delicacy, and is inspired to create a gin brined and truffle stuffed whole roasted chicken with a mushroom and gin gravy.
Pang travelled around Margaret River searching for the freshest ingredients for his recipe: fried macadamia crusted chicken with a sticky honey glaze and a fresh Asian green salad. He visited the Margaret River Aquafarm in Forest Grove, an aquaponic farm dedicated to creating pure healthy produce, free of pesticides, with a commitment to reducing water and farm waste.
"When I first told people I was starting to grow fresh produce with fish waste, they were definitely sceptical," John Bowskill from Margaret River Aquafarm says.
"Fast forward a couple of years and the future of the Earth's climate and global food supplies are uncertain. It's starting to make more sense to those around me."
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