Maitland: Food for Thought...
Words by Mike Smith – photography by Mike Smith & Maitland Tourism
Maitland has been constantly reinventing itself
From its pioneering 19th Century heyday when it was a thriving food producer and bustling river port, Maitland – once the second largest town in NSW – has experienced a chequered career, constantly reinventing itself to meet the needs of the day.
It is no different 150 or more years later as the Lower Hunter region attempts to woo holidaying visitors with innovative, sometimes subtle changes without detracting from its historic roots. Simply put, the centre of 90,000 people deserves more attention than it receives from a mere daytrip, as Mike Smith discovers.
The walk along the Hunter River waterfront is as leisurely as you come to expect on a sunny midweek winter’s morning in Maitland. With a sprinkling of cafés along the path, time seems to be of little importance as patrons sit under umbrellas chatting to each other while glancing across the waters from the NSW city’s raised levee.
The waterfront is sprinkled with cafes and umbrellas
Occasionally, we are passed by cyclists, only to catch up with them at a nearby café which ironically shares the same address as a bicycle workshop. In fact, Maitland has a special coffee culture that is hard not to miss, where one – The Icky Sticky Patisserie – prides itself on serving freshly baked pastries of all shapes and sizes while another – Cabin Collective – co-exists with a tattoo parlour.
Apparently, this hybrid café on The Levee thrives on its reputation to serve primitive roast coffee, where all the beans are hand roasted onsite over an open fire, only coffee shop in Australia to do so. The artistic designs of the customised tattoos also speak volumes, if you are into that.
It takes all kinds, we think to ourselves, as we find a spare table at the aptly named Bikesmith and Espresso Bar for a flat white while owner, cyclist enthusiast Tim Skinner, tinkers away behind the counter at the rear repairing almost everything from a popped chain to the pushbike’s brakes.
Welcome to Maitland 2020 style, a mix of contemporary features with large examples of yester living. A two-hour drive north of Sydney, Maitland and its appealing food belt has much to offer if your plan is to stay a while.
Tim Skinner, owner of The Bikesmith and Espresso Bar
Stroll along High Street and eventually into a mall-style area known as The Levee and you can marvel over the 100 or more years old architecture. Each showcases an affluent past yet their very survival against the weight of modern change points to a bright future. Some have been revived with loving restoration. Others sit derelict awaiting an upgrade.
Standing pride of place among the historic buildings is the beautifully maintained 1881-built Post Office, along with the 1846 St Johns’ Church (was once the city’s cathedral), St Mary’s Church, which dates back from 1867 and is described as one of the finest examples of Victorian style Gothic architecture and the Byzantine 1869 ANZ Bank, formerly the Bank of Australasia.
Then there is the historic railway station, an appropriate setting for the town’s annual Steamfest, an annual celebration of steam held each April.
And not forgetting the towering sandstone walls of the 1848 established Maitland Gaol, once home to some of Australia’s most notorious prisoners including Irish-born bushranger Captain Moonlite, Chow Hayes, Darcy Dugan and Arthur “Neddy” Smith.
Between 1843 and 1897, 16 men were hanged, 13 for murder, three for rape. In the end an outdated Maitland Gaol closed its doors for the final time in January 1998.
The cells at the once infamous Maitland Gaol
As with many Australian regional towns and cities, it is the people, whether they have lived there as a family for generations or returned home after years of city life, who pave the way with new initiatives. Their influences are evident through the range of stores, cafes, bars and restaurants and even the highly acclaimed Maitland Regional Art Gallery.
Along the way we see some of the buildings have been decorated with street art, of note the mural of trees in Bourke Street where local artist Patricia Van Lubeck from Maitland’s Studio Amsterdam created as ‘The New One’ in October 2018. Patricia’s work is said to represent the welcoming community of Maitland capturing the special moment when a newcomer arrives to the city. It quickly grabbed our attention. The brightly coloured trees symbolise how we are all different yet similar, and we are stronger together than we are apart.
Outside one of the city’s popular restaurants Coquun and the contemporary The Riverlink building, is an outstanding public art piece by Newcastle artist Braddon Snape, entitled ‘Clouds Gathering’, representing Maitland’s relationship with water and the river.
By taking a detour from High Street down one of the side streets we uncover funky stencil art murals hidden down tiny lanes. Near the Bikesmith and Espresso Bar, positioned high on in the windows of an adjacent building, are colourful murals of birds, some behind bars. This is a side of Maitland we would not have seen 10 years ago.
The New One mural by local artist Patricia Van Lubeck
Not surprisingly, food plays as much a key role as the many historic and contemporary attractions. With lunch calling, we head down High Street to café Cunning Culinarian, housed in a 1902 heritage listed building with a menu to match its appealing name.
It proves difficult to pass up the seeded bagel with the oven smoked salmon, red onion, creamed cheese, and dill. Then again, the herbed scrambled eggs with spinach, relish, hash brown and cheese – served as a tortilla wrap or on sourdough bread – is enough to whet the appetite.
As a pioneering food bowl for much of NSW, this riverside port has a Slow Food Earth Market, a group of stalls lining The Levee. Founded by food loving Amorelle Dempster, the market takes place on the first and fourth Thursday of the month and allows visitors to sample, buy or perhaps order online fresh Hunter produce, thus supporting local growers. Seasonal pumpkins, cauliflower, baby carrots and potatoes are among the displays along with olives, olive oils, relishes, and sourdough bread – all sold at competitive prices.
If you are looking for a fusion dining experience with a distinctive Australian flavour, book a table at the refined delicatessen, café, bar and bistro Coquun. Expect a general greeting of “anikanya” at the door to the contemporary restaurant before dining on fresh local produce with elements of locally grown bush tucker, washed down by some interesting hand-picked Hunter wines. Perfect for winter is the slowly cooked lamb shoulder with bush tomato and salt bush tzatziki, a couple’s delight. When translated into English, the local Wonnarua Country word of Coquun means freshwater river, a perfect match for its riverside address.
Amorelle Dempster, (left) founder of the Slow Food Earth Market
A few strides from Coquun is a traditional Italian restaurant, Fratelli Roma, where the décor is as inviting as the extensive menu. The doors opened to the friendly family-owned restaurant in 2013, but locals, particularly the repeat pasta and pizza-loving guests, feel as if it has been in Maitland much longer. Make sure to keep some space for the Tiramisù with the house churned vanilla gelato and fresh strawberries. You will not be disappointed.
Beer lovers can also get a taste of local craft beer at Maitland’s The Pourhouse, housed inside the refurbished 1866 established Exchange Hotel on High Street. Here you can sample local and Australian craft brews – rotated between 10 taps – while tucking into one of the burgers, the aptly named The Pourhouse and The Thunderbolt favourites.
Now, that’s food for thought the next time you stay in Maitland!
Must see: The Maitland Regional Art Gallery, housed within the red-brick walls of a 1910-built Federation Gothic building which, until 1987, was the Maitland Technical College.
Commonly known as MRAG, the gallery is considered one of Australia’s finest regional galleries, its 11 modern exhibition spaces hosting an array of changing displays. Most recent have included the Guns to Roses exhibition, a theme which portrays “life as fragile as paper” – where human suffering has been inflicted at the hand of others. During the visit, the gallery featured a fascinating collection of miniature art, a Safe Space Contemporary Sculpture featuring oars, and colourful indigenous paintings honouring the late Tiger Palpatja, who hailed from South Australia and lived until he was 92 years old.
On loan to MRAG from a private collector, the Tiger Palpatja selection of 11 major works includes three collaborative paintings and three canvases by Palpatja’s granddaughters Sandra and Shirley Adamson.
Also, on show outside the walls of the gallery, is the giant sized half human, half dog sculpture simply known as The Fetch, (pictured left) and you soon realise why.
Apart from the exhibition space, the art gallery has a quality shop, the Seraphine Café (named after an 18th Century French artist) and, on Sundays, hosts free art activities for families of all ages. Details: www.mrag.org.au
WHERE TO STAY
Variety is the spice of life when it comes to accommodation in and around Maitland. Whether you book a site at a caravan park or settle into a small family-owned bed and breakfast establishment, there is much to say about a stay.
Stay in nearby Morpeth, for example. On the town’s Swan Street, is a lovingly refurbished The Bronte Boutique Hotel, a five-star establishment housed in what was initially the 1822-built home and shop of Caleb Soul, of Soul Paterson Pharmacy fame.
Named after Lord Nelson, the Earl of Bronte, the hotel and its six inviting guestrooms has an overwhelming Victorian charm, the antiques of the era fused with Asian artefacts, the collection of a passionate effervescent owner Clint Marquet, who has added two self-contained contemporary apartments behind the whitewashed hotel. Details: www.thebronte.com.au
Across the street is the 19th Century Arnotts Historic Bakehouse, where owners Alison and Stephen Arnott have converted the former bakery – once a restaurant as well – into three heritage suites aptly named after biscuit varieties – the upstairs Monte Carlo Penthouse, the street level VoVo Suite and the adjacent SAO studio.
The newly-named The William Arnott Hotel, honours the founder of Arnotts Biscuits, who along with brother David opened the bakery in Morpeth in 1861 before moving to Newcastle. Stephen is the great-great-great grandchild and hosts sourdough making classes on appointment. Details: www.historicarnottbakehouse.com.au
Maitland Tourism: www.mymaitland.com.au