“When the roses start to drop we’ll collect the petals and make rose petal ice cream for the guests,’ says chef Stefano Manfredi as I close my eyes and inhale the scent of a red rose. It’s so intoxicating I go back for more (as I would with the ice cream, I’m sure).
Stefano is proudly showing me around the extensive vegetable gardens at Bells at Killcare (there are three), picking herbs and peppery rocket for me to sample as he dishes out culinary advice, such as pairing sorrel with salmon, or tossing it through roast potatoes. The pillaged garden beds tell of a successful asparagus season, while the fennel, which thrives in cooler months, is just starting to flourish.
I had arrived at Bells that morning after a 90-minute drive from Sydney’s CBD. Surrounded by the Bouddi National Park, Bells sits between the bush and the beach and although Putty Beach is only a five-minute drive away, my initial thought was that I would miss a sea view. But as I amble through hedges of rosemary, citrus and avocado trees, and a recently stripped persimmon tree (whose fruit, I am told, is now on the dessert menu), the lush surrounds more than compensate for the ocean.
In case the idea of rose petal ice cream wasn’t quite up to my farm-to-fork expectations (it was), Stefano introduces me to Enzo the Guard Dog who is reported to be a hit with all the chicks. Chickens, that is. It is Enzo’s lot in life to protect the chickens from predators so that we can enjoy poached eggs with vibrant yellow yolks or scrambled with smoked salmon, for breakfast.
Dotted throughout these bountiful grounds are a handful of suites, villas and private one- and two-bedroom cottages that offer the best of both worlds: country manor meets Hamptons hideaway. The coastal vibe of the location is captured by Bells’ blue and white colour scheme, which stretches from the outside of my cottage to the soaps in the bathroom. Inside, the ambience is that of summers past, with bleached linens, driftwood walls, wide striped awnings and a generous deck extending off the upstairs bedroom. It’s here that I perch to watch the sunset, serenaded by a lone kookaburra in a neighbouring tree.
As the sun settles behind the trees, the sounds of bird life transition to the din of cicadas, denoting dinnertime. Feeling unapologetically inactive I drive the 600 metres from my cottage to the restaurant Manfredi, a decision I know I’ll be grateful for after dinner.
Stefano Manfredi took the helm at the (blue and white) restaurant in 2007 and has created a menu grounded in his core values of authenticity, simplicity and freshness. Seasonal dishes are inspired by the garden and 20 per cent of the vegetables used in the kitchen come from the backyard. Following an afternoon of constant grazing in the vege patch I opt to dine à la carte but keep an eye on the diners next to me who are making their way through the five-course degustation menu. I have no regrets as I move from freshly shucked oysters to duck ravioli, and beef served with wholegrain faro, grilled saffron milk cap mushrooms and a red wine sauce. After polishing off a cheese plate there is no room left for anything, least of all discontentment.
I awake the next morning feeling renewed after a night of deep sleep and no alarm. Thanks to Enzo, I dine like a king on eggs and mushrooms before I visit the day spa.
Snug inside a vine-covered cottage, the day spa has the same Hampton-style interior as the cottages. In theme with keeping things local I’m having a traditional KODO massage, a rhythmic body treatment inspired by Aboriginal techniques. Momentarily distracted by being provided with disposable underwear, I’m soon lulled into a semi-comatose state, induced by the traditional smoking ceremony. Burning bark and lemon myrtle pervade the room, and 60 minutes disappears in a delicious haze of smoke, massage and background tribal music.
With tousled hair and oiled skin I dress slowly, knowing that my return to the city is imminent. After only one night at Bells the stress of the week has been washed away, without even a swim in the sea. Perhaps I’ll delay my return with a quick dip.