Todd Alexander and Jeff Ross haven’t given up on their country dream. However, they’ve refined their ideals and come to a very rewarding conclusion.
Todd Alexander and Jeff Ross thought they had it made when they traded corporate city lives for Block 8, a vineyard and olive orchard at Bedford in the Hunter Region. Then they had the bright idea of building five guest villas on the property and they added an endless rotation of making beds and cleaning bathrooms to the already onerous workload of winemaking and producing olives.
Regular readers might recall that Australian Country first caught up with Todd and Jeff slightly more than a year ago, when, after eight years building Block 8 into a hugely successful business, they called it a day. Feeling exhausted and as though they’d gone from the frying pan to the fire, they’d recently moved with their menagerie of rescue animals to 100 acres (40 hectares) at Lambs Valley, a secluded rural district enfolded by mountain ranges. They called the property Happy As, a reference to Helga, the pig that was the foundation of their burgeoning collection of animal friends, including sheep, goats, chickens and ducks.
As it turned out, for the second time in their lives, Jeff and Todd found fresh understanding of the adage “be careful what you wish for”. While they had plenty to keep them occupied at Happy As with the house to renovate, a garden to restore and an investment property in the nearby town of Branxton to rebuild, Lambs Valley was just too remote.
“One of the reasons we moved here was to be closer to my parents who followed us up to the Hunter Region and live in Greta,” Todd explains. “But it turned out that the roads were just a bit too long and windy for them to feel comfortable with the drive. Even friends, who’d drop by for a catch-up when we were at Belford, found the trek too much. And, beautiful though the valley is, the novelty of having to drive 25 minutes to the nearest supermarket wore a bit thin.”
There were financial incentives as well, as nearby properties started selling for record prices. “When our real estate agent told us one of our neighbours had made $850,000 in just over 12 months, I joked, ‘Pity we’re not ready’,” Todd says. “Then Jeff said, ‘We can get ready’.”
It’s well-documented that the pandemic has encouraged many city dwellers to look at the wide-open spaces of the regions with fresh eyes and that rising rural property prices are a direct consequence of a new appetite for fresh air and not living cheek by jowl with the neighbours.
“During the COVID lockdowns, Sydneysiders learnt they didn’t have to go out every night,” Todd observes. “They could work from home just as effectively as the office and suddenly they looked at what the country offers, particularly for young families. The Hunter, being within two hours from Sydney and well connected by train and motorway, was particularly appealing, though I have to say that we rarely feel the need to go to the city these days.”
Along with the lifestyle incentives, overseas travel restrictions and an uncertain stock market have led to the phenomenon of land banking, with the result that the Hunter delivered record Australian real estate growth in a recent quarter. “It was a no-brainer,” Jeff says. “We could pour our money into a massive renovation and sell in a couple of years for the same gain as the market would deliver now. Or we could sell, buy a smaller block of land closer to town, build the house we’ve always dreamed about and, provided we stay on budget, be mortgage-free.”
Needless to say, the couple opted for the latter and embarked on an intense blitz to prepare Happy As for sale. Jeff had already installed a new kitchen to give Todd an appropriate venue for exercising his considerable cooking skills, and they’d also painted the living area, replaced the flooring and installed a combustion box fire to heat the vast space more effectively than the existing hydronic system. Undaunted even by the fact that both Todd and Jeff contracted COVID during the painting and decorating frenzy, they put in intense days clearing the garden, mulching the trimmings and finishing countless odd jobs they’d been postponing for months.
“We couldn’t go anywhere because we were isolating,” Todd says. “When you work from dawn to dusk, you can get a lot done in a day. I enjoyed the garden work, though I can’t say the same for painting.”
“We’d bought Happy As very reasonably,” Jeff adds. “When we inspected, we could see potential where other people could only see work. So we had a clear idea of what we needed to get through and we just knuckled down and did it.” Long story short, the effort paid off. Happy As more than doubled in value in the slightly more than 12 months they had lived there.
So Todd and Jeff are on the move again, this time to a block on the outskirts of Branxton with all the amenities they missed. They’re starting from scratch and will build their own home on the block. Jeff, who is a veteran renovator, has further refined his DIY skills since moving to the Hunter Region and is keen to manage the build with Todd as his willing accomplice.
“I’ve learnt so much from building the villas, housing our animals and doing two renovations up here,” Jeff says. “I firmly believe that most jobs can be done right if you have the right tools. And there will usually be a YouTube video to help you along if you get stuck. With experience has come confidence and I was able to do most of the rental renovation in Branxton myself. Of course, the motivation is financial as well, because the cost of tradies, if you can get them, has doubled in the past couple of years and the cost of materials has quadrupled.”
With the Branxton job, Jeff stripped the house back to its frame and only hired professionals to do the roofing, plumbing and electrics. The rest, from plaster boarding, painting and tiling, to installing cupboards, a kitchen and flooring, he was able to manage on his own. Todd and Jeff have similar plans for their new build and are excited to be starting with a blank slate, and they’ve already begun preliminary plans for a pavilion-style homestead. They’re even entertaining the notion of another foray into hospitality with perhaps a guest cottage on the land.
“When you’ve managed 100 acres (40 hectares) for a decade, 15 acres (six hectares) is a suburban backyard,” Jeff says. “We still need an income stream and if it can be close to where we are living, that would be better than another investment property.” Watch this space for the next instalment.
Check out what Todd and Jeff made us for lunch!
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium red onions, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon vegan stock powder
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 zucchinis, diced
6 white cap mushrooms, diced
½ cup tomato paste
2 x 400g casn chopped tomatoes
or tomato puree
1 cup orzo or fregola or any pasta
of your choice
2L vegetable stock
Salt and pepper, to taste
Heat the olive oil in a large soup pot then add the onions and garlic. Stir-fry for 2–3 minutes until the onions have softened. Add the oregano and stock powder and stir-fry for 1 minute. Add the chopped vegetables and cook for 3–5 minutes until just softened, stirring occasionally to ensure they do not stick to the bottom of the pot. Add the tomato paste and stir thoroughly, ensuring all the vegetables are well coated. Cook for 1 minute to intensify the tomato flavour. Add the canned tomatoes (or puree), pasta and stock. Bring to the boil then reduce the heat to medium and continue cooking until the vegetables and pasta have softened. Depending on the pasta you choose, you may have to thin the soup by adding a small amount of water. Taste for pepper and salt and serve piping hot.
Herb Chilli Bread
1 handful parsley leaves
2 sprigs rosemary, leaves removed
4 sprigs thyme, leaves removed
4 sprigs oregano, leaves removed
8–10 chives, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon vegan stock powder
1 tablespoon dried chilli flakes
½ cup vegan butter (Nuttelex)
1 large baguette
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Finely chop or whiz in a food processor all the herbs until finely chopped. Stir through the stock powder and chilli. Stir in the butter so the herbs are evenly distributed. Slice the baguette into 2cm slices then liberally spread each slice with the herb butter. Form the baguette back into shape then cover loosely with foil, leaving the top open so the bread can go crusty. Bake in the oven for 10–15 minutes (until the bread is as crispy as you like it).
2 cups rocket
½ cup walnuts or sunflower
seeds or pepitas
2 tablespoons vegan stock powder
5 turns of black pepper grinder
¼ cup nutritional yeast
¼ cup olive oil
Whiz the rocket, nuts, stock, pepper and yeast in a food processor until it forms a chunky paste. Stir through the olive oil and serve with the minestrone and/or any pasta dish
Lemon, Tomato & Kale Spaghetti
1 tablespoon sea salt
2 lemons, peeled then juiced
½ cup olive oil
2 medium cloves garlic
500g cherry tomatoes, halved
2 cups chopped kale
Half-fill a large pasta pot with water and add the salt. Bring to the boil then add the spaghetti. While the pasta is cooking, prepare the sauce. Start by slicing the lemon peel into very fine strips. Pour the oil into a large frying pan and add the lemon peel and garlic before turning on the heat. Once the oil is hot (you will smell the lemon and garlic) add 3/4 of the chopped tomatoes (keep the rest for later) and cook for 3 or so minutes until they’re softened. Add the juice from the lemons then add the chopped kale. Cook for around 2 minutes until the kale is wilted. Once the spaghetti is cooked to your liking, strain it and pour it into the sauce — toss well so that every strand gets coated. To serve, spoon the pasta onto a serving platter then pour the sauce over the top. Sprinkle the remaining chopped tomatoes on top.
4 slices of sourdough bread, cubed
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 tomatoes, chopped
1 large cucumber, chopped
1 red onion, halved and finely sliced
½ cup olives, sliced
¼ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons basil leaves, finely sliced
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Arrange the cubed bread on a baking tray and coat well with the 2 tablespoons olive oil. Bake for around 10 minutes until the bread is toasted and crispy. While the bread is cooking, place the chopped vegetables and olives in a large bowl. Make the dressing by combining all the ingredients in a jar with a lid and shaking vigorously. When the bread is cooked, add to the vegetables and toss well. When you dress the salad is up to you. If you do it just before serving, the bread will generally stay crunchy but the longer the bread sits in the dressing, the softer it gets — this is the way I prefer it because the soggy pieces of bread in the bottom of the salad are absolutely delicious so I generally pour the dressing over the salad at least 10 minutes before serving.
Baklava with a Twist
500g walnuts or macadamia nuts
2 tablespoons cinnamon
½ teaspoon sea salt
16 sheets filo pastry
1 cup vegan butter (Nuttelex), melted
for the Miso syrup:
½ cup water
¼ cup white sugar
¼ cup brown sugar
1 vanilla pod, cut in half
2 tablespoons miso paste
1 cup maple syrup
Preheat the oven to 180°C. In a food processor, add the nuts, cinnamon and salt and whiz until finely chopped. Line a baking dish with baking paper then begin layering the filo pastry. Each time you place a layer of pastry in the dish, brush it generously with melted butter (the more butter, the better). After you have layered six sheets of pastry, sprinkle over a layer of the nut mixture (about three handfuls). Add two more layers of buttered pastry. Add another layer of nuts. Then again, add two more layers of buttered pastry and another layer of nuts. Finally, top the baklava with a further six layers of buttered pastry. Use a sharp knife to cut the baklava into squares, diamonds or triangles but do not cut all the way to the bottom — just about ¾ way through the assembled baklava. Bake in the oven for around 20–25 minutes until the top is brown and crispy. While the baklava is baking, prepare the syrup. In a saucepan, add all of the ingredients and whisk to combine. Bring to the boil and continue boiling until the syrup has thickened (about 5-7 minutes). Remove the vanilla pod. Once the baklava is cooked remove from the oven and pour the warm syrup all over it. Use a sharp knife to cut the shapes all the way to the bottom of the baklava. Allow to cool completely before transferring to a serving platter. ac
Photography Ken Brass
Love these recipes? Check out our others here.