From markets to Mocka’s pies, Port Douglas wows the palate
THE northern Queensland resort town of Port Douglas is humming on a Sunday morning. From the little white St Mary’s by the Sea chapel, its windows open to warm breezes, wafts the rousing sounds of the choir stirring up the congregation at the morning service.
But beyond this holy precinct’s palms and bright flower beds, things are altogether more secular. The adjoining Anzac Park is the setting for a lively market each Sunday from 8am to early afternoon. Like Topsy in UncleTom’sCabin , it has grow’d beyond recognition. From its original few stalls devoted to local produce and artwork, the market now straggles from the Wharf Street roadside to Dickson Inlet, curving around stately buttress figs and umbrella trees. It began in 1998 with a proviso from the local council that it be a ‘‘ cotters’ market’’, with all goods made or grown by stallholders and their families.
There is still a hand-hewn and community-based feel but many of the stalls are more professionally organised than those I recall from previous visits. These are sturdy white-canopied structures, well set up with folding chairs and picnic lunches for the vendors.
There’s much to catch the visitor’s eye, from hand-painted shirts and sarongs to T-shirts daubed with bright blue Ulysses butterflies and tropical paintings and collages by local artist Cara Stevens. Organic lip balm, Thai massage, hairbraiding, jaunty garden gnomes in overcoats flashing their pink-painted willies, pots of bougainvillea and strelitzia on the flourishing plant stalls . . . such is the varied range.
With a new emphasis on self-catering accommodation in Port Douglas, many visitors to the markets are looking beyond the eclectic arts-and-crafts to provisions for holiday apartment kitchens. They want good, cheap local produce, with few food kilometres under its belt. Shopping bags are quickly filled with sunshine-yellow pineapples from Mareeba (a lowly $2 or $3, depending on size), bush tomatoes freshly torn from the stalk, spiky red dragon fruit (which looks more luscious than it tastes) and hydroponic rosemary, chives, lemongrass, basil and parsley from hilltop Kuranda, near Cairns.
With a week’s catering in mind, families are stocking up on jars of Gagarra honey in flavours such as blue gum, ironbark, grey box and macadamia; popular, too, are snack packets of dried pineapple strips and plump slices of preserved mango. Buttery little macadamia nuts, from the Wondaree plantation on the Atherton Tablelands, come in various guises, from biscuits to bags of loose nuts, available lightly salted or hickory smoked, coated with honey or smooth chocolate.
The fresh drinks stands — little more than tables set up at the rear of open-tray utes — do a roaring trade in sugarcane, coconut, orange and pineapple juices. At an oldfashioned ice-shaving machine, a chap wrings a handle with a huff and a puff and the slivers fall into cups where toppings in flavours such as sarsaparilla are spooned over the ice.
But for a satisfying lunch, one must venture a few steps afield. Port Douglas’s main thoroughfare of Macrossan Street, just across Wharf Street, is an eating parade to rival Noosa’s Hastings Street. It’s all here, from Thai and Japanese to pub grub and mod Oz. And what isn’t on Macrossan itself is just seconds removed: the two best off-Macrossan restaurants are Nautilus, an oasis on a hill that has been Port Douglas’s most famous restaurant for decades (climb up from Macrossan through a torrent of greenery), and seafood specialist 2 Fish, around the corner on Wharf Street.
Actor Tom Hanks, recently in town to film the Steven Spielberg miniseries The Pacific , has been spotted at Macrossan Street’s laid-back Table 41. Young chef-towatch Matthew Wild, formerly of Byron at Byron resort at NSW’s Byron Bay, is wowing diners at the bar-tapas-bistro hot spot, Bistro 3 on the corner of Wharf Street.
But I have a busy afternoon and must eat on the run. Mocka’s Pies, which started pastry-making in 1969, is such an institution that there is a council sign pointing to its new location.
Mocka’s is now on Grant Street; join the queue and pay $4.50 for a pastry casing of combos such as beef and peas, steak and kidney or curried lamb. Back on Macrossan, I eat my Mocka’s as I walk to my rental car; the street is full as marketgoers file back to their holiday accommodation. These days, there’s an Asian flair to proceedings; serviced units with brands such as Omkara, Sabaya and Mandalay are fast replacing classic Aussie names using coral, mango, tea tree and other tropical totems. (Good to see signs for a lazy lizard and a rusty pelican surviving amid the mix.)
I’m old enough to remember the excitement of road holidays, spotting motel signs announcing such thrilling inducements as televisions, waterbeds and dining rooms open until a naughty 8pm. These days, it’s all spas, private plunge pools and food-fusion fantasies.
Fish and chips on the pier is a stayer, though, as are those Mocka’s pies and sausage rolls. Pass a jar of that newfangled mango relish to spread over the batter or pastry and a glass of Shannonvale black sapote port to toast the tropics.