Eat your heart out
explores the hidden treasures and unexpected pleasures of the Coffs Coast region
THERE are many roads well travelled in pursuit of great food and wine experiences around Australia, but the NSW mid-north Coffs Coast has never really been at the forefront of people’s minds. So with the collective knowledge of friends in the region we map out a three-day, food-focused drive (with a glass of wine or two along the way), taking in Sawtell, Bellingen, Dorrigo, the Nambucca, Gladstone, South West Rocks and Port Macquarie. And what we find is a region rich in food heritage that should be high on any gourmet traveller’s must-do list.
Setting off from Coffs Harbour airport in a hire car, our first stop is the Coffs Coast Growers Market in the city square. Here, the tomatoes from Bromley’s at Nana Glen are so unbelievably red I take photos and the aroma of the Woolgooga samosas is so seductive I could easily pass on lunch.
Nevertheless, after checking out the many stalls, including the cheekily named A Bit on the Side, with a great range of chutneys and jams, we continue north of Coffs, turning off the Pacific Highway at the sign to Emerald Beach and Carole Walsh’s stylish Saltwater restaurant, set on the beachfront with a superb outlook across Marine Park to Groper Island. We tuck into a mezze plate of dips, olives and toasted flatbread, followed by a warm salad of squid, lemon, fennel and Dorrigo feta with verjuice dressing, before wandering next door to browse the eclectic array of paintings and jewellery at Greenstone Studio Gallery.
Just a clip down the highway at Sawtell, our home away from home is Sawtell on the Beach, a spacious two-storey apartment where a welcome cheese and fruit platter and a nice bottle of red prove irresistible. Little do we realise that this and our lunch, coupled with an extravagant dinner of soft shell crabs, tempura prawns, and pork and peanut parcels at Crying Tiger, on the Coffs Jetty strip, and a dessert tasting plate at nearby Piccolo of lemon tart with strawberries, pannacotta with berry coulis, tiramisu, chocolate nut cake and profiteroles, is just the tip of the iceberg.
The next morning, for starters, we tuck into a breakfast of field mushrooms, fresh farm eggs, organic tomatoes and bacon in Bellingen at the Elite Cafe Gallery run by Brian Clark, who used to live in Sydney’s Balmain.
You could write sonnets about the views and the World Heritage-listed rainforest around Bellingen and Dorrigo, west of Coffs, and home to a vibrant artistic community as well as an eclectic range of shops, cafes and restaurants. Here we meet Kevin Doyle at Kombu Wholefoods in Bellingen, an Aladdin’s cave of affordable and sustainable organic produce, more than half of which comes from local suppliers.
Since we opened, we have been keen to keep as much local product as possible,’’ Doyle says. It keeps prices down for our customers and significantly reduces transport costs.’’
Later we meet David Scott and Suzie Snodgrass at Waterfall Way Winery who produce boysenberry, persimmon and lime fruit wines; Kelly Cockern, who cooks up a tasty meatloaf at the delightful Ruby’s Cafe and Books, and Sonya Buck, who moved from Sydney to start the Dorrigo Sweet Shop.
I enjoy my minor celebrity among local children,’’ Buck says, smiling broadly. She says that in the street
they either follow me or point me out to their parents, That’s the lolly lady.’
In Raleigh, 22km from Coffs Harbour, we drink wine and taste cheese at Vinny Dingle’s Raleigh Winery and Vineyard on the Bellinger River, where Jeff Daley of the nearby Honey Place pours his limeinfused honey over Philadelphia cheese to good effect.
Heading into Nambucca Shire we find producers such as Dennis Ryan on his 41ha Valley of the Mist sustainable, organic bush fruits and nuts farm. He and his wife, Marilyn, show us through avenues of Davidson plums, macadamia trees, lemon myrtle, finger limes, riberries, lilli-pillis, aniseed myrtle and warrigal greens, tasting this and sniffing that, then cracking the macadamias in an antiquated machine.
From this bounty the Ryans make a delicious lillipilli dressing and crunchy macadamia chutney, in addition to other sauces, jams and marinades. It’s their bush tucker that is the secret ingredient in Dangerous Dan’s gourmet sausages; we get a taste in the Ryans’ famous bushman’s roll, which comes with Davidson plum sauce on one of their lunch tours. Dangerous Dan operates an award-winning butchery in Macksville, a town the locals call the sausage capital of NSW’’.
Meanwhile, at Jacaranda Country Lodge in Macksville, we dine with brothers Ian and Stuart Johnson on their Aabenraa prime beef. The Johnson family property, Aabenraa, is named after a small Danish village that was the ancestral family home. These third-generation farmers run a genuine operation of paddock to the plate and take pride in the high yield and flavour of their beef.
Another family-run operation is Bliss in the Bush, operated by sisters Angie and Jilly Hazelton at Turners Flat in the Macleay Valley.
Inside a huge corrugated-iron shed is a delightful cafe where comfy lounges and dining tables are surrounded by an diverse range of homewares, jewellery and gifts. Not only do they make a mean espresso and a superb arborio risotto with a soft cheese centre, their business is a salient reminder of the joys to be found when you take yourself off the beaten track.
Before arriving in South West Rocks for a night at the lovingly renovated 1880s Heritage Guest House, we stop in Gladstone on the banks of the Macleay River to explore the buildings in its splendidly restored main street. Our accommodation, in the heart of South West Rocks, run by Bob and Trish Ryan, is just around the corner from award-winning Geppy’s Seaside Restaurant, where we enjoy a nine-course degustation menu of seafood, game and Australian native produce.
Our final day begins with a walk around Smoky Cape Lighthouse and an amble through Trial Bay Goal, a public works prison from 1886-1903 and now a fascinating museum. Then it’s time for morning tea and a tour of Anthony and Richard Sarks’s Ricardoes Tomatoes in Port Macquarie. This state-of-the-art operation uses computerised technology in the greenhouses, where high-quality hydroponic tomatoes and pick-your-own strawberries are grown.
There is time for a cellar-door tour at the Cassegrain Winery then a glass of Champagne and a lovely tapas lunch with Lou Perri at the Stunned Mullet, which overlooks Port Macquarie’s Town Beach.
It’s the perfect finale to a memorable few days in a region filled with surprises. Jill Innamorati-Varley was a guest of the Mid North Coast Regional Tourism Organisation.
Coffs Coast Growers Market runs fortnightly from May to September and then weekly, on Thursdays, from October to April. More: Coffs Coast Visitor Information Centre, 1300 369 070. www.coffscoast.com.au www.atasteofcoffscoast.com.au www.nnsw.com.au www.midnorthcoastnsw.com.au www.qantas.com
Big day out:
The colourful Coffs Coast Growers Market, main picture; relishes and pickles from A Bit on the Side, right