On a road trip down the Sapphire Coast in NSW, MAGGIE SCARDIFIELD checks in on a wave of savvy bakers, distillers, brewers and restaurateurs to get a taste of the region.
Maggie Scardifield gets a taste of NSW’s Sapphire Coast.
I’ve been making G&Ts wrong this whole time. This realisation comes while sitting on the deck at Stony Creek Farm, five-anda-half-hours drive south of Sydney. It’s here that distiller Gavin Hughes and his partner Karen Touchie make their small-batch North of Eden gins from a farm shed turned distillery. “If you fill the glass with tonic, all you’re going to taste is tonic,” says Hughes. “We do just 60ml tonic, 30 of gin.” It’s a revelation. And something I never would’ve expected to discover in country New South Wales.
The pristine Sapphire Coast in NSW stretches roughly from Moruya to Eden, with a swag of heritage, hinterland and beachside towns in between including Central Tilba, Bermagui, Tathra, Bega and Pambula. It’s known as Australia’s premier oystergrowing region, but thanks to a host of savvy bakers, distillers, brewers, restaurateurs and small-scale farmers, there’s a lot more than oysters to savour.
I start my week-long food safari at the communityrun Sage Farmers’ Markets in Moruya. Every Tuesday afternoon many of the Eurobodalla and Bega Valley Shire’s most dedicated growers congregate on the riverbank to sell their produce. Floppy-hat-wearing locals gather in front of their favourite stalls in anticipation of the 3pm brass bell; nothing can be sold before it rings. I eye a table laid with handfuls of tender garlic scapes, and wonder what to do with them. I’m swiftly handed a bunch.“Try them out, fall in love and I’ll see you next week,” says the grower. Another producer tosses me an orange with a wink. Later in my fully equipped tiny house at Tilba Lake Camp, I squeeze the citrus over the scapes with a slug of local olive oil, and toss them through broad beans from Turlinjah, and the sweetest florets of broccolini grown nearby in Tuross Head.
An hour south, the vibrant game-fishing town of Bermagui has become its own food and coffee mecca. One of the most sought-after addresses is Bunga Street. There, Steve Hope runs his café, Mister Hope, after moving to Bermagui from Castlemaine, Victoria, five years ago. “It’s the most incredible way of life here,” he says. “The beaches and environment are so beautiful, so why shouldn’t the food scene be just as good.”
The daytime trade at Mister Hope is all about dark-roasted Fair Trade beans from Hyper Hyper in Nowra alongside local eggs and bagels, and by night, it’s an intimate speakeasy vibe with boutique Australian gins, absinthe and the pop-up cinema, Electric Hope. “We put about 35 chairs in, project something special and serve local wines, fancy popcorn and homemade choc-tops,” says Hope. “The 1934 L’Atalante by Jean
Vigo was the inaugural film. It’s lyrical and romantic. And who doesn’t need more of that in their life?”
A few doors up, at artisan bakery Honorbread, former Sydneysiders Honor and Tim Northam bake slow-fermented sourdough and seasonal pastries using organic flour and heritage grains. “We loved Sydney. But our bigger want had always been to try living in a small community,” says Honor.
The couple built a loyal following for their baked goods as the owners of Il Passaggio, an Italian restaurant on the Fishermen’s Wharf. They sold the restaurant to focus on baking full-time, and have been at the sunny Bunga Street site for four years. The next step is taking over the vacant block next door where they’ll install a woodfired oven for baking bread, a pétanque court to help build community, and a garden of Bermagui native plants including acacia, wattle and kangaroo grass. Up the road, the Bermagui Preschool has its Moodji Cultural Garden, where children grow crops that were traditionally farmed in the region by Yuin people, including yams and oat grass.
North of Eden takes a similarly hyper-local approach to making their London Dry-style gins. They’ve distilled oyster shells, kelp from Mystery Bay, and in their
Classic gin, the farm’s homegrown native finger lime provides the citrus backbone. The Classic took home a silver medal at the world-renowned International Wine & Spirit Competition in London last year, only nine months after the duo had made their first commercially distilled gin. The North of Eden cellar door and Gin School is due to open shortly, where students can choose their own botanicals and craft a bespoke gin, in less than a day’s work.
I’m two G&Ts and a Breakfast Martini down, the latter stirred with Karen’s homemade cumquat marmalade. A full-time sea change right now is too much to fathom. But somewhere north of Eden, it seems, is a good place to get a taste.
I eye a table with tender garlic scapes, and I’m swiftly handed a bunch. Another producer tosses me an orange with a wink.
Alfresco Coffee Roasters
This coffee shop blends, roasts and road-tests their beans in-house, so it’s no wonder lines form fast at the large front window. Single Os from Central and South America, Africa, Indonesia and beyond, plus 30-odd loose-leaf teas make it hard to decide. 15b Church St, Moruya, alfrescocoffee.com.au
Monarch Hotel Motel
Did you know granite from Moruya Quarry was used to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge? Grab a beer, throw something on the free jukebox, and browse the fascinating photographs in the cedarclad bar. 50 Vulcan St, Moruya, monarchmotel.com.au
Sage Farmers’ Market
Tension builds as shoppers wait for the 3pm bell, then collect award-winning jersey milk, seafood, fruit and vegetables from local farmers with soil on their boots and plenty of heart. 3pm Tuesdays, Riverside Park, Moruya, sagefarmersmarket.org.au
Tilba Lake Camp
Tilba Lake Camp spans a picturesque B&B (Tilba Lake House), luxe bell tents and two tiny “pod” cabins, each with their own views of mountains, sea and stars. The pods are equipped with outdoor firepits, loft-style beds and full kitchens for cooking up your market haul. 64 Sunnyside Rd, Central Tilba, tilbalakecamp.com.au; tilbalakehouse.com.au
What was once a petrol station and general store is now a charming eatery run by French native Patricia Coutant. Deeply savoury buckwheat galettes crowned with off-the-bone ham, Tilba Real Dairy cheese and local eggs are the star attraction, along with impressive cakes and madeleines. 266 Corkhill Dr, Tilba Tilba
Tilba Valley Winery & Ale House
This easy-going watering hole overlooks rows of gewürztraminer and chardonnay, and the pretty Corunna Lake. A hearty ploughman’s is a great match for the estate’s wines or experimental homebrews such as a bright lemongrass and lime sour. 947 Old Hwy, Corunna, tilbavalley.com.au
Tilba Real Dairy Cheese Factory
Nic and Erica Dibden are behind Tilba Real Dairy, where you can pick up more than 25 different cheeses – spiked with everything from Bredbo black garlic to Mystery Bay kelp. The cheese is made with jersey milk from their own farm, and the milkshakes are gamechangers. 37 Bate St, Central Tilba, tilbarealdairy.com
This buzzy Italian at the end of the Fishermen’s
Wharf still cranks thanks to stellar produce that is deftly handled. Crisp pizze, thoughtful seasonal pastas, welcoming staff and affordable Italian wines. Shop 5, 73-79 Lamont St, Bermagui, ilpassaggio.com.au
Go for the sourdough, stay for the seasonal pastries and pétanque. There’s the poppyseed-crusted tiberke, danishes topped with the likes of cumquat and goat’s cheese, and the kardemummabullar – a sticky, delicious mess of cinnamon and cardamom. 8 Bunga St, Bermagui, honorbread.com
Bagels stuffed with locally-smoked pastrami or salmon. Gin, art-house cinema and the owner’s “Word of the Week”. This thoughtful café might be pint-sized but it has more than a double-shot of personality. 4 Bunga St, Bermagui
Boneless Vegetarian Cafe
Tenzin Butt and partner Emily King used to make hemp smoothies out of Tenzin’s parents’ Gulaga Gallery in Central Tilba. The next chapter is Boneless, where the smoothies still rock, but so does the mushroom okonomiyaki and crisp cauliflower tacos. 1/14 Lamont St, Bermagui
The Bermagui Beach Hotel
Even after its major refresh, the old barflies flock to this landmark pub for beers overlooking Horseshoe Bay Beach. With a new bistro and a bottle shop that doesn’t skimp on local spirits and wine, it’s ripe for summer.
10 Lamont St, Bermagui, bermaguibeachhotel.com.au
Eastwood’s Deli and Cooking School
Former River Cottage Australia producer and Ballymaloe-trained chef Kelly Eastwood has cooked for Bill Gates, the Duchess of Cornwall and more than a few Saudi princes in her time. But it’s her gingery breakfast congee, seasonal bomboloni and round-theworld weekly dinner series that are worthy of the paps. 1/26 Bunga St, Bermagui, eastwoodsbermagui.com.au
Tathra Hotel Bistro & Humpback Brewery
Turning the pokies room into a microbrewery is one way to get the community talking – and drinking! The house beers now take playful names such as Killer Pilsner and First Calf Pale, inspired by the historic pub’s other regulars, spotted off the headland. 8-12 Bega St, Tathra, tathrahotel.com.au; humpbackbrewery.com.au
The Wharf Local
There’s no kitchen proper, but sister-act Emma and Poppy Benton work wonders with a sandwich press on Tathra’s historic wharf (hello, pesto and avocado toast with flowers from Poppy’s yard). A booze license is imminent, but beware: the ceramics in the café’s shop might be hard to say no to after a few Spritzes. Tathra Wharf, Wharf Rd, Tathra, thewharflocal.com.au
The linen is In Bed. The pantry is properly stocked with artisan tea, biccies and spices. And a wattleseed bath soak has your name on it. It’s these thoughtful touches that make an overnight stay at Seatons feel a lot longer. 43 Wildlife Dr, Tathra, seatonstathra.com
Wild Orchid Cafe
Beanbags and brollies and zingy juices. And easybreezy lunches, such as herby local flathead with avocado and Asian slaw. Everything about this laidback corner café says “you’re on local time now”.
1/29 Andy Poole Dr, Tathra, wildorchidtathra.com
When Arthur and Dulcie Goodsell built this weatherboard cottage on Merimbula’s Main Street in 1925, they probably never envisaged that, one day, there’d be a vintage Carapark caravan in their front yard slinging the best milk-bar style burgers in town. The good news? There is. 60 Main St, Merimbula, dulcies.com.au
Captain Sponge’s Magical Oyster Tour
Friends call Brett “Sponge” Weingarth the Crocodile Dundee of the oyster world. A two-hour tour on his camo-clad oyster punt includes Sydney Rocks plucked straight from the leases, Indigenous history and loads of charisma. Pambula Lake Jetty & Boat Ramp, Landing Rd, Pambula Lake, magicaloystertours.com.au
Longstocking Brewery and Oyster Bar
Settle in. There’s at least 10 Longstocking brews on tap to try – one week a spritzy lager made with Champagne yeast, the next a cranberry and homegrown coriander-seed gose. Add Pambula Lake oysters and pizze from the outdoor woodfired oven, and you’re off! 3546 Princes Hwy, Pambula, longstocking.com.au
Former Zanzibar owners Huw Jones and Renée Loftus have opened Banksia in the historic bank on Pambula’s high street. The vault is now stocked with wine, and Jones’s weekly changing three-course set menu is worth every penny. 22 Quondola St, Pambula Village, banksiarestaurant.com.au
Toast is just the ticket for repeat visits, with ONA coffee (plus the option to “make it boozy”) and wild mushroom and spelt porridge at brunch, and the likes of white anchovies on toast with local spirits at night. 3/25 Quondola St, Pambula
North of Eden Cellar Door, Stony Creek Farm Distillery They turned their shed into a distillery, and now the cellar door has a gin school. Cumquat, orange and fig leaf, or lemon, lavender and pepperberry? It’s all there for the picking. 13594 Princes Hwy, Stony Creek, northofeden.com.au
Clockwise from above: a lifesaver at Tathra Beach; oysters farmed in Merimbula; Alfresco Coffee Roasters, Moruya; Mister Hope owner Steve Hope; water views, Bermagui. PREVIOUS PAGES Left: a scene in Tilba. Right: Bermagui’s Blue Pool.
Clockwise from top left: wholewheat sourdough at Honorbread, Bermagui; vegan tacos at Boneless Vegetarian Cafe, Bermagui; Tilba views; Honorbread. Opposite: coastal views, Bermagui.
Above, from top: Stony Creek Farm; North of Eden’s The Classic gin; North of Eden distiller Gavin Hughes with his highland cow. Opposite, clockwise from top left: Wild Orchid Cafe, Tathra; Dulcie’s Cottage, Merimbula; views over Merimbula Wharf.