Tasting the Tweed’s diverse foodie offerings
We're on a long weekend epicurean adventure in a golden triangle of uncrowded beaches, diverse farmland and remnant rainforest. But we're not in the south of France, the Italian Riviera or anywhere in Thailand.
Our foodie trail stretches across a relatively small area from just over the border in Tweed Heads, south to Cabarita Beach/Bogangar and west to Murwillumbah.
By car from the Queensland/NSW border, it's just under 30km long, and another 30km via the scenic route back on the Tweed Valley Way and heading west towards Wollumbin Mt Warning.
The leisurely drive allows us to take it down a notch and soak up views of dairy and small-crop farmland, cane fields, scenic beaches and valley townships including Casuarina, Cudgen and Tumblegum as well as the rainforest canopy at Urliup.
This was my late dad's stomping ground before World War II but I've never really paid it the respect it deserves as a tourism destination.
He didn't know it back then, but as a teenage fisherman working with "Old Joe" McLeod on the Tweed River, he was part of what we call today the Slow Food movement - businesses using sustainable practices and delivering high-quality locally sourced ingredients to kitchens within 50km. River and ocean to plate. Paddock to plate.
Today, I am surprised to discover the area's resurgence in authentic foodie experiences, innovative menu dishes and deliciously funky twists on traditional recipes.
The flavours really do champion the fact that "ultra fresh is best".
OSTERIA CASUARINA (1 Barclay Drive, Casuarina)
If you knew nothing more of Osteria than a casual observation of its popularity with the locals, that would be enough. But husband-and-wife Lia Mason and Mark Wilson plus best friend and partner Lee Middendorf are building a local foodie and wedding events empire under the banner of Perfect Last Bite Group of which Osteria is an important part. The name, they say, comes from "our love of the simplicity and the perfect emphasis placed on good food, wine and produce at all of the osterias found scattered throughout Italy". In what is considered a rural area, the trio is employing nearly 160 locals as staff for their restaurant, cafe, bakehouse, farm and wedding venue businesses. Events co-ordinator Isabel Sandor said the three were all former staff members of the earlier business, then called The Sandbar and Grill, and wanted to create a family dining venue with a strong paddock-to-plate philosophy for all its fruit, vegetables and meats when they took over in 2010. They have since upped the ante with worms and composting, an on-site herb garden and will soon add a produce garden to supply the freshest of ingredients to diners' plates. The renovated function room hosted 160 weddings (150 people sit-down and 200 stand up) last year, including 10 in 11 days over winter. Key to their increasing success at Osteria is Michelin-trained hatted chef Matt Kemp, the UK-born executive chef who wanted a lifestyle change after earning his stripes in London alongside Phillip Howard and as executive chef and restaurateur in various Sydney venues. https://osteriacasuarina.com.au/
BAKED AT ANCORA (118 Wharf Street, Tweed Heads)
A sister business to Osteria, Baked at Ancora is a Parisian-style bakehouse based in a repurposed building that was once part of Markwells Fisheries. From swings at tables indoors to a veranda right over the water and park bench seating under trees in the park, a more idyllic setting for a bakehouse can barely be imagined. Baked, which is open for breakfast and lunch from 6.30am-2pm (AEDT) daily, has just celebrated its first birthday and enjoys a strong local trade as well as visitors from the Tweed and those taking the short drive from the Gold Coast. Venue manager and front and back of house manager Ede Sandor says Italian head pastry chef Laura Gigliuto has been on a mission this past year to perfect her croissants. She produces 600 each Tuesday, after a three-day dough-making process, and they are baked fresh daily. Laura even makes the jams including raspberry and fig to go with them. Ede says they're best consumed straight out of the oven until about 10am. Also highly recommended for your morning coffee or afternoon tea are the delectable Snickers pie (salted caramel and peanut ganache) and the oh-so-light Citron Tart with lemon curd and meringue ("We've had it on the menu since we opened and we've tried to take it off but we have riots".)
Baked is also an emerging wedding venue of choice, with 150 held in its first year, catering for 140 on a sit-down menu and 150 cocktail-style. A brunch of an acai bowl (acai berries, strawberry and mango pulp blended with apple juice and frozen, super seeds and muesli mix) and fresh tropical fruit with an espresso will keep you going all day. Or perhaps try the roast pumpkin fritters (poached egg, avocado, parmesan shoots and herbs) or Tuscan eggs (two poached eggs, ham hock, borlotti beans, tomato sugo, pecorino fresco, rosemary and smoked chilli butter and sourdough soldiers). https://www.bakedatancora.com.au/
HUSK DISTILLERS (1152 Dulguigan Road, Tumbulgum)
It wouldn't look out of place in South Australia's Barossa, Western Australia's Margaret River or even NSW's Hunter Valley. Husk Distillers is part of a working family farm but its food-and-drinks area on any given weekend is home to small-group parties and larger functions, barbecues and outdoor games on the lawn and general merriment among mates, couples and families. Co-founder and distiller Paul Messenger took the brave step of creating Australia's first and only Agricole distillery after tasting Agricole rum on a family holiday to the French Caribbean. Visitors can take the walk-through tour of the production facility to learn about the unique process of using the farm's freshly crushed sugar cane juice (instead of molasses) in the tradition of the French Caribbean style but with significant differences in the fermentation process to create highly flavoursome Rhum Agricole for the Australian palate. The difference can largely be put down to geography. As Paul says on the website: " … our location in one of the world's deepest calderas - wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Gondwana Rainforest with its big daily and annual temperature changes makes our barrels work hard and dictates the maturation dynamics that help define our provenance. This is Australian Agricole Rum."
You'll also learn the politics behind why it can be marketed simply as rum anywhere in the world except Australia. Spend a leisurely afternoon in the beautiful rural setting over a "spiked" Bam Bam affogato coffee (vanilla ice cream, fresh espresso and 15ml of Husk Spiced Bam Bam) alongside a Husk Spiced Bam Bam Baked Choc Brownie (with pistachio, macadamia and caramel) or a refreshing glass of Ink Gin and tonic water garnished with a slice of blood orange. https://www.huskdistillers.com/
FUEL BAKEHOUSE CABARITA (39-45 Tweed Coast Road, Bogangar)
If it's great coffee, pastries, breads, light meals, gluten-free or vegan delights you're after, Fuel Bakehouse is your go-to in Cabarita/Bogangar. Try the vegan pulled pork baguette with slaw (yes, I said vegan), a gluten-free and vegan Snickers slice or perhaps a sandwich piled high with double Swiss cheese, corn beef, pickles, sauerkraut, homemade Russian dressing with sourdough bread. Sit outside alfresco or fuel up and walk a short distance to the beach for brekkie with a view. https://www.facebook.com/fuelbakehousecabarita/
FARM & CO. KINGSCLIFF (529 Cudgen Rd, Cudgen)
It took just one Instagram post of sunflowers to really put Farm & Co on the map. Now visitors from as far as interstate pay their $5 to gain entry to the sunflower fields and farm (complete with picnic tables and hammocks under the huge macadamia trees) for perhaps a lazy Sunday morning stroll and sunny social media snap. Michele Stephens (a trained paediatric nurse) and husband and GP Ian Kettle took over the working avocado and sweet potato farm in 2002, diversifying later into vegetables including tomatoes, capsicums and zucchini and becoming organic market gardens 12 years ago.
Michele says the sustainable business continues to grow sunflowers because "it makes people happy" as well as being high in nutrients to plough back into the soil for farming. The farm store has had a few incarnations since first being added 10 years ago and now the on-site vegan/vegetarian cafe allows diners to pleasantly gaze over the fields as they feast on dishes prepared using organic ingredients grown on the property, which now also boasts a menagerie of rescued pigs, chooks and calves. https://www.farmandco.com.au/
BACARO (1/1A Brisbane Street, Murwillumbah)
"In Venice, you stole a kiss from me to tweak my heart." These few lines on the menu allude to the passion behind Bacaro and the love that goes into everything prepared in its kitchen.
As we sip on Tessari Soave Classico La Grisela from Verona, Italy, on a romantic Saturday night dinner, we learn more about lovebird owners Giorgia and Luca Bassetto and the authentic Italian restaurant they opened in December last year.
Australia grew in Giorgia's heart over childhood summers spent with cousins already living in Murwillumbah. She made the decision to move permanently here on January 1, 2012.
In the meantime, in February 2011, she met Luca from Treviso near Venice (where prosecco comes from).
They fell in love and Luca came with her to their new life in Northern NSW.
Their restaurant within the M'Arts precinct in Brisbane St is a welcoming place with cosy inside dining plus chairs and tables undercover al-fresco-style outside.
Giorgia takes on wait staff and maitre d' duties, seating customers and explaining dishes, while ever-smiling Luca (who comes from a family of great cooks including mamma Rosa Gricole) comes out of the kitchen as often as possible to chat with guests.
Bacaro is the equivalent of a wine bar in Italy, and while it boasts an extensive range of wines from Italian regions as well as Australian selections, the food is where it excels.
Mushrooms in an Italian's hands always taste better and the Polenta Funghi did not disappoint. The breadcrumbed scallops in the shell come with ciabatta toast because you'll want to wipe up that pesto.
Hubbie was more than impressed with the handmade Tagliatelle (courtesy of Giorgia) with unashamedly simple yet tasty Bolognaise sauce as a main meal. But for me, the standout is the lighter-than-air handmade gnocchi (also courtesy of Giorgia) with gorgonzola, garlic butter and the crunch of walnuts.
"We try to make it like we do at home - nothing fancy," Luca says of the gnocchi.
And with his homemade limoncello, we say "salute" to a perfect end to our day. It's been well worth the drive.
PAPER DAISY (in Halcyon House, 21 Cypress Crescent, Cabarita Beach)
It's the type of menu, wine list and service you'd expect as an award-winning two-hatted restaurant. But perhaps Paper Daisy's greatest strengths are its accessibility, laid-back atmosphere and affordability.
Beside the Halcyon House resort pool, in an enviable position at absolute beachfront in Cabarita, the restaurant is open for a walk-in breakfast, casual lunch and exceptional dinner - just a stroll from the main shopping hub on Tweed Coast Road.
Bookings are much easier to procure than most respected restaurants in any city but that doesn't take anything away from the skills of executive chef Jason Barrett and his team.
Pre-dinner drinks at the open-air bar with stacker windows or under fairy lights on the undercover veranda are a must to take in views of the Pacific Ocean beyond the pandanus trees.
Gazing into the vintage-style restaurant full of guests engrossed in conversation - and whose eyes light up with every dish brought by the industrious staff in a constant circuit from the kitchen to the tables - sets up anticipation for what's to come.
Its website says the ethos that drives Paper Daisy "is one of sophisticated simplicity, producing dishes that are satisfying, thoughtful and deeply memorable" and our Saturday night experience was testament to that.
Quality local produce and sustainably sourced seafood dominate the menu and especially our choices of entree: in-house made macaroni with king prawn, bush tomato and crab butter (including dehydrated king prawn legs for extra crunch - $29) and a very artistic-looking local fish crudo, fennel, orange, roe and garden herbs ($23).
That continued in the mains: the delicate smokiness of the kelp-baked thick Cobia fillet with lemon butter and coastal herbs ($39) and simply grilled snapper, spring vegetables and lemon balm (market price) with a host of flavours through the baby asparagus, fennel, baby beets, baby carrots and zucchini - all brought together by the sauce.
And don't think you can't eat another bite when light dessert menu items such as the blueberry, passionfruit and lemon basil meringue ($17) or the lemon aspen and macadamia tart ($16) beckon.
Tropical Fruit World, 29 Duranbah Rd, Duranbah. the world's largest selection of tropical fruits in the one location. The property will keep the family entertained for hours with gardens, Plantation cafe, a jungle boat cruise, tractor train ride, and gift market including natural food and beauty products. Visit www.tropicalfruitworld.com.au
Mistere Spa and Retreat, 1110 Urliup Road, Urliup: three villas (Waterfall, Fountain View, Mountain View) in the rainforest canopy. https://misterespaandretreat.com/branches/mistere-at-urliup/
The Hideaway Cabarita Beach, 2 Tweed Coast Road, Cabarita Beach (corner Cypress Crescent): Australia's first glamping resort by the sea. Visit https://www.hideawaycabaritabeach.com.au