There’s a mantra that’s gaining momentum: local produce is king. It seems to be an all-pervasive mantra and is no longer a niche philosophy reserved for the progressive and early adopters. It’s one that is being increasingly repeated from market stall to kitchen tables; from small diners to fine dining kitchens where menus proudly tout their support for local produce playing to the growing band of mainstream discerning foodies who care from where their food is being sourced. And all the better for diners I say. On a recent sponsored trip down to the South Coast and Southern Highlands, that’s exactly what was being showcased – stunning food and wine championing local fresh produce and the producers behind it. Given I’ve only had positive experiences and memorable food adventures down the South Coast I jumped at the chance.
Usually a short and accessible 2 hour drive from Sydney, fighting the Friday work week exodus from the Sydney CBD unfortunately meant a long and slow traffic laden drive but lively banter with @joannasavill, @GourmetTweets, @donnahay_tweets, @FoodWineTravel amongst others ensured I was well distracted during the trip. When we were finally delivered us to our destination, I was tired and famished. Luckily for us, James Viles and the team at Biota Dining had an impressive welcome feast in store for us.
As we’d arrived a few hours later than intended, weary and ravenous, we skipped formalities and got down to business at the dining table where we found a welcome gift awaiting us of Biota kitchen sauces and sweet treats in a pebble filled terracotta pot. Given the trend towards edible dirt and flower arrangements at some notable high end restaurants, I did poke the pebbles for due diligence – just to confirm they weren’t edible rocks in disguise.
We start with a plank of trout jerky, impaled on a skewer wedged into a chunk of Himalayan salt – pungently oily with delicate notes of mandarin and truffle. This was quickly followed by the first course and one of my favourites from the night – a firm sheet of sheep’s milk curd masquerading as a sheet of fresh pasta topped with a golden soft boiled yolk, crumbled rye and dotted with spheres of egg white. Finished at the table with shavings of fresh black truffle, it was the “ultimate catch”: rich, decadent and very easy on the eye. Rounding out the entrees was the cuttlefish, another favourite from the night – tender and a powerfully aromatic offering, the cuttlefish cloaked in that distinctive grilled cuttlefish flavour paired with the fresh flavours and textures of sea lettuce and cucumber.
The mains were heralded by a beautifully presented dish of veil tail, delicately shrouded with a sheer sorghum veil. Very whimsical, like a bride’s veil with field flowers in her hair and I almost didn’t want to touch it, lest I break the veil. But the tender veal tail beckoned, interestingly matched with sweet prunes. I presume that the kitchen deliberately chose field clovers to match the veal and play on the ideas of fields and grazing, but they added an odd grassy herbaceous touch. Perhaps wood sorel might have been a more apt choice?
I was well sated at this point, but still had to get through another main and desserts. The pork neck was a rich, unctuously savoury offering, paired with a scattering of forest fern fronds and adorable baby king brown mushrooms. I’m wary of baby king brown mushrooms as the few times I’ve attempted to use them at home I’ve found they impart an unpleasant, frown-inducing soapiness to the dish. Thankfully, there was no such unpleasantness here. The pork neck dish was quite rich and savoury for my full and well-assaulted palate but salvation came in the form of the delightfully light and refreshing mandarin jelly and champagne sorbet palate cleanser. Refreshing enough to allow me to contemplate the dessert – the sweetened grass milk, peanut and poppy seed encrusted hops icecream offering – deliciously tactile and peanutty, like an adult’s-only version of Reese’s peanut butter cup cookies.
Unfortunately after long day at work, a long drive and a long meal, I was dead on my feet and could barely keep the food coma at bay. I don’t feel I did Biota’s last few offerings justice – I was in the throes of the dreaded “Friday Night Stupor“, an oft ignored common condition that I am particularly susceptible to, known in some circles as simply “grandma syndrome”, and I just wanted to go to sleep. I must go back to Biota when I’m not half asleep to try more of their menu. I was more than a wee bit happy when we finally rolled back to the luxurious Gibraltar Hotel for a blissful night’s instant sleep.
Once revitalized, refreshed and feeling more humane, the next morning began with a re-visit to Biota to explore the restaurant grounds during daylight hours so we could appreciate the restaurant grounds. James greeted us with a much needed cup of coffee and showed around, his pride in his project clearly palpable. Having worked in fine dining kitchens in Dubai, where the opposite of a local produce philosophy exists and every single ingredient used in the kitchens was flown in from the far reaches of the earth for the discerning rich and the obscenely beyond rich, James developed an intense appreciation and lust for local produce. As Dubai famously is an oasis situated in the middle of a unproductive dessert wasteland, it has the highest carbon footprint in the world so it’s not hard to share James’ passion – such was the impetus and inspiration behind Biota Dining. The tour of Biota’s kitchen garden took on infinitely more meaning then as James showed us healthy his little greenhouse packed with thriving micro herbs and greens in garden beds.
A large pond fed from a natural spring completes the idyllic scene. Perfect, crow worthy and I couldn’t help but nodding in appreciation and understanding how the tree change can be so appealing for so many urban dwellers. The resident guard geese felt it was clearly worth protecting – to the death as it were. Large birds can be intimidating – but large and openly aggressive birds more so. I hadn’t realised that geese hiss like angry cut snakes when they’re angry – a most disconcerting discovery and they sounded like they were desperately willing themselves to transform into fire breathing serpents so they could destroy us. Oh how scary can geese be, you say, and away from the situation I could put on my science hat and say the same, but when there is a large bird snapping at your ankles, somehow the adrenalin kicks in anyway and I had to resist the overwhelming urge to squeal like a girl and run.
We finally stopped giving the geese high blood pressure and left with James to visit Redleaf Farm, one of the local producers and suppliers to Biota. It’s just 10 minutes down the road he assured us and “a country 10 minutes” later (about half an hour later) we arrived. Within seconds, it was clear the animal theme was going to continue. There were a lot of diverse animals at Redleaf most were more than happy to ignore us and go about their daily business – some like the pigs, lambs and cows were evidently more useful and productive than say the ornamental albino white peacock.
“He’s so dumb”, confessed owner Katrina Sparkes, “He’s like Ken – a himbo. At dusk we have to find him and put in the shed for safety. If we don’t, he won’t move and because he’s a glowing white beacon at night, the foxes will get him.”
I eyed the dead crow strung up by its leg nervously – it was like some menacing primeval threat – one not out of place in a medieval scene and Katrina explained that it was to keep the other crows and birds of prey at bay and prevent them from attacking the spring lambs.
In my peripheral vision, I could detect lightning quick flashes of black colour zipping around the perimeter of the fencing. Piglets on the run. The other girls squealed in excitement and started chasing the piglets around the yard. Once caught, we learned with some spontaneous, involuntary eye wincing and ear drum bleeding where the expression “squealing like a pig” comes from. Pigs possess extraordinary vocal cords that at full volume could probably pass for a formidable long range sonar device and blast the underwear off enemy lines.
I left the squealing pig calamity grimacing to seek sanctuary in Sparkes’ greenhouse where I find James industriously pilfering snow pea flowers and with the others we head down to the creek where an amazing playground awaited. The Sparkes kids clambered all over the strung up tractor tyre demanding to be pushed ever higher. An inviting jetty doubled as a launching runway into the water, which was no doubt teeming with yabbies. I could imagine so many lazy summers wiled away in the dappled shade and just then the tree change urge tugged at my sleeve a little more insistently.
Before I fell in love with Redleaf any more we continued on our animal discovery theme and ventured on to Millpaca Farm, one of a few alpaca farms along the South Coast. Ian Frith was there waiting and welcomed us heartily to his farm and showed us some of his alpaca flock. He explained that alpacas were either bred for their luxuriously soft wool or for meat (basically those that don’t make the very premium standards demanded of wool are thus bred for meat). As an owner of a few ludicrously soft alpaca neck hair wool scarves, I certainly appreciated the effort they put into protecting the precious wool source stock. I smiled fondly at the alpacas and my smile was met with an unblinking expressionless still stare. The girls around me cooed with delight. The black alpaca was still holding my gaze and I broke the gaze first – you win alpaca, you’re positively creepy. I don’t remember the alpacas we found all over the South American countryside and in Peru on the slopes of Machu Picchu being as creepy. I put it partly down to their motionless inactive state and partly down to my previous life as a scientist and working with mice. There was something very intimately familiar about that motionless inky black stare. It was usually preceded with a small black mouse launching itself viciously onto my fingers.
Look at the photo below – stare into those inky black eyes for a few minutes and tell me you’re not feeling creeped out too.
Before the alpaca staring contest got any creepier we were whisked away to attend the opening of Wharf Rd Restaurant and Bar. After 4 years of success running the Hungry Duck restaurant in Berry, David and Nicole Campbell have launched this decidedly stylish new establishment overlooking the water at Nowra wharf. We’re told by some of the attending locals that it was high time that Nowra had something like Wharf Rd.
The design and décor was somewhere between a comfortably slick whitewashed boatshed with covetable nautical and industrial elements. I loved their feature light bulbs. The so-called VIP area featured expansive views over the water and a sun drenched French style window seat piled high in alpaca furs – just the place to lounge in the sun and down a cocktail or two.
The private dining room was equally noteworthy with an imposing “window” into a meat larder display framed by Himalayan salt bricks. The lean alpaca carcass with its long neck bent over in a surreal manner was fascinatingly hard to ignore.
The menu is South American inspired and though I sadly didn’t get any photos of the canapés on offer – the food was delicious – particularly the seafood items. I might have had thirds of the slightly spicy, seriously moreish ceviche – the Wharf Rd version of ceviche was more akin to the Japanese inspired tiradito ceviche popular in Argentina; and their fish taco I ate copious amounts of unashamedly, seeking it out when everyone else had migrated onto dessert.
The final stop on our trip was a quick pit stop at David’s Hungry Duck restaurant in Berry for a “light dinner” – as though after 2 days of non-stop feeding we actually needed any more food. The restaurant has a truly impressive kitchen garden that puts inner city planter box sized kitchen gardens to rueful shame. I’d be very happy with a garden of this size, but of course, David himself lives on several hundred acres of land. Ironically, with the influx of Sydney siders seeking a tree change or just an accessible holiday home outside of Sydney, Berry has the odd real estate situation where several acres of land are actually far more expensive than several hundred acres since there is great demand for a few acres, very little demand for several hundred acres.
Over dinner, David regaled us with tales about how operating a “country” establishment had its rewards and challenges and how being fastidious with local produce also came with its own challenges. Since starting his own kitchen garden, he now understands the stronghold Mother Nature has on primary producers and the difficulty in producing ingredients on time reliably for demanding restaurateurs. For example, a warm spell lasting a few days might mean all the crops mature a week earlier than expected or conversely that a strong westerly blows all the flowers off the plants and decimates the crop. From his own experiments in his kitchen garden, he now affords the same patience and tolerance to his producers and suppliers. Oh, and they lied about it being a light dinner. I fell into yet another food coma, just in time to be whisked home to Sydney.
The Southern showcase was very enjoyable and a real eye opener – it gave me a distinct sense of strong camaraderie within the small Southern community, where both the restaurateurs and primary producers were openly accommodating and supportive of each other; flexing and bending to enable each to run their businesses profitably. And the passion and belief in local produce was palpable from everyone we met. It’s very difficult not to be caught up in someone’s enthusiasm and zeal, their passion was infectious and definitely made me both appreciate local produce and the challenges of choosing local produce over more accessible mass produced goods. It’s a laudable effort I wish I had in my immediate neighbourhood – those South Coast locals are the lucky beneficiaries here. But then, given I routinely drive an hour out west to visit my family and the culinary delights of suburbs like Cabramatta, 2 hours from Sydney is really still in my “neighbourhood”.
Kangaloon Road, Bowral NSW
Tel: (02) 4862 2005; email: i...@biotadining.com
Open Mon, Thurs, Fri and Sat for lunch and dinner; Sun for brunch, lunch and dinner. Closed Tues and Wed.
Wharf Road Restaurant and Bar
10 Wharf Road, Nowra
Tel: (02) 4422 6651; email: enqu...@wharfrd.com.au
Dining Room open for lunch Tues – Sun; dinner Tues – Sun from 6pm
Bar open for lunch from Tues – Fri from noon; dinner Tues – Fri from 6pm; open all day Sat and Sun.
85 Queen Street Berry
Tel: (02) 4464 2323; email: book...@hungryduck.com.au
Open for dinner Wed – Mon from 6pm, closed on Tues.
Centennial Road & Boronia Street, Bowral
Tel: (02) 4862 8600; email: rese...@gibraltarbowral.com.au
Farm stays coming soon
Mill Creek, 286 Tindalls Lane, Berry NSW
Farm stays available.