I’m beginning to enjoy getting out to see more of the state I call home. New South Wales. It’s my birth state, I’ve lived here – on and off – for most of my life, and I’ve merely scratched its surface. I may always consider visiting other countries more exciting, but taking a look at what’s in my backyard has given me more of an appreciation of the places that can easily be done as a day trip from Sydney.
Spending time at Bannisters gave us the excuse to build a weekend around it; time to explore and see what goes on in the towns around the coast and Southern Highlands.
The towns that are dotted throughout the highlands have their own unique flavour. Some are geared for the tourist dollar whilst others just plod along and do their own thing. There’s something about the small village of Berrima that makes you want to stop, take a breather and linger for a while. Our visit barely spanned an hour but getting out and walking around the few streets revealed a town with gorgeous colonial character, some interesting shops, eateries and lovely old buildings.
The Little Hand-Stirred Jam Shop is a nifty little place for anyone that likes the sweet stuff. In fact, there are two jammers that dominate the village, with Mrs Oldbucks Pantry being the other contender. However we didn’t get there. Between them there are hundreds of preserves and honeys to choose from. Someone hand me a scone!
Speaking of scones, I’m sure many could have been eaten at the “Oldest bakery in Austiala”. Well that’s what the sign said (see below). I’m just curious as to where Austiala is.
A couple of minutes drive north of Berrima is Bendooley Estate. It’s a vineyard, function space, even home to the Berkelouw Book Barn where you can sit and relax with a beer, vino or tasty meal amongst the books. Bendooley Bar & Grill seemed like the perfect contender for a relaxed lunch. And what a gorgeous spot to do it. Surrounded by rolling hills, flame trees and grape vines that glowed all shades of yellow and gold when the sun hit them.
The menu has a bit of an Italian inflection, covering the likes of cracker-thin wood-fired pizzas, stuff from the grill, seafood, pasta and some Aussie cheeses. We started with local duck breast (24) – barely lukewarm, sliced and topped with tomatoes, leaves, lychees and a palm sugar vinaigrette. I couldn’t help but get the charcuterie plate (26) – a collection of house-made duck sausage, prosciutto, cornichons, fig chutney, cauliflower pickle and wood-fired flatbread. The absolute star of the board was the duck parfait. Impossibly creamy and beyond delicious.
And then there’s the confit of Thermidore duck Maryland (34), served over lentil ragù, two gorgeous hunks of braised pork belly and a few boozy vin santo prunes. Great stuff.
Cutting southeast past the Meryla State Forest, and just before the road begins its winding decent into Kangaroo Valley, is where Yarrunga Creek plunges down an 82 metre escarpment into the densely forested valley below. Fitzroy Falls is a great spot for bush walking, brushing up on local flora and potentially spotting a platypus or some other native wildlife.
Driving from the north, the first village you hit is the blink-and-miss-it Barrengarry, a tiny village that’s really only known for one thing – although the locals may think otherwise. The folk that own the Kangaroo Valley Pie Shop in the Barrengarry Old Store have clearly travelled the world and tried every pie available. Man, what a task! It’s here in little old Barrengarry that you can sample “The world’s best pie”. It’s the only thing that made me do a hasty u-turn and stop for some culinary investigating.
The shop itself is pretty cute. A little old world colonial with dim lighting and shelves stacked with sweets, preserves, honey and a lovely collection of dust-collecters that would look smashing in any nanna’s display cabinet. And then there are the pies. Snuggled in a heated cabinet is bunch of varieties filled with classics like curried veg, creamy chicken, steak & mushroom and the good old traditional Aussie. We go for a beef & red wine and a traditional Aussie (6.9), grab a seat by lacy curtains in the side room and take our first bite. Not bad. Actually, they’re quite good. The pastry is a bit on the thin and floppy-side, but as the world’s best pies, they were decent.
The lovely little town of Kangaroo Valley is a mere couple of minutes from Barrengarry, across the old suspended wood and stone Hampden Bridge. At this point it was late morning on Anzac Day and just after crossing the bridge the traffic came to a stand-still. We soon learned the highway had been closed to allow the Anzac parade to take place, which is fine, but sitting in the car for an hour to wait for it to finish was testing the patience of many commuters. One day we’ll get back to Kangaroo Valley to see it properly, but all we wanted to do was get past the traffic and hundreds of people and get to the next town.
This town is a bit of a magnet for city folk that want to escape the hustle and join the throngs of like-minded people – jostling for a table at a café, waiting for an ice cream or ordering some pub grub at the kitchen counter. Weekends, public and school holidays mean one thing. It’s going to get hectic.
The main drag is scattered with lovely old buildings, a couple of pubs, gift shops, gelato bars, you name it. Speaking of pubs …
… it was time for lunch.
The thing that drew me to the Berry Hotel was a sign advertising an alpaca burger (18.5) – a meat I haven’t eaten since spending time in Peru. Time for a revisit, methinks! It’s the type of Aussie pub I have a soft spot for. No glitzy renovations; just a good old pub with character, decent beers to choose from and, of course, a restaurant.
Back to that burger, all we have is a simple Turkish roll loaded with rocket, roasted tomato, cheese, caramelised onion and an alpaca patty laced with black pepper and a little red wine. As a burger it’s ok, nothing life-changing, just a relatively dry meat patty that heavily relies on those tomatoes for some moisture.
Our other choice was the tapas plate (17.5) – toasted Turkish bread, those same roasted tomatoes, dolmades, felafels, olives and a mystery chickpea dip. A pretty standard choice.
A couple of blocks away is the other pub in town – the Great Southern Hotel. With a rooftop curiously baring three surf boats, this watering hole boasts a great wrap-around veranda with plenty tables to sit and get stuck into afternoon beers whilst watching the people traffic. There is a bistro inside that covers pub classics like a seafood basket, nachos, schnitzel and chicken parmigiana. Not that we lingered for dinner. Although the “juicy t-bone with prawns” was tempting.
Down the other end of the main drag is LEAF (Love Eating Asian Food). The restaurant makes use of Berry’s old post and telegraph office that was built in 1886, offering several dining areas inside and out on the wrap-around veranda. The menu is Thai-centric but there are a couple of Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese-style additions as well.
Starters involved the LEAF canapé (12.5) where you can choose any four toppings – crisp pork belly, smoked Atlantic salmon, Peking duck or fresh prawns. It was two each of the pork and duck for us, mixed with a rather dry-yet-tasty rubble of shredded coconut, onion, ginger, lemongrass and pine nuts.
The Peking duck pancakes (10.9) come pre-wrapped and contain shredded meat that’s already mixed with hoi sin and plum sauce, plus a few sticks of veg.
It may have looked like a hot sloppy mess on the plate, but the stuffed squid (22.9) had oodles of flavour. Oodles of garlic, in particular. The menu declared the squid to be “seared”, but what you get is a couple of battered and fried squid tubes filled with pork, spices and herbs. It’s all doused with a mildy-spiced chilli sauce that rapidly transforms the crisp batter to sop that begins to fall from the squid.
The nights special was the Thai-style pork ribs (25.9); a rather impressive pile of more-meat-than-bone with a beautiful chilli kick. A superfluous salad of leaves and capsicum sits to the side.
To finish, we shared the I scream in the dark (8.9) – a satisfying bowl of black sesame ice cream with black sticky rice and toasted shredded coconut.
Dessert didn’t end there. We couldn’t leave Berry without a dose of donuts from this lot. During the day this donut van has a perpetual crowd loitering around it and at night it’s reduced to a handful of punters. For those that like a more dense ring of freshly-fried pastry, these guys are the ticket. They’re actually pretty good.
The top breakfast spot in town has to go to Berry Sourdough Café. It’s pretty evident that they’re doing something right judging by the hungry hoards that arrive soon after opening. All I can say is get in early, kids. This bakehouse-cum-café not only peddles its gorgeous range of rye, multigrain, spelt and you-name-it breads, but that glass cabinet is chockers with a dazzling array of sweet and savoury tarts, cakes, pies and slices. Let’s not forget preserves and relishes up on the shelves.
And then there’s the cracking coffee and breakfast. Brioche French toast (16) that’s nicely caramelised and topped with pistachio crème fraîche, diced poached pear and more pistachios. It’s light and fluffy but could have done with a syrup of sorts, or perhaps more of the pear poaching liquid.
Scrambled eggs (17.5) is the other brekkie plate. Draped over toasted sourdough with some small dry pork sausages and a chipotle & espresso ketchup. And yes, there was a faint hint of coffee through the smoky sauce. Nice combo.
We couldn’t leave the bakery without trying at least a couple of the pastries. A chocolate almond croissant (4.5) and the pepito (4.5). These guys sure know how to bake!
There isn’t much distance between the coastal communities – from sleepy Shoalhaven Heads (above), around the Jervis Bay shoreline and beyond. I love all the bush walks that hug the rocky headlands and secluded beaches where you can wander along sandy trails and boarded paths through native forests and fern gullies.
This particular walk (below) runs from Jervis Street in Vincentia and down to the Blenheim Beach cove. On a sunny day I’m sure the sand is pristinely white and the water crystal clear, but we saw it in another mood. Red seaweed washed ashore and released a pretty intense stench that was potent enough to keep almost everyone away.
A couple of hundred metres north is Nelsons Beach with its sweep of white sand, rust-coloured eroded cliffs – and on that particular winters day – some very game swimmers that braved the icy water.
Then there’s Hyams Beach a little further south on the lower shores of the bay. White sand so fine that it squeaks beneath your feet – it’s clearly a place to pack an esky, bring towels and a brollie and lap up the stunning location.
With Pigeon House Mountain as its backdrop, the small agricultural town of Milton is one South Coast town that deserves some exploration. It’s like Berry without the crowds; although I’m sure it gets its fair share of visitors. Art and craft shops, cafés tucked here and there, a pub, museums and antique shops make for a quaint little place worthy of parking the car for a little look-see.
Just by the showgrounds on the edge of town is St. Isidore, a bit of a food temple for those that embrace the farm-to-table concept and love seeing seasonal produce on the plate. The land around the restaurant holds a number of herb and vegetable beds; including fruit trees and even a chicken pen for a daily supply of eggs from some very happy girls.
Our lunch spot was idyllic, to say the least. One of a handful of tables on a veranda that overlooks the 1.2 hectares of orchards, kitchen gardens, a trio of dams and rolling farmland beyond. Native rosellas squawk from lofty branches of tall eucalyptus and there are even cows on a next door property that mosey on over to say g’day.
St. Isidore is the first restaurant of Jo Thomas and her Kiwi-born husband Alex Delly. This bloke has some real kitchen talent going for him thanks to stints at Melbourne’s Ezard, Circa and Rick Stein at Bannisters down the hill at nearby Mollymook.
It was clearly evident what came from the kitchen garden with our first plate of food. Heirloom carrots and beets (19), feta, wagyu bresaola, pickles and herbs. Talk about a pretty picture.
And then the bar was raised for the best octopus we’ve tried for as long as we can remember. It may look like ordinary grilled octopus (10) but those tentacles had a gentle 12-hour poaching before they hit the grill. Flavour-packed, impossibly tender and served with garlic aïoli.
Onto the mains, the mouth-pleasure continued with the local blue eye trevalla (38) on white polenta with mussels, shaved fennel, a scattering of basil leaves and cherry tomatoes. I could have eaten an entire bowl of the green olive acquapazza (or crazy water); deliciously savoury and warming. The Berkshire pork belly (19) is crispy-skinned and served over white onion and cider purée, sauerkraut and prosciutto. Sticks of green apple, radish and watercress bring a sweet, tart and peppery crunch. No gripes from either of us.
Espresso crème brûlée (16) was a given; thinly crusted and served with a Pedro Ximénez granita and amaretti biscuit. I went with the warm chocolate tart (16) which came much lauded by another diner I was chatting to at the chicken pen. The filling is as light as air and the rapidly melting salted peanut caramel ice cream was a perfect match.
Barely ten minutes drive down from Milton is the small village of Mollymook, fronted by a sandy beach that sweeps from one headland to another. There’s a sprawling golf club at one end with a couple of cafés around the corner surrounded by holiday rentals. The village centre up at Mollymook Beach is nothing more than a suburban-style cluster of shops with the basic services – a grocer, takeaway, pharmacy and bottle shop.
Across the road from the shopping centre is Tallwood, a place that, by night, serves tapas-style food and contemporary international flavours. The dinner we had was quite nice – think red braised duck shanks or pork knuckle with kohlrabi – but this particular blogger took the night off and left the camera in the bag.
We did return for breakfast, however, discovering that the food in the morning was just as delicious as what’s going at dinner. The coffee is pretty good, as well. The scrambled eggs (14.5) were declared the best ones ever (by the better half) thanks to their creamy texture. I guess they were pretty good. I was pretty chuffed as well with my house cured salmon (17) piled high on toast with baby rocket, avocado, shaved fennel, pickled onion and lemon myrtle.
Do we have to go back to Sydney now?