• Som Young grows Asian vegetables at Bago Vineyards in Wauchope
It’s not all beaches and national parks in this northern NSW region, as Selma Nadarajah discovers. Beyond the natural beauty lies a rich bounty of produce and a talented line-up of passionate farmers.
By
Selma Nadarajah

30 Jun 2013 - 12:42 AM  UPDATED 30 Mar 2021 - 4:56 PM

Covering 3693 square kilometres, the Greater Port Macquarie region between Sydney and Brisbane offers an impressive combination of coast and hinterland. Extending from the beaches and riverside of Port Macquarie to the historic timber town of Wauchope in the west, then down south through the undulating green hills, forests and pristine waterfalls of the Comboyne plateau, and back east through the towns clustered around the Camden Haven River, it’s not surprising the sheer natural beauty of this vast land attracts visitors. More recently, however, people aren’t just putting water sports and hiking on their itineraries. Farmers’ markets and food festivals, such as Slice of Haven in Laurieton and Tastings on Hastings in Port Macquarie, have given holidaymakers a voracious appetite for the incredibly diverse produce on offer. Plump tomatoes, juicy berries, grass-fed beef, Boer goat meat, oysters, olives and macadamias, as well  as organic poultry, dairy and eggs are just some of the local delicacies. 

Each year in May for Slice of Haven, Laurieton showcases some of the regional stars: the Cassegrain winery, Comboyne Culture cheeses, Wilmaria Olives, Near River’s organic produce, the Black Duck Brewery and Baba Lila Handmade Chocolates, which specialises in a fusion of native Australian flavours and traditional Russian recipes. Each October, these producers (among many others) reappear for the annual Tastings on Hastings, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last year. Originally held at the Port Macquarie Racecourse with about 7000 patrons, the festival in 2012 drew 15,000 visitors and relocated to the Hastings River to accommodate the crowds.

Of course, if you miss either event you can also make a beeline for one of the two monthly farmers’ markets. Even then, nothing will make you appreciate the produce quite like going straight to the source. Farm gate tours are popular attractions and Ricardoes Tomatoes & Strawberries in Port Macquarie has been a regional highlight for years. For the owners, brothers Anthony and Richard ‘Ricardo’ Sarks, both born in the area with farming in their blood, tomato-growing was somewhat of an accident. “We were just having fun,” recalls Anthony. “We set up an honesty box at the front gate and put a two-line ad in  the local paper. All we were hoping for was a bit of beer money!”

The brothers certainly achieved that, but they also learned that people were willing to drive for quality tomatoes, which sparked an idea to develop their hobby into a more sophisticated business. This led to computer-controlled hydroponic greenhouses that allowed for year-round production of fruit. Fast forward 10 years and Ricardoes boasts five greenhouses with 25,000 tomato plants and 130,000 strawberry plants. While their four luscious tomato varieties (Conchita and Flavorino cherry, Roma and round Tradiro) are bestsellers, it’s the strawberry-picking they introduced in 2008 that has really pulled in the visitors to their property.

“Everybody wins when they pick their own,” explains Anthony.

“The customers get a fresher, riper product and the farmer doesn’t have to pay for packaging or transport.” Families can fill buckets with up to five strawberry varieties, including a Californian Camarosa (a sweet winter fruit), a tangy Albion used for making jam and a high-yielding Spanish varietal known as Crystal, which blooms in summer.

At the farm’s Café Red, visitors can also enjoy freshly baked  scones with award-winning strawberry jam (made using Ricardoes fruit, of course), and buy a range of products to take home -- perhaps the tomato and passionfruit jam that won a Sydney Royal Fine Food gold medal, or Grandfather Ricardoes Famous Tomato Relish, which took out the bronze at the Royal Hobart Fine Food Awards.

The Sarks brothers can’t take full credit for these condiments, though. Part of that goes to Port Macquarie producer The Other Chef Fine Foods, maker of 20-odd products for Ricardoes alone and 180 others for various suppliers around the country. Husband-and-wife team Eric and Monica Robinson have a similar story of a business developing out of a hobby. Eric, a former chef at Xanadu Wines in Margaret River, moved to Port Macquarie for a lifestyle change and was teaching commercial cookery at the local TAFE, while making jams on the side to sell at the markets. As demand for his preserves increased, Eric turned the granny flat of his and Monica’s home into a full-production kitchen, eventually expanding into condiments such as balsamic essence and lemon-infused extra virgin olive oil. His balsamic condiment is now a Royal Hobart Fine Food Awards gold medallist, along with his strawberry jam, chilli jam, quince paste and saffron citrus marmalade. Together with Monica and an assistant, Eric turns out a staggering array of sauces, oils and preserves, and now operates from a commercial space in town. Using ingredients sourced personally from nearby growers like Ricardoes, there are no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives, and the jams are made from whole fruit. Rarely can you visit a cafe or deli in the region without noticing The Other Chef Fine Foods stamp on the menu. With the Robinsons now manufacturing for supermarket chains and gourmet delis, you’re probably spreading their jam on your toast without even realising it.

With innovative and progressive farmers taking the organic route, agriculture in the region is rapidly evolving and this has paid off in the quality of produce. FUN Organics farm is one such success story. Owned by the Eggert family for four generations and today run by husband-and-wife team Chris and Ann Eggert, the 200-hectare dairy farm in Wauchope was certified fully organic in 2003. It was, however, a decision taken with some trepidation. “It was pretty scary,” admits Chris. “People thought we were mad. We had a lot to learn and it took about five years before we started making a profit.” 

Going organic for the Eggerts is largely about healthy soil. There is an emphasis on regenerative agriculture – putting back in what has been taken out. This means rotating their cows around the paddocks twice a day, allowing weeds to grow and encouraging microbes, but also letting the animals graze in peace and retaining water rather than draining it. Fertiliser is also produced by combining cow manure with hay.

As we walk through the fields observing their 180-odd herd of Jersey and Friesian cows, they certainly look content. “Since we’ve become organic, they’re a lot more relaxed with people,” remarks Chris. And, apart from animal wellbeing, there’s a pretty healthy production of milk, with the farm turning over about 1.1 million litres each year.

In 2010, the Eggerts started supplying organic eggs to Oxhill Organics. They now own the business and produce around 1000 eggs daily from their 2000 chickens, which are regularly rotated in half-hectare enclosures and are protected from the foxes by resident alpacas. “We try to avoid bringing the chickens back to the same paddock for at least 60 days,” explains Chris above the deafening clucking. Amazingly, the beaks of Chris’s chickens don’t need to be tipped as the birds are so placid. “They’re like people; they like routine. As long as you keep moving them and feeding them, they’re happy.” They’re also among the cleanest, healthiest and most pleasant-smelling chickens.

FUN Organics is certainly trying to put the ‘fun’ back into farming, and the family spends part of its time running educational open days. “We’re trying to make farming exciting and relevant for young people like Billy,” explains Chris, pointing to his three-year-old son, who seems very much at home on the land as he chases the chickens.

The Sarks, Robinsons and Eggerts are, of course, merely three examples of passionate producers making a contribution to this region; there are many more individuals doing wonderful things with food and drink. Although the wine scene is relatively small and young, it is definitely growing and the Cassegrain winery put Port Macquarie on the global map with its Chambourcin NV, a sparkling red wine made from the French red grape variety, which Cassegrain pioneered in Australia. Oysters are prolific in Camden Haven, and the creamy Sydney Rock Oyster is a coveted buy at family-run Armstrong Oysters in Laurieton. Cheesemaking has also taken off, along with the cultivation of extraordinarily delicious blueberries, bush fruits and nuts.

Keen to celebrate her abundant surroundings, in 2011 Port Macquarie-based ABC radio presenter Kim Honan took part in the 100-mile diet, only eating food sourced from a 160km-radius for a year. She still attempts to maintain this habit, and a visit to one of Greater Port Macquarie’s food markets goes a long way to understanding why.

 

The hit list

Visit
Ricardoes Tomatoes & Strawberries

Pick strawberries 364 days of the year and take part in the free farm tours that run 11am Monday to Friday. 221 Blackman’s Point Rd, Port Macquarie, (02) 6585 0663, ricardoes.com.

Oxhill Organics and FUN Organics Farm
Part of the Farm Gate tours by Hastings Landcare (see below).
41 Redbank Rd, Wauchope, (02) 6586 1652, funorganics.com.au.

Farm Gate Tour June 2013
Visit farms like Brackenridge Berries, Armstrong Oysters, Barbushco bush herbs and spices, Kindee Valley Farm and Lorne Valley Macadamia Farm. For bookings, call (02) 6586 4465.

The Little Brewing Company
Drop by the cellar door for tastings of Wicked Elf beers and Belgian Trappist-style Mad Abbot ales produced by husband-and-wife team Warwick and Kylie Little.
1/58 Uralla Rd, Port Macquarie, (02) 6581 3949, thelittlebrewingcompany.com.au.

Hastings Farmers Markets
Sample the region’s best at these two monthly markets: Westport Park, Port Macquarie (second Saturday of the month, 8am–1pm) and Wauchope Showground, High St (fourth Saturday of the month, 9am–noon).

Festivals
Mark Sunday 26 May on the calendar this year for Slice of Haven Food & Wine Festival in Seymour Street, Laurieton (a 30-minute drive south of Port Macquarie), and Sunday 27 October for the Tastings on Hastings festival.

 

Do
Port Macquarie coast walk
This 9km-walking track starts in town and travels past Town Beach and Flynn’s Beach to Tacking Point Lighthouse. The camera-worthy journey one way takes a very leisurely four hours.

Bago Vineyards
Apart from sampling local drops, enjoying a platter of Comboyne Culture cheeses or attending the monthly Jazz in the Vineyards (held every second Sunday), Bago’s also boasts the largest maze in NSW, with 2km of pathways mapped out by native lilly pilly. Also grown on the property are raspberries, from which various condiments are produced, as well as a wide variety of Asian herbs and vegetables tended by Thai migrant Som Young, whose late husband used to work in the vineyards. “We’re hoping to do farm to plate experiences, so visitors can pick the produce from Som’s garden and then cook the food,” says owner Jim Mobbs. Milligans Rd (off Bago Rd), Wauchope, (02) 6585 7099, bagovineyards.com.au.

 

Eat
Little Fish Cafe

This idyllic daytime eatery overlooks Innes Lake Estate, where Major Archibald Innes, the former commander of the Port Macquarie penal colony, planted vines more than 180 years ago. Enjoy the view over the jacaranda and magnolia trees and savour the meltingly tender roast pork belly. Just be sure to leave room for the Comboyne blueberry frangipane tart accompanied by Hastings Valley yoghurt. The Ruins Way, Port Macquarie, (02) 6581 1332, littlefishcafe.com.au.

Rainforest Café
Nestled in the lush surrounds of the Sea Acres Rainforest reserve is this peaceful breakfast and lunch venue. Walk off your meal on the 3km boardwalk loop. Pacific Drive, Port Macquarie, (02) 6582 4444, rainforestcafe.com.au.

The Stunned Mullet
Feast on modern Australian creations, such as crisp honey soy duck with bok choy and braised sweet potato, as well as Cape Grim steaks at this Port Macquarie dining treasure. Overlooking Town Beach, it’s located at 24 William St, Port Macquarie, (02) 6584 7757, thestunnedmullet.com.au.

 

Photography Tom Donald