The Sunshine Coast: Abundant fresh fare
I recently had the opportunity to spend a very long but interesting and enjoyable weekend exploring the Sunshine Coast, a part of Australia I hadn’t been to. Naturally I was interested in the food but my self-drive trip turned out to be an intriguing excursion into the hinterland area between Noosa and Mooloolaba, as well as a drive down the coast between these two places.
I set out from Brisbane and, in about an hour, after driving through the beautiful Glass House Mountain area (forests, farmland and amazing views from the many lookouts) I was in the small town of Maleny. The relaxed atmosphere of the area is immediately noticeable. Maple St, the main street, is lined with one of the highest concentrations of co-ops in Australia, businesses that are involved in supporting the local community. There I found second hand bookshops, op-shops (I’m always looking for a bargain as well as old kitchen equipment to use for food photography), health food shops, galleries and my main focus, cafes and restaurants. The town also prides itself in being eco-conscious and there was definitely a feeling of “alternative lifestyle” without any new age crystal-gazing hype. It was a bright, sunny Friday lunchtime and the street was thronged with people strolling along, checking out what was on offer. I thought I would have a quick look but ended up spending several hours in Maleny, intrigued by the places like the excellent cheese room at Colin James Fine Foods, which also has a food shop and cafe.
I hadn’t been to Australia for a while and was instantly re-impressed with the array of Australian cheeses (this area has a thriving cheese-making district), dragging myself away from the cookery sections of the bookshops and even bumping into several other Kiwis enjoying the sights. Hunger caught up with me and I ate a great smoked salmon sandwich and fresh juice at Monica’s cafe.
Spicers Clovelly Estate
Next stop was my overnight venue, near the town of Montville, Spicers Clovelly Estate, a luxurious French provincial-themed country hotel and spa. I was looking forward to this as that night was to be my first major dinner. The restaurant, The Long Apron, regularly scores two hats in the Queensland and the Australian Good Food Guides and was ranked in the Top 100 restaurants by Australian Gourmet. That this is perhaps one of Australia’s best-kept secrets (well from me, at least) was confirmed not just by the classy accommodation but by the food I ate that night. Chef Cameron Matthews’ food is genius and I ate his degustation menu of food that not only was beautiful to look at but also a celebration of Australian ingredients and, more importantly, full of flavour.
The first dish, an amuse-bouche to prepare me for what was to come, looked like a bonsai installation by a Japanese gardener but which was, in fact, a delicious “tree” of house-made grissini, with mushroom gel sticking fresh chervil sprigs to its branches. Alongside this was a small choux pastry filled with warm porcini and parmesan cream that looked uncannily like one of the rocks it was presented on. Tasted good and it was charming with nothing gimmicky about it. I proceeded through the other nine dishes, all small and eminently manageable, so that at the end I felt like I had eaten a very good dinner. Wine was expertly and interestingly matched with each course. I was also impressed by the service, friendly, well informed and with nothing a problem. Not to be missed.
Next morning, I teamed up again with the helpful woman who lived in my car, spoke to me on my GPS and gave me expert directions (I often thanked her) and headed for Eumundi, another small hinterland town further north. Again the drive was idyllic. Eumundi is a quaint ex-timber mill town that is described as having morphed into an eclectic melting pot of post-hippie baby boomers. I stopped for breakfast at the Bohemian Bungalow in Memorial Drive, the main drag, recently bought by Ned Nolan who has left the bustle of Hong Kong to lead a more relaxed life in Eumundi. Again, great coffee, food and service, and Ned was a mine of information about the area. It was here I had my first taste of camel’s milk (slightly bitter but not unpleasant), which the restaurant uses for dishes like panna cotta.
As it was Saturday, across the road was the famous Eumundi market, one of the oldest and largest in the area. This sprawling market consists of a huge range of arts and crafts, local produce (tropical and European fruit and vegetables, sugar cane juice, breads, cured meats, cheese, chocolate, cakes, table olives and oils, nuts, spices, dried fruit, ready-made sauces and preserves) and one whole area of diverse food stands (Malaysian, Thai, Spanish, German) packed with people eating brunch. The market is open Wednesdays and Saturdays and if you want to experience a catalogue of the best from not just the local area but almost the whole of Australia, this is the place.
Often chatting blithely to that woman in my car (loser!) I took a meandering drive to nearby Noosa Heads where I checked into my apartment at Peppers Noosa Resort and Villas, an extremely comfortable, modern but slightly vast colony of apartments, restaurant and spa, nestled up against the beautiful Noosa National Park, and just a few minutes walk down the hill from Hastings St, the throbbing heart of town, running parallel with the beach.
Noosa Heads was where I planned to do some more serious eating. After exploring the upmarket shopping area and taking a stroll along the beach, I did one of the well-organised rainforest walks through the National Park. To a Kiwi like me, it felt like quintessential tropical Australia, with bush turkeys hopping across the path, vines and palms littering the way and the sky almost obscured by the dense canopy.
I then stopped off at Locale, a very good Italian restaurant at the end of Hastings St for a snack of local tomato bruschetta, fragrant with basil and local olive oil and a glass of rosé.
Back to Peppers before dinner at the Thomas Corner Eatery near the river in Noosaville, not far from Noosa Heads. A restaurant with a relaxed ambience, modern Australian food with a strong focus on local ingredients, a stylish dining room and the trademark friendly Australian service and great food. I ate a salad of local spanner crab, pink lady apple, mandarin oil and sorrel, then barbecued quail with organic kale, green raisins, pine nuts and lemon crumbs and finished with finger lime parfait, with passionfruit, dragon fruit and kiwifruit.
Next morning, Sunday, I checked out the excellent Noosa farmers’ market under the gum trees at the local footy ground. Again, it was especially interesting to me as a tourist in that it showcased what was produced locally and had a large area of food stalls.
I couldn’t resist a short foray back into the hinterland to the Kin Kin General Store that afternoon. On the way were the Noosa Botanic Gardens and, in the town of Pomona, an amazing old 1920s theatre. Kin Kin (great name!) is a picturesque, tiny service town consisting of the store, school, hall, and rather large country-style Aussie hotel. Just round the corner in what I assumed was the sports ground was a small local market, which I naturally had to have a look at. (Markets are everywhere, I counted 19 in the region at different times of the week.)
The general store is the catering hub for chef Jodie Williams. It is also a post office and working store that sells not only household basics, which I noticed in Australia includes things like polenta, spray-free vegetables, tea and honey as well as natural health products. It is also a cafe/restaurant, with a majestic old brass espresso machine. The cafe is soon to be licensed but is BYO at the moment. There I ate a great chicken salad for lunch (see my version below).
Back to Noosa Heads for dinner at Peter Kuruvita’s restaurant, Noosa Beach House, where I ate yet another delicious dinner, his signature dish of seared yellow-fin tuna, ruby grapefruit and pork crackling. Now that I was in prawn country I also had almost half a kilo of the huge Mooloolaba leader prawns in a great Sri Lankan curry, then unpatriotically ordered the vanilla bean pavlova with mango curd anglaise and seasonal fruit. Sensational and huge portions! The wine advice was bang-on, so I was very happy.
I ran out of time to try another restaurant, Wasabi, modern Japanese with produce sourced from their own farm that people raved about: next time.
This was turning out to be quite a weekend, as the next day I was off to the coastal town of Mooloolaba, serious prawn territory. I drove down the coast, passing the many beach communities stopping to perk up with a good coffee at Fatima’s Hand cafe in Peregian Beach.
I arrived in Mooloolaba and, it being lunchtime, I headed straight for Mooloolaba Fisheries at the end of Parkyn Parade, beside the wharf where the fishing boats dock. There is a large fresh fish shop where, unsurprisingly, prawns feature prominently, along with a takeaway shop. The large queue was handled efficiently with the “pay at the cashier and take your electronic pager to alert you when your order is ready” system. Upstairs is a restaurant but also where you can take your takeaways to eat while leisurely looking across the small harbour. My prawns, oysters and chips were first class. The area is full of restaurants and there is a small children’s park nearby if you want to eat al fresco.
Checked in to the Oceans Mooloolaba apartments, right across from the beach, architecturally designed luxury (being a professional I couldn’t help noticing things like the top-of-the-range Gaggenau appliances in the kitchen) with a huge balcony.
That night I had dinner at the Mooloolaba Surf Club. This is Aussie surf culture at its best. Situated in the best position right on the beach it is essentially an unpretentious country club. You can spend the whole day there, as it has the beach, a bar, The Boathouse restaurant, activities for kids, pokies (if that’s what you’re into) and sports TV. Anyone can join for A$20 ($21), which means savings if you’re in Mooloolaba for several days as joining entitles you to discounts on food, etc. You even get a free drink on your birthday. The surf club’s commercial activities fund the guardians of the beach, the surf lifesavers — no trying to raise money like they have to in New Zealand. The menu is the epitome of popular Australian cooking, with huge portions at reasonable prices and an international list of some of the dishes that have become part of Australian food culture like Thai curries, tzatziki, caesar salad, fish and chips, Asian pork belly salad, chorizo croquettes and affogato — or a huge buffet. Don’t miss this place, even if only for anthropological reasons, as this is real Queensland.
Next morning it was back to Brisbane and home. I enjoyed this trip. I enjoyed the range of experiences from the Long Apron to the Mooloolaba Surf Club, I ate great food, met nice people, I was impressed by the Australian un-reserve — they are chatty, direct and pleasantly in-your-face. I love the size and abundance of everything in Australia but also I liked the diverse experiences that could be had within the relatively small region of the Sunshine Coast (at the end of the trip I looked at the kms on the clock and was surprised to see I had only done about 500km), I loved the countryside and was intrigued by the birdlife. For an interesting holiday at your own pace, head for the Sunshine Coast (between July and August Air New Zealand flies direct to Sunshine Coast airport), get yourself a rental car and enjoy yourself.
Thanks for assistance to Air New Zealand and Visit Sunshine Coast.
This dish is based on a recipe in a little community cookbook I bought in Eumundi, at Berkelouw Books. The recipe book has a very good section on pot-roasting, a method I have always liked for slow-cooking meat. Get the recipe
I ate a great chicken salad at the Kin Kin General Store, which was the creation of chef Jodie Williams. This is my version. If you want to make it into a more substantial main course, serve it with steamed jasmine rice. Get the recipe