Sunset at Cudgen Lake, behind Cabarita beach.
It had to happen. With such an abundance of gifts from nature – rich volcanic soils, sub-tropical climate, mighty watercourses, a bountiful ocean and rich pastoral lands close by – the New South Wales Northern Rivers district was destined for gastronomic distinction.
This serendipity of ingredients is coalescing into serious recognition with two innovative Northern Rivers restaurants recently claiming a place on The Weekend Australian colour magazine’s top 50 Aussie eateries list. And, as good fortune would have it, on the very weekend the list was published I was heading off with visiting family for two days in that very region. Quick phone calls secured bookings at both prize-winning eateries, Fleet at Brunswick Heads and Paper Daisy at Cabarita Beach, both of which make ready use of the local bounty of seafood, tropical fruits and plants.
Cosy at Fleet, Brunswick Heads.
The Northern Rivers is part of the family fabric, with my mother’s clan resident since the 1930s. Until recent times an aunt remained in picturesque Murwillumbah, her home a long-ago refuge for my brother and me from the confines of Brisbane boarding schools during mid-term holiday breaks. From around the 60s and 70s the beaches north of Byron Bay suffered in the shadow of the glitzy Gold Coast and the aftermath of sand mining which flattened sand dunes and stripped away vegetation. The development this century of resorts such as Salt have restored dignity to the beaches.
The Northern Rivers has always been one of those “God’s Own” sort of places with the crooked thumb of Mt Warning – Wollumbin, or Cloud Catcher, in the local Bundjalung language – a reminder of its volcanic past. Early settlers made the most of the fertile soils to grow sugar cane and bananas. But now those rich soils yield so many more crops including coffee, macadamias, pork, dairy and cheeses, berries, bush tucker, mushrooms, exotic vegetables and herbs.
Fleet and Paper Daisy both make the most of this produce to craft their menus. Fleet takes the prize for original concept with diners sharing a communal slab in a space that limits numbers to around 20. On the one side are the wine and drinks waiter, and the hostess-cum-menu interpreter, who is also the co-owner, with the diligent chef working meticulously at the far end. The menu delights with inventive offerings such as smoked mullet, crispy skin, potato and dill; cauliflower, sea urchin, butter; sand whiting, corn, truffle; and mandarin, buttermilk, pistachio, thyme.
Fleet fare offerings.
Paper Daisy, right on the beach at Cabarita in renovated surfing motel Halcyon House, is as capacious as Fleet is cosy. Much of what’s available on the menu is made in-house with an emphasis on the local. Offerings include wholemeal sourdough with macadamia butter; pippies with potatoes and peas; grilled cauliflower with kefir and black garlic; fresh ricotta with raw and preserved vegetables; sweet potato with brown butter and seeds; zucchini with lemon, parmesan and fried squid legs. Worth waiting for.