Good Food Guide co-editor Joanna Savill forges a culinary trail on the Sapphire Coast.
You don't really need to fly to Merimbula. But as a starting point for a long weekend of Sapphire Coast food exploring, it seems like a good way to get there in time for Friday lunch.
From Sydney's east, the trip takes more than four hours door to door - including minor delays and getting lost in the nether regions of Terminal 2. But once you're in the air, the Anzac bickie snack on Rex (Regional Express) is pretty good and the views are spectacular.
The white-edged, teal-blue, rough-textured ocean below seems immobile, vast, frozen in time, nudging up against green-black forests, tan-coloured sand, pockets of houses and, as we draw closer, oyster leases stretching into wide lagoons and sandy estuaries, tucked beneath dense, curly topped headlands. And then we are in Merimbula - part country town, part seaside village, with its lake on one side, surf on the other.
It shares an estuary with Pambula, just a short hire-car hop away.
Pambula's unassuming but locally prolific Wild Rye's Baking Company makes a perfect first port of call. It does a roaring late-morning trade in pies and pasties as well as way-above-average Danishes, kringles and excellent organic sourdough.
We tuck a loaf of its light rye under our arm and head south to Pambula Lake. Destination: the oyster sheds.
At Broadwater Oysters, a dozen or two Sydney Rocks arrive creamy and briny, opened to order, with a wedge of lemon and some black pepper. Sitting at a wooden table by the sheds as the oyster growers hose down the cages, flat tinnies swirling on their ropes in the shallows, the big smoke seems every bit of its 460 kilometres away.
Heading back into Merimbula and uphill along the main drag, past the Seabreeze diner and a brightly coloured lolly shop, is another local-produce showcase - the attractive, wood-panelled modern restaurant known as Zanzibar Cafe (the previous owners had a bit of a thing for Africa). Chef Huw Jones and his partner, Renee Loftus, took over the light, airy space about a year ago. Originally a local, Loftus is determined to up the profile of regional produce via Jones's pretty, contemporary cooking.
"The area has been a bit underdeveloped when it comes to showing off what's here," Loftus says, pouring a glass of rose from the nearby Rocky Hall Winery (about 30 kilometres inland, through state forests). She's a marvellous hostess with a great enthusiasm for the area. Pambula Lake oysters, a custom-baked Wild Rye brioche bread and organic lamb from Bombala all feature on the menu - which would stand up to many Sydney ventures in quality and creativity. It's no surprise that the pair netted a chef's hat in this year's Good Food Guide.
Zanzibar's hat is a new accolade for the region, but others here are old hands at the food industry awards game. Heading north, Sapphire Coast Drive winds through tall, spindly eucalypts and national parks to Tathra - home to Gary and Jo Rodely and the multi-award-winning Tathra Oysters. Their oysters - raised on pristine leases in the nearby Mimosa Rocks National Park - are exquisite, and available in various sizes and grades if you pop into the shop beside their house in Tathra proper.
Another landmark with a food connection is the Tathra steamer wharf, a huge, rust-coloured heritage building lashed by the ocean waves. Inside is The Wharf Locavore, a newish cafe selling everything from bait and tackle to local olive oil, honey, beautiful pottery and jewellery plus glorious-looking cakes and coffee. It's a good spot to get the low-down on local markets and other food-related events, as well as a touch of Tathra's history as a port for steamships heading south.
The mandatory Sapphire Coast food explorer's stopover, however, is Bermagui. It's further north again along the picturesque, low-lying Tathra Bermagui Road, dotted with green grassy areas, little wooden bridges, art galleries such as the elegant Narek Galleries in an old church, and Ivy Hill, housed among beautiful gardens and shrubs in a superb, 150-year-old homestead.
Once in Bermi, as they call it around here, evidence of the growing food boom is clear. "We've counted 17 coffee machines in the area," laughs Rosemary Millard, our host for the evening at the attractive, modern Moorhen Cove apartment complex. Among the artists and sea-changers who have revived this pretty little fishing port with its historic all-weather harbour is architect Philip Cox, who designed the handsome timber Fisherman's Wharf, with its mix of contemporary and traditional motifs, including columns in local spotted gum.
As well as the Fisherman's Co-op and fish and chips from Bluewave Seafood, it houses the lively Horse & Camel Winebar upstairs (which doubles as a cafe and deli) and Tim and Honor Northam's fun, Italian-inspired il Passaggio, with a simple but effective menu of terrific pizza, pasta, a couple of seasonal main courses (local blue-eye, for example) and excellent desserts. It's quite the community hub.
Speaking of hubs, no trip to Bermi would be complete without morning coffee at Mister Jones - art gallery/serious caffeine stop. It's not a big-brekkie kind of place ("no eggs, no pigs", the menu warns) but it encapsulates the art-meets-south coast-lifestyle vibe of this idyllic part of the world. And next door, don't miss the rather oddly named Bermagui Gelati Clinic (aka Cool O Cream) for some of the best gelato ever. Like many in the area, Millard drops in surplus fruit from her orchard so that owners Francesca and Alberto Cementon can turn it into ice-cream - everything from pineapple guava to persimmon, rhubarb and panna cotta using lovely south coast milk. You can't get more local than that.
Postscript: we decide to drive the rest of the way home rather than fly. It's a great option, taking us through the rolling dairy country around Tilba (including a night at The Stay at Tintagel - an isolated homestay with a focus on sustainability and a huge vegie garden to plunder for dinner). We check out the Tilba cheese scene and have an excellent lunch in Milton, north of Ulladulla, at a new restaurant, St Isidore. But that, as they say, is another story.
The writer travelled courtesy of Destination NSW. All meals were paid for independently.
Five to six hours' drive south of Sydney along the Princes Highway, or fly with Rex (Regional Express).
Wild Rye's Baking Company, 26 Quondola St, Pambula, (02) 6495 6649.
Broadwater Oysters, Landing Rd, Pambula Lake, (02) 6495 6704, broadwateroysters.com.au.
Zanzibar Cafe, corner Main and Market streets, Merimbula, (02) 6495 3636, zanzibarmerimbula.com.au.
Tathra Oysters, 1 Reservoir St, Tathra, (02) 6494 1453, tathraoysters.com.au.
The Wharf Locavore, Wharf Rd, Tathra, 0427 941 747, essentialobject.com.au.
Bermagui Fishermen's Wharf (Horse & Camel Winebar, il Passaggio, Bluewave Seafood), Lamont St, Bermagui, (02) 6493 4575, bermaguifishermenswharf.com.au.
Mister Jones, 4 Bunga St, Bermagui, 0403 755 672, misterjones.com.au.
Bermagui Gelati Clinic, 6 Bunga St, Bermagui, 0404 813 323.