Keith Austin finds oysters, coffee and a trail to feed a growing community of locavores in the Shoalhaven.
There is a quiet revolution under way on the NSW south coast, which is slowly turning the Shoalhaven region, studded with towns such as Gerroa, Gerringong and Berry into a foodie destination.
Award-winning coffees, free-range pork, grain-fed beef, organic and biodynamic vegetables and homemade jams, relishes and pickles are some of the produce that can be found in an area of outstanding natural beauty, with miles of sandy beaches, rolling hills and national parks.
Cafes, delis and farmers' markets are springing up to distribute the local produce. From Kiama to Kangaroo Valley, Nowra to Shoalhaven Heads and back, you can slip down a few freshly shucked oysters, buy freshly pressed olive oil or sort through vegetables just pulled from the ground.
MasterChef's final four contestant Jimmy Seervai has cooked at the Little Blowhole Cafe in Kiama and, with wineries, retailers, producers and pubs starting to realise the potential, there are frequent rest stops on the region's food trail. And all this only two hours' drive from Sydney.
In 2009 Jacqueline Weiley launched a gourmet food-tour business in the Byron Bay area with her friend, Karen Hirst. They had been impressed with the flourishing farmers' markets and ''fantastic'' local artisan food producers and set up Foodscape Tours to feature regional produce.
Hirst is based in Byron Bay, but home for Weiley is the Illawarra. A self-confessed foodie, she is involved with the local slow-food movement and last year began talking to local producers, cafe owners and foodies to see if similar tours would work on the NSW south coast.
''I was quite overwhelmed with the reception I got,'' Weiley says. ''I think even though for years the south coast has been one of the providers of fresh produce into the Sydney markets it's still been a bit untapped and undiscovered. I suppose it disappeared a bit because people were selling up farms and properties were being developed for more residential purposes. Now I think people are keen to maintain and restore that food production heritage.''
Foodscape began tours of the Shoalhaven in October last year. ''I think [the interest] is all about people going back to age-old cooking secrets with quality local ingredients and no added sugars and preservatives,'' Weiley says.
She's not alone in her belief. Another local resident, Amy Willesee, last year published Locavore: A Foodies' Journey Through The Shoalhaven with photographer Katie Rivers. (Locavores are interested in food that is locally produced, not moved long distances to market.)
Willesee says: ''I'm a big foodie, and when we moved down here to Berry four years ago I just thought it was a great opportunity to be able to source local food straight from the farmers - but it didn't turn out to be as easy as I expected.
''My husband, Mark, and I had inherited a beef cattle farm so we suddenly found ourselves being food producers as well. I started my own vegie garden and we've got chickens and the works, so I was really curious to see what's going on down here. It was also a great way to get a stickybeak into everyone else's back paddocks!
''When we decided to do the book someone said 'Well, it'll be a very short book', which was a bit disheartening but it turned out not to be the case. In the end we had a tough time choosing what to include.''
Willesee says her timing was lucky. ''People are really starting to do things down here with food - farm day trails, Jacqueline's tours and the local councils are really trying to get the food stuff happening as well. I think tree-changers have started doing more boutique-style food producing, as well as the older families who have been here for generations. Suddenly it's all really happening.''
Weiley and Willesee nominate some favourite food and produce experiences in the Shoalhaven.
Daily Grind Coffee Company
''John Svinos and his wife, Somprom, once owned the Gerringong Cafe Deli but then John started roasting his own coffee and got quite a following,'' Weiley says. ''He then focused on roasting. And after only six months his Werri Beach Espresso won a bronze medal at Sydney's Royal Coffee Show.''
Svinos uses single-origin, high-altitude coffee beans sourced worldwide but blends and roasts in the basement of the Gerringong Cafe Deli.
Gerringong Cafe Deli, 133 Fern Street, Gerringong, 4234 1035, see dailygrindcoffee.com.au.
''Lyn Graham developed a real passion for chocolate while her husband was working in America,'' Weiley says. ''When they returned to Australia she set up as a chocolatier. She's got, like, a chocolate kitchen under her house!''
Graham's handmade chocolates are created using the finest French chocolate along with the best Australian and south coast ingredients.
The Witch's Kitchen
In 2002 Kirsten McHugh moved to a 16-hectare property north of Berry and wanted to grow vegies and herbs. However, the south-facing hillside, with big stands of rainforest trees, was too shady for many crops - with the exception of tea. All Witch's Kitchen teas are made from leaves, flowers, fruit and berries grown on the property and are chemical-free. In Locavore, McHugh says: ''Being a low-fi, one-person operation, everything is done by hand. I have a little shed with a gas burner, a really big wok and bamboo steamer baskets. I pick for two hours, then come up to the shed to steam the leaves. I dry them off in my kitchen oven.''
Willesee says: ''Kirsten is the leader of the local slow-food movement and is a former lawyer - a real tree-changer.''
Rob McIntosh, dairy farmer
McIntosh is featured in the Locavore book, where he says: ''My grandfather moved here when Dad was seven and we've been dairying the whole time … we have one cow, Valentine, who puts out 55 litres of milk a day. It fascinates me.''
His milk is used in Cow Corporation Cheese, which is available at various outlets in Berry and is also on the menu at Silo's Restaurant in Berry.
Jim Wild, oyster shucker
Willesee recommends a visit to Jim Wild at the Crookhaven Oyster Farmers depot.
Wild opened his first oyster at the age of eight and went on to become the fastest oyster shucker in the world - 30 oysters in two minutes and 31 seconds, a title he held for 10 years. Now 60, he says: ''What else would I want from life? I'm eating oysters straight off the lease, throwing a line in to fish. How good's that?''
Crookhaven Oyster depot, 170 Greens Road, Greenwell Point. Phone 4447 1498 for opening times, which vary (closed in July).
South Coast Providores
Eight years ago Carole Ruta and Ian Gray turned food passions into a range of jams, conserves, pickles, biscotti, Christmas cakes and puddings. Weiley says: ''Carole and Ian source more than 85 per cent of their ingredients locally.'' They host weekly ''Locavore Fridays'' at their Berry premises, where they sell locally grown fruit and vegetables in season.
South Coast Providores, 78 Queen Street, Berry. Open 10am-5pm Thursday-Monday; 0418 223 464, email email@example.com.
Mountain Ridge Wines
The Shoalhaven area has 16 vineyards producing more than a dozen varieties of wine. Mountain Ridge produces arneis and chardonnay but also doubles as a mixed farm. Owner Monique Starkey says in Locavore: ''It's such a beautiful spot here. I don't just want people to wander in, grab a bottle of wine and leave. I want them to hang around and enjoy it.'' The farm also grows vegetables, watermelons, rockmelons, pumpkins and macadamia nuts (from which they produce a liqueur).
Open daily 11am-5pm at 11 Coolangatta Road, Coolangatta; mountainridgewines.com.
Weiley's Foodscape tours on the NSW south coast will run on select Saturdays throughout the year. Day-long tours (9.30am-4.30pm) cost $110 a person; half-day tours (9am-2pm) cost $89; see foodscapetours.com.au.
Locavore: A Foodies' Journey Through The Shoalhaven ($35) is available in local bookshops or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kiama is 120 kilometres, or a two-hour drive from Sydney's CBD, and a 30-minute drive from Wollongong. The town of Kangaroo Valley is 160 kilometres from Sydney.
Berry County Fair is on the first Sunday of the month (except February), 8am-2.30pm, Berry Showgrounds.
Culburra Beach Market is on the first Sunday of the month, 8am-2pm.
Gerringong Village Market is on the third Saturday of the month, 8am-2pm, Gerringong Town Hall.
Kangaroo Valley Village Markets at the showground is on the second Saturday of the month (except February), 8.30am-2.30pm.
Kiama Produce Market is on the fourth Saturday of the month at Black beach, Shoalhaven Street, 8am-1pm.
Kiama Seaside Market is on the third Sunday of the month, 9am-3pm, in the same location.
Shoalhaven Heads Seafood and Fresh Produce Fair is a local-produce market held at the Heads Hotel, River Road, Shoalhaven Heads, every Saturday, 7.30-11.30am.