Any seasoned traveller will tell you that the quality of what you eat and drink in the places you visit shapes your experience. Breakfast, lunch and dinner (and lately, tapas and tunes) are the universal pauses in the day where we stop to refuel, relax and indulge our taste buds.
The eastern-most town of Australia is Byron Bay, located in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales bordering Queensland. It’s subtropical climate and volcanic soil support an astonishing biodiversity, and sustain lots of things to eat and drink, most of them legal. Coffee, macadamia, pecan, grains, tea, cheese, olives, herbs, spices, aromatics, tropical fruit, vegetables, edible flowers, meats and seafood are all grown or made in abundance. It’s where I live, work and play, for which I’m eternally grateful.
Over the past decade, restaurateurs, brewers, baristas, producers and entrepreneurs have tree-changed to live and work in Byron and the Northern Rivers. Their talents, energies and passions have been invested in embracing the region’s agriculture and traditions, refining their techniques and collaborating with farmers and primary producers who share their passion for authentic, honest food and beverages with provenance in the region.
This happy confluence of supply, talent and an insatiable appetite among locals and visitors to seek out great food and drinks makes the Northern Rivers a powerhouse of paddock to plate experiences, through farmers markets, roadside stalls, restaurants, cafes, festivals and pop-up venues.
Starting the day with a surf and great coffee is a common ritual in Byron Bay. Yesterday, the sky was overcast, a little rainy, and the surf was ‘meh’ at Watego’s Beach. But an average day in Byron is still pretty sweet, and I never regret getting into the ocean. After a quick dry off, I walked the 1.5km headland trail across Cape Byron to join my partner (who at her request, shall be known as Satya Penelope, or SP) at Beach Byron Bay for brekkie. For me, some Alstonville poached eggs on sourdough (with a splash of Tabasco thanks) and a double-espresso; for SP, stone fruit salad, coconut yoghurt, chia and toasted granola hits the spot.
How could it not, overlooking the ocean with the Nightcap ranges in the background? Since opening in 2009 as Byron Beach Cafe, this classy beachfront restaurant owned by Belinda and Ben Kirkwood delivers exceptional quality food and drinks, views to mesmerise and professional service from staff that are there when you need them, and leave you in peace when you don’t. In 2016, Belinda and Ben transformed Byron Beach Cafe into Beach Byron Bay with a major refurbishment, a new menu inspired by the surrounding beach landscape and a focus on locally sourced ingredients and coastal flavours.
“We have so much respect for local producers and are extremely lucky to have beautiful produce to work with. Our menus are guided by what’s local and in season. Right now we’re loving local baby octopus and sea succulents, Coopers Shoot tomatoes, Byron Bay buffalo mozzarella and Cape Byron grass-fed beef. The artisan smallgoods from local producer Salumi are also amazing and the local macadamias and blueberries are definitely inspiring our dessert menus.”Ben Kirkwood, co-founder and owner, Beach Byron Bay
As a self-confessed coffee snob, I can’t go past a coffee from Barefoot Roasters. Tucked away in an art-graffiti-ed laneway in the heart of town, this tiny cafe specialises in artisan, single roast and blended coffee they roast themselves in Byron Bay. They also do blackboard philosophy, a sunny streetside vantage point sunshine and good chat. I asked Roaster Rodney Contejohn why he thought Australia has become one of the world’s front runners in coffee production and consumption.
“ We’re well travelled and we’re a relatively young nation, which means we’re open to influences and experimentation. We think outside the square about coffee and its traditions. I learned how to roast coffee here in Byron Bay, but we source our green coffee bean from all over the world based on their having been through natural processing.”Rodney Contejohn, Founder and Roaster, Barefoot Roasters
Barefoot Roasters’ Dark Star and award-winning Blend II are now joined by new roast Pablo, best for milk based coffee with cherry and malt-like finishes. Dark Star is my personal favourite, bu whether you’re an espresso drinker or a latte lover Barefoot Roasters have the beans and baristas to suit your daily coffee ritual.
Ten years ago Stone and Wood started when three mates set out to realise a vision to brew a distinctive ale inspired by their home on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, in Byron Bay. Galaxy hops, malt, water and yeast are the humble ingredients working in balance to produce what has gone on to be one of Australia’s most awarded and loved beers – the Original Pacific Ale.
The boutique beer brand’s popularity grew rapidly, so in 2014 they opened a second brewery at nearby Murwillumbah to service national demand.
In January 2019, Stone and Wood opened their brand new Byron Brewery and Tasting Room, deepening their roots in their spiritual home. I tucked into beer-battered fish and chips from the Brewery canteen along with a tasting paddle of ales, Pacific, Garden and Jasper. Even better, the spacious outdoor verandah is dog-friendly (for friendly dogs!). Stone and Wood welcome locals and visitors (human and canine) to drop in for a tasting paddle, or a Brewery and Tasting Room tour (bookings essential).
Research makes the story, so it was imperative that our next responsible drinking pitstop was to sample some of the spirit world’s most exciting new gins at Cape Byron Distillery.
The timeless tradition of a gin and tonic in the afternoon is something close to the Brook family’s hearts. Brook Farm founder Pam and her English-born husband Martin moved to the Byron hinterland in 1999 and, over a decade, turned a run-down dairy farm into a working macadamia farm in the midst of the re-generated rainforest.
“The Byron region’s lush rolling hills reminded Martin of a warm Devon.” We loved the climate and the fertile volcanic soil’s ability to grow lots of varieties. We’ve planted 35000 rainforest trees, so the farm is now surrounded by regenerated rainforest. We really try to walk the walk of sustainability, with natural farming practices and power from the Byron Bay sunshine via 288 solar panels. It’s not just a concept, it IS what we do.”Pam Brook, Founder, Brook Farm
Brook Farm is now one of Australia’s most celebrated food brands producing macadamia mueslis, cereals and trail mixes from premium and organic ingredients. Super healthy and super tasty, its sold nationally and exported to China, Singapore, Malaysia and the Middle East.
So what’s this got to do with gin and tonic in the afternoon? Well, a fortuitous meeting between Eddie Brook (Pam and Martin’s son) and “the Bruce Springsteen of distilling” Jim McEwan (three times Master Distiller of the year) led to the project that is now Cape Byron Distillery. Jim’s mentoring guidance, Eddie’s experience in the spirits industry and the wonderland pantry of the Brook Farm rainforest’s botanicals for flavour are the ingredients behind the Brookies Gin range.
“The rainforest that my family has regenerated over the past 30 years is the ideal pantry for making great spirits. Like any good dish, a great gin should be balanced and it is exciting to showcase these incredible native flavours like Davisonia Plum, native finger limes, aniseed myrtle.”Eddie Brook, Co-founder, Distiller, Spiritual Advisor, Cape Byron Distillery
Visitors can take a journey through the Brook family farm and learn the art of distillation on distillery tours, bookings essential.
Back down on the coastal plain, Three Blue Ducks at The Farm are prepping for dinner. No, that’s not a nursery rhyme, it’s a result of happened when six mates with a passion for authentic, honest food teamed up in Sydney’s Bronte Beach to open a restaurant by the beach. Word spread quickly that these guys knew their food, and in 2015, Three Blue Ducks opened a restaurant on an 80-acre coastal working farm, called… The Farm.
“There is an awesome market culture in the Byron and Northern Rivers region that lowers the barriers to entry for entrepreneurs. Through partnerships like ours with The Farm, festivals, popups and other collaborations there’s fabulous opportunities to start things on a small scale and grow sustainably.”Jeff Bennett, Co-founder, Three Blue Ducks
The ethos of ‘real, honest food’ is put into practice by taking what’s grown on The Farm, and serving it fresh, in season and simply, letting the natural flavours shine. So what’s on the menu now?
“At the moment, there are eggplants, leafy greens, zucchinis, pumpkins, tomatoes, radishes, and that’s just a few of the veggies. We make it was easy as possible for the farmers for to showcase their produce to visitors . We meet them once a week, and we encourage them to experiment with heirloom varieties of ingredients like cinnamon myrtles, macadamias and pasture-raised chooks.”Darren Robertson, Head Chef, Co-founder, Three Blue Ducks
I’m an unreserved carnivore, but the Sichuan eggplant salted pickles and charred greens piqued my interest (and love of Sichuan cuisine), and was a brilliant orchestra of flavours showing that vegetarian diet need never be bland.
SP and I skipped the mints and headed for Locura, (Spanish for Madness), a new late-night lounge bar featuring a pop-up kitchen showcasing Mexican, Costa Rican and Peruvian-inspired dishes. Its minimalist aesthetic (housed in former nightclub La La Land) serves as a blank canvas for a colourful crowd of hipsters, tradies, surfers, academics, artists, travellers and troubadours from around the globe. In residence behind the decks is internationally renowned producer Jono Ma, founder of Australian group Jagwar Ma.
Byron’s flourishing reputation for food and drinks is matched by a commitment among many to practical recycling and food production efficiency. Tepache served at Locura is a fermented pineapple beverage made using the leftover pineapple skins from juicing at our dinner venue, Three Blue Ducks at The Farm.
The Byron region’s natural landscapes have attracted visitors from around the world for decades. Increasingly, what is grown in these landscapes and efforts to produce, prepare and consume it without waste that is shaping the experiences visitors have here.
The above is an actual experience for which the author paid his own way. It cost AUD$290.50 for two people, inclusive of all drinks and tours, broken down as follows. Sure, we wouldn’t eat and drink like this everyday, but with so much quality on offer and as a fabulous experience of Byron’s food and drinks, it was worth it!
Distillery Tasting Tour: $70
Locura Drinks: $32