What do you get when you take a small country town, add some big city flavour and let it marinate for a few decades? A recipe for satisfaction (and some very pretty scenery), says Alissa Jenkins
Ask any Swedish backpacker about their time in Byron Bay, and they’ll tell you that the girls are beautiful, the beer is cold, and that the surf – oh, the surf – is worth overstaying your visa for.
But they probably won’t mention Bangalow.
This small hinterland town is by no means a secret (if the many tree-changers, gourmets and savvy Byron devotees who’ve been coming here for years didn’t shine enough spotlight on Bangalow, Olivia Newton John’s decision to open a health retreat here, certainly did), but there are no nightclubs, just wine bars.
No meal deals; merely farm-to-fork philosophies. Bangalow is what happens when you take the best of Byron’s sustainable philosophies, add a touch of the urbane… and leave the backpackers at the beach.
And it’s gorgeous. Surrounded by sub-tropical forest and rolling green farmland, this quaint rural village is home not only to a tight-knit, creative community, but a thriving food scene. And, as you might expect, it’s all about fresh, organic and local food, and it’s being served by an impressive portfolio of local eateries.
Nowhere is this more evident than at the local Byron Farmers’ Markets, held every Saturday morning behind the Bangalow Hotel. Here you’ll find all manner of foodie delights, which have travelled less than 200 kilometres to the markets.
Munch Crunch Organics from Myocum, Sunforest organic meats from Bangalow, Summerland Olives from Casino and macadamia nuts in every form from Tuckombil Native Foods in Alstonville… Someone should really post a warning sign out the front. It’s impossible to stay away from the samples.
But the focus on mindful food production isn’t new to the area, says local farmer, Hugh Trevor-Jones – it’s been here for decades.
“In the late 1960s the local dairy industry went into decline, and many local farms were broken up and sold off to a wave of new settlers,” he explains. “The newcomers – surfers, hippies, people from the Aquarius Festival in Nimbin, and so on – brought their sustainable farming beliefs to the area, and that was the turning point.”
His business, Hayters Hill Farm, has been in the family since 1881, and sells free-range eggs, meat and poultry not because it’s a gimmick, he says, but because that’s what demand dictates.
“Because we have such small-scale farms selling straight to locals, rather than going through supermarkets, we’ve had to adapt to the strong demand for organic produce,” he nods.
But producing ingredients is only half the appeal of Bangalow’s growing food scene, however – there’s an impressive collection of cafés and restaurants to match.
One of the more notable establishments is just a few verandah-ed terraces down the road from the markets at Town. This slick eatery, split into casual Downtown café on the lower level and upmarket Uptown restaurant upstairs, is run by husband-and-wife team Karl and Katrina Kanetani, who share an impressive background having worked at Sydney’s Quay, Tetsuya’s and est. restaurants.
Unsurprisingly, Uptown has been proudly donning one hat from the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide for the past four years, and with ingenious creations like kingfish with ponzu, macadamia and wild rice, and scallops with cauliflower, buckwheat and mustard, the aesthetics here match the taste (part of a five-course degustation, $85).
During our visit, a dessert dish named ‘rainforest’ is the highlight. Cleverly crafted using chocolate ‘soil’, wattle-seed cannoli filled with native Davidson plum ice cream, and a mint-and-basil ‘moss’, it is, quite frankly, art on a plate.
Another must is Harvest Café – situated six kilometres south of the main town in Newrybar, just off the Old Pacific Highway.
There are three parts to this trifecta; a beautifully refurbished 1900s cottage which houses the café restaurant, an adjoining delicatessen, and a 99-year-old bakery at the rear, where you can collect freshly baked sourdough bread on a Saturday morning. Sit with an excellent coffee (or cocktail) on the sprawling verandah and look out on the organic vegetable and herb gardens while you wait for your meal.
But for a humble cup of tea, light snacks or a good ol’ fashioned afternoon ice cream, Pantry 29 on Bangalow’s main drag is perfect. Serving up a range of healthy take-away bites, juices, smoothies, as well as Byron-produced Bun Coffee, this is where to go for a daytime pick-me-up.
You can also snap up a range of local specialty grocery products here – cheeses, jams, chutneys and all sorts of jarred delights. But it’s their house-made gelato that’s the big winner.
Do yourself a favour and sample a scoop (our tip– their Turkish delight gelato).
Or for a post-markets brunch, Utopia Café Restaurant is a 20-second stroll from the stalls and again, takes advantage of the abundance of local produce. Headed by hatted-chef Juan Hernandez (formerly of Sydney’s Wildfire, Aqua Dining and Bacchus restaurants), it’s all about seasonal, modern cuisine at a reasonable price.
For lunch, sample the fish of the day with an olive and feta puree, truffle and honey glazed heirloom carrots, and a cherry tomato jus ($27). Utopia is also open for Friday-night dinners.
Then again, for any newcomer to town, the easiest way to scope out Bangalow’s culinary best is to spend a day wandering up and down the main street (confusingly, named Byron Street). It’s here you’ll find all manner of gastronomic gems to rival Bangalow’s beachside big sister. Just don’t tell the backpackers.
While you’re in the area…
• Grab a local glass. Bangalow Hotel is a typical country pub with four varieties of local beer. Ask for a Stone & Wood Pacific Ale, Lager, Stone Beer and Jasper Ale. Or one of each, even. bangalowhotel.com.au
• Browse the teapots. Red Ginger Asian Food and Home has all manner of Asian delights – various Chinese cooking ingredients, house-made teas and yes, an impressive teapot collection. You can also pick up a range of ready-made dumplings and a complimentary cuppa. 02 6687 2808
• Try a local pastry. Choux Choux Patisserie, at the top of the main drag, does house-baked pastry goods, and they are good. The Angelique is wickedly decadent – a short-crust pastry tart with hazelnut biscuit and strawberry confit, topped in vanilla mousse. 02 6687 1209
• Shop the town. Don’t be fooled by Bangalow’s size – there is some great shopping to be found here. Must-see shops include The New Collector (thenewcollector.blogspot.com) for homewares and antiques, Wax Jambu Emporium for homewares and gifts (waxjambu.com.au), Heath’s Old Wares for an impressive collection of antiques (heathsoldwares.com.au), Island Luxe for fashion (02 6687 1605) and The Rug Shop (orientalcarpets.com.au) for Afghan and Turkish jewellery, Iranian rugs, antiques, dresses, bowls and plates and all kinds of other, miscellaneous eastern trinkets.
• Cook up an appetite. For those who like to be as much a part of the cooking as the eating, Bangalow Cooking School runs regular classes in the town’s historic Agricultural and Industrial (A&I) Hall. A number of renowned local chefs host classes here (including principal Leah Roland, chef at Gaia Retreat and Spa). bangalowcookingschool.com
• Hit the sample plates. The Bangalow Markets are held on the fourth Sunday of every month (not to be confused with the weekly Byron Farmers Markets). Here local artists, artisans, bakers, victuallers, therapists and farmers alike gather under huge camphor laurel trees at the Bangalow Showground and share their fare and wares. bangalowmarket.com.au
Bangalow’s nearest airport is Ballina Byron Airport, with regular flights from Sydney, Newcastle and Melbourne on board Jetstar, Virgin Australia and Regional Express airlines. It’s a 15-minute drive inland from Byron Bay and an hour’s drive south of the Gold Coast.
We stayed at Gaia Retreat and Spa, which is owned by a certain Ms Newton-John and the plushest stay in the area. Fittingly, it’s a culinary experience in itself, with a strong emphasis on healthy, balanced eating, and organic ingredients. gaiaretreat.com.au
There are plenty of other options however – for more info head to bangalow.com or visitnsw.com.