Pack an Esky and head off on a spectacular road journey from Batemans Bay to Eden, to support businesses recovering from the bushfire disaster.
There's a sign out the front of the fish shop by the bridge at Narooma that reads, "To our locals and tourists. We greatly appreciate your support." And it's heartfelt. You see similar signs all along this 200km stretch of the South Coast starting just four hours south of Sydney. Oyster growers, bakers, brewers, coffee roasters, cheesemakers and fruit growers are grateful that people are already coming back to enjoy this beautiful part of Australia. Since spending three days here last week, weekend rains have doused many of the fires still burning in the hinterland. For almost all our route, except a few devastating areas, much of the forest and countryside was saved from flames. Along the coast the water is sparkling sapphire blue, and the beaches are a shade of yellow that glows gold at dawn and dusk. Locals are rattled but honestly appreciate seeing a smiling customer walk through the door of their shop, farm gate, cafe, or restaurant.
The Sandbar, Batemans Bay
Local chef David Tinker trained in this area, went to London and became Pierre Gagnaire's sous chef at Michelin-starred Sketch. He now has The Sandbar, an underrated and understated restaurant under a non-descript motel. A consummate chef, he was so engrossed in meal prep on New Year's Eve he didn't get the text from the RFS to evacuate. "I raced home. The fire was coming down the hill towards the backyard. The wife and kids were scrambling to get in the car to get away." Tinker is back at his restaurant with his wife, Tomoyo. Together they will guide you through a degustation menu of four or six courses of delicate dishes. Tinker balances classic French technique with Japanese influences using fresh local produce. "We lost $12,000 of stock that night," he says. "Thankfully, it was only cash."
Beach Road, Batemans Bay, 0418 411 940
The River, Moruya
There's an old house by the river in the heart of this timber town, its dining room looking over the sparkling water to the hills in the distance. Here chef Pete Compton, ex Circa and Bacash, Melbourne, always suggests you start with oysters. They are good. He gets them from his mate Glenn Jones at Tuross Heads. Compton has deep respect for the local seafood, presenting it simply, it might be succulent chunks of raw tuna with hints of fresh chives and ginger served with fine strips of calamari fried in rice flour batter.
16b Church Street, 02 4474 5505, therivermoruya.com.au
After evacuating to Wollongong, chef Huw Jones, his wife Renee and 14-month-old son George are now back in their beautiful old home and restaurant in Pambula. Huw is in the kitchen boning out a chicken for his galantines. He serves slices of this with liver crostini and plump, ripe figs. They are strict followers of local and seasonal, so only offer a set three-course menu of simple, elegant, classic bistro dishes served in their former bank building. They have a strong following of locals who have kept business ticking along. "Restaurants are important places for people for feel a sense of normality," he says. "The threat of fires flaring up has seen tempers flare. He sits us down with a superb dish of imperador, a tender deep water fish served with tomato beurre blanc and dauphinoise potato. Their food is not just technically good, it is beautifully reassuring that everything in this part of the world will be OK.
22 Quondola Street, Pambula, 02 6495 7172, banksiarestaurant.com.au
Il Passaggio, Bermagui
Pasta, pizza and local seafood served in this bright and breezy local institution overlooking a fleet of fishing boats.
Shop 5, 73-79 Lamont Street, Bermagui, 02 6493 5753, ilpassaggio.com.au
Alfresco Coffee, Moruya
One of the owners is an RFS volunteer and has spent a lot of time recently putting out fires. He is part of a team of serious coffee roasters. They directly source single-origin beans from small growers, and the coffee is testament to that. Their cafe is kitted out with polished cable drums and shelves lined with desirable coffee machines.
15b Church Street, Moruya, alfrescocoffee.com.au
Mister Hope, Bermagui
Owner Steve Hope is a musician and is looking forward to the cool of winter. Come the solstice he will be celebrating by projecting the highly influential 1922 silent German horror film Nosferatu on the back wall of this small coffee palace, him accompanying the film on the harmonium. His coffee and snacks are also very good.
4 Bunga Street, Bermagui
The Tathra Wharf is home to an excellent cafe. Photo: Richard Cornish
The Wharf Local, Tathra
Sisters Emma and Poppy Benton are a Iittle frazzled. They have been evacuated five times in recent weeks. But they have continued to serve good coffee and great brunch dishes such as pumpkin and brie tart. Emma looks through the old loading bays of their historic 1900s wharf warehouse, to the rolling surf and, beyond, the sacred mountain Mumbala, brown in patches from the fires. "We're bloody lucky we didn't lose the lot," she says.
Wharf Road, Tathra
A bright, corner cafe near the river serving breakfast dishes such as shakshuka. Come at night for dishes such as king prawns in peri-peri or Sri Lankan goat curry.
3/5 Wallaga Lake Road, Bermagui
Tilba Valley Winery and Ale House, Corunna
This is a very relaxed bar in a shed. The setting is rustic, looking over the vineyard to the forest. Sit on the deck and enjoy small-batch beers brewed by owner Jamie Smith. With good pub grub, wines made in-house, and weekend musicians.
947 Old Highway, Corunna, tilbavalley.com.au
Tathra Hotel, Tathra
This old weatherboard hotel has stood on the headland since 1888 and survived the 2018 Tathra fires. This is a ripper of an pub with a brilliant view out to sea and a brewery in what was the pokies room. Try the Humpback Brewery First Calf Pale Ale and order a dozen Tathra oysters.
8-12 Bega Street, Tathra, 02 6494 1101, tathrahotel.com.au
Longstocking Brewery, Pambula
Owner Joey Cunnigham puts a figure on the way the fires have effected the food and tourism business. "Numbers are down 90 per cent," she says. "We were mentioned in Hansard!" She and her husband own this beautiful micro-brewery out on the river flats under the trees just outside of Pambula. Come for the beer and freshly shucked oysters.
3546 Princes Highway, Pambula, longstocking.com.au
North of Eden, Stony Creek
Up in the hills outside Bega, in an old shed overlooking farmland, is a little distillery where Gavin Hughes and Karen Touchie make gin using botanicals they grow on their farm. Now the rain has come Hughes is reopening the cellar door and gin school.
Oyster marketing, South Coast-style. Photo: Richard Cornish
Places to fill the esky
The Oyster Shed, Batemans Bay
The fire raced down Clyde Mountain and stopped at the edge of the Clyde estuary where the Ralston family has been growing oysters for four generations. To date the oysters taste as good as they ever have. Look for the little blue shed with the "Eat Oysters. Love Longer" sign.
5 Wray Street, North Batemans Bay
Wapengo Rocks, Wapengo
Down a winding road on the banks of Wapengo Lake, just south of Bermagui, is a little hut where you can buy these certified organic oysters straight from the grower, Shane Buckley. His oysters are really, really good at present. Before the weekend floods he predicted the rains would extinguish the flames but runoff could effect water quality. "That's mother nature."
Tathra Oysters, Tathra
These are the oysters Neil Perry loves. You can swim with them at Nelson Lagoon in Mimosa Rocks National Parks, where you'll see the pristine environment in which Tathra Oysters grow. It's a small estuary, surrounded by spotted gums in which sea eagles nest. Buy the oysters from the Rodley family at their house in Tathra.
Honor Bread, Bermagui
Tim and Honor Northam bake some of the best sourdough bread in the state, and you buy it directly from a hole in the wall in their Bunga Street bakery.
Eden Smokehouse, Eden
Stan Soroka makes bright, clean-finishing gravlax and silky smooth yet punchy smoked salmon and excellent bacon in his smokehouse by the Eden Wharf.
Narooma Bridge Seafoods, Narooma
The fishing boat The Talisman pulls up at the pier under the Narooma Bridge. Here the McCulloch family unload rock lobsters (just $85 a kilogram at present), kingfish, mahi-mahi, and other fish they wild catch in the waters off Narooma. "We appreciate every customer," says employee Kirsty-Lee McCoy. "It has been a hard haul and there's a long winter ahead."
Under the Narooma Bridge, Princes Highway, (north side) Narooma.
Richard Cornish visited the area as a guest of Destination New South Wales; for more information visitnsw.com