Australia has a strong epicurean tradition. The Hunter, Yarra and Barossa Valleys, together with the Margaret River region, are world-renowned. Now a lesser- explored gourmet destination, in a region better known for its rainforest and reefs, is luring visitors over the mountain range from Cairns to carve a trail through one of the country’s richest food bowls.
Thanks to a creative group of growers and artisanal producers, North Queensland’s Atherton Tablelands – a region prized for its fecund volcanic soils and tropical climate – is putting itself on the culinary map.
You won’t find many white tablecloths here, but what you will find are rustic farm cafés, roadside stalls and fruit plantations sprinkled among undulating pastures, snatches of UNESCO World Heritage-listed rainforest, tumbling waterfalls and crater lakes. It all makes the region ideal for a memorable road trip with a heavy foodie focus.
You can smell Gallo Dairyland before you see it. Coupled with its twin feeding silos reaching for the heavens, incongruous against pastures of iridescent green, the farm is hard to miss. At milking time, a herd of some 350 dairy cows lumber, teats engorged, into the rotary shed against a cacophony of magpie geese, ibis and whistling ducks.
“There are more varieties of birds here than Kakadu,” laughs Frank Gallo, a large dimple forming across the 74-year-old’s cheek. Gallo is a second-generation farmer and head of a dairy enterprise that today spans four generations. In 1937, his Italian-born father bought a 160-acre property in East Barron, set alongside a river of the same name and the Seven Sisters hills. When Gallo took over the running of the estate, he had grand plans to expand the acreage and diversify, turning the farm into an educational experience for visitors. In 2007, Gallo Dairyland was born, producing award-winning cheese and handmade chocolates, with opportunities for visitors to explore the 1,000-acre farm, its restaurant and café.
The evolution of the family business came down to hard work and a bit of luck: a Swiss-born retired food scientist just happened to move in nearby and, as it turns out, wasn’t that committed to retirement. Many of the 17 cheese varieties and 55 chocolate flavours are inspired by him. The family turns over 500 kilos of cheese a week and about a tonne of premium chocolate – made using high-quality couverture imported from Switzerland – every two months.
The chocolate macadamia is a top seller, and, as for the cheese, don’t miss the creamy blue Gallozola or the soft Rainforest with spring onions and chives. You can also watch the cows being milked, poke your head into the animal nursery, and observe the cheesemakers and chocolatiers at work. It’ll be difficult deciding what to have, but a cheese tasting platter will help.
It was an aversion of an altogether different kind – to the cold – coupled with a love of fine liquor that inspired Mark Watkins to open Mt Uncle Distillery. Watkins dreamed of becoming a winemaker but, being a Queenslander born in the tropics, he couldn’t stomach the cold grape-growing climes down south.
Instead he decided to channel his studies – in environmental science and wine science – into distilling liquor, a hobby forged in a backyard cubbyhouse (an Australian term for playhouse) as a teenager. “It was a pretty primitive setup but we got a small jar out of it,” Watkins says of his days as a 16-year-old making bootleg vodka with rotten potatoes. “I gave it to my mate. It didn’t kill him, but it didn’t taste good.”
Today, Watkins makes craft whisky, rum, vodka, gin and liqueurs at a distillery on his family property in Walkamin, set amid a banana plantation at the foot of Mt Uncle. Watkins’ mission is to create premium spirits with a distinctive Australian flavour. This includes locally harvested honey mash in the vodka, sugarcane syrup in the rum and 14 homegrown botanicals – including lilly pilly (riberry) and finger limes – in the gin. Each bottle of gin is made with the purest water, fed from a natural spring that flows via an ancient subterranean river from the neighbouring mountains.
During your visit, indulge in a tasting paddle at the cellar door: the Sexy Cat liqueur – with rosewater, vodka, raspberry and liquid marshmallow – is a taste sensation. Soak up the alcohol with a pizza at the adjacent Bridges Bar and Restaurant. Before getting back in the car, have a meander on the property where you can meet some of the resident rescue animals, including alpacas, donkeys and goats.
When you’re ready for a pick-me-up, make your way to the savannah lands of Mareeba, north of Atherton town, where you’ll find the Skybury plantation. Standing amid rows of coffee plants, second-generation farmer Candy MacLaughlin kneads an unripe coffee cherry between her thumb and forefinger. The green fruit is not much bigger than a sultana but in a few months, this crop – husked, dried, roasted and ground – will be served in cafés in Paris, Tokyo and New York.
There’s a very good reason for Skybury Coffee’s success. There are not many coffee plantations where a scientist in a white lab coat tinkers with equipment in a sterile room, working not on coffee, but rather on plump, juicy papayas. The ones at Skybury are cloned from a superior South African variety (GM-free), producing a sweet, fragrant flesh. Why, you might ask? “We’ve always, I guess, been mavericks in challenging the norms,” says Skybury business development manager Paul Fagg, Candy’s husband.
In 2016, Skybury – a 360-acre plantation – experimented with interplanting papaya with coffee plants. This technique, picked up in Brazil by patriarch Ian MacLaughlin, enables the coffee plants to thrive in the protective shade of the papaya. The first crop of premium shade-grown green beans hit the European market in August 2017, fetching double the regular price at S$42 a kilo. “It had a great taste in terms of freshness, acidity and depth of flavour,” Candy says.
These nonconformist methods have made Skybury Australia’s largest green coffee exporter. The plantation has million-dollar views too – the café overlooks a wide swathe of green, and is the perfect spot to enjoy a cup of Skybury’s finest brew.
Round off your gourmet adventure with a sweet ending. After all, who can resist an ice cream in the humid heat of tropical North Queensland? And when you’re an ice-creamery situated slap-bang on the highway close to the junction of four major state roads leading north, south, east and west, trade is feverish and measured in scoops – about 600 of them on a good day. “I equate it to when you are in the supermarket; where do you put the naughty things? Right there at the checkout,” says chief ice cream maker Geoff Dixon of Emerald Creek Ice-Creamery’s fortuitous location.
Dixon and his family were formerly mango, avocado and passionfruit farmers. Nine years ago, they sought a new fruit-based venture and bought an ice-creamery business (equipment and recipes) and a property on Mareeba’s main road, which is now the production headquarters and retail face of the business.
The family makes 45 flavours of gelato and sorbet using local ingredients such as dragon fruit, wattleseed and lilly pilly. Visitors can watch the ice cream being made through a viewing window and enjoy a sweet treat to bookend their Atherton Tablelands road trip.
How to get there:
Starting in Cairns, you can either drive clockwise over the Gillies Range, or anticlockwise over the Kuranda Range. The drive can be completed in a rough circuit, but it’s best to base yourself in Atherton or Yungaburra for a few days.
Please check the establishments’ respective websites for opening hours as well as booking and seating requirements before visiting, and remember to adhere to safe-distancing measures while out and about.
This article was originally published in the March 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine