AUSTRALIA, QLD: Taste of the TropicsIt’s known as the Fruit Bowl of the World and they rightly boast about it too. Besides all the restaurants and cafes this region offers an authentic taste sensation at small roadside stalls and outdoor farmers markets; exotic fruits of all kinds, spices, vegetables as well as traditional aboriginal herbs, roots and plants. Add to that tea, coffee and sugar plantations and yore in food paradise.
AUTHOR and PHOTOGRAPHER: ©Shane Boocock 2009
Tropical North Queensland has always produced an abundant source of healthy and nutritious foods, from the Coral Sea to the farmlands of rich volcanic soils on the tablelands – this part of Australia is surely the larder in the lucky country.
It’s known as the Fruit Bowl of the World and they rightly boast about it too. Besides all the restaurants and cafes this region offers an authentic taste sensation at small roadside stalls and outdoor farmers markets; exotic fruits of all kinds, spices, vegetables as well as traditional aboriginal herbs, roots and plants. Add to that tea, coffee and sugar plantations and you have a home grown industry to rival none.
On my first day on the road I stopped at a picturesque spot to take some holiday snaps and suddenly realised the tree under which I was shading was festooned with wild mango, hanging limp like baubles on some forgotten Christmas tree. On the opposite side of the road was one of Queensland’s best known crops, sugarcane - giant spring onions is how one local lovingly referred to them.
Later that morning a local aboriginal named Brendon lead a group of us along the foreshore pointing out white berries that retain water – good for rinsing the eyes after swimming, edible hibiscus flowers that retain water for rehydration, as well as a host of other food sources that each generation teaches the next. We slipped off our footwear and were led into the mangrove swamp. Here Brendon was in his element explaining where to catch mud crabs, how to spot and dig for big mud mussels and where tasty periwinkles cling to mangrove roots! As Brendon pointed out, “The mangrove system is the last in line on the oceans food chain.”
From farms to forks. It’s no wonder then that the northern tropics has some of the finest restaurants and eateries in the world and that it attracts some of the best chefs from every part of the globe. The unique eco-system and diverse micro climate regions ensure that there is a year round bounty of fresh produce.
From branch to bottle. It’s also got a reputation for wineries and distilleries that cater to a growing market in boutique wines and liqueurs from fruits such as lychee, mulberry, mango, plum, banana, coffee, bush cherry, star apple and passionfruit.
In the Atherton Tablelands I tagged along on a Mareebe Food Trail Tour to experience and sample the district’s bounty firsthand. In the cooler climate at higher elevations I tucked into some of the regions more exotic fruits; longans, rambutan, durian, ducasse, and jackfruit. I splurged on homemade tropical fruit ice cream, and visited a macadamia farm as well as a coffee plantation and a tropical fruit winery – each stop a sample of what was to come later.
Shane and Amy Salmons, were one of the couples enjoying the Food Trail Tour. “We decided to escape to a warmer climate for our honeymoon and chose a week in Northern Queensland and then a week to drive slowly down to the Gold Coast,” said Amy as she dreamily ate a boysenberry-flavoured ice cream.
A few days later in Cooktown I popped into one of only three surviving Charlotte Street pubs for fish and chips and a cold ‘stubbie.’ The West Coast Hotel is as close to an outback tavern as you’ll find anywhere. I’d only just started my meal when a young buckaroo strode up to a stool at the bar and ordered a handle of Victoria bitter and without so much as hello mate, said to anyone listening, “Just up from Melbourne. Want to catch me a barramundi and see a croc!” A local Aborigine sitting on the stool next to him turned and replied, “Well you’ll only find dead ones in here mate.”
This region also has its fair share of ethnic eateries. One night I gorged on a spicy Penang curry at the Bayleaf Balinese Restaurant in Cairns. This is the only authentic Indonesian restaurant in the city and it is well frequented by in-house Bayleaf Hotel guests and locals alike.
Another great place for ‘foodies’ to visit in Cairns is Oliver’s Australian Cuisine restaurant in the heart of downtown. I started with an entrée of emu and croc each cooked three different ways. My main course selection was grilled coral trout filled with kangaroo prosciutto, served on a creamy bed of potatoes, sautéed garlic beans and shallots vinaigrette with mountain pepper. The food is rich and textured with delicate little touches. It’s not to everyone’s taste but it does offer an indigenous twist on modern cuisine.
Green Island is a 45-minute boat ride away from Cairns and for those visitors wanting a bit of privacy there is no better place. It offers the overnight guest the opportunity to dine at exclusive Emerald Restaurant. The main course on the menu du jour the night I stayed was spaghetti marinara with mussels, tiger prawns, ocean trout and calamari tossed with garlic and chilli. For desert I ate by candlelight under a full moon and savoured a cherry pancetta served with cinnamon filo twist and cherry sauce - it left me wanting more.
Even harder to forget was my lunchtime carnivorous steak burger at the aptly named Lion’s Den Hotel built in coastal bush in 1875; the pints here weren’t bad either.
True to form on my first day in Queensland I devoured a bucket of prawns at On the Inlet in Port Douglas and then ate a memorable dinner at the Thala Beach Resort where Osprey’s Restaurant is nestled at treetop height, a truly spectacular setting and lip-smacking meal.
Back in downtown Cairn’s I somehow stumbled upon the carnival-like atmosphere of Rusty’s Market where delicatessens sell specialty foodstuffs, beside a veritable smorgasbord of freshly harvested produce and preservatives neatly displayed.
Another memorable night out was when I dined at the Angsana Resort in Palm Beach – the only restaurant right on the beach. It was all the more enjoyable as the melodic sounds of gently crashing waves floated into their open-air dining room where Bali-inspired cloth ceiling fans wafted in harmony.
Getting rave reviews is the contemporary Blue Sky Brewery in Cairns. This brewhouse offers a behind the scene Tiki-tour and then you get to sample matching beers with suitable dishes – it makes a nice change. Even the waterfront has now been transformed into a cloister of eating establishments with favourites such as Dundee’s Restaurant – a popular tourist spot with a menu to match any in Cairns.
So indulge in a moveable feast and a foodie lover’s haven in Tropical North Queensland.
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