Over four days and four events, foodies, farmers and food producers recently united for the inaugural Harvest Food Festival in celebration of the Autumn harvest and the abundant bounty produced right here in the Northern Rivers.
Organised by industry group Northern Rivers Food, the Harvest Food Festival was held from 21 – 24 April in and around food venues and farms across the region. The paddock to plate programme was kept deliberately small so that the organising committee could ‘plant the seed’ and gauge the level of interest for the viability of a long-term seasonal food festival in the Northern Rivers. I think they got it right as the four events were a sellout and the anecdotal feedback from attendees was “We can’t wait for next year!”
A Welcome Dinner at 100 Mile Table in Byron Bay kicked off events with 50 guests gathering under the party lights for drinks and a celebratory long table feast. The festive spirit was helped along with some live music and arrival tipples including the latest rendition from Stone and Wood Brewery aptly named Big Scrub as well as Quandong and Pear and Finger Lime and Apple cider flavours from local newcomer Byron Bay Wild Cider.
Guests were treated to oysters served two ways – one with a pretty pink Ink Gin and Tonic Granita using gin from the Ink Gin distillery in Tumbulgum and the other with a gutsy dash of Billinudgel Smoked Hot Sauce from the Church Farm General Store team. Seated for dinner the local theme continued to flow with a light and tangy ceviche of locally caught Kingfish. The blockbuster was roasted pork and what I like to call “…I can’t get enough crackling” from Bangalow Sweet Pork served alongside roasted potatoes, charred greens with pancetta from Salumi Australia and Bottarga from Bottarga Australia and iceberg salad dressed with Brookfarm lemon myrtle oil, caramelised lemon and Nimbin Valley Dairy sweet goats cheese. It doesn’t get any more local than that! Chef Sarah Swan and Host Jeremy Burn and their team made the night a magnificent start to the festival.
Day Two saw festival goers up nice and early for an all day Epic Food Tour of the region. You could not have asked for more perfect weather for the day. Under blue and sunny skies the tour bus departed Elements Resort in Byron Bay bound for the macadamia orchards at Brookfarm up on St Helena. Brookfarm owners Pam and Martin Brook greeted guests and gave them an overview of the farm, their philosophy and their plans for the future. There was a tasting of macadamia oil and a goodie bag for the road.
Next stop was Zentveld’s Farm and coffee roastery in Newrybar. Hosted by Rebecca and John Zentveld and their team, guests enjoyed a mid-morning brew and homemade brownies overlooking the coffee orchards. Rebecca explained the coffee growing process and guests were able to witness a coffee roasting in action. There were more goodie bags to take away before the bus headed inland to Rainforest Foods in Alstonville for a taste and lesson in Australian bush food.
It’s a family affair at Rainforest Foods where Anthony Houston and his wife work alongside Anthony’s parents on their picturesque property overlooking the adjacent plateau. Anthony introduced guests to a variety of bush foods including the Davidson’s plum, native limes, tamarind and lemon myrtle.
There was another generous goodie bag before it was time to head to The Spotted Pig in Alphadale for a luscious lunch of local produce. Hosted by Chef Iohne and Host Emily, the lunch inside the restored former church was a delectable feast of more local flavours including house marinated Jiggi olives and Nimbin Valley Dairy Cheese to start followed by ‘The Pig’s’ famous Caesar salad featuring Mount Warning smoked chicken, Summerville’s bacon, Numulgi quail eggs and Eltham Valley lettuce. There was also a Nimbin Valley Dairy blue cheese, baked pear and rocket salad with a macadamia and honey dressing and roasted Autumn vegetables. Iohne did great justice to the produce and as we were leaving we watched her in the kitchen prepping some generous beef cuts for another feast all local of course! The Epic Food Tour was a great opportunity to meet real farmers, see their properties and really appreciate the farm to fork philosophy that exists across the Northern Rivers region. Farm tourism is certainly an area that should be explored up here, but it’s a delicate balance, as the primary purpose of most farms is food production and most farmers just don’t have time in their round the clock schedules to host visitors. That said, with the support of industry groups and vested interests such as councils and government, I feel they could collectively assist with making it more viable to get things off the ground. We’ll see. The food tour was a real privilege for all and the day ended appropriately where it began at Elements where guests enjoyed a final farewell drink of Ink Gin and Tonic and a private tour through the resort grounds.
Thankfully Saturday (Day 3) had a much later start – time to recover before a Sunset by the River Dinner at The Point in Ballina overlooking the Richmond River. Our host for the event was Michael Dlask from Salumi Australia and Bottarga Australia who explained that the afternoon was all about focusing on local, sustainable seafood. Guest speaker for the evening was the extremely knowledgeable and delightful Lucy Ashley from Shuck Oysters. Lucy gave diners a great insight into the importance of sustainable seafood – although she didn’t need to win the crowd there! She also shared her expert knowledge of the oyster industry both locally and nationally as well as a few tips on how to eat oysters. Her favourite ways to serve oysters right now are with finger lime and sake, with shredded cucumber and lime juice or in a shot glass with vodka, blood orange and shredded mint. How do you choose? For dinner, Chef Mariano Perpignano prepared local Brunswick Seed Oysters served three – the N’duja crumbs, Church Farm Billinudgel Brown Sauce and Finger Lime were my favourite! This was followed by local confit octopus and smoked potato with fennel, orange and creamed parsley and for the main course diners were treated to lemon myrtle hot smoked salmon, bottarga foam, guanciale (cured pork cheek), butter roasted Jerusalem artichoke salsa agresto. Are you full yet?
The final event on the festival programme was a shared Picnic Lunch at the gorgeous Mavis’s Kitchen beneath Mount Warning in Uki. The rustic long table lunch was held in a barn style setting complete with hay bales, hessian bunting and wheelbarrows of harvested produce styled by owners Peter and Charlie. The vista overlooking the dam with low clouds blanketing Mount Warning was pretty as a picture and it really felt like a change in season was happening. Guests shared charcuterie from Salumi Australia, fried haloumi from Debra Allard at Cheeses Loves You, Grumpy Grandma’s olives and Crabbes Creek Woodfired Sourdough – it was like I had just shopped for myself at the Mullumbimby Farmers Market! For mains guests shared roasted loins of Bangalow Sweet Pork with roasted potatoes and buttered Cudgen Fresh vegetables. To finish there was a dessert bar featuring a selection of Nimbin Valley Dairy cheeses, homemade pavlova, macadamia brownies and finger lime cheesecake.
What a wonderful four days and four events celebrating local farmers, local producers, local chefs and the teams that support them! The inaugural Harvest Food Festival was a round trip from paddock to plate showcasing the abundance of delicious food that exists here right under our noses. We live in a privileged and beautiful food bowl and the inaugural Harvest Food Festival taster has only just scratched the service. I can’t wait for next year.
Review – Sarah McGrory – www.getforkedandfly.com
Photos – Kirra Pendergast