I’m not going to sugar-coat it, especially as there is already plenty of sweetness on Brett’s Outback Tasting Adventures through the Atherton Tablelands, about an hour from Cairns. But the 263 twists and turns along the Gillies Highway up into the Cairns Highlands, is not for faint-hearted – nor for the hungover or anyone with an aversion to car sickness or high altitudes.
Like any scenic drive, the views are the perfect remedy to any of these ailments, as is the anticipation of eating our way through the tropical Atherton Tablelands peppered with historic townships and majestic rainforests bearing fruit. Brett is a lively host and shares, “The food bowl of Northern Queensland is an untapped destination.”
It’s easy to see why so many immigrants once recruited for the mining and logging industries didn’t return home and instead gave back to the land by cultivating cattle farms and orchards of mangoes, papayas, bananas, lychees, avocados, sugar cane, vineyards, coffee plantations and distilleries. The Cairns Highlands is alive with bounty thriving from bio-dynamic and organic farming principles and an unexpected yet delicious spot for a food tour through the Atherton Tablelands
Our first stop is at Sunset Ridge where I’m introduced to the tangy crimson flesh of Davidson plum. It’s easy to see why the owners Ken and Sue Pyke chose this spot with rolling views over the tablelands when they were looking for somewhere to live in 1987. They began with just 6 trees and now have 1,000’s of indigenous trees and plants over 33 hectares. We sample pork chipolatas and corn and zucchini fritters with their signature Davidson plum, apple and chilli jam, and complete the decadence with house-made pillows of marshmallow flavoured with rainforest delight, lemon myrtle and wild plum.
Leaving this gorgeous spot, we head to Rainforest Bounty who sustainably grow native rainforest fruits using organic farming methods. We’re treated to platters of native condiments such as Davidson plum and strawberry paste (likened to a quince paste), a plum and blueberry conserve, lilly pilly (aka rainforest berries) chutney with nutmeg, green mango and tamarind chutney, plum sauce and a Laos-inspired roasted chilli paste. This onslaught of flavours is paired with local cheeses such as macadamia cheese, vintage cheddar and camembert from Gallo Dairyland, who along with 16 types of cheeses also source some of the finest couverture for their chocolates.
Gallo Dairyland is also on the tour as is the iconic Humpy, a gourmet outlet stocking much of the exotic produce found in the region – I highly recommend the dried mango and roasted macadamia nuts.
Nestled at the base of Mount Uncle and set in a banana plantation with roaming peacocks, alpacas, donkeys and goats is the aptly name Mt. Uncle Distillery. The distillery is known for their barrel-aged rum, vodka, single malt whiskey and gin – the bushfire smoked gin is an intense ingredient for Bloody Mary’s or oysters.
But wait there’s more – a coffee stop at Jacques Coffee Plantation, Roastery and Café is followed by an inconspicuous platypus sighting and afternoon tea at the Australian Platypus Park. Dinner is a tasty mix of Italian meets Swiss cuisine at Nick’s Swiss-Italian Restaurant. After eating all day, Nick cheers us on with recommendations like the house-made pasta and Yodellers Delight specialty featuring smoked pork Kassler and frankfurter sausage.
We spend the night at the delightfully rustic and self-contained Canopy Treehouses, which are ideally situated in the region to collect goodies along the way to be prepared and savoured in the tree canopy or around the communal campfire. The eco-resort is set within 100 acres of ancient rainforest and teeming with wildlife (most of it welcome), including the resident cassowaries only found in Tropical North Queensland.
The following morning breakfast is a magical experience as the owners Clayton and Lucy Baird set up long tables around the campfire laden with bounty foraged from the forest floor, including Davidson plum, rare nuts and a range of berries and native spices. The buckwheat pancakes with kefir (fermented ricotta) with salted butter and honey stay etched on my palate months later.
Our last stop on the trail is Skybury Café & Roastery, a coffee and papaya plantation serving all things coffee and papaya related. It’s worth dispelling any pre-conceived notions you have about papaya, as the variety we grow in WA is less flavoursome compared to the sweet red variety grown in the Atherton Tableland’s ideal tropical growing conditions.
They handpick 220,000 kilos of papaya per week during the harvest season – to think they only planted papaya to supplement the income generated from coffee and to also provide shade to the coffee trees. They roast coffee every day and are one of the largest exporters of Arabica coffee in Australia. They also breed cows, which were originally brought in to control the weeds, making the beef very sweet and tender thanks to the rich antioxidants in their diet of papaya.
Talk about a delicious food tour through the Atherton Tablelands served up to the table(lands.)
There are direct flights to Cairns Australia-wide with Jetstar and Qantas and for more information about the region go to www.tropicalnorthqueensland.org.au For your own taste of the Atherton Tablelands, many of the operators mentioned have online stores and ship Australia wide.
Carmen Jenner was a guest of Tropical North Queensland, Brett’s Outback Tasting Adventures and Canopy Treehouses. This article was originally issued in Menu Magazine Issue 28.