Unwrapping Shoalhaven—Berry, Milton and Mollymook

We woke early while the sky was still dark—the air outside was delicate and cool. The sky gradually began to soften to a blue and clouds blushed with pink as they waited for the sun to rise. And he rose, very subtly at first, as if afraid to rise. Rosemarie was getting impatient and loudly wondered what was holding him. Then bit by bit, he covered the pearly morning haze with pale, pure white light. And behold, the earth woke up sparkling with brilliant greens and blues—a kaleidoscope of colours stimulating our soul. It was a perfect sunrise, one to be savoured and not squandered. The first orange hued rays of sunrise kissed the lush green landscape with the same loving tenderness a king would his lover, upon his return after a long period of absence.

In Shoalhaven, on this holiday, we discovered that there is a musical silence in sunrise. It appears that the soul hears a melody that the ears cannot. A new day had arrived, with a fresh new page to write stories yet to be revealed. And so, after bidding farewell to our gracious hosts at Mt Hay Retreat, we began unwrapping Shoalhaven further.

There is no shortage of beautiful places to visit in Shoalhaven in NSW. From sprawling fields, to rolling green hills, gorgeous towns and a sea coast that boasts of a hundred beaches. It has amazing food and historic architecture. And on this glorious sunny morning we cruised down the grassy green hill towards the picture- perfect town of Berry. It lies on the northern most part of Shoalhaven and just a three-hour ride from Canberra.

It’s a picturesque town with tree-lined streets, heritage 150-year-old buildings, antique shops and colourful markets. The streets were filled with smiling cheerful people. There is a chatter between sellers and buyers. Excited yelps of old friends catching up and polite conversation of new friends made. There is hustle and bustle and gaiety and the town is full of life.

Berry is renowned for its many award-winning restaurants. And among its residents are some of the most passionate people we ever met. Men and women who have made this town popular with their contributions. Today, we hoped to meet a few of them through a food tour around Berry.

Cameron, our food guide, is a merry soul from Foodscape Tours. He led us to our first stop—The Berry Chocolatier run by Sonya and Simon. The Berry Chocolatier is a joyful business that brings smiles on the faces of everyone that visits it.  We believe that the chocolates here are crafted with lots of love. When Sonya speaks about her chocolates, she does so with amore and affection. The liquid chocolate (54.5 per cent dark pure Belgian cacao) we tried was divine and if we weren’t on a food tour, we would have had another mug full of this soft, decadent brew. We saw a cacao bean in the store and marvelled at its journey to become a soft brown decadent sweet. Chocolate is beautiful—the way it glistens when melted and crumbles when it is hard.  We loved every moment we spent in the shop and will definitely return the next time we tour these parts.

The next store in the tour was Flavours Shoalhaven.  Meet Liney and John, an inspirational couple who turned their hobby into a successful business. They worked with a missionary zeal, passion and hard work. They believed in their craft and all the hard work paid off when the business transformed into wholesale business. But the doughty couple soon turned that wholesale business into a retail business and now into an online business. But one can easily tell why they are successful.

This effervescent couple treat every product in their shop as their own child. They know the history of the product and everyone and every incident involved with it. They treat their customers and suppliers as their friends. Theirs is a business that sells fine food products but what they indirectly do is inspire you to develop flavours with the products they sell. And so, Flavours Shoalhaven sells you inspirations to create scrumptious meals—what a delightful business indeed!

Our next stop was at South Coast Providores, creators of the acclaimed marinated baby figs and dukkah products under the Far Meadow Lodge label in Berry for the last 12 years. We were introduced to Julie and Geoff, who took us on a journey of flavours.

Chutneys,marmalades and balsamic dressings are made from scratch and every other product they sell is made in their modest shop kitchen using only local produce and lots of love. The rich aromas from the kitchen are heady and delightful—drawing passer-by’s into the shop. Julie is also know for a fresh hot food like lasagnas and sausage rolls which have locals calling in over the phone to make bookings! A small tip… don’t leave without Julie’s special salted caramel fudge.

Our last stop on the food tour was at Nourish Kitchen + Lifestyle. The store’s philosophy is about sharing life with good food among good friends, sourced locally and sustainably as possible and using only the best kitchen equipment available. The concept store is owned by Michelle Darlington who appeared in the first ever series of MasterChef Australia. It could be a good store to visit, perhaps to look for novelty gifts for family and friends. We especially enjoyed sampling the maple syrup with bourbon in it!

That was the end of our food tour. We bid farewell to Cameron. He was great company, full of useful information and very helpful. Perhaps on our next visit, we would enlist his services for the wine tour his company organises. But for now, our short time in Berry was over and we headed off towards Milton, another charming historic town in Shoalhaven. Our lodgings for the evening were at Milton Country Retreat also known as The Chocolate Cottages.

It took a little over an hour of driving from Berry to reach Milton, renowned for its arts and craft shops, fine restaurants and designer stores. We were here for a night before heading back home to Canberra the next day. So, we headed off straight to the retreat to meet the gorgeous Cassandra—a genteel personality who loves to pamper her guests with silky smooth chocolate!

Earlier as we drove through Milton towards this 25-acre property, we felt like we were on a treasure hunt. Following a set of directions given to us, we spotted a sign that read ‘Milton Country Retreat’ on Woodburn Road. We entered a private road and stopped outside an automated gate and pressed a button—the door opened. We continue to drive down the road—instructions urge us on towards a second gate. So we drove on through a canopy of trees, until we reached said gate. Once again, we simply pressed a button and the gates opened automatically. We drove past the main house and a pool, past an old tractor and a curious horse and parked beside a sign that said ‘office’. As we walked through the garden, we spotted the radiant Cassandra.

The Hayshed Cottage we were staying at was designed to complement the surrounding heritage farm buildings. The façade is of an old hayshed with galvanised iron walls, barn door and an iron roof. But wait! Don’t let this fool you because the façade hides a luxurious three bedroom and two bathroom cottage inside. The cottage has a distinctive character that imparts a loveable timeworn look. It’s spacious and comfortable with a fully-equipped kitchen. What we loved about the cottage was its exposed beams, rustic furniture that boasted a bucolic look and not forgetting the fireplace.

The landscape outside is magnificent. We spotted a herd of grazing cows and tried to grab their attention. They all looked up simultaneously and stared for a few minutes. They then decided to ignore us and walked away. We saw a lone Kangaroo hop by and disappear into the thicket. There were also horses on the property. If asked to describe how we felt in one word, then that word would be ‘serene’.

Rosemarie was busy with her camera, I was busy trying to woo the mooing cows to come back and the kangaroo was busy in the bush. Our hostess was busy too, laying a picnic for us in the middle of the property. She hinted that she had a decadent surprise for us.

After freshening up, we sat on fur lined bench us and watched the overhead sun gallop towards the west. Our table was laid in the middle of a field and seated there we saw a strange shaped mountain. Cassandra sprung upon us with her surprise treat— it was an intricately carved chocolate toadstool garden and cocktails to compliment.

“It’s called Pigeon House Mountain,” said Cassandra. “The indigenous tribe call it Didthol, meaning a woman’s breast.” So we sat watching Didthol, savouring our chocolate and cocktails. The kangaroo reappeared and hopped right across us and we sat there chatting until the cows went home.

Just as the last rays of the sun smooched the bushland and the blue sky transitioned into shade of periwinkle, we arose and decided to head to the beach and then to dinner. We stopped at Collers Beach to soak in the sea breeze and watch the winter surfers do their thing. It was low tide when we got there, but that made it a great deal of fun for the dogs that were running from one end to the other, tails wagging profusely. After a short wander, we headed to Rick Stein at Bannisters for dinner.

Establish in 2009 by celebrity chef Rick Stein, the menu reflects Rick’s enthusiasm for simple cooking with local South Coast produce. Apart from British and French flavours, South East Asian and South Asian dishes were also featured on the menu, in fact two menus, as they had dinner specials as well.

We began the night we a dozen freshly shucked Narooma oysters with lemon and eschallot vinegar. Isn’t that what you do when in the South Coast? Indulge in plump juicy oysters? The first oyster was slurped ‘naked’ without any toppings… followed by a few more with either a dash of lemon or vinegar. Ultimately, naked oysters won! The natural flavour of a freshly shucked oyster is rather ambrosial and it was a great way to start dinner. It had whet our appetite for what we were going to savour next.

It was time for mains and while the Singapore chilli crab sounded delicious when read off the menu; we were not in the mood to eat with our hands. Instead, we ordered steamed whole barramundi with ginger, chilli, coriander, mushrooms, spring onions and soya sauce and roasted duck breast with confit duck leg croquette, pommes puree and red wine sauce. When eating fish, we have always preferred it steamed and at Rick Steins, the soft flaky white meat with a hint of chilli and soya sauce took us back home to Malaysia for a brief moment. The flavours were nostalgic and when that happened, it made the experience even more special.

The sound of the waves crashing below accompanied our meal—it was a lovely setting at Rick Stein at Bannisters, with a seafood journey that embraced what the South Coast is all about. We headed back to our retreat contended.

Back at Milton Country Retreat, our cottage was warm and cosy. Cassandra and Chris had the fireplace already going and we put another log in and watched the wood-fire blaze cheerily. A beautiful day had come to an end. The sun had gone to rest and the moon had taken his place.

The night was chill and the stars shone with brilliant pallor like city lights. We sat in the cosy warmth of our cottage and spoke about our day, the beauty of the places we went, the food we ate and about the passionate people we met and of the love and energy they possess in what they do. Shoalhaven is a delightfully undiscovered region, hiding many hidden treasures and its people are certainly one of them.

Where to stayMilton Country Retreat located at 142E Woodburn Road, Morton NSW 2538.

Where to eatRick Stein at Bannisters located at 191 Mitchell Parade, Mollymook Beach NSW 2539.

What to doFoodscape Tours and 100 Beach Challenge.

Where to find more information about Shoalhaven – Shoalhaven Holidays.

Travel and Beyond were guests of Shoalhaven Tourism. All opinions are our own.

Rosemarie John and Joseph Ellis