We could buy a live lamb for $80 in the front bar of the Dromedary Hotel, or a second-hand ute (best offer). We settle instead for a seat on the verandah and watch a steady stream of passers-by shopping for fudge and knick-knacks in ye olde main street of Central Tilba, on the NSW Far South Coast.
I'm here to see a man about a dog. And his 25 chooks, nine pigs, seven goats, four cows, three ducks, vegetable patch, cooking school, cookbook and TV series. On a former dairy farm on the outskirts of town, Paul West has built a crowded new life as the boots-and-all host of River Cottage Australia, learning how to feed himself in a homegrown version of the long-running British TV series by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
In just three seasons of the series, the former Vue de Monde chef has become the face of the NSW Far South Coast and a powerful advocate for its natural beauty, exceptional produce and strong sense of community.
Digger the black collie-cross bounds to the gate when we arrive, trailed by a film crew finishing up for the day and the genial, ginger-bearded West. Behind them is the pretty '30s cottage where filming and cooking classes take place, surrounded by emerald pasture and dominated by Mount Gulaga. West and his partner, Alicia Cordia, live close by with their baby son, Otto. "It's been a bit of a whirlwind," he says, ushering us inside for tea and homemade Monte Carlos. "It takes a while to form bonds when you're new in a community, but the nature of TV programming means I've met people with shared interests from day one, fast-forwarding the process. I'd have to say this is one of the most welcoming communities I've ever lived in - it felt like home within six months."
West has joined a wave of newcomers washing up along the Far South Coast and investing in new ventures - many of them based on small-scale farming and tourism - as the viability of forestry and fishing, once the mainstays of the coastal economy, has waned. Among them is hospitality entrepreneur and Merivale CEO Justin Hemmes, who refers to his 60-hectare beachfront retreat at Glasshouse Rocks near Narooma as "the farm"; he bought the property last year for a reported $7.5 million.
According to Ken Jamieson, who has run the charmingly old-fashioned general store and post office in Central Tilba for 31 years, business in the town is buoyant, even during the usually lean months of winter, and he attributes the steady growth in large part to the "River Cottage effect". "Everyone who comes in wants to talk about the series," he says.
West, though, regards the show as more of a confidence booster than a catalyst. "I'd like to think River Cottage arriving on the South Coast galvanised people already chugging away on their own ideas and passions, with very little attention or press. To have a show with a national and international audience say we're interested in what you're doing has given a lot of encouragement to small farmers.
Among West's inspirations are his neighbours Nic and Erica Dibden, who run a dairy producing creamy unhomogenised Jersey milk, labelled ABC Tilba Real Milk, and a range of cheeses at the ABC Cheese Factory in Central Tilba. And the producers who congregate every Tuesday afternoon at the community-run Sage Farmers' Markets in Moruya, where trading starts at three o'clock sharp with the ringing of a bell. "It's one of the best farmers' markets you'll find," says West. "We're in the heart of Australia's premier oyster-growing region with some of the best dairy country around, and there's a growing realisation that the South Coast is one of the best food destinations in the country. And it isn't tied to a city market - producers here have to compete with supermarkets for a local market that's not affluent."
The NSW Sapphire Coast, which runs roughly from Bermagui to Eden, taking in a clutch of heritage hinterland towns including Central Tilba, Cobargo and Bega, is promoted as "beautifully uncivilised".
In all the best ways that remains the case - the road follows wild coastline flanked by national parks that frame pristine beaches, surf breaks and forested headlands, crossing estuaries and lagoons spanned by old wooden bridges that tremble as they're traversed. Holidaymakers still stay at '70s-era motels, bush campsites and caravan parks with ocean views.
But that's no longer the whole story. There's nothing remotely uncivilised about parmesan custard with pear, walnut and abbamele or local flathead finished with prawn butter and Pernod at Zanzibar Café in Merimbula, run by Tetsuya-trained chef Huw Jones and partner Renée Loftus. Or a dish of just-picked asparagus, hot-smoked blue-eye, pickled carrots and a sprinkle of pork crackling in the farmhouse dining room of St Isidore in Milton, run by chef Alex Delly, formerly of Melbourne's Circa, and partner Jo Thomas. Or a Young Henrys unfiltered lager in the garden at Dulcie's Cottage in Merimbula, a new bar run by Mitchell Nadin and Kirsty Pongratz, with start-up advice from Pongratz's husband, Jason Scott, of Sydney's Shady Pines Saloon and Baxter Inn. Or freshly shucked Wapengo Rocks oysters and a 15-year-old Laphroaig at the Bermagui Oyster Room. Or coffee at The Wharf Locavore gallery-café, served while you're dangling a line off Tathra's historic steamer wharf.
The Wharf Locavore is among a raft of galleries on the Far South Coast and in hinterland towns, though the artistic streak runs deeper than the visual arts. There are resident architects and theatre directors, instrument-makers and musicians. "People are drawn by the extraordinary natural beauty of the region, where the hills meet the sea," says Sydney investor Michael Darling, "and they stay because of the community." He and his wife, Manuela Darling-Gansser, bought an old farmhouse near Tilba about 30 years ago, and the place has become part of their extended family's life.
Darling is on the board of Four Winds, the biennial Easter music festival launched 25 years ago by a group of friends who lived near Bermagui. Their brainchild has developed into a community organisation that stages "music in nature" experiences and workshops year-round in a nest of state-of-the-art pavilions surrounded by forest at Barragga Bay, nine kilometres south of Bermagui. Architect and Murrah resident Philip Cox designed the Sound Shell outdoor performance space, which is surrounded by a 2,000-seat natural amphitheatre, and architect Clinton Murray the 160-seat Windsong Pavilion recital hall.
Bermagui is a case study in the slow renewal evident along the Far South Coast. Opened in 2009, the Cox-designed Bermagui Fishermen's Wharf houses eateries and boutiques including the Italian-leaning Il Passaggio. It's owned by Tim and Honor Northam, who until recently produced their popular Honorbread sourdough from the restaurant's kitchen. They've recently moved their bakery into bigger premises adjacent to the Bermagui Gelati Clinic, known for its use of high-quality produce and intense flavours (blood orange, rose and cardamom, and chocolate, grappa and raisin), and close to Mister Jones Espresso, a laid-back studio-café run by artist Matthew Chun. Around the corner is the Bermagui Oyster Room, where Wapengo Rocks oyster farmer Shane Buckley and his partner Özlem Güler serve coffee in the mornings, then return at night to shuck and serve the Sydney rocks they grow in nearby Wapengo Lake, the nation's first certified organic oyster farm. A former paramedic, Buckley bought the farm in 2007 and spent the next six years perfecting and installing environmentally low-impact plastic posts and oyster baskets that rotate with the tide around a fixed line, allowing sunshine to reach the seabed and the oysters to develop deep, even shells and a poached-egg, "almost vegetal" flavour, he says.
The Bermagui Oyster Room is on a visitors' trail of farm gates and oyster-focused eateries developed by Australia's Oyster Coast, a cooperative of growers in eight NSW estuaries from the Shoalhaven near Nowra south to the Wonboyne near Eden.
I follow my own oyster-lover's road trip from Ulladulla to Eden. At the Ulladulla Oyster Bar I try shucked-to-order oysters grown by Ewan McAsh in the Clyde River at Batemans Bay. Young and savvy, McAsh has expanded the farm he runs with his father to produce about 70,000 dozen oysters a year while developing a marketing group called Signature Oysters, enabling growers to sell directly to restaurants across Australia. On St Isidore's menu there are oysters grown by Ruben Fernandez near Tuross Head; The Whale Restaurant in Narooma serves David Maidment's Wagonga Inlet oysters; Zanzibar Café shucks Broadwater Oysters from Pambula Lake.
And at his "Little Shop Behind the House" in Tathra, Gary Rodely sells the award-winning Sydney rock oysters he and his son Sam farm in pristine Nelson Lake, surrounded by Mimosa Rocks National Park. They access parts of their lease on stand-up paddleboards, so obsessive are they about protecting the purity of the environment. "To grow such an amazing product as the Sydney rock on a farm surrounded by forest is absolutely priceless," says Rodely, who started farming oysters here 26 years ago. "Finding this place was our lucky moment in life."
FAR SOUTH COAST, FROM MILTON TO EDEN
EAT & DRINK
Bar Beach Kiosk
With unbeatable views over Merimbula's Bar Beach, this shack is a popular hang for in-the-know locals and travellers seeking open-air breakfasts and lunch after a swim.
Bar Beach Rd, Merimbula
Bermagui Gelati Clinic
Alberto Cementon, a former geophysicist, and his wife, Francesca, have turned an old vet clinic (see the comically repainted shopfront sign) into an artisan gelateria, creating intense flavours from old recipes and local produce (keen customers barter their backyard harvest for ice-cream).
1/6 Bunga St, Bermagui
Bermagui Oyster Room
A café by day, an oyster bar by night and the best place to enjoy owner Shane Buckley's Wapengo Rocks oysters, served on vintage crockery with a short, interesting list of wines, craft beers and single malt whiskies. Buckley's oysters can also be found at restaurants including Icebergs, MoVida and 121BC in Sydney.
14 Lamont St, Bermagui
Set in pasture on the outskirts of Milton and overlooking a plot of vines, the Cupitt family's emporium encompasses a microbrewery, winery, cheesemaking room, a century-old cottage accommodating four people, a café and Cupitt's Kitchen restaurant. The cellar door operates from a restored 19th-century creamery.
58 Washburton Rd, Ulladulla
Sydney's Swillhouse crew has inspired this new bar in a 1920s weatherboard cottage in Merimbula's main street. It's run by Kirsty Pongratz and Mitchell Nadin, with support from Pongratz's husband, Jason Scott, of Swillhouse's Shady Pines Saloon and Baxter Inn. Expect classic cocktails and interesting wines, craft beer under a big old jacaranda and burgers flipped in a restored 1959 Carapark caravan. 60 Main St, Merimbula
Honor and Tim Northam moved their bakery to larger premises late last year to meet demand for their artisan sourdough. It's served at their Bermagui restaurant, Il Passaggio and a range of South Coast eateries, and sold via an honesty system of "Honor" boxes at choice locations.
8 Bunga St, Bermagui
The kind of mod-Italian eatery every neighbourhood needs - with bonus wharfside views of the Bermagui fleet. Chef Kristy Callaghan handles local fish and produce deftly: Wapengo Rocks oysters, Mount Imlay hazelnuts, Brogo rabbit and the best from local markets. Next door is the popular Horse & Camel wine bar.
Shop 5, level 1, Fishermen's Wharf, Bermagui
Mister Jones Espresso
Pull up a vintage chair outside or in owner Matt Chun's shopfront studio and gallery adjoining his cute café in Bermagui, serving good coffee and a short, simple menu until noon daily.
4 Bunga St, Bermagui
A laid-back surfer vegetarian café by day, at night it's Milton-meets-Mexico. Breakfasts are big, the burgers even bigger.
8/9 Princes Hwy, Milton
"We use and support happy farmers, happy free-ranging animals and produce grown with a little bit of love," says a menu note, setting the scene for the fresh flavours and relaxed vibe in this farmhouse restaurant.
89 Croobyar Rd, Milton
This café-produce store in Eden's main street is a showcase of regional micro-businesses and a natural extension of owner Karen Lott's work as co-founder of the Nethercote Produce Market. Among the impressive range of local organic fare served and sold is seafood by Eden Smokehouse, produced by Lott's partner, Stan Soroka.
134 Imlay St, Eden
From about December to June, Gary and Jo-Anne Rodely, and their son, Sam, sell their award-winning Sydney rock oysters from a shop behind their house. Otherwise served at a handful of restaurants including Rockpool Bar & Grill in Sydney and Melbourne.
1 Reservoir St, Tathra
Ulladulla Oyster Bar
Simple tapas and freshly shucked oysters from the McAsh farm at Budd Island, in the Clyde River at Batemans Bay, are served with live music.
Shop 5, The Plaza, 107 Princes Hwy, Ulladulla
The Whale Restaurant
In the kitchen of The Whale Motor Inn at Narooma, former pro surfer-turned-chef Matthew Hoar takes fresh local produce seriously, serving Wagonga Inlet oysters, heirloom vegetables from his garden, Tilba cheeses and tisanes from produce grown in Narooma.
102 Wagonga St, Narooma
The Wharf Locavore
The cargo warehouse at Tathra's heritage-listed steamer wharf houses a maritime museum upstairs and a café-gallery downstairs run by sisters Emma and Poppy Benton, who serve good coffee and locally made baked goods with spectacular ocean views through warehouse doors.
Wharf Rd, Tathra, 0427 941 747
Wild Rye's Baking Co
Todd Wiebe's organic sourdough and ciabatta loaves are sold across the Far South Coast, at his bakery and café in Pambula's heritage main street, and a new shop in Cann River, just over the border. The coffee is house-roasted; the pies are particularly good.
26 Quondola St, Pambula
There are no water views, but that's the only disappointment at this 35-seat fine-diner run by chef Huw Jones and his wine-savvy front-of-house partner, Renée Loftus. Seafood direct from the Eden fleet and baby vegetables grown to order nearby are among the produce sourced locally.
Cnr Market & Main sts, Merimbula
SEE AND DO
One of the state's most beautiful ocean pools, set at the base of a cliff with an adjacent children's wading pool and changerooms.
Pacific Dr, Bermagui
Eden Killer Whale Museum
Run mostly by volunteers, this museum was built in 1939 to hold the skeleton of Old Tom, a legendary killer whale that routinely alerted whalers to the presence of baleen whales; the story of his pod's unique working relationship with whalers is fascinating. The museum also documents local history and a century of whaling.
184 Imlay St, Eden
The market leader is the community-run Sage Markets (Sustainable Agriculture & Gardening Eurobodalla) at Moruya's Riverside Park on Tuesdays from 3pm. Produce traded can travel no more than 160 kilometres as the crow flies (sagefarmersmarket.org.au). Also Bermagui Fishermen's Wharf Growers' Market on Thursdays from 3pm, Bega SCPA Market every second Friday, and Merimbula Seaside Market on the third Sunday of the month.
Four Winds Festival
An annual event that dates back to the 1990s, Four Winds Festival features free and ticketed music performnces staged at an open-air performance complex called Nature's Concert Hall. The works of classical composers are complemented by contemporary string quartets. vocalists and the music of ancient cultures (and there's free child-minding). Barragga Bay
Bannisters by the Sea & Bannisters Pavilion
A kilometre from the 32-room Bannisters by the Sea, with its two suites renovated recently by fashion designer Collette Dinnigan, is the new Bannisters Pavilion. It has 32 rooms and two suites set in bush about 100 metres from Mollymook Beach, and features a rooftop terrace with pool, lounges and a bar and grill. For seafood with ocean views, Rick Stein at Bannisters is hard to beat. Rooms from $255.
191 Mitchell Pde, Mollymook Beach
The Bryn at Tilba
This B&B on Central Tilba's outskirts has three well-appointed rooms with communal living areas and a self-contained two-bedroom cottage. Rooms from $240.
91 Punkalla-Tilba Rd, Central Tilba
On the uninhabited southern shore of Twofold Bay, about six kilometres from Eden, historic Seahorse Inn has 10 rooms, two bars, bistro, restaurant and beachfront gardens. Rooms from $175.
Boydtown Park Rd, Boydtown
Rex Airlines flies daily to Moruya and Merimbula, and cars can be hired from both airports. Or take a long, leisurely road trip from Sydney or Melbourne - it's about 550 kilometres from Sydney to Eden.