The Murray River, Lakes and Coorong region is well known for its local, seasonal and fresh food, and there are plenty of opportunities to sample local produce and meet the people behind it.
What do you get if you cross an English chocoholic with vegemite? Chocolate Coated Vegemite Fudge of course.
“I wanted something really Australian,” said Manchester-born Ian Pithers, the owner of Cottage Box Chocolates, in Murray Bridge. “And like it or loathe it, Vegemite is as Aussie as the Murray River.”
Out of the box ideas often come from outliers or those not ingrained with a certain way of doing things and this is the case with Pithers – a self-styled chocolatier who’s creating some of the state’s sweetest delights.
What makes things more special is his commitment to using top quality local ingredients. A quick rundown of the local produce stars in chocolate includes Murray River pink salt flakes, Mypolonga apricots for dipping and local ‘Obsession’ coffee for espresso truffles. It’s this diversity of produce coupled with the inventive creations of locals such as Pithers, which makes the whole Murray region feel like one big edible treat.
The vast rolling plains watered by the mighty Murray River in South Australia has long been famed for its produce, including seasonal fruit and vegetables, dairy products, Angus beef, and olives.
As it meanders towards the sea, the river cuts into high orange cliffs and carves its way past historic towns, farmland, and riverbanks studded with giant gums. Eventually, the Murray broadens out into Lake Alexandrina and the smaller Lake Albert before emptying into the sea near a string of saltwater lagoons and sand dunes known as the Coorong. Together, the Murray, Lakes and Coorong region is well known for its local, seasonal and fresh food, and there are plenty of opportunities to sample local produce and meet the people behind it.
To market to market
Of course, you could always drop a line from the riverbank and try to nab a Coorong mullet, which is always a prized catch.
Perhaps the best place to start a journey of culinary discovery is at the Murray Bridge Farmers Market, which operates every Saturday from 8am to noon.
It features a range of stalls selling local produce from vegetables and fruits to organic lamb and freshly baked bread. A freshly-brewed coffee and a hearty farmer’s breakfast will set you up for the day.
When at the markets look out for Wayne Austin the brains behind Cheese Please. Nowadays he’s a Murray Bridge local but he’s a transplanted Tasmanian.
His love of all things dairy began on his family’s dairy farm and has been with him all his life. After leaving school he began working at his local cheddar cheese factory before holding various positions in dairy companies in southern Australia. His passion though is not the business of cheese but the making of cheese and now Murray Bridge reaps the benefit.
At Cheese Please he now makes and sells a range of cheese including haloumi, feta and cheddar, as well as some unusual creations like the Pepper Bridge, made with a harder-style cheese similar to pecorino and then blended with peppercorns.
After visiting the market you could satisfy your sweet tooth by popping into Ian Pithers’ Cottage Box Chocolates in the centre of Murray Bridge.
Here you can watch chocolate being made, before stocking up on giant chocolate frogs, Turkish delight, liquorice bombs, locally-grown apricots dipped in chocolate, and the popular Chocolate Coated Vegemite Fudge.
Oh, and if you hear a lot of gobbling going on around Murray Bridge, don’t be alarmed. It is probably coming from John Holland’s 4,300 free-range turkeys, which live on his 15ha turkey and chicken farm. His business, Almond Grove Farm Free Range Poultry, came about after he retired from working in an office for 27 years and John is the first Humane Choice turkey farmer in Australia.
Upstream from here lies the hamlet of Mypolonga, the home of Aussie Apricots. Drop into the shop and you will be delighted by their huge range of products, from apricots, dried oranges and pitted prunes dipped in chocolate, to jams and marmalades. There is olive oil on offer too.
Speaking of olives, the rich plains backing away from the river near Mypolonga is where Frank DiGirolamo produces his award-winning sweet and fruity olive oil sold under the Big River Olives label.
Olive lovers should also slip further south to The Big Olive, at Tailem Bend. There are several types of extra virgin olive oils to choose from here, including the Coorong Fruity and Aromatic, made from olives grown in the Coorong.
Drop into The Big Olive’s ‘cellar door’ and café between Monday and Friday and you can do some taste tests. Pick up a jar or two of thick olive paste tapenade, some table olives, or some beauty and health products made from olive oil while you’re at it.
Further south again you might find yourself in the delightful lakeside town of Meningie. If so, give Gen and Tracy Hill from Coorong Wild Seafood a ring. While they cater for group tours of their processing facility on the edge of Lake Albert, individual visitors can also buy and taste local seafood if they call ahead.
Otherwise, take your chance and drop in. You could end up with a package of smoked mullet or carp, or a range of other local delicacies, from pippies and golden perch to red fin and mulloway fillets.
While the Murray, Lakes and Coorong region is not traditionally known for its wines, it is in striking distance of quality wine regions, so it acts as a good base for a weekend away or a longer holiday. Yet for visitors keen on not venturing too far there are also a number of smaller wineries to be found across the region .
Do your tastebuds a favour and drop into Willow Point Wines, just south of Murray Bridge. Its wine stable includes full-bodied shiraz and cabernet merlot, as well as lighter chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, moscato, and sparkling wines. The winery is also well known for its fortified wines. The cellar door also stocks a range of Marne River Olives, grown near the small town of Cambrai, just north of Mannum.
Another of the area’s wineries is Heward Estate, across the Murray River opposite Mannum. While its owners are planning a cellar door in the future, the best way to taste their wines is by ordering through their website.
Sometimes it is good to just raise a toast to the chef, instead of going to the trouble of cooking yourself. Fortunately, there are some wonderful historic pubs and great eateries along the Murray and on the banks of the lakes.
In the heart of Mannum you can find the Pretoria Hotel. Relax on the lawn or the bistro balcony with a cold one and enjoy sweeping views of the river, before tucking into some of the area’s finest cuisine. How about a Murray Lands lamb burger? Or some kangaroo medallions with a red wine, pink peppercorn and plum glaze? Yum.
The locals also rave about the Coorong mullet and the chicken schnitzel at the nearby Hotel Mannum, while the Mannum Bakery is known for its excellent pies and cakes, and superb donuts.
Inventor of the savoury slice
Murray Bridge also has some eateries of note. Old-fashioned McCue’s Bakery has a stockpile of cakes and more than 30 varieties of pies and pasties. It is famed for its savoury slice, which was invented in Murray Bridge in the 1970s.
Just as popular is the Davery Establishment, a funky little retro café serving excellent coffee, a huge bacon and eggs breakfast, and tasty light meals such as pumpkin quiche and a falafel salad.
The Riverscape Café and Restaurant is a winner too. It sits right on the river’s edge and has incredible views, so you won’t miss out on all the action as you tuck into the likes of Coffin Bay oysters and King George whiting.
If you cruise along the river in this part of the world you might just notice the almond trees belonging to Walker Flat Almonds, and you will be pleased to know that the river is supplying water for many crops, like the lettuces, broccoli and cauliflowers grown by Swanport Harvest.
Downstream from Murray Bridge, at Tailem Bend, the Riverside Hotel’s Family Bistro offers a delicious range of dishes, which you can dig into on the balcony overlooking the river. Try the barbecue pork belly with sweet potato mash, or the battered butterfish with crunchy fries.
New take on garage food
An oddity, for a service station at least, is Jagers BP at Tailem Bend. It doesn’t just sell fuel and the usual fare found in petrol stations everywhere. Jagers BP is a coffee-lovers magnet, and the take-away meals stretch to delicious focaccias, quiches and salads, curries and pasta, full breakfasts, and fish and chips using local mullet.
Further south, the Wellington Hotel (affectionately known as ‘The Welly’), is a dining option offering water views too. Located on the junction of the River Murray and Lake Alexandrina, The Welly received its drinks license in 1848, making it South Australia’s oldest pub. A seafood platter overlooking the river here is a memorable experience.
Another good dining option in Wellington is the Wellington Courthouse Café, located in an 1841 stone riverfront building. Local produce and fine coffee is on the menu.
Meanwhile, on the banks of the area’s other major lake, Lake Albert, The Meningie Cheese Factory Restaurant serves up mullet dishes and great Coorong Angus Porterhouse.
Thanks to the rich feed cultivated with the help of the river, one of Australia’s best-known angus beef producers farm the famous black cattle around here. Coorong Angus Beef sells its produce to more than 100 restaurants across Australia.
With all this wonderful produce on offer, and with so many places to eat and drink well, there really is no reason to head back home so soon, is there?