The art of the long lunch

Good things – like a country drive or an indulgent meal – were never meant to be hurried.

Hidden away in the Byron Bay hinterland, Frida’s Field is a place well worth seeking out – one where they have perfected the art of the long lunch.

Natascha Mirosch

Marc Llewellyn

9 December, 2020

... plan a route that typifies ‘slow travel’ – quiet inland roads that offer plenty of thrilling twists and turns and wind then back down to the rich valley farmlands

While the northern New South Wales coast’s undeniable good looks are all about the beach, the hinterland’s beauty is grounded in the rust-hued earth. The entire nature-blessed Northern Rivers region sits on the remnants of a vast shield volcano, once almost 100km in diameter, today weathered over 20 million years into a fragmented series of gorges, rugged peaks and undulating hills. The fertile soil and temperate climate support verdant patches of rainforest and farms of macadamias and pecans, cattle and cane, natives such as lemon and anise myrtle and fruit farms of exotic incomers like black sapote and buddha’s hand. 

To reach this veritable Garden of Eden from Brisbane you could simply plug your destination into the Audi e-tron’s navigation system, set the cruise control and take the M1 all the way south, but where’s the fun in that? 

Instead plan a route that typifies ‘slow travel’ – quiet inland roads that offer plenty of thrilling twists and turns as they traverse hilltop hippy-meets-hipster villages and wind back down to the rich valley farmlands. It’s roughly 200 kilometres and just under three hours drive from Brisbane – a comfortable round trip for the e-tron on a single charge, but with a Chargefox facility in Ballina – essentially the farthest point from ‘home’ – there’s no reason not to strike out in any number of different directions to explore the region at your leisure. But first things first.

The highway only comes into play for the first and least interesting section before getting off at exit 95 and travelling through the lush Currumbin Valley. Crossing into NSW just before the town of Tomewin, this route will take you through the river town of Murwillumbah with its genteel art deco architecture. Then on to the charming village of Uki, where you should definitely stop for a coffee at Bastion Lane Espresso, a roastery within an historic post office. There are views of Mt Nullum and Mt Woolumbin, a place considered sacred by the traditional owners, the Bundjalung people. It’s an enjoyably spirited drive navigating the narrow bends and coasting though the sun-dappled tunnels of trees, before the climb to Nimbin, a town famous for the alternate-lifestyle of its inhabitants.

If you’ve not heard of Nashua, between Bangalow and Lismore, you’re not alone. Originally called Springvale, brothers James and John Toohey (of Toohey’s Beer fame) emigrated here from Ireland by way of the US and unaccountably named their property after a tribe of New England Native Americans. The hamlet changed its name and adopted ‘Nashua’ too. The Toohey’s plan was to grow sugar cane, but fortune didn’t favour the venture and frost destroyed their crops, so, (fortunately for Australian beer lovers) they sold and moved on. 

After that, four generations of the Johnson family farmed Nashua, until 2015, when the Rawlings bought the property.

“We just knew we wanted to try and make a living as farmers and to do it in a way we felt good about, to do something good for the environment while sustaining our family over the generations,” Jeanie Rawlings says. 

“We just knew we wanted to try and make a living as farmers and to do it in a way we felt good about"

Down the unassuming gravel driveway is the veritable gem that is Frida's Field

Jeanie and husband Edward boned up on holistic grazing and farming practices and now run a herd of around 80 Angus-Wagyu crosses, rotated over small paddocks on the property. They also planted an orchard of bananas, citrus and stone fruit, using ‘syntropic’ farming – a regenerative agricultural cropping method that aims to mimic the way forest plants work symbiotically in order to grow more abundantly. 

In September, the couple realised a long-held dream, to open a restaurant, Frida’s Field. You’ll need to slow right down to not miss the entry. You’ll also have need to have booked – despite opening in the middle of the Covid crisis, the restaurant, (named for a former pet pig,) has been incredibly popular and tables are hot property.

Down the gravel drive is the parking lot and a short pathway to the restaurant. The building’s architecture takes its cues from the land’s principal function, with a modern barn-like structure of wood and stone, open on one side to a field where a gnarled old camphor laurel stands sentinel over the home paddock, while on the other are the nascent orchards. 

Frida’s chef Daniel Medcalf is a former Byron local who left to hone his skills in Sydney. His resume includes Assiette in Surry Hills and Bondi’s fine-dining institution Icebergs Dining Room and Bar, as well as The Dolphin Hotel in Surry Hills. He then moved to Bali where he headed up The Slow Kitchen in Canggu, before completing the circle and returning to his home turf.

If you have the luxury of time, there’s the option of staying the night. Nashua has a cottage for couples – a stylishly renovated 1890s coach house that was transported from Edward’s parent’s property near Ipswich where he and Jeanie previously lived. Already having starred in a feature in Country Style Magazine, the pretty, light-filled cottage with cathedral ceilings, exposed beams, polished floorboards and tasteful country-chic antiques is a perfect base for exploring the hinterland.

At Frida’s, presciently professional staff exemplify that uniquely Byronesque mix of chill and warmth. The diners too, seem uber-relaxed with lots of happy chatter and laughter, they are here for a good time and a long time.  The long lunch concept includes the freedom engendered by a set menu – no decisions to make and zero chance of plate envy.

Medcalf says he purposely keeps his menu simple. “I like to not work too hard and to just highlight the produce,” he says. 

The free-flowing menu may start with a trio of bread – thin crisp sheets of what the Italians call ‘carte di musica’- ‘sheet music,’ house made breadsticks and seeded sourdough to swipe through a silk, smoky eggplant dip or a smooth white bean humous. Medcalf makes his own bresaola with Nashua’s beef, air-drying it a converted fridge and serving it in paper-thin slices glistening with fruity olive oil. 

If you have the luxury of time, there’s the option of staying the night on a stylishly renovated 1890s coach house on the property

The food reflects both the region’s produce and farm’s ethos, favouring authenticity and bold true flavours over smoke and mirrors trickery

The farm’s beef is also served as a main course, exactingly seared to medium-rare and served with a duo of mustards. A smoked fish pate is set with vertical fins of translucent chili-dusted crisps, a pistachio and date studded chicken terrine comes wrapped in prosciutto and topped with warmly-spiced giardiniera, garnished with dill and chervil. Sides are a mixed grain salad on a macadamia cream, sweet earthy quartered beetroots with hung yoghurt and a plate of overlapping discs of red and yellow heirloom tomatoes with basil, baby capers, olive oil and sumac.

The food reflects both the region’s produce and farm’s ethos, favouring authenticity and bold true flavours over smoke and mirrors trickery, but for a gentle tweak here and there to coax the best out of the produce.

Dessert will appeal to even those who eschew sweets. A sheep’s’ milk panna cotta served in a glass, it has stewed stone fruit from the orchard and a dab of palate-refreshing Campari granita. If you’re lucky enough to be staying the night, it’s just a short stroll to the cottage where you can toast your fortune with a glass of something as the afternoon turns to dusk. If you need to turn the car homewards, perhaps accept the offer of an espresso and make sure to flag a stay for a return visit. 

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