It’s early Sunday morning in Merimbula. The sky is dim and night’s chill hangs in the air. The lake is grey and sleepy, shivering with steam.
On Fishpen Peninsula the pelicans are curious. There is the unusual thud of hammers as market tents take shape and the popular one-way road is crowded with trailers and cooler vans. Chefs in checkered pants, bakers in their whites and oyster-farmers in well-worn waders are directing staff with trays and buckets and palettes of food.
Within the hour the sun has found her warmth, the lake is winking in shades of blue and buskers are beginning to sing. The autumn air is filled with the smells of fried fish, roast pork, warm crepes and hot coffee…
Welcome to EAT Merimbula the annual food festival where the picturesque Fishpen Peninsula becomes a delicious arcade of local cuisine.
This year, EAT Merimbula will be held on Sunday 13th March 2016 coinciding with Victoria’s Labour Day and Canberra Day in the ACT. Now in its fourth year, the event was first conceived as a collaboration between Sapphire Coast Tourism Ltd, Merimbula Chamber of Commerce and Sapphire Wilderness Oysters. Anthony ‘Ossie’ Osborne of Sapphire Coast Tourism explains the concept; “We wanted to develop a focus on food in the area. We have oysters and seafood, we have some great chefs and really interesting local characters working in food!”
The event is focused on showcasing local products and producers. “Each stall has to feature a hero local ingredient,” Ossie explains. “And we’ve defined ‘local’ as being within a 150km radius since we’re not big food producers. But there needs to be a strong local flavour as well as local producers and local chefs.”
Oysters are clearly the super-heroes of the festival and you can’t taste anything more ‘local’ than an oyster plucked, shucked and sucked directly from the beds on Merimbula Lake. “People who come along on the day can actually taste their way down the Sapphire Coast,” explains oyster farmer Sue McIntyre. “I organise the farmers who are going to come along to EAT and make sure we’re going to have oysters from all four of the estuaries in the Bega Valley. Each estuary has its own distinct flavour just depending on the environmental characteristics. Over quite a short space of distance, people can actually get a very different flavour in the oysters that they’re tasting.”
For foodies seeking something other than oysters, the festival delivers endless choice. Over twenty stalls are featured along the scenic Fishpen pathway and the menu is diverse and tempting. Last year Chef Huw Jones of Zanizibar – Merimbula’s distinguished Two Hat restaurant – offered Temaki Sushi with local purple Sea Urchin. Cobargo Homemade Ice Cream sweetened the event with flavours from locally produced honey, nuts and fruit, while Longstocking Brewery kept patrons refreshed with hand crafted ales and lagers.
Patrick’s Paella, offered by Cranky’s Cafe, is always in demand. “Paella is a show!” exclaims Patrick, cafe owner and Head Chef. Apparently, the secret is good stock. “We start our stock with chicken and heaps of vegetables and peppercorns and bay leaves,” Patrick explains. “We make it twenty four hours before the event – thirty litres of stock with twenty kilos of dried rice. At the festival, I’m stirring with a spade on a giant tray. It’s pretty spectacular. People are interested.”
It seems that EAT Merimbula appeals to everyone’s palate. Locals come to enjoy a banquet of their favourite restaurants and cafes while visitors come to taste what the Far South Coast has to offer. “The local community really look forward to it,” says Sue of Sapphire Coast Wilderness Oysters. “And visitors gain a local flavour,” Ossie adds. “They’re up close with the chefs and they get a sense of what it is we’re good at.”
As the sun sets, two festival debutantes sit by the lake’s edge enjoying a final serve of mussels. They describe the corn fritters, pork rolls and peach tarts they’ve sampled. “We’re coming back,” they promise. “This is so good! Please don’t change it.”