The Big Pineapple still rises ripely just off the Bruce Highway as it cuts up the Sunshine Coast. Since it opened in 1971, the large fibreglass fruit has stood as a symbol of the fertile lands that flow from the hinterland down to the beaches in this part of South East Queensland. But there’s something more complex to the symbolism these days.
The pineapple is currently closed to visitors and the tourism infrastructure around it is empty and silent, pending a new development. The message isn’t spoken but it’s understood – the Sunshine Coast doesn’t need a tacky roadside monument for visitors to know this is a land of fresh food aplenty.
The small hinterland town of Maleny displays its culinary offerings proudly on both sides of Maple Street – rustic cafes with modern food, an espresso bar that wakes up this lively community, and a very impressive fromagerie at Maleny Food Co.
As well as the cheese, Maleny Food Co is famous in the region for its sorbet and gelato, which is made with milk from a local farmer just a few minutes away, leading to a creamier result. Co-owner Kate Scott explains that a lot of the cheese also comes from the region, as do many of the products like jams that are for sale on the shelves.
“The joke is you can plant a stick in Maleny and it will grow, because it’s moist and it’s damp, and it’s temperate,” she tells me. “We don’t get extreme cold, and we very rarely get hail.”
This was traditionally a dairy area but many of the farmers have diversified – now making jams, growing macadamias, looking after buffalo. But the local produce is just one ingredient in a good meal – the other is what you do with it. There’s no better example of this than The Long Apron, the incredible hatted restaurant at Spicers Clovelly Estate in Montville.
The beautiful French-provincial accommodation at this Spicers retreat is set within a relaxed estate with fig trees and jacarandas. The contemporary suites make this one of the region’s best hotels, but the restaurant’s tasting menu attracts more than just those staying here. With seasonal local ingredients, the menu offers roasted wild mushrooms, free-range veal, and coal-grilled duck breast as some of the courses on the evening I visit. Chef Chris Hagan is inspired by the terroir and the seasons, creating a menu to evoke memories as much as create them.
Even the cocktails at the bar have a story, and I notice the recommended gin is from a local distillery called Sunshine & Sons, which I plan to visit the next day. But before I get there, I also want to pop in to see Stalwart, a new craft brewery in Nambour.
Adam Tomlinson started brewing under the Stalwart name in 2015, but it wasn’t until about six months ago that he opened his own venue, converting the historic Club Hotel, which was originally a timber saloon from 1911 and then a reconstructed 1930s art deco building. Inside, there’s the pub, a dining area, and the brewery equipment – which was once the centrepiece of the famous Wig & Pen in Canberra.
There are three beers on tap that are made by Adam (plus a wider selection of other drinks), with more on the way. Each of the beers – an American Pale Ale, a Golden Ale, and an Indian Pale Ale – is distinctive, but they all seem at home here on the Sunshine Coast.
“With all my beers I aim to brew them to be full-flavoured and well-balanced,” Adam tells me. “Not too sweet, not too bitter, not too heavy, with a clean finish.”
The pubs of Nambour (there’s another across the road) once seemed to reflect the town’s position as a stopping point, first for the Cobb & Co coaches and more recently for the train line. But the new Stalwart Brewery shows it’s evolving as a destination, and the interesting collection of street art around the town centre also paints the picture of something new.
From Nambour, it’s just a short drive to Sunshine & Sons, where you can do a free tasting of the fledgling distillery’s gins and vodkas. The rums are still in their barrels, filling much of the shed, but they are going to be an interesting taste, as some are fermenting with fruits from the rainforest. In the meantime, their Parfait Gin has plenty of local inspiration amongst its pineapple, passionfruit, strawberry, coconut, and vanilla flavours.
One of the owners, Michael Conrad, is giving me the tasting and I ask about how important it is to use ingredients from the region.
“There’s no point making something because it grows locally if it’s something no one wants to eat or drink, but when you look outside, there’s no question that view was made for gin and tonics,” he says, as he points through the door to the lush forest rolling uninterrupted down the hill.
On the other side of the shed is the Big Pineapple, where we began, and thankfully its story is likely not over yet. There is a plan to redevelop the site and one of the main ideas is to use the retail space as a showcase for the local produce of the Sunshine Coast, including the gelato, the beer, the gin. And that would be perfect for the icon that turns 50 this year – a symbolic reminder that there’s so much sweet goodness if you just cut through the skin.