Ralph Campbell, Executive Chef at the Sublime Bar & Grill, the principle restaurant for the Peppers Beach Club in Port Douglas was recently driving through the Daintree Rainforest when a small sign sparked his interest.
"I saw a sign saying vanilla beans for sale on a little chalk board, so I followed that sign along a dirt road, which led me to a lady's house. The owner, who farms vanilla plants, literally goes out to her crop and pollinates them because they don't pollinate naturally. I bought a whole bunch of them and they were the best vanilla beans I'd ever tasted. They were so plump and juicy," said Ralph.
"Having a kitchen so close to so much incredible produce inspires you as a chef. I was inspired with this new product, which I had found completely by accident, to try new dishes and to play around with the flavours."
Based on this surprise discovery, Ralph devised the perfect dessert. The bean was made into a custard and served with maple spiced Mossman pineapple and a macadamia crisp; a sensational finale to a five course degustation dinner that Ralph designed to showcase the local produce of Tropical North Queensland.
"For the entrée, I thought what is quintessential North Queensland? So I instantly thought of mud crab. When I plan each course, I usually start with one key ingredient. In this case it was the mud crab, which I put together with chilli, finger lime, orach, mustard and red kale. As a starter I served palm heart that I sourced from Innisfail."
Peppers have recently launched a Gourmet Food Trail. Every month or so, a different Peppers property throughout Australia will host a foodie event where enthusiasts have the opportunity, over one weekend, of enjoying the hospitality of the luxury resort and given the chance to indulge in the food and wine of the region.
And the month of March was Port Douglas and Tropical North Queensland's turn to shine.
The Saturday night degustation dinner was the centrepiece of the event. The al fresco restaurant that overlooks the stunning lagoon style pool was tastefully decorated in hues of black and red. The chefs and wait staff lined along the entrance to welcome guests as they made their way into venue as artificial smoke swirled around our legs. The ambiance was enhanced by a live trio playing a selection of classical and popular tunes as guests indulged in an avalanche of incredible tastes that were perfectly complemented by specifically-chosen wines.
While the opportunity of sampling the local produce in the region that it's grown is a great experience, what makes the Peppers' event all the more special is that the people responsible for growing the food are also on hand to talk about their work.
I managed to catch up with Trudie Woodall, who together with her husband, Tony grow tropical fruit on their property near Mossman just north of Port Douglas. However, this fruit isn't simply enjoyed with ice cream - the Woodall's use the tropical flavours to make wine.
"The cellar door opened nine years ago but I have been making wine for about 18 years; initially just for ourselves and then we decided to do this as a retirement business. Grapes don't grow well up here. In my dictionary grapes are fruit, that's why I call our wines non-grape wine. The process we use to make our 'wine' is identical to wine. The other fruits just have different flavour components," said Trudie.
"The first fruit I used was Mulberry and it was beautiful. For the first one I made, I did all the wrong things but it was lovely. I don't make Mulberry wine any more because it's really hard to get enough fruit because the birds eat them. I have two favourite wines; the passionfruit and the ginger. I cook with my wine but I never put it into my food. I enjoy my wine as I cook; it's how I relax."
Under the name of the Shannonvale Winery, each year the energetic couple produce between 10,000 and 12,000 litres of wine. Curious oenophiles and lovers of a fine drop have the opportunity of pulling into their cellar door and sampling the various wines that include an award-winning Medium Sweet Mango, Dry Jaboticaba and a Purple Mangosteen Port.
Over the past couple of years Port Douglas, which began life as a fishing village, has become something of a foodie destination. Anecdotally, I heard the locals say that on a first visit holiday-makers come for the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest, and on their second visit they come for the cuisine. In the town's main thoroughfare, Macrossan Street, there are over 50 restaurants committed to tempting travellers with wonderful culinary dishes. At the top of many travellers list is Salsa Bar & Grill, which offers tropical modern Australian cuisine. I very much enjoyed my chicken dish at another eatery called Zinc, which boasts an impressive fish tank complete with a sting ray.
And in between meals, travellers have the opportunity of indulging in a spa treatment. The Peppers in-house spa offers a range of treatments that includes a signature Sapphire Sea Wrap, a Su Su massage that incorporates Aboriginal techniques and a Deep Ocean Wave that uses native herbal remedies to eliminate toxins and to hydrate the skin. Before commencing any treatment the therapist will 'smudge' the room with paper bark, lemon myrtle leaves and native moss to create a sacred place. Following the pampering experience, holiday-makers are invited to enjoy a Yula Tea, which is made of Lemon Myrtle, Wild Rosella and Davidson Plum.
While most of us only have the opportunity of enjoying Port Douglas for a short time, chef Ralph has made the town his home.
"I've been with Peppers for six months now, after working at Nu Nu Restaurant in Cairns and the casino in Townsville. I've always loved Port Douglas; my getaways would always be to Port. I'd come up and go to the restaurant Salsa. It really does attract a lot of foodies, it has those restaurants here; they are doing nice food that you can't get in the smaller towns. I think it has a magic about it. I thought when Coles went in it might ruin the vibe, but I think it's still got that charm about it. Four Mile Beach is an amazing beach; it stretches forever."
The next Peppers food and wine event will take place at Peppers Guest House Hunter Valley on April 20.