The Riverland is more than oranges and grapevines – with boutique producers creating handmade chocolates, artisan breads and small batch, organic wines … all leveraging the local fare
Third-generation fruit grower Dean Grosse never imagined he’d one day be helping cast life-sized chocolate moulds of high heel shoes, ducks or champagne bottles.
But when the Riverland producer gazes around the store he shares with his chocolatier wife, Janet, he marvels at her creativity.
“We do horses, cats, dogs, fish and rabbits,” says Dean. “And they’re available in milk, dark and white Belgian chocolate.”
The pair started Havenhand Chocolates when the bottom fell out of the dried fruit industry.
One of the Riverland’s largest apricot dryers, it was a trade Dean’s family had embraced since 1919, when his grandfather became one of the region’s first settlers.
Dean laughs now at what he once said to Janet.
“I told her not to worry about that nonsensical chocolate making caper, we’ll make our fortune doing dried fruit,” he says with a chuckle.
His bride was an immigrant from Sheffield in the UK.
From the age of 15, she had worked as a confectioner in an upmarket catering company, which serviced HRH the Queen.
Her skills, as it turned out, came in very handy.
Cunning plan bears fruit
No longer growers, the pair now blends the region’s spectacular produce with their handmade delicacies.
Australian natives are also featured in some of their 250-strong fruit-chocolate range, which spills from the shelves in their Waikerie café.
“We use locally produced dried apricots, sultanas, raisins and currants, native wild lime, lemon myrtle, locally made balsamic vinegar, Murray River salt and local almonds,” says Dean, from his spot on the banks of the Murray River.
“It gives exposure of that fruit to people who walk in the door and try the chocolates.”
The passion locals feel for the Riverland’s fresh, flavoursome produce is irresistibly infectious.
Known as the fruit bowl of South Australia, visitors fall in love with its mainstays of pillowy nectarines, mouth-pop table grapes and lush oranges that drip juice down your elbow.
The bounty-blessed region’s abundance is driven by the meandering River Murray, which cuts through the flat landscape and paints its surface a verdant green.
Our daily lemon myrtle bread
Without its life-injecting source, few of the fruit blocks and vineyards – which make the Riverland the biggest wine producing region in the country – would be here.
Long known for its powerhouse production of fresh fruit and vats upon vats of wine, the Riverland is now being recognised for a new wave of boutique producers, small batch winemakers and charming cafes, which are reimagining the local produce.
Open less than a year, Backyard Bread has fast become a bustling hub for foodies.
The providore-cum-café in Barmera is kitted out with 1950s tables covered in vintage lace tablecloths and doilies, while rustic lounges sit beneath a corrugated iron ceiling, and old apricot trays line the walls.
People natter over local grazing plates jammed with olives, chutneys, pickled onions, apricots in wattleseed brandy and breads infused with regional produce.
“When we first started making bread, we decided to do a French stick,” says Colleen Johnson, who runs the business with her husband Peter.
“We looked at the flavours we had in the Riverland, and we ended up making pumpkin bread with lemon myrtle, curry and sunflower seeds.
Then the family said red wine and olives would be good, and it went from there.”
The offering has also evolved as growers proffer their goods.
Snapshot of what’s fresh and fabulous
Meeting a date farmer, and then a pecan producer resulted in the café’s popular pecan, orange and date biscuits.
“Now we also sell fresh produce straight from the blocks,” says Colleen.
“We have tomatoes, zucchinis, garlic, beautiful nectarines and apricots and we’re set next to vineyard, so we pick the pinot grapes off the vines. We get the best of what we find around the place and try to make it a total foodie experience.”
The Johnson’s cut their teeth at the decade-old Riverland Farmers’ Market.
Every Saturday morning, year round, stalls of locally sourced honey, activated nuts, fresh roasted coffee beans, eggs, Greek cakes, emu products and more crowd the Senior Citizen’s Hall in Berri.
Produce changes with the season, giving travellers an easy snapshot of what’s fresh and fabulous when they visit.
A more lackadaisical method might be to park yourself on the lawn beneath a market umbrella, facing the River Murray at Caudo Vineyard, in Cadell.
Beware of the time vortex – it’s far too easy to while the day away, feasting on local tasting platters laden with homegrown olives, saltbush dukkah, cured meats and bread from the nearby Waikerie bakery and savouring the cellar door’s many wines – all named after the rose varieties that grew on the site when it was a rose farm.
Drop in for a drop – or two
The property itself was developed by German pioneers in the late 1800s and the original homestead is now the winery’s cellar.
Stay long enough and you’ll likely spot the resident kangaroos and hear the belly-laugh of kookaburras.
And if you’re aquatically inclined, it’s worth knowing that Caudo is the region’s only winery with mooring facilities.
If a wine tour is on the cards, iconic Banrock Station at Kingston on Murray is unmissable, as much for its vast, board-walked wetlands as its rammed-earth cellar door.
Lined with floor-to-ceiling windows that grant dreamy views of the grapevines and restored ecosystem, the floor extends to a deck where long, lazy lunches can be savoured.
Think dips, duck burgers, lamb pizza and fish with sweet potato chips on the simple menu, best paired with one of the winery’s summery drops.
Another must-see is 919 Wines, a family-owned outfit, which focuses its efforts on organic, non-traditional grape varieties and fortified wines, resulting in quite the tasting experience.
If you’ve never sniffed, swilled or spit petit manseng, durif or touriga nacional then you’d best head to the Glossop cellar door.
Authentic Thai-Australian paddleboat experience
For something completely different, jump aboard the Murray River Queen, a paddleboat that has just transformed itself into a regional wine tasting cellar door, in addition to its authentic Thai restaurant.
Floating and boasting a fully restored 1970s dining room, Wok on Water is about as novel as it gets.
That is, of course, until you arrive at the famous Mallee Fowl restaurant, near Berri.
It takes themed-dining to another level, with layer upon layer of outback Australiana hung throughout the corrugated iron interior.
Somehow, the chaos and the kitsch works, particularly as you get stuck in to the house’s signature dish: sugar-cured kangaroo fillet.
The kitchen uses native meats, fruits and herbs, as well as the usual suspects of steak, lamb, barramundi and chicken, plus vegetarian dishes, keeping foodies of all persuasions sated and happy.
7 Panorama Court, Paringa
21 Pike Creek Road, Lyrup