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Valley of dreams: artisans and new businesses enrich Tweed tourism offering

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This modern-day love story begins with a gelato. It traverses the globe from one of Italy’s most popular tourist towns to a small village in the Tweed Valley of northern NSW.

Gold Coast girl Carly heads off on a solo backpacking adventure at the turn of the new millennium to Siena, to see a Tuscan penfriend she has had since they were teenagers.

She hears about the ‘five lands’ ­– the famed Cinque Terre in the northwest – and decides to visit.

That decision will be life-changing. But she doesn’t know that yet.

The verdant Tweed Valley is growing its tourism base as artisans and businesspeople set up shop. Picture: Shirley Sinclair

Like many tourists, Carly can’t resist stopping by a popular gelato shop in one of the five towns.

There, she meets the dashing young Valentino Giannoni, serving behind the counter at Gelateria Vernazza.

The spark of attraction is undeniable. Serendipity.

Cut to the chase – they are married in 2002 and welcome a daughter a year later, before moving their family to a new life in Australia.

The Giannoni family gelato shop in Vernazza.

Tyalgum is worlds apart from Vernazza or even Carly’s Currumbin Valley, but in 2023 the family feels very much at home in this rural village of 500 people, embraced by the slow country charm, friendliness and exciting possibilities.

The Giannonis represent a new breed of business owners in the Tweed Valley – ones who come from diverse backgrounds, put down roots and find their happily-ever-after.

Many are skilled artisans, a few have attained celebrity status, but all are passionate about what they bring to the business landscape.

And in their own way, they are shaping the character of the Tweed with newfound vigour.

As a fifth-generation Italian gelato maker, Valentino has helped put Tyalgum on the tourist map.

The Tyalgum Gelato Shop draws visitors from all over to the decadent desserts. Picture: Shirley Sinclair

The quaint Tyalgum Gelato Shop in Coolman Street is sitting pretty within the stunning Wollumbin National Park (Mt Warning) and welcoming customers from all over the world.

Regular locals are joined by loyal social media followers and foodies in the know who will drive hours for the delectable desserts.

On any given weekend, a constant trail of customers comes in for take-home family packs or individual cones and cups, savouring every delightful lick or spoonful on the shop veranda.

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While there remains some conjecture over gelato’s beginnings (frozen treats of crushed ice and flavourings were enjoyed by Asian cultures as far back as 3000BC), Valentino proudly stands by celebrated Venetian-born explorer Marco Polo kickstarting the Italian industry in bringing home recipes for the Chinese icy milk confection.

Valentino may be a new generation, but he still uses the main ingredients of the Giannoni gelato heritage: love, passion and tradition.

For the high standards needed to recreate one of Italy’s most famous exports, he uses the fresh, flavoursome goodness of produce grown within the ancient local Tweed Caldera – passionfruit, dragonfruit, pineapple, mangoes and strawberries among them.

The colourful array of gelato flavours. Picture: Shirley Sinclair

Alongside the authentic Italian classics, as well as vegan varieties and sorbets, in the refrigerated display cabinet are Valentino’s ever-changing, wildly unusual, next-level flavour combos.

They never fail to produce wide-eyed wonderment in ice cream fans of all ages.

Anyone for Night Sky (charcoal vanilla variegated with peanut brittle and white chocolate), creamy milk Ferrero Rocher, coconut and Davidson plum (vegan), black sesame (unhulled tahini variegated with honey), dragonfruit and passionfruit (vegan) or white chocolate gelato variegated with espresso and apple pie?

Or maybe strawberry cheesecake (gluten-free), honey and dill, Peanut Slab (peanut butter gelato and thick chocolate couverture filled with peanut brittle), vanilla and prickly pear, maple walnut or salted caramel are more to your liking.

And this one from March last year: truffled potato chips with fresh locally grown finger limes and choc chip.

Festive dates on the calendar demand special treatment.

Carly Giannoni serves a customer. Picture: Shirley Sinclair

Valentine’s Day has seen Havana Club Rum-spiced custard gelato, infused with Romeo and Juliette Cuban cigar and variegated with passionfruit, choc chip, chocolate and cocoa.

In October, the Halloween Jack O Lantern gelato was a hit: farmers’ market pumpkin roasted and blended with cinnamon and nutmeg with swirls of choc chip and crunchy caramel.

Valentino still has a soft spot for his childhood favourite: cherry meringue, boasting morsels of meringue throughout for a crunchy sweet surprise.

Carly’s pick is also customers’ most-popular choice: macadamia.

“(Valentino) roasts the macadamias from the farmers’ market, coats it in honey and blends it into a paste and then puts nut crumbs on top,” she adds.

Valentino never does things by halves.

For his liquorice flavour, for example, he uses hundreds of hard pearls of uniquely intense, salty Dutch liquorice.

His reputation for quality now sees him supply businesses around Australia with commercial quantities of gelato ingredients from his wholesale business Marco Polo Merchant Pty Ltd, so many more Australian businesses can share authentic flavours with their customers.

THE ‘A TEAM’ BEHIND B&B

Craig Holland and Paul Catto in the kitchen. Picture: Shirley Sinclair

Heading 20 minutes east towards Murwillumbah, ‘hosts with the most’ Paul Catto and Craig Holland are proving that there are B&Bs and then there’s Hillcrest B&B in Upper Crystal Creek.

With Wollumbin (Mt Warning) looming large from the gazebo and the lush rainforest of Springbrook National Park to the rear, the vistas are spectacular and ever-changing (especially as the cloud cover comes in over the mountain).

But guests soon realise this adults-only luxury property truly comes alive when chatting with Paul and Craig over a lazy sunset dinner.

The view from the Hillcrest B&B gazebo. Picture: Shirley Sinclair

Accomplished chef Paul had a background in classic French cuisine – including Michelin Star-awarded establishments in France – when he took a new direction in Australia with the opening of Star Casino in November 1997.

“I was one of the crew brought out for that. I was in Astral on the top floor for quite a few years,” he says, in a quick break from the kitchen.

“And then I went to work for a man named Nick Manettas in Sydney. I opened a 500-seat Italian (restaurant) for him, two 300-seat steakhouses. I was with those guys about 15 years.”

The scrumptious tart using Hillcrest B&B citrus. Picture: Shirley Sinclair

But the high-pressure demands of high-end restaurant kitchens in maintaining standards of excellence can take their toll on staff – especially head chefs.

“Originally, I was going to get out of the industry altogether, which a lot of us do once you get to my age,” Paul admits.

“I was going to go and work for Craig fulltime and be a bookkeeper. How boring!

“And then this came along and the rest is history, basically.”

The lounge area at Hillcrest B&B. Picture: Shirley Sinclair

As our group sits down al fresco style in the cool of the veranda, Paul seems to effortlessly  whip up a three-course, multi-dish menu including: pan-fried king prawns, garlic, chilli and garlic crostini; roasted spiced cauliflower, with Mediterranean vegetable pistou; and a lemon, lime tart and candied orange Anglaise using citrus fruits grown on their own trees.

Craig, meanwhile, is Mr Personality, catering to our every desire with a dash of comedy and a wicked smile as this dynamic duo brings their own dash of debonair to the hinterland.

A TOAST TO THE ROAST               

Uki postmaster and roastmaster Gary Wall.

In yet another Tweed Valley gem, Gary Wall is enveloped within his busy roles as both postmaster and roastmaster.

Bastion Lane Espresso is housed in the 114-year-old, continuously operating, Heritage-listed Uki Post Office.

The coffee business, which opened in January 2018, roasts not only for in-house customers but also 10 cafes and restaurants throughout the region, including two, one-hatted restaurants: Tweed River House and Bistro Livi in Murwillumbah.

In a community that has survived COVID, droughts and flooding rains in recent years, the post office is a vital and much-appreciated community hub.

The espresso bar. Picture: Shirley Sinclair

As well as serving the 3500 population in the greater Uki area, the seven-days-a-week service (complete with 1890-vintage restored letterbox outside ) now draws tourists on day trips north and south of the Queensland-NSW border to its ‘roastoffice’ and art space.

Gary has a background in TV marketing but he wanted to get away from the daily grind of the small screen.

Little did he suspect he’d find a much more palatable ‘daily grind’ in the Northern Rivers.

He was selling coffee machines at Harvey Norman when he found himself rubbing shoulders with some of Australia’s most influential and  knowledgeable CEOs at the annual Australian Financial Review Business Summit.

The working post office. Picture: Shirley Sinclair

From listening to the featured experts, he knew he wanted to take on a business that was “something fun, not pretentious” after completing his MBA (Master of Business Administration) from Bond University.

When the opportunity came up to buy the post office in a little-known town in the Tweed Valley, Gary at first joked about buying it and semi-retiring at age 34.

But when it was still for sale some time later, he found himself seriously contemplating what he calls “a unique selling proposition”.

He says “coffee builds community with engagement and chatter with others”.

And the Uki community cup runneth over now at the working post office with hip roastoffice/roastery, espresso bar and art space in the heart of town on Kyogle Road.

Bastion Lane beans out of the roasting machine.

The roastery specialises in beans from South America, which Gary believes has the best growing environment in the world for coffee.

He has employed the American-manufactured Diedrich 12kg single-drum roaster –  a workhorse that can output a-quarter-tonne a day or about a tonne a week of aromatic coffee.

The machine can roast a batch of green beans (that look like peanutty peas) in 13.5 minutes.

But like a good red wine, the coffee then needs ‘to breathe’ or rest for seven to 10 days before hitting the shop shelves.

Bastion Lane produces four roast styles, including the signature Post Master’s blend which makes up 80 per cent of the business market and what Uki locals prefer. The deep, rich and chocolatey flavour boasts roasted hazelnut and hints of delicate citrus fruit.

The organic Alt roast is a darker style, roasted exclusively for use with milk alternatives such as soy, almond, oat, macadamia and coconut for its lower acidity.

Then there’s also single-origin, chemical-free decaffeinated (created using a Swiss water process concentrating on pure water, temperature and time). The rich, full-bodied flavour highlights deep chocolate, tawny hazelnut notes and a silky crema.

The Private Batch Roast Filter-Popayán is ideal for plunger and filtered black coffee. The single-origin roast is delicate, sweet and refreshing with citrus fruit notes, pineapple flavours and a molasses finish.

Part of the art space. Picture: Shirley Sinclair

Visitors can walk around with their coffee as they admire the art space that changes exhibitions every six weeks under the guidance of head curator, respected painter/drawer and former Victorian teacher-turned-local Sue Kinneally.

The building has just undergone renovations to expand the café side of the business and make even more coffee connections in the community.

*The Tweed Valley is under a three-hour drive from Caloundra. The verdant valley is a caldera formed from the now-extinct volcano known as Mount Wollumbin (Mount Warning). The Tweed River runs through the valley, flowing from its origins near Mount Burrell on the eastern volcanic slopes of Wollumbin  north-east for about 80km to the ocean at Tweed Heads.

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*The writer was a guest of The Tweed Tourism Co.

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