SYDNEY AND MELBOURNE MAY GRAB THE HEADLINES, BUT A DIFFERENT, SLOWER KIND OF FOOD REVOLUTION IS WELL UNDER WAY in AUSTRALIA’S SOUTHERN OUTPOST. DISCOVER THE GASTRONOMIC DELIGHTS OF TASMANIA, ONE OF THE WORLD’S GREATEST NATURAL LARDERS
It all began with 420 lobsters. That was the quantity of crustaceans, along with three kilos of caviar and 17 kilos of foie gras, that Tasmanian gambling-millionaire-turned-art-collector David Walsh delivered to his guests upon the opening of his MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) gallery in Hobart, Tasmania five years ago. Ostentatious this feast may certainly have been but the gallery itself has been the launching pad for a renewed interest in the island, which Mark Twain once admired for “…the splendour of the sunlight! The charm of the water glimpses!”
For Tasmania is, frankly, nothing like the rest of Australia in every sense imaginable – a rural, bohemian cousin to Sydney’s sleek city style and Queensland’s glitzy coast, its fertile lands contrasting with the barbarous barrenness of the Northern Territory. In Tasmania, it doesn’t even get that hot compared to the Oz mainland. This is a land of soaking rainforests, glacial valleys and cliffs, and mountains with boulders strewn like a giant’s marble collection. Hobart itself – the island’s capital and, for centuries, a byword for monotony – is, rather suddenly, one of the most fascinating gourmet destinations in the southern hemisphere.
An evening spent amid the genial atmosphere of Franklin is enough to convince even the most sceptical. A restaurant committed to the motifs of ‘paddock to plate’ dining (the Aussie variant of the ‘farm to table’ approach so popular in the UK and Denmark), head chef David Moyle has created a space in the former home of Hobart newspaper The Mercury offering a concise exploration of the local piscine pleasures that’s as full of subtle surprises as the clean lines and smooth furnishings of the room itself. Trays of steamed periwinkles, slices of albacore tuna and the local King Midas of the sea, Tasmanian abalone, here wrapped in bull kelp, roasted and served with the liver alongside dried oysters, black pepper and whisked egg white.
The wine list is another showcase for natural wonders. Biodynamic and organic artisan producers such as Bornard, Dinavolino, and Occhipinti are all present and correct. Though the leading Australian wine writer Huon Hooke is currently raving about Moorilla Estate. Tasmania’s extreme southern location means that global warming is not having as much effect on the delicate whites and sparkling varieties here. Located in the Tamar Valley, Moorilla’s Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Rieslings are masterpieces of tight, fine, complex flavours with prices remaining reasonable – a 2013 Muse Pinot Gris is still under the A$35 (US$27) mark.
But to really experience the Tasmanian dining revolution in its purest form, a cooking class at The Agrarian Kitchen in New Norfolk is becoming almost a rite of passage for the curious visitor. Chef Rodney Dunn and his wife Séverine Demanet set up the kitchen eight years ago to showcase local produce, including rock samphire, sea spinach, quail eggs, rock lobster, wild trout and Wessex saddleback pigs. Just down the road lies Perigord Truffles, run by pioneers Peter Cooper and Duncan Garvey who use spaniels rather than pigs to sniff out the famed fungus. A partnership with the Agrarian has resulted in a ‘cooking with truffles’ class that gets booked up months in advance. The workshop allows visitors to create and, more importantly, eat sybaritic dishes such as Dunn’s personal favourite: pasta with truffle butter stirred through it, a truffled egg yolk and shaved truffle on top.
It’s a softly spoken shift in these parts, but this embrace of the quite staggering array of local produce, in an environment that contains almost none of the stereotypes you’d expect from the Aussie landscape, is one which locals take no small amount of pride in. As David Moyles at Franklin admits, the pretences of metropolitan gourmandising don’t suit Tasmania. The onus here is on eating rather than dining:
“We’re all about the slow-burn,” he says. “I don’t want this to sound pretentious, but I really like the idea of food being part of the community, and us being a bit of an all-day eat-house. But slowly, slowly.”
Moyles, and his fellow creatives at the cutting-edge of Tasmanian cuisine, may be innovating at at a more languid pace than on the mainland. But it would be wrong to consider it ponderous. Despite David Walsh’s explosion of lobster and caviar, this is an island where the maxim that change must be gradual in order to be gratifying still holds true.