Tasmania on the tongue
In 'Lion', it offered refuge to Saroo. But this multicultural island off Australia has other wonders in store, from garfish rollmops to sea-salted beer
Kim Dudson, our guide, is indefatigable. She procures padded jackets for me when the wind is fierce enough to uproot the hair from my head. She wangles bananas from strangers at the slightest mention of hunger. She is a fount of knowledge about the history and geography of Tasmania. She wrangles invitations to private homes. She brazens her way to the best tables at the fanciest restaurants.
Dudson is here to show us around Tasmania, a land of eucalyptus trees, sepia fields, corrugated hills, cobalt skies and seas, and huge swathes of national parks. It is cool and clean as crystal. In fact, Cape Grim, in north-western Tasmania, has been identified as having the world’s cleanest air and water. All these things make it the perfect state for beer brewing and today, we are to explore the enduring Tasmanian entanglements with that ambrosial liquid.
Led by Dudson, we glide across the autumnal landscape of the Derwent Valley, shadowed and crumpled by russet hills, scalloped by cornflower-blue harbours. Our first stop: a picnic in the grounds of a 19th century oast house, surrounded by hops fields (the hops having been harvested already) and ducks that converge on us like tesserae. Oast houses are used for drying hops and this one was built in 1867 by a man with the unforgettable name of Ebenezer Shoobridge.
“He was a strict Quaker," Dudson tells us, and the proof is everywhere in the form of stern Biblical sayings that adorn the building. We toast Shoobridge with Dudson’s delicious home-made elderflower cordial, not too sweet, its astringency plucking at my tongue. It reminds me a little bit of lemon barley water.
It is to be a day of hops. Shoobridge’s hops factory is closed to the public, but Dudson has unearthed for us Valleyfield, a private colonial farm complex owned by Meg Bignell and her family. “It was the site of the first commercially grown hops in Australia," Dudson tells us, “which allowed the first brewery in Tasmania." Much of this new world feels as if its face is turned firmly towards the past.
Bignell has a slow, gentle smile. She shows us around her picturesque garden, thick with fruit and vegetable plants, and weaves us in and out of her family’s oast house. Instead of beer, she plies us with fresh walnuts from her garden (we learn to crack them with a deft whack), fruity Rooibos tea, coffee and all the different varieties of apples (Tasmanian apples are legendary).
As dusk falls, we make our way to the Hobart Brewing Co, our final visit of the day. Inside its cavernous room, the friendly lady behind the bar sets down five beers for us to taste: the Harbour Master Tasmanian Ale, the Saint Christopher Cream Ale—an easy hopped beer that slips down pretty lightly, the chocolate-y, velvety, intense Iron Pot Rye Porter, the fruity Xtra Tasmanian Pale Ale and, most intriguing of all, Shake ‘n’ Grind Gose, a salty beer! The Gose was first kettle-soured with lactobacillus (a fermenting agent), we are told, and then brewed with Tasman sea salt and a blend of pepperberry (an Australian native spice) and Indian coriander. A sort of masala beer, very pleasing to the Indian palate.
But there is more to Tasmania than beer. There is also some very good food. For a long time, the state was a sleepy afterthought, a hick postscript to the posh main event. But in the last decade or so, Tassie’s star has started shining in the sophisticated gastronomy department.
At the hipster-ish modern Australian eatery Ethos Eat Drink, the motto is “Local. Honest. Fresh." (diners can visit its website, where a Google map of the state is pocked with the locations of Ethos’ local food sources). We sample small, sharing plates of dishes like garfish rollmops (a popular local fish) with potato and pickled onion. Later, we eat home-made sourdough bread and a creamy, mature cheese, the Zoe, which is made from goat curd. Zoe is made by Tongola Goat Products, with the goats being reared and milked by hand. “Local", “artisanal" and “organic" are phrases that have seeped into every Tasmanian’s vocabulary. We see them everywhere we go.
For our final dinner, Dudson packs us off to The Glass House, a modern Asian-Tasmanian restaurant with a heart-stopping view of the waterfront. “She’s a food writer. Make sure she gets the best table," she instructs the maitre d’, while I turn several shades of mortification. However, I do get the best table.
Tasmanian food is born of the diverse milieu that characterizes its society. Waves of immigration have washed over the land, bringing with them a kaleidoscopic variety of flavours that have helped forge a unique, layered terrine of tastes. The ingredients are plucked from the soil and the seas nearby and blended with international flavours and techniques.
And so, at The Glass House, I am told that the menu is seasonal and often includes Tasmanian freshly shucked oysters, sea urchin, line-caught fish, organic quinoa, and local grass-fed beef. We sit down to a feast of gauzy kingfish carpaccio, doused in a nuoc cham jelly; honey-glazed carrots with dukkah and smoked yogurt; a peanutty, crunchy, crisp Korean fried chicken (clearly a riff on satay); a confit ocean trout served with nori and an oyster emulsion; and the most splendid chocolate marque. These are mellifluous dishes that would be at home anywhere.
The fingers of multiculturalism rake through our journey in different ways. Meg Bignell of Valleyfield has spent a month in Kolkata and a week in Mumbai, writing her dissertation on kitchens in Indian fiction. At Salamanca Market, which is possibly the quaintest marketplace I have ever been to, a cheese vendor tells us that her husband worked in Chennai for many months and enjoyed it thoroughly. We meet the chatty Nav Singh who, together with his partner Louise Radman, started the single-vineyard Simha wines, hand-crafted and chemical-free. Simha wines are harvested according to lunar cycles and matured in bulbous clay and oak amphorae.
Oh, and the shopping! Dudson hustles us off to lavender farms and strawberry farms and the most adorable boutique food shops. Our favourite is the deli of Hobart’s Wursthaus Kitchen, stacked to the rafters with sausages (every kind, including a national award-winning pork chipolata and venison and wallaby wursts); rubbed pastrami made of prime Tasmanian beef; purple Tasmanian garlic; black (!) Tasmanian garlic that had been aged in a fermenting oven for a month until it transformed into a sweet-savoury paste; olive oils that are as green as the hills and taste as fresh; fresh breads; raw Tasmanian honey, and lots and lots of local wines. We walk out staggering under the weight of our shopping.
But there is one last gift awaiting us. As we say our goodbyes, Dudson hugs us and presses something into my hands. It is a bottle of Cape Grim water, the cleanest bottled water in the world.
For some Tasmania in your bag, here’s our little black book
■ Port Arthur Lavender Farm, for everything from lavender oils and unguents to lavender-flavoured chocolate (Portarthurlavender.com.au)
■ Westerway Raspberry Farm, for all kinds of raspberries, including yellow ones (Lanoma.com.au)
■ Wursthaus Kitchen in Hobart, for succulent meat from ethically raised farm animals, cheese, Tasmanian wines, breads and all manner of condiments (Wursthauskitchen.com.au)
■ Hobart’s Salamanca Market for food, clothes, jewellery, pottery and anything else that your heart desires (Salamanca.com.au)
Foodprint is a Lounge series that look at food through the perspective of travel.
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