Tasmania’s Gourmet Paradise
Published: April 2009
By Stephen Metcalf
The cleanest air and water on the planet, miraculously varied landscapes, a highly sophisticated local food and wine culture: the Australian island of Tasmania, Stephen Metcalf finds, is a thriving gourmet paradise.
"Our summer pudding is the best in Tasmania," the proprietress assured me. I had pulled off the highway to eat at Eureka, a tiny fruit and berry farm a half-mile or so from the Tasmanian coast. The sign promised an array of bests—the best ice cream, the best fresh berries, and the sign didn't lie. When I visited in November, early spring in Australia, the strawberries had just come in. They were small, but piercing in their sweetness, and easily the best I had ever tasted. Eureka, it turns out, is blessed with its own perfect berry-growing climate, a little eucalyptus forest consisting mainly of blue and white gums. Here Ann and Denis Buchanan plant and harvest, and make their own jams and chutneys. Ann clucked over me as I greedily downed their pudding, a tart mash of berries and bread; then Denis, a prickly graybeard in overalls, showed me around. "We're the real McCoy," he tells me, in contrast with some other outfits that sneak in outside fruit. "It's a boutique operation, alright. Our advertising is hopeless. We live by reputation alone."
The stop came as a relief. Driving up the east coast of Tasmania, I worried my senses were leaving me, so hallucinatory was the beauty of the landscape. To my right flowed softly undulating dunes covered in banksias and bearded heath. Beyond these lay catchments of water sheltered from the open Tasman Sea in dune swales and coastal lagoons. As I pushed north, toward Great Oyster Bay and the Freycinet Peninsula, there were long, deserted stretches of pristine white-sand beaches, broken up only by looming granite outcrops, by the pates of massive boulders protruding from wet sand. At dusk, the rocks, dusted in orange lichen, glowed like pink lanterns, and wallabies lined the empty highway. Proceed with caution, I had been told; they are known to spring into oncoming traffic.
Eureka, it turns out, is a classic Tasmanian story. A modest DIY foodie utopia, deposited in its own microclimate, run by interlopers—Ann and Denis sailed down to Tasmania from Sydney in 1991, with no idea they'd stay—selling to a devoted clutch of locals. Lately, though, what Australians call "the Big Dry"—the worst drought in a thousand years, some say—is taking its toll. Freakishly unseasonable weather, already a Tasmanian specialty, has been increasing in ferocity, a trend locals blame on global warming. "It's been exceptionally weird the last couple of months," Denis told me, and he worried about his latest crop.
Doomsday weather aside, Tasmania is currently rebranding itself as Eden. A wind, more or less untouched by any landmass, whips around the globe, pounding Tasmania's west coast. The endless gusting makes Tasmania's air, soil, and surrounding waters some of the least contaminated on the planet. Perhaps more important, thanks to its wild congeries of microclimates, you can grow or harvest virtually anything—berries, stone fruits, nuts, olives, truffles, wasabi, saffron, caviar, Wagyu beef—to exacting culinary specifications. Its crystalline waters abound in king crabs, crayfish, rock oysters, scallops, and abalone. Its cool-climate wines and craft cheeses are superb, and gaining international recognition. And its famous Leatherwood honey, drawn from the dense rain forest, might be the most delicious substance to ever strike the human palate.
Before it could be paradise, Tasmania was hell on earth. Tasmania is Australia's smallest state, an island off the continent's southeast coast about the size of South Carolina. Once, if you committed a crime in England, you were banished to Australia. My second day in Tasmania, I drove out to Port Arthur, the settlement on the Tasman Peninsula where convicts were sent when they committed yet another crime while in Australia. As a secondary penal colony, Port Arthur was designed to be a place of unremitting subjugation and hardship. As Robert Hughes wrote in his majestic epic of Australia's founding, The Fatal Shore, it became "the closest thing to a totalitarian society that would ever exist within the British Empire."
Today, guidebooks in hand, tourists poke their way through the hollowed-out ruins of old outbuildings. To get there from Hobart, Tasmania's capital, I drove through Eaglehawk Neck, the narrow isthmus that connects the Tasman Peninsula to the Forestier Peninsula, which is connected in turn to the mainland. The scenery is arresting: the landscape is wind-pruned and intense, with talus slopes dropping down to aquamarine waters. Back at my hotel, an employee asked about my day at Port Arthur, and I too-casually replied, "Oh, lovely, thanks." She turned to me full-on, dropping her smile. "It is an unbelievably sad place, for everything that happened there. For the convicts, for the aborigines. Even the way the light slants there. It is not lovely. It is sad." I stood corrected.
How to explain the clarity of light and air in Tasmania?It's as if, midway through life, someone removed your eyeglasses, wiped them clean on their shirttail, then handed them back to you. Hobart is a well-serviced city, and yet walking through it, the air crosses you with nothing but sweet things—the smell of roses and foxgloves and pencil pines and sweet alyssum. "There's nothing to the west of us," says Graeme Phillips, author of A Guide to Tasting Tasmania, the definitive resource for the island's food scene. "We miss all the gunk in the air."
Phillips has a gray drooping mustache, and hands so thick they could thumb open a bowling ball as easily as a warm dinner roll. Formidable as he is, Phillips appears pleasantly softened by years taking the sweet impress of "Tassie" food and wine. I met him at Lebrina, his favorite restaurant in the state. We sample a daube of lamb à la cuillère, "to be eaten with a spoon," as the menu commends, and a truncated cone of biting peppery eggplant that lies in a cooling pool of yogurt. Alongside these, Phillips introduced me to Tassie wine with an exquisite Chardonnay. "They have structure," he said of the island's wines. "I like that. This one, it doesn't have the in-your-face blossoming that most Australians have grown up with." It is tart, minerally, its undernotes more gunmetal than floral. Phillips sips, considers, then exhales with pleasure. "That cleansing core of acid."
Lebrina sits in an 1840's cottage that has never been gutted to create an open space. Instead, guests dine in homey, intimate, old-world rooms, surrounded by antiques. Lebrina's chef, Scott Minervini, started a modest revolution in 1998 when he insisted that the island's cornucopia of game, seafood, and produce should stay home. This flew in the face of history: Tasmania has traditionally been the butt of jokes from mainlanders, who consider it a backwater populated (as one old joke goes) by two-headed inbreds. Where others saw a haven for rubes in camper vans, Minervini saw culinary possibility: "You've got a network of small producers. In Tas, you know what you eat grew just down the road from here." My meal at Lebrina started with a blazing white kingfish—its interior flesh is the color of hotel linens—topped with piquantly fresh local garlic shoots. Later, as Phillips and I were tucking in to dessert—a chocolate-and-biscotti pudding with local hazelnut praline, a warm orange pudding with lemon curd—Minervini joined us.
"When a chef shows off with the food, I think something has to give in the flavor. There has to be a bit of selflessness involved." Minervini is a low-key man in dorky-chic glasses and a chef's apron. "What else do you need to do to a ripe tomato?"
"It's a lazy way to cook," adds Phillips. "You want to know what Tasmania is?" he says, laying down his spoon. "Five of us get together every year. We bring no food. We catch everything as we go. Crayfish as big as my arms. Scallops and crab. And just fifteen minutes up the river from here. That's Tasmania."
Well, that was Tasmania. The island is changing, from a target of snide putdowns into a chic eating destination. In the south, Moorilla, one of Tasmania's earliest modern vineyards, has opened a hotel—with glass-and-steel guest chalets suspended on a hillside over the Derwent River—to go with its winery, organic microbrewery, and restaurant. Meanwhile, up north at the brilliant Stillwater River Café, I had one of the finest meals of my life, a discreet smorgasbord of "Freestyle Australian" with dashes of Asian fusion: scallop sashimi with mushroom essence and truffle oil, sea-urchin roe with dashi jelly, grass-fed prime rib-eye fillet, vanilla-poached quince—and all of it, as the mantra of Tassie cuisine goes, local, local, local. At the lovely Daniel Alps at Strathlynn, Alps himself takes me back to his kitchen, where he slaps and tugs at the plenty stored in his larder. "In Singapore they can't even grow a carrot. I couldn't work somewhere where I couldn't see everything growing." Every day Alps drives up to the restaurant past the vineyard, and the vineyard tells him how to cook that day: the greener the leaf, the lighter his hand. He shows off his spring bay scallops, spring lambs, venison haunches, and organic herbs and vegetables, all of it untouched by middlemen.
The irony of frou-frou-ing in the name of "locally grown" isn't lost on Steve Cumper. He was until recently the chef at Peppermint Bay, the most ambitious expression of the burgeoning Tasmanian food philosophy. To get there, you board a deluxe catamaran in Hobart harbor, cruise up the Derwent River, between sedimentary mudstone cliffs populated by white-bellied eagles and peregrine falcons, past the occasional pod of migrating whales, then dock in the rural town of Woodbridge. Here you are greeted by a supermod glass-and-steel compound. "Too many city restaurants have misappropriated the gate-to-plate philosophy," says Cumper, who has cultivated a tart sarcasm when it comes to artisanal purity. "They've commodified it." Cumper moved to Tasmania to be the real thing: he lives on a 12-acre homestead with his young family, and, a former vegetarian, does his own slaughtering. Local producers provide him with everything from heirloom quince to water buffalo. "Tasmania is now a paradox," Cumper tells me over lunch. "The poor man's food is on the rich man's table. Unfortunately, the good-food movement is elitist."
Elitist, inevitably; flattering to yuppie narcissism, check; but in Tasmania, utterly necessary. For much of its modern history, Tasmania has been content to molest itself for the commodity buck. In the north, the mountains around Queenstown are a moonscape, thanks to decades of copper smelting. One of Tasmania's largest industries is still logging; and to the horror of environmentalists around the globe, Tasmania's old-growth forests are logged by clear-cutting and burning, only to be turned into wood chips. After a huge swath of forest has been cut, the largest logs are removed; the remaining scrub is lit on fire with liquefied diesel gel, better known as napalm. The ground is then seeded with eucalyptus. Poisoned carrots are scattered to kill off any wildlife—possums, wallabies, wombats, quolls, and potoroos—that might eat the seedlings. In the northwest, I saw the legacy of logging with my own eyes: in the middle of a dense tangle of primeval forest, blue gum trees stand in rows, like obedient schoolchildren.
Here artisanal food and ecotourism are more than trendy sensualism: they're competitors to the island's extractive industries, industries rooted in a thoroughly unsensual worldview. Prisoners, of course, ate nothing but duff, hog peas, and suet; but even affluent settlers were incorrigibly English. Some of them built their Georgian houses pointed to the south, even though in the Southern Hemisphere the sun is to the north. The Anglo-Saxon mind-set only started to give way in the 1950's, when, thanks to newly relaxed immigration laws, continental Europeans arrived in greater numbers. They noticed immediately what their predecessors had missed: Tasmania's climate was a near-perfect facsimile of the Mediterranean's. The first modern Tasmanian grapevines were planted in backyards, by Italians; a wine industry slowly began to develop, followed by specialty cheeses, nuts and fruits.
If ever there were an antidote to a brutish past, it is Annie Ashbolt, a radiant woman in her forties. "The early olive farmers in the midlands were all Greek and Italian immigrants," she tells me over coffee in Hobart. In the early eighties, her husband, Robert, began managing his family's farm. Only a decade earlier, Robert's grandfather had been paid by the government to uproot his old-growth apple trees. "Corporate farming was taking over Australia," says Annie. She and Robert were determined to stem the industrial tide and return the farm to its small-scale roots, planting groves of olive and elder-flower trees. They now produce a beautiful olive oil, fruity and raw with notes of mown grass and apple. It is widely regarded as one of Australia's best.
The story she told me I heard over and over from the island's small producers: we're a raging success; we can't keep up with demand; we're barely hanging on. Production costs are high, regulations stack the deck against the boutique producer, and, in recent years, climate change has aggravated the vagaries of Tasmania's fickle weather. After our coffee, Annie walked me back to my car. She spoke breathlessly about Tasmania's future. "We are too isolated to compete in the commodity marketplace. We have to value-add." But the island's humility is deeply ingrained. Tasmania is a paradise, Annie believes, complete unto itself but for one thing: sufficient self-respect to recognize itself as such.
At the opposite extreme of commodity agriculture lies terroir, the semimystical French idea of soil, air, and climate as they express themselves in grapes, and subtly imprint a wine with the character of a place. The Tasmanian wine industry aspires to cultivate the island's unique terroir, without giving an inch to the byzantine snobberies of the French. Nonetheless, it is a premium wine industry, the cool-climate, small-scale answer to a mainland famous for warm-climate Shiraz and the industrial plonk known as Yellow Tail. In the south, Pauillac-style wines thrive, like the firm-shouldered Cabernets of the Domaine A vineyard. Halfway up the coast is Apsley Gorge, where Brian Franklin, Tasmania's most committed Burgundian, makes a gorgeous Pinot Noir in a repurposed fish factory. (In season, Franklin, a former abalone diver, will catch and grill you a fresh seafood feast to blow your mind.) But my favorite stop along the Tasmanian wine trail was Meadowbank Estate, a temple to the progress the island's wine industry has made over the past 30 years.
Meadowbank's cellar is an open-plan building with massive windows overlooking the vineyards of the Coal River Valley and the glinting blue-black estuaries of Barilla Bay. Inside, all is crisp, lightsome, easygoing, and neat as a pin. Cathedral ceilings are strung with catwalks and Oregon-timber pillars that were once ballast for Tasmanian ships. Visiting Meadowbank on a blazing day in early spring, I met two of Tasmania's wine-making pooh-bahs, Andrew Hood and Tony Scherer. Hood is the dean of Tasmanian winemakers, the man responsible for designing many of the island's finest Pinots. He is 59, snowy-haired, and for an Aussie, very English. Scherer, a rangy American in work boots and dungarees, runs the vineyard at Frogmore Creek, Tasmania's most prominent organic vineyard. We sat down to an impeccably presented feast—roasted chicken in a soft polenta, seared scallops in a black pudding, cutlets of Flinders Island lamb, and the freshest oysters I have ever encountered—and as we ate, both men began to speak candidly about the state of Tasmanian wine.
"In an industry of our scale," says Hood, "one individual can be involved from the ground to the consumer. We're one-quarter of one percent of Australian production. The mainland does a huge volume of industrial-scale wine. But when you look at superpremium wines, it's a different story. You couldn't talk about Pinot Noir in Australia without thinking of Tasmania." Small, to Hood and Scherer, means free. (Hood sums up their worldview bluntly: "Here is what comes out of my vineyard. If you don't like it, bugger off.") It also means very, very vulnerable. Big players are coming into the market, with an eye on China's growing predilection for fine wine. And then there is climate change. "Global warming," says Scherer, "has huge implications for what we'll be eating and drinking over the next fifteen years." Hood agrees. "I've seen a dramatic change," he says. "When I was a kid, the snow on Mount Wellington stayed throughout the winter. Now it snows and it's gone the next day."
Terroir is a painfully sensitive register of environmental change. So far, ironically, despoliation has been kind to Tasmanian Pinot Noir. Vintages used to be hit-and-miss; now, thanks in some part to global warming, for the past three years "each one has been a knockout," says Scherer. High UV radiation, courtesy of Australia's depleted ozone, has thickened grape skins, deepening the color of the wine. In Launceston, I met with Andrew Pirie, the preeminent student of Tasmanian terroir. Pirie created the modern Tasmanian wine industry out of virtually nothing, and is one of only three Tasmanians mentioned by name in Jancis Robinson's definitive Oxford Companion to Wine. "It's a question I could spend days answering," Pirie tells me over tea. "As it gets cooler, as sunshine gets softer, you get more delicate flavors. The mainland is hotter, so they have stronger flavors, with characteristics of olive and leather. Here it is more temperate. We have fruit essences, flowers, and spices."
A soft-spoken and elegant man, the Sydney-born Pirie is "distantly French," as he puts it; he moved to Tasmania in 1980. When Pirie arrived on the scene, wine in Tasmania was still little more than a hobby—there were maybe 1,500 planted vines. He saw immediately that the Tamar Valley was a close cousin to Alsace and Burgundy—where he had apprenticed—with respect to a host of variables like latitude and intensity of sunshine. Pirie and his brother ordered 51,000 vines, and within months, they had started the first commercial development of the modern era.
Thirty years later, the Tasmanian wine industry is a raging success. Two hundred and fifty vineyards now cover 3,200 acres, both numbers representing a twofold increase over the past eight years alone. But, as Scherer and Hood told me, size could spell trouble. In 2003, Tasmania's logging giant, a company called Gunns, acquired the Tamar Ridge label, making them the largest landholder in the northern wine region. Two years later, Gunns hired Pirie to run its vineyards. "It was a shock to everyone," says Hood. "He put Tasmanian wine on the map." Whether Gunns is interested in crafting fine wine is unclear. The company would, however, like to build a pulp mill in the Tamar Valley, in the heart of Tasmania's northern wine country. The plant would allow the company to process for themselves the old-growth forest they clear-cut. Along the way, its many critics claim, the mill would pump sulfurous effluent into the Bass Strait, to the severe detriment of marine life, not to mention Tasmania's new clean-and-green image. "I won't be renewing my lease until I find out what's been going on," says Daniel Alps. "This could potentially ruin the last ten years of my work."
Pirie appears unruffled by the outcry. "I think it's a response from a small-scale industry," he says. By Tasmanian standards, Tamar Ridge is huge, and yet, adds Pirie, "I go to conferences where I'm considered a boutique producer. The Gunns connection is controversial, but it is a source of funding for an industry that thrives on capital. Many of the better vineyards in France are owned by corporate overlords, and they're fairly relaxed about that." He remains unconvinced by the anxiety brought on by the mill. "Only two days ago," Pirie says, as our tea comes to a close, "I saw the boss of Gunns. He'd just come back from seeing a pulp plant in Chile. It sits in the middle of a sea of vineyards. Vines go up to the walls of the plant. There's a photo of the plant manager drinking the effluent water." He smiles at me reassuringly. "There is a degree of emotion in this that's not entirely rational."
Many places are beautiful; Tasmania burrows deep into your consciousness. Here, on a small island, in an hour's haunting drive, you find everything from dry bushland and white-sand beaches to eucalyptus rain forest and lush pastureland that rivals Vermont. It is like no place on earth, a paradise intelligently designed, if not by God, surely by Alice Waters. Delicacies everywhere, delivered from a nearby arcadia, produced by people who expressed their deepest essence in making it. But then the euphoria fades, and one remembers Tasmania is like every place on earth. At the very moment it's coming to self-consciousness as a final redoubt of the small, the forces of exploitation are redoubling their efforts to degrade it. And then nature takes its bite. A month after I returned to the States, a bushfire, goaded on by extra-dry conditions and converted into a fireball by 60-mile-an-hour winds, descended into the Buchanans' little valley, destroying the Eureka berry farm. "We sustained quite a bit of damage," says Ann now, "but we survived." Their pipes had melted; fencing evaporated; their heavily mulched soil had been scorched beyond use. But they stayed on in Tasmania. "We rebuilt," says Ann. "And we're bigger and better than ever."
When to Go
Summer and Autumn (December–May) are sunny, dry seasons, with daytime temperatures in the mid 60's and low 70's.
How to Get There
Qantas Airways and Virgin Blue offer connecting service to Hobart from Melbourne and Sydney. Car rentals from most major companies, including Avis, Hertz, and Budget, are available at the Hobart airport.
Where to Stay
Hatherley House Doubles from $131.
Henry Jones Art Hotel Doubles from $255.
Islington Hotel Doubles from $350.
Where to Eat
Daniel Alps at Strathlynn Lunch for two $110.
Lebrina Dinner for two $139.
Peppermint Bay Dinner for two $106.
Stillwater River Café Dinner for two $149.
Apsley Gorge Rosedale Rd., Bicheno; 61-3/6375-1221; discovertasmania.com.
Hood Wines, Frogmore Creek 208 Denholms Rd., Cambridge; 61-3/6248-5844; hoodwines.com.au.
Meadowbank Estate 699 Richmond Rd., Cambridge; 61-3/6248-4484; meadowbank wines.com.au.
Moorilla 655 Main Rd., Berriedale; 61-3/6277-9900; moorilla.com.au.
Tamar Ridge Estates 653 Auburn Rd., Kayena; 61-3/6394-1111; tamarridge.com.au.
What to do
89 Upper Scamander Rd., Scamander; 61-3/6372-5500; discovertasmania.com.au.
Salamanca Place, Hobart; 61-3/6238-2843; discovertasmania.com.au.