Brought to you by James Boag
On a four-day gastronomic tour of this ruggedly beautiful island, we meet the farmers and producers harnessing its bounty.
Mountainous terrain, dense bush and a churning ocean: Tasmania’s beauty is undeniably raw and wild. Few here have harnessed the elements better than the island’s farmers and growers. They’ve tamed the landscape, producing high-quality ingredients and revealing Tassie’s more cultivated side. It’s this enviable blend of rugged and refined that makes the isle a utopia for food-lovers.
That’s why James Viles, executive chef of two-hatted Biota Dining in Bowral, NSW, is here for an exploratory food tour covering close to 900 kilometres of land and sea. Easygoing and exuberant, Viles operates on a simple philosophy: “We focus on ingredients: what’s around, at its best and in abundance. And I love being outdoors. We’re in the kitchen each day but the inspiration comes from nature. You have to start outside.”
That ethos has earned him a new role, co-creator of “Harnessed by James Boag”, which sees him designing a unique tasting menu for the beer brand’s Birdcage marquee at this year’s Melbourne Cup Carnival. He’s come to rugged Tasmania, the home of James Boag, to learn, taste and experience and to explore new ingredients to incorporate into the menu – and he’s invited us along for the ride.
North West Tasmania
Day 1: It’s a damp, overcast morning when we drive out of Launceston and head west to Stanley, a seaside town just shy of the island’s north-western tip and one of the locations for the upcoming Hollywood film The Light Between Oceans. As we set out on the two-and-half-hour drive, the blanket of cloud retreats inland to hug the heights of the Great Western Tiers and a cornflower-blue sky emerges. In Stanley, the region’s uncommon beauty is clear: a majestic combination of rock formations and green hills and the rolling swells of Bass Strait. The most striking feature of the landscape is the Nut, an ancient volcanic plug that rises on the eastern swathe of Stanley’s small peninsula. While it’s worth scaling its heights (for the less athletic, there’s a chairlift), the Nut is not the reason we’re here.
Our goal? Gazing at cattle. In this rich pastureland, some of the best beef cattle in the world are busily chewing their cud. Much of the end of this peninsula belongs to John Bruce, who’s been farming beef in this spot for over 30 years. On his fields are more than 1000 head of cattle, all of which are sold under the Cape Grim Beef brand, a favourite of chefs like Neil Perry and speciality butchers such as Sydney’s Victor Churchill.
Though Bruce’s farm is private land, take time to meander along Dovecote and Green Hills roads, where you’ll spot some of the world’s happiest cows. “You can tell they’re happy by the pastures and by the people farming them,” observes Viles. “I like farmers who breed happy animals.”
The ocean is unusually calm and as the sun casts a brilliant shimmer across the strait, we head to the western side of the peninsula to the end of Green Hills Road. Here, just before the lane turns sharply to the north, is a small rocky foreshore. Viles has his shoes off and is clambering across the wet sand and rocky pools before you can say, “Forage!” Within minutes, he’s found saltbush (“Tastes like apple skin,” he says, handing me some, and indeed it does), samphire (crisp and salty) and sea lettuce (slippery and textural). Grinning, he explains, “I enjoy cooking with these plants; they play an important part in our menu.”
Post sea snacks, it’s time to warm up by the fire at the local pub and toast the success of the day. Those staying overnight have plenty of options: try the renovated bluestone boutique hotel @ VDL Stanley or the smart Horizon Deluxe Apartments with great views of the Nut.
Day 2: The day dawns bright and chilly, with the sun melting the frost in the fields, when we head back to Launceston. A caffeine pit stop at Makers’ Workshop (2 Bass Highway, Parklands; 03 6430 5831) in Burnie proves fruitful. Here, a small cheese-tasting space showcases well-known locals such as Tasmanian Heritage and Mersey Valley. We sample a few morsels then hit the road again – our next farmer awaits.
Guy Robertson’s Mount Gnomon Farm is in the hinterland behind the township of Penguin. The snaking road, lined with walnut groves, leads to a bucolic eatery overlooking an orchard of pear, quince and apple trees. Behind it are fields of pigs (Wessex saddleback and Hampshire), Shropshire sheep and a small herd of cattle. If you stay for lunch in the restaurant, Robertson will throw in a tour of his farm.
We’re cooing over his piglets when the clouds roll back in. Suddenly, it’s windy and cold, with spots of rain. But this ever-changing weather affects the scenery in a way that’s awe-inspiring. It’s part of what makes Tasmania unique.
As we bundle back into the car and drive towards the coast, Viles points out a recently ploughed field. “There’s an abundance of quality here,” he says. “That’s one of the special things about Tassie. Everything is fertile and healthy.”
It’s time to head for civilisation, namely the James Boag Brewery on the banks of the North Esk River in Launceston. We join a brewery tour to discover the history and heritage of the brand and how James Boag’s Premium Lager is made. Head brewer Nathan Calman knows firsthand why the product is so good. The ingredients, he says, are second to none. “It’s the high-quality malt, hops and water. We truly believe the product we make can’t be made anywhere else.” Tours take about an hour and a half and finish with a beer and cheese-tasting.
While in town, it’s worth visiting provedore Alps & Amici in East Launceston. It stocks many local products, including Tasmanian Butter Co.’s handcrafted cultured butter by Launceston local Olivia Morrison; raw wild honey from Robin and Antonia O’Brien of Wellington Apiary; and Shima Wasabi’s powdered version of the fresh-stem product from growers Stephen and Karen Welsh.
While Shima Wasabi’s fresh offerings are served in restaurants across the country, from Sepia in Sydney to Wasabi in Noosa, the powdered form is perfect for at-home cooks; add water and try it with your next Cape Grim Beef steak instead of mustard.
After two days of driving, traipsing through piglet huts and exploring rocky foreshores, anyone would crave a touch of luxury. For a city-based stay, rest your head at The Sebel Launceston. If you’re seeking rural refinement, Red Feather Inn is a B&B and cooking school sited in a collection of historic sandstone buildings in Hadspen, 20 minutes’ drive from Launceston.
Day 3: It’s dark and the world is still sleeping when we head east, cross-country. Our destination is Coles Bay, near the delightfully named Wineglass Bay and stunning Freycinet National Park.
Freycinet Marine Farm is a smart stop on any food-lover’s trail. Giles and Julia Fisher run land-based tours where you can taste oysters straight from the estuary. After slurping his first, Viles breaks into a broad smile. “That has made my week,” he says. “I’ve never had a fresher oyster.” At the Fishers’ rustic café, you can buy freshly shucked oysters, cooked mussels and scallops, abalone and rock lobster (in season). With a selection of their mouth-watering fare in hand, we make for the shore for an impromptu picnic.
It’s here that Viles sets off on another food foray. From the water, we pick seaweed; from the scrubby shoreline, warrigal greens and pigface. Viles has been harvesting food like this since he was a teenager – picking blackberries, gathering mushrooms – but it’s new to most people, including me.
Taste carefully, he advises, and always a little at a time. He confesses he’s had his share of disasters (a swollen tongue and, on one occasion, “lips like inner tubes”). The safest approach is to read and research. He recommends two books for foraging hopefuls: Wild Food Plants of Australia by Tim Low and The Weed Forager’s Handbook by Adam Grubb and Annie Raser-Rowland. Also understand where you can and can’t collect wild produce; some national parks are strictly off limits while others require permits.
It’s worth indulging while taking in the area’s beauty. Book into luxury lodge Saffire Freycinet, which offers an exclusive tour of Freycinet Marine Farm where you sample oysters and sip Tasmanian sparkling wine while standing in the estuary, wearing waders. This award-winning retreat embodies the rugged-to-refined road trip we’re crafting.
Day 4: Following the coast southwards, we stop just before the township of Little Swanport, where, perched on the shoreline, is Chris Manson and Alice Laing’s Tasman Sea Salt factory. Well, to call it a factory is a stretch – it’s little more than two sheds, both with incomparable views over Great Oyster Bay. The sustainable, energy-efficient salt operation is fascinating and, as Manson says, “We do as little to it as we can. It’s delicious, beautiful, clean salt.” The food world agrees: Tasman Sea Salt supplies provedores and restaurants across the state. Manson conducts informal tours for passing visitors so call in advance.
We’re due in Hobart by lunchtime so it’s back on the road for the last stretch. Sights abound along the way: coastal views, a delightful ribbon of road that hugs the curves of the Prosser River just past Orford and, on the final approach, Hobart and wending waterways in the distance.
In Hobart, we meet with ethical and sustainable fisherman Mark Eather, who has been supplying seafood to the likes of Kylie Kwong for years. As one of Australia’s experts on Japanese iki jime (a humane three-step method where you catch it quickly, kill it quickly and chill it quickly), he’s an outspoken advocate for better treatment of sea produce. Eather loves a good yarn, is knowledgeable and passionate and offers private fishing tours where he demonstrates the iki jime method.
Our second food experience in Hobart is also of the sea and comes courtesy of James Ashmore. At the retail factory shop of Ashmore Foods in Mornington, the Jameses start by cleaning squid and swapping recipes but conversation soon turns to seaweed, an ingredient that Viles reveres and Ashmore has made into a specialty under the brand Kai Ho. “These are introduced species,” explains Ashmore. “There are nutritional benefits and there’s the environmental impact of removing a weed infestation.” Viles pipes up: “And it’s tasty stuff!”
While Ashmore takes Viles out into Hobart’s waters for a lesson in harvesting these marine plants, I nab a bag of the dried wakame and mekabu to take home. I’d recommend you do the same.
After four days of making epicurean discoveries, Viles reflects on all that we’ve experienced: “Tasmania really is a place of beauty: it’s rugged, it’s cold; and then there’s the sunshine and ingredients growing everywhere. For me, that’s inspiring.” Perhaps most impressive, though, is the way the environment has been harnessed to produce such standout ingredients. Rugged to refined? You bet.
For more information, check out https://www.jamesboag.com.au