Passionate producers making everything from artisan cheeses to pork sausages have helped put this microcosm of Tasmania firmly on the map, writes Keith Austin.
It’s mid-winter, cloudy with a chill in the air, and a stylishly simple café on Tasmania’s Bruny Island is buzzing with visitors. This is no mean feat, given that the building sits alone in scrubby bushland as though it has dropped out of the sky and that people are here for... cheese.
They are taste-testing it, lunching on it (the croque monsieur made from raw-milk cheese and free-range ham is excellent) and taking kilos of it home. A few take time to gawp through the large window at the side of the building, at gumboot-clad workers in the spotless room performing the alchemy that transmutes milk into cheese.
Welcome to the Bruny Island Cheese Co., the artisan cheese producer bringing new life to this remote island off the south-east coast of Tasmania.
Odd to think that just over an hour ago I was landing at Hobart Airport. That’s the thing about Bruny Island. It might be only about 25 kilometres down the Derwent River from the Hobart waterfront but as local trekking guide Rob Knight says, “It feels like you’re a thousand miles away.”
Bruny Island is, in fact, two smaller islands connected by a long, thin sandbank called The Neck. It has a permanent population of about 700, one pub (the Hotel Bruny, on the ocean on South Bruny) and no public transport or taxis.
But just 45 minutes after arriving at the airport, you can be on the little ferry that services the island and not long after that you could be cruising around its southernmost tip, looking at whales, seals, dolphins and penguins, with nothing but wild ocean between you and Antarctica. “On a boat off an island off an island,” as Knight says.
It’s this delicate balancing act – being gloriously distant but easily accessible – that has seen tourism to Bruny increase steadily.
“Rob Pennicott’s wildlife cruises have consistently won best tourism attraction awards over the years,” says Knight, “but it’s food that has put Bruny on the map recently. And I’d say that a lot of that is down to Nick Haddow.”
Haddow is the chef and artisan-cheese tragic who started the Bruny Island Cheese Co. in 2001 and has turned it into an incongruous success story – a dairy company on an island without a dairy. He’s also one of the faces of SBS series Gourmet Farmer, along with author Matthew Evans and chef Ross O’Meara (who farms on South Bruny). But it’s his cheeses, not his television fame, that bring people to Bruny in droves.
Just 15 minutes from the ferry dock, the cheese shop is one of the first stops for food-lovers anxious to get their teeth into Bruny specialties such as the Otto (fresh cheese wrapped in locally made prosciutto and meant to be baked before eating) or the 1792 (a soft cow’s milk cheese). On my visit, the standout was a wonderfully pongy number called Jack’s Dad that is washed in Lark single-malt whisky and is, according to staff member Tess Peterson, “only for the brave”.
The cheese company’s obsession with fermentation has led to it brewing beer, too. Since February this year, with Evan Hunter (formerly of craft breweries Seven Sheds and Moo Brew) at the helm, the Bruny Island Beer Co. has been serving open-fermented beer created from Tasmanian hops and local grains. These brews include a stout made with raw-milk whey and Oxymoron, a dark beer described as a dark pale ale and a pale dark ale.
Haddow, who has plans to start his own dairy across the D’Entrecasteaux Channel in Glen Huon and also provides accommodation in the 110-year-old Christopher Lumsden Cottage next to the cheesery, says: “Our philosophy has always been to produce things that truly reflect where they come from and to utilise local ingredients and local relationships.
Image: Adam Gibson
“We’re not trying to make the best French cheeses here; we’re trying to make the best Tasmanian cheese we can. We make very hands-on, small-batch, high-quality products that hold your interest and are fun and enjoyable. And that goes for the beer, too.”
Of Bruny itself, he says: “It’s essentially Tasmania in a concentrate. You can have a diverse, rich and authentic Tasmanian experience in one day.” There’s much more than cheese here. Bruny is where the phrase “paddock to plate” takes on a whole new meaning.
Wherever you go on the island, you’ll find outlets selling Bruny Island Game Meats products (0418 143 978). These come from a rustic smallholding not far from the cheesery where hunter Richard Clarke goes out three nights a week to shoot possum, rabbit, hare and other animals. He hangs the carcasses for up to five days, skins them and breaks them down. Then he vacuum-packs the meat for sale across the island, from The Jetty Cafe in the north to the restaurant at Bruny Island Premium Wines in the south.
On the west coast, past the landscape-supplies business where Bruny Islanders get their hair cut (out the back in what’s known affectionately as the “hack shack”), is Get Shucked, the only retail oyster outlet on the island.
Just a few years ago, Get Shucked was operating out of a caravan under a tree but it now includes a small café and possibly the only drive-through oyster bar in the world.
To give an idea of just how fresh the oysters are, one of the tables in the garden has “Our Farm” written across it with an arrow pointing over the road and out into Great Bay beyond, where the distinctive tops of the oyster farms can be seen.
Image: Adam Gibson
The produce is just as fresh at The Jetty Cafe in Dennes Point, a village at the tip of North Bruny. Many of the buildings lining the sandy beach are holiday shacks of an architectural style I like to call “charmingly weather-beaten”. The stylish timber-and-glass café run by Kris and Ray Jones – where I stop for bacon and free-range eggs – is a highlight in terms of its architecture and food.
On a small hilltop overlooking the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, The Jetty Cafe was designed by Melbourne firm John Wardle Architects and built with the help of local volunteers seven years ago.
“We use local, sustainable, free-range and organic ingredients wherever we can,” says Kris Jones. “It’s really just an extension of our lifestyle. We get people coming in asking what we’ve done to our pumpkin soup to make it taste so good and we have to say, ‘Well, nothing. It’s just a really good, gnarly pumpkin grown locally.’ If you’ve got good ingredients, you don’t have to do much to them.”
“It’s just good, honest food,” adds Ray, who is a self-taught cook. “We get a lot of the vegetables from local people in return for, say, a meal at our regular Friday fish-and-chips night. The fish is line-caught, seasonal and comes straight out of the sea.”
The café is part of the community hall, which also includes a corner shop and a gallery that sells works from local artists. Kris and Ray have plans to add a bakery to the mix, to capitalise on one of Ray’s hobbies.
After breakfast, I head south, stopping just past The Neck to taste the fudge at the Bruny Island Chocolate Company, a boutique retail outlet started and run by Michael Carnes and Bob Lavis, whose home and garden is right next door. Quite apart from the fudge (macadamia, caffè latte, ginger and rum-and-raisin flavours, among others), the place is a veritable Willy Wonka factory of sweet treats.
From here we continue to Adventure Bay where, in conjunction with the government, cruise-meister Robert Pennicott – the man behind Pennicott Wilderness Journeys – is pouring $4.8 million into a new visitor centre.
The two-hectare vineyard, the most southerly in Australia, produces excellent pinot noir and chardonnay and also brews a homegrown J. Dillon & Sons apple cider. In the kitchen at the vineyard’s Wine Bar & Grill, chef Mark Rogers uses as much local produce as is humanly possible. When I visited in July, he had so far this year used 400 kilograms of Black Devil cherries – mostly in his first-rate pinot cherry chutney – from the orchard on North Bruny.
For lunch it’s Ross O’Meara’s famous pork sausages or, as they’re known locally, Rossages. They are indeed flavoursome and come with mashed potato and a simple salad. If you do nothing else, try the tasting platter, which features a selection of island produce, including the Cheese Co.’s Saint and Tom varieties, fresh oysters, hot smoked salmon, a game-meat kransky (possum and wallaby), a smidgen of delicious pork rillettes (also from O’Meara), Bruny Island olives and the aforementioned cherry chutney.
On the way back to the ferry, I pause at the Bruny Island House of Whisky, which stocks a huge selection of Tasmanian single malts. There is nothing here from Bruny but, given the growth in food tourism to the island and the planned $40 million extension to the runway at Hobart Airport (which will allow direct flights from Asia), it’s only a matter of time. ￼
Top image: Adam Gibson