Dinner with John T Bailey – produce courtesy of north-east Tasmania

I’d love to have dinner with John T Bailey, really I would. He’s a man from the north of England, where I’m from, and they’re some of my favourite blokes. Hard working, straight talking, with an accent that takes me right back to the top deck of the school bus. But that’s another story.

Given the chance to enjoy a dinner that John had cooked, I decided that would do just as well. And so I made my way to St Helens in the north east corner of Tasmania for the bi-annual conference of Tasmanian Women in Agriculture, and a gala dinner of the region’s finest produce.

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You hear tales, don’t you, of the top kitchens being like a descent into hell, all shouting and swearing, brimstone and treacle. No such goings-on in a kitchen run by Mr T Bailey. I was only too pleased to leave a foyer teeming with two hundred farming women and men with their special guests, and take refuge in the kitchen, a place of calmness and order. Plates and trays of ingredients lined up ready to be assembled. Chefs, kitchen and dining staff went about their business briskly but somehow serenely. I stood bathed in the warmth from a nearby oven and watched in awe.

Little wonder the kitchen runs so smoothly. Turns out the chef guesting alongside John is Konrad Melling, whose credentials are also the biz. Formerly of the Freycinet Lodge, Lizard Island Queensland, and before that the Savoy in London. There’s a good chance I’ve had his poached eggs when I’ve been there for breakfast. To add to my joy, he’s a northern bloke too – from Preston! The brick red town that was my local train stop.

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With all my ducks lined up, I was ready for my dinner, and it might be said that the best came first. Our entree was a veritable fanfare, a tasting plate of the best the North East has to offer. And what outstanding wares were gathered there. Tender lamb loins with a native pepper crust. A cheese souffle that had the texture of a cloud. For me the chicken and walnut terrine, with its pepper and pickle bite was a great presence on the plate. The roasted beets and yoghurt were a perfect duet. But for all of us, the piece de resistance was the smoked olives.

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Who even knew you could smoke olives? But you can, and their firmness gave way to a yielding softness and light, smokey flavour that took a tour of your palate and then made its way down your throat in a victory march, singing all the way. Seriously, the room fell quiet as one person after another sat poised with their fingertips before their mouths, waiting to spit out a stone, clearly ambushed by a stand-alone flavour and texture experience. All from a humble olive.

This is the kind of food that makes us write in language suggestive of something we do in the bedroom rather than the kitchen. You can’t help but write in a way equally at home in a piece of erotic fiction – all yielding softness and tangy bite. Of course erotic fiction pays a lot better than writing a food blog for the love of it so perhaps there’s a lesson for me here.
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With our taste buds fully surrendered, it was on to the mains, and here the chefs had kept things simple with an alternate drop of two dishes. Aged Scotch fillet, roasted rare, was served with a white bean and potato puree, and wilted spinach in a Pinot Jus. That’s gravy to the likes of me and John, coming as we do from Lancashire. Whatever you call it, the beef was everything it should be but often isn’t – tender and full of flavour, aged, well rested and perfect. My neighbour had the confit of salmon with organic kipfler potatoes from one of her own farms. And when I saw it came with smashed peas, I couldn’t help but think that John was calling upon his northern roots yet again. Mushy peas. We were doing them long before Jamie Oliver.

We were all fairly euphoric by this time, what with the intensity of the flavours, the presence of the Governor, and a very punchy Sauvignon Blanc from nearby Priory Ridge. This delicious drop is aged in oak barrels rather than steel which enables it to give way more presence on the palate while holding off from masking the other flavours you might be enjoying. Sensational.

At last it was on to that part of the day which is the most important to those of us from places like Lancashire and Yorkshire. Pudding.

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I’d had the delight of staying with Denis Buchanan and Ann Calder of Eureka Farm at Scamander over the weekend, and one of the desserts served was their much-in-demand Summer Pudding, made with berry fruits grown on the farm. Apparently there were a few left over, but Konrad came to find Denis and say he wouldn’t be getting them back as the chefs had whipped them to take home. That’s how good they were.
Where there is chocolate, however, there is a deeply felt need in me that cannot be denied. Or perhaps it’s just greed. Whatever, one of the gentleman on our table had taken a leave of absence momentarily and I took advantage of this by securing his chocolate and stout cake with honey salted caramel sauce and cream for myself, in exchange for my summer pudding. I excuse myself from any culpability in this because his wife colluded with me and we kept it a secret from him for the rest of the evening. It’s chocolate. Different rules apply.
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This was a dessert worthy of thieving. The chocolate and stout cake was neither too heavy nor too sweet, and the honey and salted caramel provided a major hit of flavours often missing in desserts, often relying as they do on sugar.

When I was growing up on the coast of Lancashire, not a million miles away from John in Bolton and Konrad in Preston, a gastronomic treat meant stopping for greasy chips wrapped in newspaper on our way home from the Blackpool illuminations. The heat, fatness and salty starchy satisfaction one drew from those chips has never left me and I often still get a sudden yen for some.

However, it’s a delight to have grown up and be enjoying the finer flavours and magnificent food culture of my adopted home of Tasmania. Who knew that it would be chefs from my own neck of the woods putting those flavours on the plate? Thanks John, Konrad. For showcasing our wonderful produce. For allowing me into your kitchen. And for being on the same side of the world as me. I owe you dinner.

The food! Leavenbank sourdough. Riverstone olive oil and balsamic caramel. Pyengana Meats lamb. Fowlers Bay of Fires cheese souffle. Marion Bay chicken and walnut terrine. Tassal salmon gravlax. JBS Pinnacle scotch fillet. Yum Tasmania kipfler potatoes. Houston Farm spinach. Priory Ridge Pinot jus. Huon Acquaculture salmon. Eureka Farm summer pudding. Pyengana Dairy icecream. Chocolate cake with Iron House stout. Bay of Fires honey salted caramel sauce. Betta cream.

And someone needs to tell me where the smoked olives came from.

Were you there at the dinner or the conference and did you have a favourite flavour or experience of the weekend? Share it in the comments below! 


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