It’s not often that Tasmania makes the pages of our national newspaper for all the right reasons. But restaurant critic John Lethlean’s article in yesterday’s Australian, featuring Launceston’s Great Chefs Series, hit the mark and probably put the jam in the sandwich for many a proud operator in the food supply chain of northern Tasmania.
The Great Chefs Series brings celebrated chefs, international names of jaw-dropping stature, to the precincts of TasTAFE Drysdale’s hospitality school, and sees them mentoring students there for a week. They present degustation events and create experiential learning moments beyond compare for students who’ve never seen the like.
Mr Lethlean was rightly effusive about this game changing initiative.
He also made a few perceptive remarks about little old Lonnie that made me think.
‘Little changes on the gastronomic map from year to year in Tassie’s second city… it’s the same old names …. Stillwater, Black Cow, Josef Chromy Winery, Mud. This year everyone’s talking because, finally, Launceston has a cool new cocktail-focussed bistro, Geronimo…’
Fair play to him, that’s all true. But is it a bad thing?
Names like Stillwater and Black Cow stay because we like them, and because they deliver great plates every time. The menus change seasonally of course, and occasionally the chefs, as our tight community of gifted food creatives moves gently around like so much premium gin swirling around in cut crystal, to learn from each other.
I had Oyster Shots at Stillwater four years ago and I’m still talking about them now – an oyster in a shot glass with vodka, rosewater and coriander. Thank god things don’t quite stay the same. If they did, I’d have gone back, had more, and grown bored of them.
Of course it’s not all about Launceston and it’s a tiny boutique city so you’d have to be two apples short of a full strudel to confine yourself to its precincts. Head on out in any direction and you find more to delight the palate.
Case in point is Timbre in the Tamar Valley, now owned by Matt Adams, formerly of Josef Chromy Winery restaurant. I reluctantly ordered his chocolate semi-freddo with goat’s milk caramel sauce, fearing an explosion of aromatic goat vapours in the region of my sinuses. My unease was short lived – it was to die for. I send my farmstay guests there regularly with complete confidence that they will come back deeply impressed. Every time.
Of course it’s not just the restaurants that make regional north Tasmania luminescent. It’s many things. Like the markets, with their field-fresh produce sold to you by the producer. Harvest Launceston and its counterpart Farmgate Market in Hobart may be smaller than any offering in Sydney or Melbourne, but I’m told by visitors to my stall at Harvest that it’s far superior, a carefully curated affair selling produce of indisputable quality.
It’s also the wineries, many presenting magnificent platters of locally produced pates, pastes, seafood, smallgoods. The crackers upon which you smear your ocean trout and the tiny quail drumstick fashioned into a cold bite are all courtesy of local gourmet enthusiasts. And while you’re there, why not have a glass of award winning Riesling grown on the slopes you’re casting your now slightly bilious glance over in a microclimate envied by vintners the world over.
As the tourism authorities and state growth peeps really get behind the premium food and alcohol industry, new initiatives spring up, fed on a diet of carpe-diem style funding. This year the Tamar Valley sees the launch of Farmgate Festival, modelled on Ferme en Ferme in France, and opening a string of farms up to the public for one weekend per year, so that visitors can get a taste of farm life. If you ate only the produce of the fifteen farms on the tour for the rest of your days – rare breed pork, Angus beef, hazelnuts, micro-salads and herbs, salmon, ready-aged-wines, boysenberries, truffle mustard, olive oil, heritage apples and pears – you’d die a full and happy diner.
Step out of the circle of top-end eating in Launceston and you’re still well catered for. The city has a thriving café culture, and its own single source coffee company, Ritual Coffee, whose serious young bearded types deliver beans and grounds, and also beer, courtesy of St John Craft Beer , owned by the same local entrepreneur, a clever man who has realised that beer and coffee are the two things we will always want.
And then there’s the ordinary everyday food. When I buy meat from my butcher I usually know which farm it comes from. When I buy vegetables, flowers, bread, fish at the market, I’m buying from the growers, the bakers and the fishmonger whose family-owned fishing boat has coursed the coastal waters to bring me my squid.
Leave Launceston by car and in five minutes you’re in the country surrounded by people eating their own produce, grown in the freshest air on the purest pastures. Growing your own and swapping with others is a Tassie tradition. Two of my own recent trades include rare breed pork for venison, and bacon for a Nikon telephoto camera lens. In my own family, if we’re eating moussaka, I can point with my fork to the paddock it came from.
Downsides are rare but occasional: I can also point with my fork to the scars on my knees where Wiggles the psycho ram head-butted me. Wiggles, it was a pleasure to eat you.
Eateries do close sometimes but not through lack of diners. We lost Ilk at Rosevears, with its bistro style food at a well set price, river views and crochet blankets on comfy red leather sofas; and Kouklas, the Mediterranean style restaurant with more river views and the best Sicilian Fish Stew this side of the Med. Both closed when landlord greed saw their rents double overnight. But both chefs have risen phoenix like to cook again. Kouklas’s is right next door to Cathy’s old premises and doing a roaring trade, and Sam Adamson of Ilk is now cooking at Iron Pot Bay Winery and bringing in business hand over fist.
As is befitting, both their previous premises, with elevated rents, remain empty. Looks like fine food, hard work and talent won the day over advantage-taking cash-mongering dullards then. Natural justice is alive and well here, as well as great food.
So yes, nothing changes and everything stays the same – in a good way. We’re still flocking to Black Cow, and we’re also flocking to Geronimo’s where Jeremy Kode is determined we will share our plates like they do in Sydney. I’ll keep my beef cheeks to myself thanks. I’m looking forward to meeting his head chef Sam Pinkard on the foraging tour at next weekend’s Tasmanian Natural Garlic and Tomato festival.
So many heritage tomatoes, oyster shots and wagyu beef, so little time.
My feeling is that Tassie and its food and beverages belong fair and square in the pages of the nationals. And as Mr Lethlean rightly says, with visitors like Alain Passard, Dominique Crenn and Christian Puglisi visiting, our gastronomic map is being redrawn exponentially.
You can find me, Fiona Stocker, selling premium rare breed pork on the Langdale Farm stall at Harvest Launceston fortnightly, with my husband. He’s the one in the beret.
Find details about the Great Chefs Series here.
Have you eaten outstanding fare in Tasmania? Leave a comment!