Tasmania's Table by Paul County and Nick Osborne
A feast for the eyes from Australia's island State
By Robyn Lewis
Tasmania’s Table is a sumptuous book that shortly after publication hit number 1 on Tasmania’s bestseller lists, where it remained for weeks. It’s not hard to see why.
Written by food author Paul County (whose previous titles include the award-winning The House of the Oyster and Before We Eat) with elegant and evocative photography by Nick Osborne, even if you are only a half-interested food lover you will be dreaming of a trip to Tasmania the moment you open it, or rushing to your local providore to find some Tasmanian food.
Tasmanian residents will of course want one to showcase the best of their State (which could aptly be renamed Cornucopia) to envious visitors – and if you’re an expat it’s must have. There is little doubt the first edition will sell out and become a collector’s item.
Tasmania’s gourmet brand has faced some stiff competition in the past few years, and Tasmania’s Table will go a long way to re-establishing its pre-eminence. However this is not a dry government publication, but full of produce, people and their food stories leaping off the pages. You’ll soon learn why SBS’s Gourmet Farmer, chef and Sydney restaurant reviewer Matthew Evans has settled there.
The book starts with a brief summary of Tasmania’s history and geography, to put its food production into perspective. With only 2% of Australia’s population Tasmania punches well above its weight in the culinary and vinous stakes, in part because it is the least urbanised, and with a continuing pick- and grow-your-own food culture that didn’t need Stephanie Alexander’s kitchen garden movement to revitalise it.
Leading Sydney restaurateur Tetsuya Wakadu – who writes the foreword – has long been a fan of Tasmanian produce, most famously Petuna Seafood’s ocean trout, which transformed into his confit became his signature dish and for a time was the most photographed food dish in the world. Thus inspired, Wakuda fell in love with with other Tasmanian produce, principally for their ‘purity of tastes’, to the extent that he is now a Brand Tasmania Ambassador. Tasmania’s Table may soon be another one.
Tasmania’s Table looks at Tasmania’s land, sea and air bounty through the eyes and hands of people who know how to make the best of it – its restaurateurs. Over 50 feature in the book, and yes, they have paid to do so, as is increasingly common in self-published books such as this, to cover the up-front costs, the year of research and travel and photography that went into it. (Wine Dogs and Greater Noosa: Local Produce to Platter were both funded in the same way.) The author assures us that neither they nor the providores paid to be selected, but were chosen for inclusion based on excellence. Another condition is that they must feature Tasmanian produce in their menus or produce lists.
The book also includes a new culinary school The Agrarian Kitchen, and has expert opinions on Tasmanian beer from brewer Willie Simpson (author of The Beer Bible and The Australian Beer Companion), wine from Michele Round, ingredients from Liz Chessor and history from Bernard Lloyd.
The cool climate and seasons of Tasmania requires some initial explanation for ‘mainlanders’ (that quaint term of affection Tasmanians bestow on their cousins to the north) or those living overseas. Cool does not mean wet or cloudy – Tasmania’s capital city Hobart is the second sunniest in Australia after Adelaide, but without the 40C plus excesses of summer. Nor does it mean cold; relative to most of Europe its winters are mild, and often are more like extended autumns. ‘Cooler’ is perhaps a better description; there is no season where nothing can be grown or harvested.
It might also surprise some to learn that Hobart shares the same southern latitude as Madrid and Naples in the north, but of course without the tempering influence of the Mediterranean. So it’s well placed for growing and ripening.
Tasmania’s long hours of summer sunshine and cooler climate means that its fruit and vegetables ripen naturally over a longer period. This means they develop far more intensity of flavour that their mainland counterparts – which reach high sugar levels (‘ripeness’) often without the accompanying great taste, especially when irrigated. It also results in a much longer shelf life. Tasmania’s clean air and seas also result in some of the best seafood in the world.
So what do Tasmanian chefs make with them? The book’s arrangement is alphabetically by produce type, starting with the internationally famous abalone (both black- and green-lipped) and ending in wild fish, covering in between a journey of abundance that of course includes apples, wine and cheeses, and a vast array of fruit, vegetables, meats and even water.
Not every Tasmanian producer features – the book would have to be many times it size to list them all – so don’t expect this to be a comprehensive directory with every artisan cheesemaker, meat-producer or herb-grower listed. However all main produce types of renown are covered.
Let’s look at beef. Tasmania is the only Australian State where the use of hormone growth promotants is prohibited by law, a genuine and relevant point of difference favoured by increasingly savvy international customers. Tasmania’s Table includes the famous grass-fed King Island beef and wagyu from Robbins Island, plus Cape Grim Natural Beef as served by Black Cow Bistro in Launceston, and Fifty Hour Beef Cheek from Piccalilly in Hobart’s Battery Point, amongst other recipes.
Tasmania produces a wide array of superbly flavoured soft fruits, here wisely grouped together under Berries and Currants. The berry season, which starts around November and can extend through to April, is a great time to visit Tasmania; you can feast on strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, mulberries, blackberries and others which may be unfamiliar to residents of warmer States (like tay, logan, silvan, josta, goose) plus black and redcurrants, eaten ‘out of hand’ or transformed in the hands of chefs into summer terrines, puddings, trifles and even cocktails.
Many find their way into fruit wines and liqueurs, and into the Tasmanian children’s staple Cascade Blackcurrant Cordial, Australia’s answer to Ribena and like many of its products, 100% natural.
There are stone fruit as well – Tasmania is now a large exporter of high-grade cherries and apricots, whose flavour has to be tasted to be believed, especially if you’ve grown up on cardboardy supermarket apricots in more northerly States and think that nothing will ever rival a mango.
It is little known that Tasmania supplies buckwheat (not a wheat at all but a relative of rhubarb) to Japan for its highest-grade sobu noodles, where it is recognised as the best in the world. Tasmania’s Table is redolent with such gems of mind food, too.
Chocolate, crayfish (lobster), dairy, eels, elderberries (I’m scarcely ¼ of the way through Tasmania’s Table here), king crabs, goat, honey… does this island’s bounty ever cease? It seems not. It’s a place where they grow their own hops to make beer with the cleanest water in Australia (and in parts, the world), whose preserves are found in fine food stores around the country, and soon to be on the author’s website www.tasfoodbooks.com
They even eat kelp, a massive local seaweed – and so do you, if you eat many icecreams, manufactured sauces, dressings and cheeses – this is a totally pure, natural product that thickens and stabilises many manufactured foods around the world. Not all additives are artificial, and this one is even good for you.
Tasmania is also justly famous for its lamb, in part because of the continued prevalence of old British meat sheep varieties such as Southdowns, Suffolks and Poll Dorsets which were famous for their mouth-filling flavour, before modern commercial demands and changing dietary fashions increased demand for leaner, longer beasts.
These live on however in various cross-breeds with far superior flavour and tenderness to say a merino (bred for wool), which most of us unwittingly consume. Recipes from Monty’s on Montpelier in Battery Point, Mud Bar and Terrace Restaurant in Launceston, and Home Hill in the Huon Valley showcase lamb at its best.
I have yet to dine at Margot’s in St Helens in Tasmania’s North East, but it’s sure on my culinary must-visit list now, as is The Agrarian Kitchen at Lachlan near New Norfolk in the Derwent Valley, an under-rated area with an autumnal similarity to the Dordogne. Both were started by ‘mainlanders’, who saw that the time is now right for Tasmania’s flavoursome produce to be showcased to a wider – indeed international – audience. The secret is surely out now.
And so to exotic mushrooms, mussels and native game: wallaby, possum (relished in Hong Kong) and Cape Barren geese – now commercially farmed – with recipes from Solicit Restaurant in North Hobart’s eat street, Bayviews of the NW, Ripple of St Helens and Angasi of Binalong Bay. The north-east of the state is fast becoming a culinary destination of its own.
The list goes on. Nuts, octopus, olives … and oysters of course … native pepperberries – first cultivated commercially by agricultural entrepreneur Chris Read of Diemen Pepper and now used around the country for their unique spicy flavour – pork (especially Bok’s bacon, arguably the best in Australia, hand prepared and smoked) with recipes from Restaurant 373, one of North Hobart’s best.
Perhaps however it’s the humble potato that most sets Tasmania’s food lovers apart. Many can identify a range of varieties and can tell you their seasons and which are best for baking, salads or chips; knowledge often gained in childhood but which Tasmania’s Table shares on p 223.
Quail, ducks, free-range chickens, trout, salmon, rabbits – I defy anyone to leaf through Tasmania’s Table and not get hungry. More unusual products are saffron (Tasmania is Australia’s largest supplier) and rhubarb. Again because of Tasmania’s cooler climate this has double the shelf-life of mainland competitors, and is now also made into a syrup and a refreshing ‘Rhu Brew’ drink.
Gourmets and gourmands, book yourselves a good old-fashioned ten day island holiday, or at least a series of long weekends, and participate in the start of the scallop season, the new truffle harvest, or one of Tasmania’s many food festivals such as Launceston’s Festivale or Taste of the Huon to name just two.
And lastly to vegetables, venison, wasabi and water, as collected in Cape Grim’s ‘rain factory’ and which Tetsuya Wakadu has specially flown to Sydney; he will cook with nothing else, such is its purity. What better to add to your Tasmanian whisky?
One cannot talk about food in Tasmania without mention of Stillwater Restaurant in Launceston, established by the dynamic Kim Seagram and her husband Rod Ascui, who together with chef Don Cameron regularly win national awards. Go there for some wild fish – a seared yellow fin tuna with green tea (yes, now also grown in Tasmania) sobu noodles just leaps off the pages waiting to be devoured, as does Lebrina’s stripey trumpeter with prosciutto and Mure’s blue-eye. There are even recipes for Tasmania’s sometimes maligned ‘mutton bird’, the yolla or short-tailed shearwater, although personally I’d rather let them migrate to the Bering Straits in peace.
This armchair tour of the edible Tasmanian landscape also advises on what to drink – Tasmanian wines and beers of course. There are lists of special accommodations and plenty more recipes for you to taste Tasmania long after you get home.
The authors claim to have tasted every dish in the book – I’m amazed that they have managed to pack it all into a year, or haven’t turned into human zeppelins in the process. The publication of Tasmania’s Table created a minor culinary storm in Tasmania’s foodie teacup, with some critics finding fault, but the public have voted with their wallets, copies selling out of the cartons before being unpacked onto the bookstore shelves.
As with any printed guide, it is inevitable that as soon as it comes off the press there will be errors, changes to opening hours and closures, but these are very minor. I’ve yet to see one wine or food book without at least one mistake. The only irritation for me is that the photos lack captions – in these days of getting to know the growers and makers, please put names to the faces and beautiful scenic shots.
Tasmania’s Table ends with maps and lists of providores by the State’s three main regions. Don’t be deceived by Tasmania’s small size; because of its hilly terrain and winding roads, it takes time to get around. Allow plenty if you want to taste more than a handful featured in these 400 pages, and be sure to buy a copy well before your visit, to digest at your leisure, preferably with some world-class Tasmanian produce in hand.
Tasmania’s Table is published by The Culinary Historians of Tasmania/Tas Food Books (hb, 400 pp, Hobart) RRP A$64.95. Available from Tasmanian booksellers, selected food and wine outlets and online at www.tasfoodbooks.com for A$59.95 including postage within Australia.
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