Tasmania

They said, you can have anything from the breakfast buffet and that includes one cup of tea or coffee! If you want more you have to pay extra! I was floored. So goes the rules at Sebel Hotel in Launceston.

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I wish that I could claim that I had organised a gourmet tour of Tasmania and would be feasting on the verdant islands respected delights from Ocean and land. It would be a lie. I really wanted to have a break and let Jennifer see Tasmania.

The day ferry from Melbourne to Launceston was late leaving. Due to my lack of understanding I thought that sitting on the deck in what I assumed would be a deck chair, being lulled by the gentle movement of the ship, snoozing, reading and drinking tea, with the possible inclusion of a G & T as the daylight began to fade into a delicious purple evening, a snack or two along the way, nothing heavy, dinner when we landed, something a bit more substantial and a taste of the talked about Tasmanian whites.

Huge mistake.

The ferry was filled with happy folk heading for a cheap holiday (hippies heading to a music festival…from as far off as Queensland). The day ferry is all about kids, family and boguns, huge great 4 x 4, loaded to the gunnels with even the kitchen sink. Ten minutes into the trip I had bought the use of a cabin and escaped the masses. I suspect that my leanings towards a more sedate, refined lifestyle leaves me ill equipped to deal with the hordes.

The wind and tides conspired to make the crossing a jaunty affair and I have to confess, that any descendant of mine who was a sailor (My mothers gay brother Uncle Charle was a Navy man), did not pass the genes on to me. My sea legs remained inoperable and I reeled from wall to wall when I ventured out of the cabin for tea or a light snack. Thank god for the continuous rails on either side of the passageways.

Nobody had told me that it took up to three hours to get off the ferry and through quarantine!! What the hell are they protecting… we had to consume a cucumber that we had grown at home and failed (a slice of lightly buttered brown bread would have helped), but I did hand the half eaten vegetable to the officer who was asking me did I have any fishing equipment? I would love to know just what it is that they think will go wrong if they allow a small piece of cucumber (with teeth marks) to enter.

The Sebel is a pleasant hotel and they had, for reasons unexplained, upgraded us and we had this three roomed suite with kitchen. Lovely. It was the experience of breakfast that so amazed me. I was sorry for the lady in charge who did, with the circumstances prevailing, make the best of things by declaring that the tea was Tasmanian grown (don’t believe a word, Tasmania is not the right climate) , served in a pot and the coffee was hand ground by hordes of underground gnomes. She probably could have done a bit better if she had said that a Tasmanian Devil consumed the beans and then passed them whole, but gloriously changed and thence to the pot. It works well in Bali.

The breakfast was very hotel, the usual array of tinned fruits, a few bits of melon, bad toast and the egg cooking person. Nothing has ever come within site of the Park Hyatt Hotel in Canberra and the Soukathai in Bangkok… now that was a breakfast to dream about. Lamb Cutlets, proper poached fruits, real bread and not a toaster in site… you indicate your desire to your serving person as well as the desired doneness and back it comes. In both hotels the jams were made in house and delicious. But as I said, it was the restriction on the tea and coffee I found ‘different’.

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I am at a loss as to how any breakfast buffet that I have seen in recent years in Australia can justify prices of $30 ++ for tinned food when for $14 – $16 you can get a decent if not splendid breakfast from a smart cafe plus coffee at say $4.00. Hotels need to lift their game.

Tasmania is attracting a lot of people from the mainland who are going there because of the food. Its true that there is much that cannot be grown in the climate of mainland Australia, Elderflower, Slough Berries, Stone fruits grow with exceptional ease in Tasmania and are delicious. The seafood is said to be exceptional because of the cold waters. In the case of meats, the Tasmanian Government has been instrumental in ensuring that the majority of meat is grass fed and as free from hormone as possible, in Tasmania there is just one licensed lot feed facility. Its also right to say that the Tasmanian Government is encouraging when it comes to foods and places a lot of emphasis on quality. Mainland states might well want to take a lesson from them.

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I packed when I thought that weather was going to be mild and temperate, just kind of green, slightly chill. Instead I was greeted by a blast of constantly warming air which soon became hot. I had it all wrong.

Jennifer had a friend who had returned to the misty isles from the chill valleys of the Canberra region and taken with her, her collection of animals, we paid a visit. Its always a bit breathtaking when you land on someone’s property to be confronted by a mixture of self sufficiency, creative determination and just plain hard work. Carved from a long established and oft changed farm with early family connections, Jennifer’s friend had made a life that was nonstop, richly fulfilling, a bit awe inspiring and completely convinced me that I had not the energy to return to the land and repeat what we had done years before. It is not, by any standard, even with modern contrivances, easy to live that life, it demands never ending attention to detail and work with occasional poor rewards should the weather or conditions turn against you.

The Tamar river valley is a beautiful place, the Tamar river traverses the length of the valley and is navigable to Launceston. The valley is dotted with many many vineyards and I guess that I now need to say that I am not yet a committed fan of Tasmanian wine. Climatically the vast majority of wine makers work on white wine. I have good words for two winemaking families who have combined and make wine in the Tamar Valley under the name Goaty Hill, look for their wines, they are good. My issue with the wine produced seems to rest on the bottle age of the wine, much that I tasted seemed to need more time in the bottle. That said it is also said by those who know (not me, I have ability, but limited) that Riesling will go to sleep in the bottle after three years and be dead for up to seven years. So my suspicion is that you need to consume Tasmanian whites within three years of bottling and then wait for seven years to taste again. A couple of other vineyards just did not measure up.

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I had got all excited by the idea that we would have a succession of picnic lunches, hence the cucumber, but I also included an Orange butter cake as well as a cheese box filled with a selection of four cheeses. I had rushed out and purchased an Esky, dug out the old picnic paraphernalia, cleaned the old stainless steel (no break) thermos, armed us with coffee and tea. The whole kit and caboodle. I should have realised that forgetting to bring a serving man/lady was a big mistake and that getting lunch every day under awkward conditions would soon become palling. But on the first day out, filled with enthusiasm we sat at the point where the Tamar river enters Bass Straight and made cheese and replacement cucumber sandwiches and drank tea.

Goaty Hill

That evening we had booked into what was for me, a first, an over night stay at a B & B. Run by a charming French woman, Glencoe is a lovely Edwardian kitted out with what I suspect is expected from every B & B, well stuffed couches and chairs, romantic gardens, over fluffed beds and a soothing atmosphere. Clearly designed for the romantics and those in need of stress relief. We had the option of having a meal there or eating out (a challenge I suspect) so of course we elected to enjoy the food of our French host and hostess. The meal, delicious and as ever with great food, deceptively simple. Asparagus spears cooked to perfection with a Sauce Gribiche http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sauce_gribiche  A delicious long cooked piece of lamb (first poached to tender perfection and then quickly pan fried) served on a puree of potato and with simple snow peas. An ice cream made with nougat and served with a scattering of perfect raspberries. We chose a mainland Pinot Gris and it was delicious. Breakfast was simple and French in that most French do not eat a big meal, but prefer excellent coffee and a croissant. We left to drive on to Hobart.

B & B

I was endeavouring to give Jennifer the best taste of Tasmania I could and naturally that had to include the central area with its Colonial buildings and my desire to track down a bakery I had chanced upon years back. Damned if I could find it. So we headed to the Freycinet Peninsula and the winery in particular. Freycinet has always been a good winery and seems blessed with a micro climate that allows it to explore other grapes, they in fact are about to trial a Shiraz. I still think they make one of the better Rieslings. But I am no expert. Beautiful area, glorious vistas, hard to fault.

Saluting Bushes Rural Road

I had left my run a bit late and was unable to get accommodation at Freycinet, so had booked into a motel in a small town on the way to Hobart. I think for legal reasons I will avoid mentioning the town. The coast of Tasmania is dotted with small towns where Tasmanians build what they call ‘shacks’. These are in fact often quite substantial houses and they dot the coastline. They are used by their owners as getaways, fishing shacks and family rest. There is barely a family in Tasmania who does not own one. They make for interesting buildings, occasionally slap dash, fragile, half cared for. Mostly they don’t have gardens as the owners are not there enough to care for them. They often have stunning locations with amazing views. The newer ones are frequently modern design masterpieces as the owners seek inexpensive design solutions.

We had booked into a town with a professional fishing fleet, a large bunch of locals both permanents and shack owner intent on taking as many fish from the sea as possible whilst, it seems, consuming as much alcohol as also possible. The motel it turned out was ‘connected’ to the local hotel and gambling venue and, it was new years eve. The owner of the establishment had an obsession with blue and hence that colour was featured as much as possible in as many areas as possible. It was like a step back into the 1950’s… no phone, certainly no internet connection, no breakfast except a toaster, kettle and tea cups was provided, no milk and no refrigerator. The shower was hot and plenty of water, the bed comfortable and remarkably, at about 9.30 pm the locals all retired to their individual homes and the venue closed.

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The drive down the east coast and into Hobart can be just that a drive, but if you choose to divert through the older towns, Richmond in particular. This town is delicious and filled with colonial buildings, old bridges and lots of craft and gift shops reeking of essential oil. Why do they do that? But a fine pot of tea, excellent scones, they said home made jam, jury’s out! And a wander up and down a few streets and Richmond was done(ish). We left and headed towards Hobart and came across just another winery in case I had not tasted enough. Called PuddleDuck, I was somewhat stunned at the wines, but for sheer curiosity I bought a bottle of what was supposed to be that limestone, flinty nasty Sauvignon Blanc (apparently the all time fave of Tasmania) which here, turned out to be a little sweet. I damn near swallowed it. Jennifer did. Amazing, oh and Puddleduck wins the prize for the smallest amount of wine in a tasting glass… one smell and it was gone.

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Hobart is a conundrum, but then any city is. There seems to be acres and acres of mediocrity and then wonderful colonial, amazing views, stunning housing. Its hard to believe that the entire population of Tasmania is under one million people when you encounter this bustling city. I could not begin to explain the geography, but in summary, its between mountain and river.

I had booked us into a hotel right on the wharf area where the fishing fleets as well as the Sydney to Hobart yacht’s tie up, unfortunately the room was not going to be available for hours and off we went to explore the Huon Valley.

I confess that I have strange quirks, collecting cookery books from auxiliaries of hospitals, CWA, churches and anyone else who cares to produce them is one. I have owned a few books from various regions of Southern Tasmania for some time, Esk Valley, Huon Valley amongst them. They evoke for me an era that I was part of in my much younger days and which is now gone. I suspect that I romanticise it quite a bit, the whole grow your own, afternoon tea, dessert with lunch and dinner, elegant cups of tea in fine china poured from a gorgeous silver tea pot. That sort of thing. Its quite easy to forget the down side, the fact that women worked long and often arduous hours, that men and the male psyche was often destructive. Life in the 1930/40’s was frequently harsh. But damn it, they made a fine biscuit, cake and sausage roll.

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Sausage Rolls are a good test of a modern baker. I was stunned when we drove into Huonville and decided to stop at a baker for a sausage roll. Banjos made hugely good, amazingly delicious, tasty, addictive, divine sausage rolls. They were all the way up to the standard of the Blessed Iris and if I was a bit honest, maybe even better. For $10.00 you got a choice of four items… sausage rolls, party pies (also excellent) quiche and they came with sauce. I was in food heaven and would have easily scoffed two boxes, but after due consideration and a peep and my expanding waste line. One tray sufficed.

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It’s weird how on occasions a fantasy comes true and Huonville was that. On a previous trip to the verdant isles, I had discovered a bakery shop in the centre of the island in one of those historic towns, this baker knew his way around pastry like no other I had struck for some time. Sadly he scorned my offers of marriage on the basis he was already committed. I had to be content in tasting a range of his yummy fare and taking away with me, for later, secret consumption, a not insubstantial box of his products. Not to labour these things too much, but it is a rare thing in Victoria or I suspect in mainland Australia to find a bakery shop of excellence.

Huonville and the Huon valley is justly famous for the beautiful Huon pines. I am lucky enough to own a dining table made in Tasmania many years ago from a single slab of Huon Pine and it is truly a beautiful timber.

The next day was hot. The first of the really hot days that would in a few days time, see a lot of Tasmania consumed by fire. I had promised Jennifer to show her the penal settlement at Port Arthur and headed off for the two hour drive. I like, not love, old buildings and see the value in preservation. Port Arthur is a place that is both interesting and sad. Interesting because of the history, sad because of the history. I try to love these places and just can’t. They are worthy of preservation I am sure. We chose not to join a guided tour and wandered the site, had a coffee and headed back to Hobart. The next day the fires began.

Port Arthur Port of Pt Arthur What the prisoners saw Posh @ PtArthur

Mona was the following day. We went their on what was later announced to be their biggest day ever. It was a surging river of humanity endeavouring to take in what was the private passions of an amazing collector, understand them and find ways to relate. Being sort of hauled along by crowds intent on the experience was difficult. So too some of the exhibits, but find out for yourselves. We had been lucky enough to get to chat with the head wine maker at the estate winery connected with the museum called Morilla. The young winemaker was hugely knowledgeable and articulate and it has to be said, makes fine wines under the Morilla banner. The MONA complex offers wonderful experiences, in visual art, great food and wine as well as musical events as the staff reach out to enrich the whole visit.

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The next event was Taste of Tasmania, much loved by locals and very very well supported. For me, it was not the sort of foodie event I specially enjoy, I am much happier wondering through markets, orchards, wineries and shops. The locals and I guess visitors were enjoying the abundant wines of Tasmania and the food in a glorious setting on the wharf and joining up with the famous Salamanca Market area. The Taste, as it is now starting to become known, is a mix of rampant commercialism, dedicated growers and manufacturers and everything in between. Hobart has a glorious visual aspect, a mild climate (usually) and much can be grown there. The land produces stone fruits, the sea cold water fish species, the beef there is spectacular. Cheese is wonderful and the occasional unexpected thing like olive oil was delicious.

In light of what I had not enjoyed on the way over, we had managed to change the booking on the return ferry crossing to the night ferry and thus were looking forward to sleeping the trip away. We had to leave a day earlier.

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The last Hobart day dawned with fires now being super destructive, houses being lost all around the South and East Coast areas, there was a fire burning in an area that we had to pass through and we started to become concerned that we may not be able to make the trip to Strachan as planned. In the end you need to be brave, but not foolish, we checked with the police in the region of the fire and were told it was safe to drive. That region of the state is a spectacular drive through country that is often daunting. It passes through the internationally acclaimed wilderness areas of Tasmania. I am sure that if I was younger or fitter, it may have challenged my athletic prowess. Lies, all lies.

Queenstown was an unexpected, nightmare. It is of course a mining town being famous for copper, silver and gold. What was not expected was the road into Queenstown being a huge, frightening roller coaster plunging downwards to the valley floor. I have, over the years travelled a few treacherous roads, one in Indian remains etched in my mind, so much fear that I refused to allow the taxi to continue the ascent and got out and walked. These days I would have called for bearers. Queenstowns road came close. I could feel my nerves reaching a point where I was I was clenching my stomach muscles and gritting my teeth whilst clutching the steering wheel in a vice like grip and pressing my foot ever harder on the brake. I can honestly say that I would not ever want to tackle that road again, willingly.

Mining towns have a unique and atmosphere. Its testosterone charged and it lingers in the air. The men and women of these towns are highly individual and often work under trying conditions. It made little sense to me.

Strachan is a town on the Macquarie Harbour (read near the junction of Franklin and Gordon Rivers) in an almost unaustralian way. I think it would have fitted better into my perceptions of Alaska. It has large powerful river boats, seaplanes and buildings along a stretch of the river. I was unsure about how to relate to this place, and yet, as evening settled and a cool change came through, the town settled into a stillness that was delicious. Sitting on the veranda of our room with a cup of tea was a delight.

Strachan river Strachan Harbour

The next day was all about getting from Strachan to Devonport and I have to say, that the drive, although not long on the map is challenging in many ways, yet beautiful. Devonport and much of the Northern coastline was under siege from fire and heat. The ferry actually looked cool and slightly inviting. The trip back was uneventful and calm.

~ by peterwatsonfood on February 10, 2013.

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