Known for exotics like kelp, Flinders Island wallaby and Tamar Valley black truffles, it is an exciting area for chefs and diners alike
Chef Mark Best visits the family-run farms of Tasmania
Flying South from Melbourne, it doesn’t take long before we leave the coast of Victoria behind and swoop over the wild green seas of Bass Strait to the Northern tip of Tasmania. Even from the comfort of the pressurised cabin, it still gives me pause to stop and think that it is only the Apple Isle that lies between me and Antarctica.
As our Dash 8 drops through the cloud and turns up the Tamar River Valley, I spy patches of emerald green land broken by creeks and dams and tiny red and green roofs of tile and tin. The wetland reed beds bordering the river banks give way to vineyards, apple orchards and pastures freckled with black faced sheep and white faced cattle.
Founded in 1806, my destination of Launceston, is one of Australia’s oldest cities. With a population of 86,000 the small city is situated at the junction of where the North Esk and South Esk shake hands and become the Tamar River. The Tamar (known as kanamaluka in the indigenous language) is 70km long and despite being called a river, the waterway is a brackish and tidal estuary over its entire length.
Tasmania is known as the ‘bread basket’ of Australia due to the depth, breadth and beauty of its agricultural produce. Northern Tasmania and the broader Launceston area are home to some of its best finds. Known for its stunning dairy buys, berries, apples, oysters, sheep and cattle, not to mention exotics like kelp, Flinders Island wallaby and Tamar Valley black truffles, it is an exciting area for a chef and diners alike. And it doesn’t hurt that the scenery between all of these picture perfect farms is simply breathtaking.
I’m here to cook a dinner at Josef Chromy winery with local and international culinary students using the best of the local seasonal produce. In planning a dinner like this I need to actually see the produce so I decide to hire a car and hit the road and find out just this island has to offer.
I start by visiting Olivia Morrison at her farm on the edges of Launceston. Morrison traded inner city Sydney life when she decided on a lifestyle change for her family. Exposed to “handmade product through her love of good restaurants”, Morrison and business partner Lili Foster have been making handmade butter for two years as Tasmanian Butter Co, where they use milk from local farmers and Tasman Sea salt as well as truffle butter using Tamar Valley Black Truffles. Olivia learnt how to make butter from Patrick ‘the butter viking’. Patrick also provides his expertise to Danish Restaurant Noma where I once had “an old carrot cooked for 12 hours in goat butter” and as you can imagine it was delicious. Olivia and Lili now produce about 120 kilograms of butter a week, which can be found on some of the better mainland restaurant tables.
With butter pats in hand, I drove on to meet Angela Glover and her husband Phil, who have been running Mount Roland Free Range egg farm since 1998. Situated at the base of Mount Roland, about 100 kilometres from Launceston, their property has the benefits of “clean air, high rain fall, magnificent scenery and no foxes”. The chickens get the run of lush pasture under the watchful eye of four Maremma Sheepdogs and their puppies.
The large white dogs, indigenous to the mountains of Northern Italy, are born and raised with the chickens. Aggressive to predators, kind to the family, but wary of other humans, this relationship is not a one-way street. The dogs eat up to 100 eggs a day and prefer to sleep with their charges or even in the snow in preference to their kennels. Standing in a beaten rabbit felt akubra hat, Phil, is dry and laconic and as he describes his love for the land and his hopes for the future on their small patch of heaven: “Independence, raising animals ethically, producing clean food, minimal chemicals and keeping close to nature”.
Another farm that supports this philosophy is Real Beef Farm on Frankford Road in Exeter. It’s owned by two families who they tell me are “the best of mates”. Larry and Alison Blackberry and Bjarke and Margaret Porsbro-Pedersen own four properties between them. The oldest farm has belonged to Larry’s family since 1940 when his grandfather started farming in the area around Exeter. For both families their connection to the farming community and their custody of the land is paramount. Bjarke Porsbro-Pederson said: “For us we simply want to ensure the next generation are connected with their food and understand where it comes from. We also want to leave the farm in a better place than when we started farming so it can support the next generation. Our grandchildren.”
From here I drove on to meet Bavarian couple, Joe and Antonia Gretschmann of Elgaar Farm, in Moltema, northern Tasmania. They have produced delicious and authentic Swiss style cheese, milk, yogurt and cream from their certified organic property since 1986. Their 80-strong head of Jersey and Guernsey cows, chosen for their “pretty faces and sweet nature” produce intense and rich milk from their diet of grasses, legumes and herbs.
The cows are treated as part of their family and even in their later, unproductive years are put to pasture to live out their life. Antonia, who still retains that German frankness and economy of speech says that these cows will then ‘grandmother’ their daughter’s calves.
And it’s not just the cows that the Gretschmann focus on. Shoppers will find their creams and yogurts packaged in returnable glass jars and bottles as the farm also shows “care for the future”.
After driving 200km around Tasmania, and being thrilled with what I had found I was delighted to find out that I was able to meet these farmers again at the Harvest Launceston Community Farmers’ Market, which is held every Saturday morning in a quiet inner city carpark. The market has been incredibly successful since its inception in 2012 thanks to the abundance of small producers in the region and the tight selection criteria put in place. Part of this is an ethical charter so you can be assured of ethically raised meats, organic garden produce and artisanal breads and cheeses as well as meeting the people behind their product. Even after spending seven days driving around the island looking for great produce, I still manage to leave the market with my arms stretched with bags of shopping and even more ideas for my menu.
I’m inspired by the people I have met, their values, charm and frankness. This place with four seasons and a community of like-minded people who go out of their way to help each other and know the beauty of this fragile land.