Bags of chubby Black Devil cherries are stacked at the tiny terminal as we exit the ferry on Bruny Island, a short cruise from Tasmania’s “mainland.” Like everyone else, I grab one and it goes straight into the cooler on the back seat. Five minutes later, I’m slurping freshly cracked oysters in dappled sunshine under eucalyptus trees, listening to ocean waves at Get Shucked, a roadside shack.
By day’s end, when my party arrives at our rustic-yet-luxe beach cabin at Adventure Bay, the cooler is stuffed with goat and cow cheeses, possum sausages and Bruny Island Smoke house salmon, tuna and quail. The car smells like crusty bread. As my buddy Jim flips a sizzling filet of wallaby on the “barbie,” I pop open a luscious pinot noir from Bruny Island Winery, the southernmost vineyard in Australia. I recall Bruny’s owner Bernice Woolley laughing when we marvelled at Tasmania’s diverse and sophisticated local offerings. “You’re not alone,” she said, splashing unoaked chardonnay into tasting glasses. “Even Australians are only now beginning to discover what we’ve got going on down here.”
While most people think of Tasmania as either a wild destination for intrepid trekkers or a 19th-century convict dumping ground full of short-tempered marsupials, what’s been “going on” on this island in recent years is a low-key foodie revolution. And, gradually, word is getting out about Tassie’s fresh produce, farm-gate tasting routes, trophy-grabbing cool climate wines, innovative chefs and cooking schools, such as the Agrarian Kitchen (located in a 19th-century schoolhouse, it offers everything from Pastry 101 to a two-day Whole Hog course). A new generation of “Tassievores” has sprouted up way down under.
As Australia’s poorest state, Tasmania is a region that never completely moved on to costly prepared foods. And the lack of major industrial farms means much of the produce is organic. Folks we chat with on Bruny Island’s portion of the Huon Trail – a rural touring route south of Hobart – talk about trading fresh eggs for veggies, or fishermen swapping salmon for a side of pork. “It’s how we grew up and now people are coming from all over the world to experience what we’ve all been doing since we were kids,” says Rob Pennicott, a former fisherman who runs Bruny Island Cruises.
First settled in 1804 by a motley crew of whalers, sailors and released convicts, Hobart is now an unpretentious, hilly city of 212,000 with sandstone cottages and Victorian and art deco buildings.
Hugging the harbour are cafés, bistros and seafood take-out joints selling a dozen varieties of fish and chips, plus local specialties, such as scallop pie. This is where 250,000 people gather every December for the week-long Taste Festival to celebrate both food and the arrival of yachts after the challenging Sydney Hobart Yacht Race.
But even without a festival in town, Hobart is all about food. Salamanca Place, a gathering hub since 1824, is a plaza crammed with bistros and gourmet shops, such as the Wursthaus Kitchen, rated one of Australia’s top-five food stores by Gourmet Traveller magazine.
On Saturday mornings, the entire neighbourhood morphs into a food, arts, crafts and music free-for-all with stalls selling everything from didgeridoos to Lark’s single malt whisky. “We needed a mining permit to extract peat for the whisky,” the booth’s kilted gentleman explains. “And before founder Bill Lark could start in the 1990s, he had to lobby against an 1838 distilling ban ordered by Sir John Franklin, governor of the penal colony.”
Every Sunday, a bell rings at 9 a.m. to open the Tasmanian Farm Gate Market in a downtown parking lot where vendors sell free-range Berkshire pork, goat meat and Tasmanian Leatherwood honey out of their pickups. A second weekly farmer’s market can be found at the Museum of New and Old Art (MONA) opened in 2011, home to controversial exhibitions such as Belgian artist Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca, a machine that is fed and defecates daily, and a chocolate replica of the mangled remains of a suicide bomber. Moorilla Winery, Moo Brew craft brewery and a five-star hotel are also part of the state-of-the-art complex.
Leaving Hobart after our jaunt to Bruny Island we set out on a 450-kilometre drive north to Launceston along the dry, sunny east coast. En route to the Tasman Sea are historic little towns, such as Richmond, with brick and stone buildings and arched bridges built by convicts. We taste a range of award-winning Wicked Cheeses before settling into lunch at Meadowbank Estate, where the vineyard restaurant pairs Frogmore wines with rabbit, venison and grilled freshwater eel.