Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 19, 2017
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Tastes of Tasmania

Discovering the devilishly good food down under. Way down under...

Breathing Tasmanian fresh air is like drinking fine, chilled champagne, without the hangover. Indeed, "clean and green" is the motto of Tasmania (affectionately referred to as Tassie). Boasting the cleanest air and purest water in the world, rich soil and a temperate climate, there's not much Australia's garden state doesn't proudly grow or produce.

We'd heard about the superb seafood -- abalone, creamy Pacific oysters, deep-sea travalla, salmon, sea urchins and periwinkles. Tassie is also well known for its full-flavoured cheeses, honey and award-winning cool-climate wines, especially Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Methode-Champenoise varieties. The Granny Smith apple was developed here. But did we expect to find saffron, the world's most expensive spice, or black truffles, the pricey fungus nuggets for which France is famous? We unearthed these and more culinary surprises on our weeklong gastronomic romp.

The Rat Race Ends Here
My husband and I flew into Hobart, the capital, last fall (Tassie spring) following a month on the mainland's Queensland coast. It was like landing in a different country. Instead of kilometres of sandy beaches, high-rise hotels, surfer boys and palm trees, Hobart was lush and green with hedgerows, cute cottages and Georgian colonial architecture. Lavender, rhododendrons and lilacs were in full bloom. I shed my shorts for long pants and purchased a pair of socks, wondering if perhaps the currency was also different here.

Our tour began Saturday morning at Hobart's Salamanca Market, a restored warehouse district dating back to the whaling days of the 1830s. In search of caffeine, we were intrigued by Machine Café and Laundry, a quirky combination of laundromat and restaurant where you can enjoy a bowl of polenta porridge sweetened with coconut cream and brandied sultanas, while your undies tumble dry in the gleaming stainless steel washers and dryers.

Fortified and sanitized, we strolled among the art galleries, boutiques, musicians and buskers. From outdoor stalls displaying pink-eyed potatoes, bins of crunchy apples, clover and eucalyptus honey, German sausages and wondrous cheeses, we picked up the makings of a picnic and headed south to the Huon Valley with its dense forests, apple orchards, salmon farms and rivers teeming with trout. At Panorama Vineyards we tasted delicious Pinot Noirs and robust Port, the proud harvest of Sharon and Michael Vishacki, a couple who "escaped the Melbourne rat race." Their neighbours Terry and Nicky Noonan, also rat-race refugees from Sydney, harvest the stigmas of crocus flowers to produce saffron. Their success story began a decade ago when Terry was shocked at the price of saffron, the essential ingredient for his paella recipe. After years of trial and error, he acclimatized the northern hemisphere plant to Antipodian conditions. Now their Tas-Saff business is blooming.

These were the first of many entrepreneurial couples we would meet who are pioneers in the Epicurean evolution of Tasmania. Considering that Tasmania (formerly called Van Diemen's Land) got its start in 1803 as a British penal colony, it's interesting to note that it has evolved from a dreaded place where convicts were once banished, to a land of milk and plenty where folks now flock to enjoy the relaxed quality of life.

The Land Of Plenty
You'll dine well throughout Tasmania, but it is the east coast, from Hobart north to Coles Bay, that the tourist brochures call the Gourmet Trail. Armed with a detailed guide to the vineyards, farms and dining establishments, we began our moveable feast at Kabuki by the Sea. We nibbled on gyoza (meat dumplings), prawn tempura and oysters from Oyster Bay, its waves crashing just beneath us outside a panoramic wall of glass. Kabuki is Japanese theatre and here nature takes centre stage.

For dessert, we pulled into Kate's Berry Farm and cooled off with a couple of her humongous wild blackberry ice cream cones and sipped strawberry wine under an arbour sagging with wisteria vines. Originally from the mainland, robust and rosy-checked Kate Bradley came to Tasmania on a holiday and "felt like I'd come home." She bought five hectares, built her own house and became Tassie's berry queen.

Just down the road is Andrea Cole, the resident oyster queen. She takes small groups out on her barge where they can slurp the briny bivalves fresh from Coles Bay. She also sells oysters on the honour system. "Just give me a call and tell me how many dozen you want shucked and I'll leave them in the fridge." If you decide to stay at her Shucker's Cottage, a dozen oysters a day is part of the deal. Cole's Freycinet Marine Farm is a once-in-a lifetime experience.

All along the east coast you'll find stunning white sand beaches, but the best of them all is worth the one-hour trek across the Hazards (pink granite rock outcroppings) in Freycinet National Park. Pack a bottle of Chardonnay from one of the many vineyards in the vicinity and chill out at the secluded, half-moon Wineglass Bay. Consistently ranked as one of the world's best beaches, it's where the Royal Yacht Britannia anchored to allow Queen Elizabeth to come ashore for a Tassie-style barbecue.

 

My local wine store stocks a good selection of Australian wine but rarely have I come across any bottles from Tasmania, and that's a pity. Due to its ideal geographic location, Tasmanian wines are superb. At latitude 41° to 43° south, it corresponds with what, in the northern latitudes, are France's premium cool-climate wine growing regions of Burgundy and Bordeaux. You'll be welcome at wine cellars all over the island, but I'd recommend a meander along the Tasmanian Wine Route in the Pipers Brook and Tamar Valley regions on the north coast. Besides, you wouldn't want to miss Launceston, a delightful city with pretty green parks and Victorian streetscapes. Nearby at the scenic Cataract George Reserve, take a chairlift over the waterfalls to English gardens with rhododendron trees, fern glades and strutting peacocks. Quaff Tassie's version of "the golden throat charmer," a James Boag Premium Lager, recently voted the world's best beer at the Australian Beer Awards.

Devils And Truffles
We'd seen plenty of fabulous scenery, enjoyed some great food and met many wonderful folks, but we'd yet to meet a real Tasmanian devil. The larger-than-life replica guarding the entrance to Trowunna Wildlife Park indicated we'd come to the right place. There's no denying that Tasmania has some strange critters. We scattered pre-packaged food pellets among the grazing wallabies and kangaroos and coaxed the wombats, koalas and devils to smile for a Kodak moment. The latter are actually quite cute, until they open their huge mouths revealing sharp fangs against a scary scarlet interior. Even their yawn looks ferocious.

Just down the road in Deloraine, we discovered yet another unique Tasmanian creature. Tim Terry, a vegetable farmer turned truffle entrepreneur, has trained Plugger, his chocolate Labrador retriever, to sniff out and dig for black truffles growing under his three hectares of hazelnut and oak trees. He also has the traditional truffle sniffer, Ellie the pig, "a lovely old thing but she's more for the tourists. I have to fight her for every truffle." In spite of an invasion of bandicoots and a greedy hog, Terry's Tasmanian Truffle Enterprises is starting to produce black gold the size of golf balls. Speaking of which, on Tasmania's over 80 golf courses the laid-back island attitude prevails. Many of the country courses operate on an honour box system. Stick your pittance (green fees can be as low as $8.00) into an envelope and slide it through a slot in the starter's shack.

We ended our Tasmanian tour at Calstock Country Guest House near Launceston. Calstock was built by a descendant of one of Tassie's early convicts who eventually made his fortune in cattle and horse breeding. The story goes that William Field, an English butcher, was jailed for possessing nine sheep that had been stolen by his brother. Sent to Van Diemen's Land, Field took up with Elizabeth, whose crime involved a pilfered length of lace. Today, the grand English country house is run by Ginette and Remi Bancal, who made their way to Tasmania from Paris via Sydney. He has worked at the Ritz in Paris and was head sommelier at Sydney's prestigious Banc restaurant. Remi, a wizard in the kitchen, spoiled us with dinners in the grand Georgian dining room: house-smoked salmon, jumbo asparagus, herbed roasted chicken, salad greens and carrots from his garden and a strawberry-orange parfait. Afterwards, we retired to the library to decide on a nightcap from the selection of over 50 single malt Scotch whiskies. Upstairs in the chambre cerise, our big comfy bed had been turned down and we found Ginette had tucked hot water bottles between the sheets to "take off the chill."

As I sunk into slumberland, I thought back to a conversation I'd had with a Sydney shop owner. When I mentioned that we were planning to visit Tasmania, he gave me one of those "are you crazy" looks and muttered something like, "things are pretty slow down there." The inference was that Tassie was unsophisticated, behind the times, backward. If that means champagne air, friendly folks, healthy food, non-existent traffic and oysters and golf on the honour system, then sign me up for life in the slow lane.

 

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