Take a trip to the coastal town of Devonport and surrounds in the north of Tasmania and you’ll soon discover this slice of paradise is one of Australia’s best kept secrets.
I’ve just arrived in Devonport and everywhere I look the land is carpeted in green. “Leave a Blundstone boot out overnight and you’ll have a pair by the morning,” celebrity chef Ben Milbourne tells me with a laugh. The incredibly fertile land around us produces up to six crops a year but fortunately I’ve still got both shoes on because I have a busy day ahead of me. I’ll be driving through lush farmland and charming riverside towns, playing a giant game of connect the dots with local food producers that will culminate in a dinner at Milbourne’s restaurant, CharlotteJack.
The emerald fields and rolling hills of north-west Tasmania are perfect for cattle farming and there are plenty of dairies in the region. With 2000 cows, the family-owned and operated Ashgrove Cheese is far from the largest, but it has history on its side: the Bennett family has been farming this land since the 1880s.
Maybe that’s why they’re in no rush. Production manager Shane Johns takes me through the ageing ‘cave’ where thousands of five-kilogram wheels are slowly maturing at 12 degrees for between two and 24 months.
English styles like bitey cheddar, crumbly Lancashire and rich double Gloucester predominate, and the cloth-aged cheeses are hand-rubbed and turned every week. All of the bases are made with just four ingredients – milk, starter culture, rennet and salt – though some get a local twist with native pepperberry leaves or locally grown wasabi. One of the few non-local ingredients Johns uses is annatto, a colouring agent from a Latin American seed. But even here he has tradition on his side; it’s been used for more than 200 years to provide red Leicester’s distinctive hue and he laughingly describes it as “one of the original marketing tricks”.
Set in thick native bushland in the foothills of the Great Western Tiers, 41 South Tasmania is a long way from the ocean but produces some of the best salmon in the state. It’s the brainchild of a memorably eccentric German man named Ziggy Pyka, who spent years building an onsite wetland that acts as a natural filter for the farm. An old bear-like Australian shepherd named George trails us as we explore the property and Pyka explains the secret to his moist, flavour-packed hot smoked salmon and rillettes. “We use 12 different herbs and spices,” he says before pausing briefly. “You know what that means? One more than the colonel.”
I can make an educated guess at one of those spices when I see the Korean and American ginseng growing on the property, and Pyka sells a range of spice bags that utilise the potent root. But anyone trying to steal his recipe will need a lot of patience. Even in this fertile country, a single ginseng harvest takes at least six years to mature.
Most visitors arrive in Devonport on the giant Spirit of Tasmania ferry en route to Launceston or Hobart, but an increasing number are realising that it’s worth taking a few days to explore the surrounding region. Half an hour to the west, Hellyers Road Distillery on the outskirts of Burnie hosts almost 50,000 visitors a year.
Started by a group of dairy farmers looking to diversify, it now makes Australia’s most widely distributed whisky. The sweet smell of cooking grain strikes me as soon as I enter and the vast barrel hall is filled with the alluring aroma of maturing whisky. Even better is the post-tour tasting of rich, almost buttery spirit finished in port, bourbon and pinot noir barrels.
Back in Devonport, I have one last stop before dinner. The new Providore Place development has quickly become the town’s food hub and hosts a bustling Sunday market featuring everything from crepes to kombucha alongside farm-fresh produce. It’s also home to George Burgess’s Southern Wild Distillery.
His three flagship gins are named for the elements that shape this part of Tasmania. There’s the light, briny ocean gin with local wakame, the herbaceous, flavour-packed meadow and the more stripped-back mountain. All use plenty of local botanicals, but it’s another of his creations that catches my eye. The crimson threads of saffron harvested on a Mount Roland farm are among the most expensive products on the planet, and the most potent. Burgess used just 130 grams for a 1300 litre batch of ‘liquid gold’ saffron gin, but that’s enough to impart a vibrant yellow colouring and distinctive aroma to the oily, spicy spirit.
The Cradle To Coast Tasting Trail highlights more than 30 of Northwest Tasmania’s best food producers. But after visiting my share of cellar doors, dairy doors and providores, I’m going to let the rest come to me at CharlotteJack.
Many of Ben Milbourne’s suppliers are hobby growers and small operations such as York Town Organics, the longest continually running organic farm in Australia. And while Tasmania is not known for its vanilla and sugar plantations, his aim is to get 85 per cent of the ingredients from within the state “and we do that easily”. Even the beautiful asymmetric ceramics come from a local artist, and Milbourne jokes that “we’re not allowed to break too many plates because that’s all she made”. From the kitchen, he rattles off the names of suppliers he works with personally as he plates up a slab of pork belly cooked in pork stock. I’m happy to let him do the talking as I savour the deliciously rich Mt Gnomon meat along with shiitake mushrooms from Cygnet, pea sprouts and charred asparagus spears from local social enterprise Produce to the People and creamy white miso from Meru Miso in Launceston.
The wine list favours the surrounding North Coast region, so I choose a herbaceous fume blanc from Ghost Rock down the road and ask Milbourne what other local produce he recommends. “How long have you got?” he asks. “This could take a while.”