Book well ahead, foodies are flocking to this Tasmanian treasure. Why? Angeline Nicholas heads to the Apple Isle to find out
On paper, it sounds idyllic: Australia’s best cooking school. On a picturesque farm. In a converted 19th century schoolhouse. With an instructor trained by Tetsuya. Understandably, my expectations are high.
The husband and I are booked on the ‘Agrarian Experience’; a full day paddock-to-plate workshop. It’s 9am and a chilly 5°C as we pull up to the cheery green house. Roosters crow and a gaggle of geese honk as we crunch over the frost-covered ground.
The other seven students are waiting in the cosy dining room, warming themselves by a crackling fire. To the left is a wall of bottled preserves, to the right a white bookcase bursting with cookbooks – Perry, Blumenthal, Fearnley-Whittingstall; a who’s who of the culinary world. On the long timber table, a tall banana cake sits temptingly, its fluffy white icing topped with fresh, crunchy pecans. The whole setting is so homely and so perfect, it could be the set of a British cooking show.
Tasmanian oak floors are soft underfoot, a wood-fired oven is at the ready, and a stainless steel work bench, double the size of my dining room table, gleams. Did I to mention the full-size fireplace?
A tour of the farm is next, and, kitted out with gumboots, baskets and shears we are introduced to the friendly goats, who gently nose our bags looking for food. Along the way, Rodney describes his dream for the Agrarian.
In single file, three brown and white pigs come trotting towards us. Poking their soft snouts through the wire, they affectionately snuffle the tip of my gumboot. As much as I love a good roast pork, my heart melts. Can I take one home?
Our curious group ambles through the gardens, harvesting supplies for the meal. Just past the asparagus lies the largest green cabbage I have ever seen; a beast that could feed an entire football team and more. My job is to bring it back to the kitchen. I hack vainly at the thick stem until, like a falling tree, it collapses into the soil. There is a distinct feeling of satisfaction as I claim my big green prize.
“He couriers the prosciutto back to your home after the class,” one of the other students whispers. Now that is one heck of a souvenir.
Today’s menu uses local produce and as much of the garden as possible. Handmade gnocchi, rabbit braised in Rodney’s cider, pumpkin, potato and walnut gratin, and a winter salad. For dessert, poached fruit and mascarpone will be sandwiched between coconut meringues and served with vanilla bean ice cream. Rodney was food editor at Gourmet Traveller magazine for three years, and his finesse at creating recipes that match the seasons shines through.
We split into small groups to work on the menu and my husband and I tackle the gratin. I search vainly for the herb jars. “Where can I find sage?” I ask. “Growing by the back door” is the (now obvious) answer. I focus on infusing cream with cinnamon and caramelising onions, while the husband cracks a mountain of fresh walnuts.
Despite being allocated to a particular dish, we are all encouraged to try our hand at different tasks. A ball of gnocchi dough suddenly lands next to me – the pasta is ready to be made. I roll the dough into a sausage and shape the gnocchi – this is easier than I had expected.Rodney’s patient tutelage and good humour makes me think I could actually recreate the dishes at home. Unfortunately my home does not come with the Agrarian’s staff who magically appear, discretely cleaning up spilt flour, collecting dirty dishes and taking coffee orders to keep energy levels high. I am working for my supper, but also getting spoilt rotten as I nibble on another slice of banana cake.
All too soon it is time to plate up. I scoop a pile of gnocchi onto my plate, cover it with ribbons of Rodney’s pancetta and crown it with a feathery pile of Parmesan shavings.One of the staff has laid the dining table with antique cutlery and linen napkins, stoked the fire and opened a crisp Tasmanian white.
The rabbit surfaces from the oven, its aromatic, garlicky vapour filling the room. My gratin is next.
I taste it nervously – will it match the culinary finesse shown by the other students? My fears are unfounded, the creamy pumpkin and potato melts my mouth while the walnut breadcrumbs provide a satisfying crunch. A bold Tasmanian red is poured.
Back in the dining room I tuck into dessert while another round of coffee and tea is offered. Shall I have the lemon balm or the mint tea? Both are grown in the Kitchen’s gardens, and both smell heavenly. Sadly, the day eventually comes to an end. I feel like I have been enveloped in a warm, homely cocoon where the food is plentiful, the wine excellent and where strangers become friends. Perhaps it is the ethos of the farm, the simple pleasure of coming back to the land, or maybe it is Rodney’s passion for food, but today was more than just a cooking class. I would call it a life experience, one I will remember fondly for years to come.