16 Nov 2021Julie Sade has a unique problem: her Highland cattle are too friendly. People visit her farm stay, Highland Getaway in Ranelagh, for the opportunity to brush the “giant grass puppies”, as she calls them.
“If you brush too softly, they’ll go to someone else who brushes harder,” she says. I’m drawn to a shaggy, reddish-coated calf named Jasmine, whose glassy eyes close in delight with each brushstroke. “They’re like a two-year-old child; they’re gorgeous animals but they’ll push the boundaries.” True to form, when I stop to take a photo, Jasmine gives me a gentle nudge with her head, urging me to continue.
Ranelagh is located at the gateway to the Huon Valley, a region known for its farms, fruit orchards and cool-climate wines. This year, the Tasmanian government has injected millions of dollars into developing this sort of agritourism experience, but Julie was ahead of the curve when she started her business in 2018. And it’s not a bad place to work. From one of the suites attached to her home, I look out over paddocks sloping gently towards the tannin-brown Huon River. In the distance stands a quaint wooden house on the water’s edge, where guests can spot platypus. Not that I can see much of the little cabin this morning, the pine-blanketed view slowly emerging from fairytale-like cloud.
Just across the river, at the bottom of the property is Glen Huon Dairy, where Karen and Richard Butler tend to a different herd. The couple moved to Tasmania in 2017 after their UK farm tenancy ended. They work for Nick Haddow, who purchased the property a year earlier to better control the quality of the milk going into his Bruny Island Cheese Company products. “This milk has to be used within 24 hours of leaving the farm, and you can see it labelled here,” says Karen, pointing to a date on a semi-hard wedge of cheese. “That means Richard can go back and find the exact paddock the milk came from.”
As Australia’s borders tentatively reopen post-pandemic, the plan is to host long lunches, workshops and events at the refurbished apple shed. “Not many working farms want to open up to the public, so people see the value in a farm with open doors and make the most of it,” says Karen. At outdoor tables, visitors sample some of Bruny Island Cheese Company’s produce: the rich and oozy white mould Saint; marinated one-day-old curd; or the semi-hard Nanna’s Undies, cheekily named for the rosemary and lavender rubbed into the rind. Delicious as their cheese may be, the herd numbers just 55 and so isn’t considered commercially viable. “If you’re only selling milk, you’re going to need 500 cows on the ground, and you’re dictated by supermarket prices,” says Karen. “But Richard knows every one of our cows by sight and temperament. When you’re not working commercially, everything is treated better: the cows, the land, the people.”
The bond between land and people is nothing new in the Huon Valley. The Melukerdee Aboriginal people lived in harmony with the land some 40,000 years before European settlers arrived. They knew the valley as Tahune-Linah in the Nuenonne language, and as I drive east from Glen Huon Dairy, past sunny vineyards that are a blaze of green, catching glimpses of the waterway through the trees, I can feel the timeless, revelatory quality to the landscape.
This connection to the environment is something that fourth-generation apple farmer Andrew Smith believes locals have a responsibility to uphold. At Willie Smith’s Organic Cider, which Andrew named after his great grandfather, I take a pew on a chesterfield in Willie Smith’s Apple Shed restaurant, devouring mouthfuls of its famous apple pie. Tasmania is known as the Apple Isle, with around 83% of its apples grown in the Huon Valley. The export market peaked in the 1920s and 1930s — by the 1960s, Tasmania was exporting six million wooden boxes of apples to Europe every year. However, the industry declined in the 1970s and nearly 700 orchard owners left the trade over the following decade — but not the Smiths. “Between Mother Nature and human nature, it’s bloody hard to run a business,” laughs Andrew.
Unlike with fresh apples, cider means every piece of fruit can be used, including apples that would previously have been rejected due to natural imperfections. And after 32 years of growing fruit, Andrew finally feels like he’s where he wants to be. “Tassie’s definitely special. We used to have a saying when I was growing up: ‘Don’t tell anyone’,” he laughs. “In Australia, shows like MasterChef started a revolution. All of a sudden, people started wanting to know where their food came from. Now the grower has become the winemaker, and the winemaker or cidermaker has become the rock star. That’s been a phenomenal change over the past 15 years.
Andrew adds that the Huon Valley (and Tasmania in general) has become increasingly popular as a place to live and work since the start of the pandemic. The state has been relatively unaffected by Covid-19 — other than a sharp increase in the price of real estate. “It feels like this is Tassie’s time,” he says. “I think there’s going to be a huge opportunity in Tasmania for artists and products and value-added products. The world is going to see Tassie for what it is. Our isolation is going to become our greatest advantage.”
From the cidery, the narrow road to Glaziers Bay hugs the river, fishing boats bobbing out on the water. Wooden apple sheds on the roadside lean with the weight of age. I arrive at Fat Pig Farm, where Matthew Evans and Sadie Chrestman host Friday Feasts, a series of weekly lunches for people to gather around good food in their open kitchen strung with dried corn and plaited garlic. Sadie ushers me out to the verandah, where we sip tart, dry cider from Willie Smith’s and tuck in to a feast of hardwood-smoked ham and brawn (made from the farm’s fat pigs), along with charred spring onions, pickled long beans, a beetroot-tinted egg-and-herb salad and buttered, baby radish. The platter is one of 11 dishes served over four hours.
Matthew quit his job as a food critic in 2005 after being repeatedly disappointed that the ingredients he was eating at restaurants were of lower quality than the market produce he was buying. So, he moved from Sydney to the Huon Valley to grow and cook his own. In between courses, we tour the farm, cooing over Wessex Saddleback pigs grazing among apple tree rootstock. But it’s the garden beds that require the most nurturing: they’d stretch almost a mile in length if they were lined up in a single row.
Sadie, who oversees the market garden, makes a convincing case for eating more seasonally: farmers should dictate what we cook, she says, rather than consumers demanding what they grow. Matthew’s in agreement; earlier this year, he released a book called Soil: The incredible story of what keeps the earth, and us, healthy. Sadie references it as she stands beside their lettuce-filled greenhouse. “We know more about the soil on Mars than we do about the soil on Earth,” she says. “In every teaspoon, there are more living organisms than there are people on the planet. It completely changes the way you think about food.”
When we return to the table, roasted goat leg and potatoes cooked in pork fat are being plated in enamel dishes, along with salad plucked from the greenhouse. As we finish our last mouthfuls of pavlova, Matthew and Sadie raise their glass to the Melukerdee Aboriginal people, who survived off the same land all those millennia ago.
“We want to continue to grow food not just for our son and grandchildren, but for 20, 30, 50 generations into the future,” says Sadie. “What astonishes us week after week is that it’s not just about the food — the food is the catalyst for how we come together. Food is how we build community.”
A taste of the Huon Valley
Cinnamon and Cherry
This cafe overlooking the Huon River in Franklin specialises in Turkish dishes punctuated with edible flowers. The couple that run it met on Turkey’s south coast and pick most of the produce from their garden next door. Almost everything is made onsite, from freshly baked bread and yoghurt to dips and pickles. Order a large meze tray between two for AU$40 (£21).
Port Cygnet Cannery
Set in a former apple canning factory, Port Cygnet Cannery is an industrial hub of food and beverage businesses. The restaurant is one of the best in the region. Sit beneath steel beams and beside boilers crafted into fireplaces for Thursday pizza night or a weekend lunch, which are a celebration of what’s grown on the farm. Saturday’s AU$95 (£50) vegetarian degustation menu is especially impressive. It includes seasonal snacks, such as a curry-spiced quinoa crisp with local honey and native saltbush.
The last thing you’d expect to find in the logging township of Geeveston is a sushi master. Masaaki Koyama grew up in Japan’s Wakayama Prefecture before moving to Osaka to fulfil his dream of becoming a sushi chef. While there, he met a travelling ‘Taswegian’, and the rest is history. The area’s clean water, fresh air and world-class seafood make Masaaki’s AU$20 (£10.60) sushi and AU$30 (£16.90) sashimi platters some of Tassie’s best. Check ahead to make sure he hasn’t closed to go surfing.
Five food finds
1. Apples: Whether bought on the side of the road or transformed into cider, no trip to the Huon Valley is complete without a taste of its rosy fruit.
2. Wallaby: If you can get your head around eating wallaby, the best place to try this sustainable, native meat is in a pie at Summer Kitchen Organic Bakery in Ranelagh.
3. Wine: The cool climate and sunshine in the Huon Valley offer ideal conditions to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. To try them, visit Kate Hill Wines, Elsewhere Vineyard, Home Hill or Hartzview.
4. Little Black Fridge: Swing by 9 Britcliffes Road in Geeveston for an honesty fridge filled with brownies, giant cookies and caramels flavoured with local stout. Leave cash in the letterbox or complete a bank transfer.
5. Sassafras Spirit: Down south in Dover, Bakehouse Distillery is home to Evoke, the world’s first sassafras spirit inspired by Tasmania’s ancient rainforests.
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