Everything in Tasmania is more English than is England herself,” wrote visiting British novelist Anthony Trollope in 1873. A century-and-a-half later, it’s a sentiment still often expressed – particularly about Launceston, in the state’s north-east.
Launceston is one of those cities that feels more like a glorious, big country town from another age and perhaps indeed another hemisphere. Settled in 1806, it’s graced with a gentle, cool climate, colonial Georgian architecture and surrounds reminiscent of a John Constable masterpiece.
The ‘regional dish’ here, according to retired teacher and Launceston local Pat Little, has also long been typically English. “When I think of a classic northern Tasmanian dish, it has to be lamb, pink-eye potatoes and mint sauce from the garden,” she says. “Although now there’s a huge variety of local food to choose from – it’s just wonderful.”
Pat is shopping with her daughter at Harvest Launceston Farmers’ Market, where farmers, vintners and artisan food producers sell direct to the public. It’s held every Saturday opposite the Albert Hall, a classical Victorian landmark.
‘Launnie’, as the locals call it, sits at the entrance of the Tamar River. The waters of the Tamar’s pristine tributaries pool in highlands before trickling through charming villages, farmland and on to Launceston. They’re home to plump trout that tease summer anglers, and are sipped around the world in the iconic local drop, James Boag’s beer. From ‘town’, these waters carve through the Tamar Valley, one of Australia’s most picturesque wine regions, out to Bass Strait.
It seems people here have always eaten well, but most agree that the last 15 years has seen a dynamic shift. Working together, generational farmers, exceptional chefs and new settlers have set the food scene alight. Now Launceston is as renowned for its splendid eating as its wonderful drinking.
Restaurants like multi-award winning Stillwater, Josef Chromy, Mud and The Red Feather Inn are leading the way in preparing superb local produce to a world-class standard.
“Tasmanian food is just incredible,” says Kim Seagram of Stillwater, a restaurant perched in a lovely old mill near the city entrance of the Cataract Gorge. “How many places in the world have such a protected and clean food source as here, let alone such diversity? We grow stuff so well, from quinoa to saffron and the most delicate Asian greens.”
Kim met her husband, chef Rod Ascui, in her native Canada while he was visiting on a skiing trip. She moved to Launceston 22 years ago, following Rod back home. “We knew what producers were growing here. We knew people were visiting and desperate to eat Tasmanian foods, as were the locals… and so, Stillwater was born,” she explains. The seasonal menu artfully serves Huon salmon, Robbins Island Wagyu and Mt Gnomon pork belly with lush, organic Tamar Valley vegetables.
Katherine Moran Gonzalez and her husband Hoang Nguyen are just as selective about sourcing the very best local produce, but meat isn’t an issue at their Garden of Vegan cafe and market stall. Born in Chile and Vietnam respectively, and both raised in Sydney, the couple moved to Tasmania in 2011. Talented, health-conscious cooks, they’ve been overwhelmed by the response to their family recipes.
“We love living and working here,” says Katherine. “The lifestyle is so relaxed, the food is incomparable and on days off, there are all these gorgeous places to explore.”
Outside of Launceston on the South Esk River, historical Longford (in the middle of bushranger country) has always been a popular place to visit. It’s also become something of a hot-spot for great day-time eating.
In the old Georgian pharmacy on the main road, Home of the Artisan cafe serves magnificent dishes using northern meats, river fish and in-season produce from surrounding farms and gardens. It’s run by Brit, Caroline Dowling, whose husband Bill produces the scrumptious Tasmanian Gourmet Kitchen range of chutneys and savoury marmalades.
Jane Randall’s menu at River’s Edge Café in Longford is also adored by locavores. “I’m originally from North Canterbury, so the lamb here really is my thing,” says the New Zealander, who has lived around Launceston since she was 21. Jane’s husband, Tony, owns Hinton Bay Vineyard at Hillwood in the nearby Tamar Valley. “So it’s not uncommon to see someone leave after lunch with a case of pinot over their shoulder,” she says, laughing.
Hillwood is known for its exquisite fruit and in summer, the popular Hillwood Berry Farm sells organic pick-your-own strawberries, raspberries, blackcurrants and more.
“Have you been to the goat cheese place yet?” asks a young Italian woman, queuing to have her berries weighed. “It’s not too far; you have to get the platter!” she says.
The road to Yondover Farm is glorious, as it winds inland, through Lilydale, near Pipers Brook. Mike and Gina Butler fell in love with the location and started their goat’s milk dairy in 2004. Their range of chèvre, fetas and hard cheeses have won awards nationally, and are available every week at Harvest Launceston Farmers’ Market.
“The Yondover Bella is our favourite,” says Pat Little, about the semi-firm cheese that slices well and melts like cheddar. She buys a wedge, grabs a bag of her beloved pink-eyes and heads off to the Garden of Vegan for a spicy pho. “Launceston is very English to the eye, but the community and culture here are so multi-layered now,” she says. “It’s now an even lovelier place to live… and to eat!”
Photography by Sean Fennessy.
As seen in Feast magazine, August 2014, Issue 34. For more recipes and articles, pick up a copy of this month's Feast magazine or check out our great subscriptions offers here.