The best experiences are when you get the inside track from a local. SBS Food star Poh Ling Yeow is our lucky mainlander who has not one but two locals - Gourmet Farmer Matthew Evans and Taste.Walk.Talk - taking her around Launceston in northern Tasmania to meet the local food and drink entrepreneurs making this city a food lover's dream. Matthew discovers his bucket-list gin to drink and Poh picks ups her favourite food souvenirs to take back to the mainland.
Their Launceston eating adventure with Taste.Walk.Talk was, naturaly, on foot, which was deliberate as it involved a fair bit of ‘beveraging’.
There was a time, before I moved from Sydney to Southern Tasmania a decade ago, when the food of Launceston punched well above its weight. Ignored by the mainland, almost forgotten by Hobart, the cafes and eateries of Tassie’s second largest city were quietly going about cooking great food and serving it with aplomb. Even the local servo, Davies Grand Central, was a 24-hour food store that would put most big city delis to shame. Yet nobody in Launceston seemed to notice the lack of attention, or want more of it. And then, after Stillwater restaurant lit the town up on the national foodie radar for quite a while, it seemed that Launie had, quite strangely, decided to go quiet again.
Meet the man with a little black book for Launceston
Well, if Brock Kerslake from Taste.Walk.Talk has anything to do with it, Launceston’s reputation is about to soar. On his early evening and weekend tours, Brock can show you the sights, explain the history of the town, get you to sip a truly amazing hop-scented cider and expose you to some absolutely cracking restaurant-quality fare in a humble café. That’s before you hit the craft beer house or end up having dinner in a restaurant he’s helped book.
Brock’s contacts run deep. You might meet the brewer, who is also the farmer, who grew the hops and barley that flavour the beer in your glass. You might get a chance to taste an almighty good gin, complete with Indigenous ingredients that have been through the still. You could possibly score a platter of deliciousness at Bryher, an amazing little café open for only a year, and already so popular you'll be hard-pressed to get a chair.
Only in Tassie would they dare pimping out cider with pinot noir
We started a drinks-heavy tour at Red Brick Road Ciderhouse, with a cracking couple of ciders thanks to owners and cider makers Corey Baker and Karina Dambergs. The couple use their winemaking background to good effect. (Karina was sparkling winemaker for the much-loved Clover Hill for a good many years, and for that I will always have a soft spot for her.) They ferment apples separately according to variety, then blend to taste, and sometimes spike them with other flavours.
A personal favourite, and you have to come to Tassie to try pretty much anything they make, is the Cider Rosé, jazzed up with a hint of Tasmanian pinot noir which not only pinks the colour, it pimps the flavour, too. If you think you know cider, a visit to Red Brick can give you a whole new worldview.
A grain-to-glass philosophy is when ingredients have travelled only 300 metres
Nearby at Saint John craft Beer house, we try a lovely local beer. Van Dieman Brewing follows the paddock-to-plate philosophy - or grain-to-glass philosophy more accurately - in beer at nearby Evandale. Will Tatchell is the farmer who brews his own crops with some of the lowest food miles (or is that ‘drink miles’?) possible. Sometimes the ingredients have only travelled 300 metres to the on-farm brewery. But it’s not just the philosophy that’s sound; it’s the stuff in the glass that passes the flavour test, too. Not least a Hedgerow blend that uses some of the sloe berries from the blackthorn hedges that line many a northern Tassie road.
A gin made for daytime sipping and another for nightime imbibing
But of all the wonderful drinks we tried on our tour with Brock, it was the Abel Gin Co. that really harnessed the flavour of our isle. Natalie Fryar, another sparkling winemaker who’s had a bit of a career change, is harvesting smoky tea tree petals, native pepperberry and kunzea, three Tasmanian native plants among many, to put through her still. The aim is to try to bottle the very essence of Tassie’s wild places; Cradle Mountain in particular. Natalie wants to imbue a local spirit with the spirit of place.
The results are sublime; there’s a gin not surprisingly called Essence (a daytime gin), and their other gin, Quintessence (a night-time gin), which both achieve the lofty aim. Both are complex and intriguing. Fryar’s gins really do seem to be at once ancient and ultra modern, earthy yet elegant, comforting and yet exhilarating all at once. Taken over a little ice you sense a temperate island far away from the troubles of the world, captured in a glass.
The only way you’ll ever get closer to the smell of a world heritage forest is to go and visit one yourself. In my view, it’d be on the bucket list to do both at the same time.
Poh's drink souvenirs
I really loved lunch at Bryher cafe and came away so inspired by their ethos: to eat a lunch sourced entirely within the local vicinity, with bits and pieces from customers’ gardens, transformed into beautiful, delicious things. It got me thinking about all the stuff we tasted today and what I could do with them in the kitchen.
Even though spring is in the air, I'm using Red Brick Road Cider in a comforting slow-cooked soup of smoked ham hock and apples. Add a tomato for some acidity and a sprinkle of barley to bulk it up into a hearty stew.
For something lighter, I like to match the cider with for mussels. Leeks are peaking right now, so slice up a nice fat one, sweat it in butter, then bring some cider to the boil, before adding in mussels. Don't forget a rustic loaf to to soak up all the goodness - and if baking from scratch, try a cider-leavened one.
Saint John craft beerhouse, with 14 taps and a range of over 170 bottled beers, was impressive but I only had room for one beer in my suitcase and that was Van Dieman Brewing, created by Saint John's co-owner Will Tatchell. Van Diemen Brewing is located on a family farm where they grow the barley and the hops, then the beer is brewed on site. Notions usually applied to wine making such as ‘terroir’ are absolutely part of the Van Diemen Brewing vernacular.
When I think about cooking with beer, use it it like you would cook with wine - the beer will add a more rambunctious personality to a dish. For example, I often use beer in place of white wine in a paella.
One dish that I often make is a beer and rabbit stew. Make sure you caramelise the rabbit in a really hot pan (not non-stick please) and chop your mirepoix of carrot, celery, onion finely so you’ll have a solid foundation for that beer to build upon. Add some rosemary, potatoes and carrot and finish with a generous garnish of roughly chopped parsley.
If you ever need something a little spesh to have with a chocolate cake, a dark ale or stout ice cream is a revelation. Simply make a crème anglaise mixture substituting the milk for half beer and half cream, then churn in an ice-cream machine or freeze (to make semifreddo). The match is amazing.
Beer (like cider) is a great natural leavening agent for bread, too. There are so many interesting possibilities to play with wild fermenting, something at the heart of Van Diemen Brewing’s philosophy.
Also fitting snugly in my suitcase is a bottle of Natalie Fryar and Kim Seagram's Abel Gin Co. gin. This dynamic duo have produced a stunning gin using hand-picked botanicals unique to the Tasmanian wilderness. I must mention that it’s imperative to buy a good-quality tonic water to go with such a premium gin and honestly, it feels a sin to cook with it as once you apply heat, the nuances dissipate, so I’m thinking cold dishes all the way.
A great option for summer is to mix the gin with a sugar syrup to make a granita. Serve with berries as a gorgeous grown-up treat or frozen as freeze as popsicles with elderflower and elegant ribbons of cucumber.
A gin-cured gravlax would also be gorgeous. Once upon a time, I found the idea of making gravlax totally overwhelming but, really, it’s easier than cooking an omelette. All you need to be sure about is the freshness of your salmon, then you need only a few ingredients - sugar, salt, black peppercorns, the all important juniper berries, dill and, of course, gin. It will only take about 10 minutes to prepare but 1-2 days to cure.
Don't miss the next instalment of Matthew's and Poh's Local versus Mainlander four-part video series from September to October 2017.