Judith Elen uncovers unexpected treats tucked away in Tasmania’s northwest
THE small city of Devonport is not at the crossroads of anywhere. Wash up here — as I have, arriving on the cruise ship Silver Whisper for a day in port — and you’ll find a sleepy spot. But it is Tasmania’s northern port, and many wash up here, including passing cruise ships and the Bass Strait ferry, Spirit of Tasmania, which makes the crossing from Melbourne and docks here.
Devonport is the setting-off point for passengers arriving at the shipping terminal or the city’s airport, and venturing into northwestern Tasmania’s wonderful wilderness areas of Cradle Mountain and the Franklin River beyond.
As Silver Whisper slips quietly down the Mersey River from the strait, heading for the terminal, it towers above the suburban streets of red-roofed houses clothing the banks, and the tin-roofed, weatherboard buildings at the dockside.
The terminal is about 3km from the centre of the city and there are some worthwhile sights close at hand, including the Tiagarra Aboriginal Centre, on the headland at Mersey Bluff, where the pristine lighthouse stands sentinel, and the maritime museum in town.
But Devonport has food and wine treats as well, and one is a secret the locals keep very quiet about. To find a kitchen creating good French provincial food in this relatively remote place is a surprise. But then, Tasmania offers some of the world’s best and purest produce so, on closer consideration, it’s a natural marriage.
Glencoe Rural Retreat is a boutique B & B (read small, elegant and easy to sink into) about 20km south of Devonport at Barrington. When we arrive for lunch and step inside, we discern the subtle warmth of country France in this Australian farmhouse. It’s in the paintings (local), the flowers (homegrown) and the preserves (housemade) lined up on a dresser.
A heritage, cream-painted weatherboard house, Glencoe offers compact, comfortable accommodation in four guestrooms, and a true taste of the French south for anyone with the good sense to book a table. The cafe is licensed and is open for lunch Wednesday to Sunday, 11am to 4pm (it’s best to book). Non-resident guests can also dine here in the evenings, but only with a previous booking; a three-course table d’hote menu, excluding drinks, is $50 a person.
Ginette and Remi Bancal imagined they’d settle in a busier spot when they planned their move from France in 1987, but once lured to this region by a friend, and finding this atmospheric house, they could see the possibilities for a real retreat with the feel of home.
Originally a sommelier at the Ritz in Paris, Remi has worked with Miettas in Melbourne and as head sommelier at Sydney’s Banc restaurant. Having grown up in France’s Cotes du Rhone wine region, he carries with him a lifetime’s knowledge of wine, a background of good French country cooking and a long commitment to slow food. What better spot for it?
The Bancals grow their own vegetables and herbs at Glencoe and source organic local products from dairy, farm and lake. Remi makes sourdough bread and brioche in a wood-fired stove, and deep, dense confitures (only the French word will do). Down among the trees and shrubbery, there’s a wire pen housing a clutch of hens and a big black rooster.
We admire the interior of the house and then settle around a table on the veranda looking over the garden. Remi brings out platters of pork rillettes and two varieties of terrine, one larded with chunks of turkey meat, the other dark with prunes. (The rillettes are less saturated in delicious goose fat than they would be in a French country kitchen, but Remi says that’s how customers prefer them here.)
Then come large bowls of salad, a kind of nicoise but with smoked salmon instead of tuna and sumptuous with kipfler potatoes, green beans and herbs from the garden, and hard-boiled eggs with dark yellow yolks (no doubt from the Rhode Island Reds beyond the shrubbery).
We refill our plates, but still have space for a slice of Remi’s blueberry tart, a big, square, homey affair served with freshly made vanilla ice-cream. If I lived nearby you wouldn’t be able to keep me away; I begin to imagine a brief getaway here, and leave with a big pot of caramelised blood orange marmalade to keep me going.
Another northern hemisphere blow-in, albeit of long standing, having set up business here in 1989, is Igor Van Gerwen at the chocolate-making emporium, House of Anvers, at Latrobe, back in Devonport.
Rigorously trained as a pastry chef and chocolatier in Belgium, Gerwen is a committed man. He loves his craft and lives and breathes its history. To the Aztecs, chocolate was the food of the gods, he says. ‘‘ It has become a cheap, greasy commodity’’ on supermarket shelves and Gerwen is on a mission to return this sumptuous, healthy food to its proper status.
The Anvers chocolate factory is in the back section of an elegant white-painted 1930s bungalow, with curved banks of leadlight windows and wood panelling. We pass through the front cafe rooms and enter a sunny corridor that is a minimuseum of chocolate-making. Among a wide range of curiosities, there is a fascinating collection of chocolate moulds on display, some from the 1830s, others from the 1920s to the ’ 70s; they are a revealing indication of the craftsmanship of the past. A new building to be opened next month will provide display space for Gerwen’s far more extensive collection, he tells us.
We pass through a door and watch the chocolate-making going on beyond a glasspanelled wall. There are eight chocolatiers, plus trainees; 40 staff here in all. Gerwen makes his chocolates with the fresh cream, pure butter and natural flavours of Tasmania, plus liqueurs and a special blend of imported chocolate (with 64 per cent cacao content for dark and 35 per cent for milk).
At the cafe tables in the front rooms and out under the trees, there’s a menu of hot cocoa in many flavours, chocolates and chocolate desserts, plus light meals using Tasmanian produce.
There is, of course, a shop and with so much to taste and choose from, I ask the staff to make up a small box of langue du chat , the ‘‘ cats’ tongues’’ of tasting chocolate the chocolatiers use for blending their creations: they’re dark, 64 per cent cacao, thin and narrow, with a little cat’s face impressed into each tongue.
There are other visits to make before we head back to the ship. Barringwood Park Vineyard’s glass-wrapped cellar door at Lower Barrington, about 20km south of Devonport, sits above the thick canopies in 4ha of cool-climate vines that slope away into a lush valley. The grapes include schonburger, which produces a delicious Alsatian-style white similar to a German muscat and with a distinct hint of rosewater Turkish delight.
Owner Judy Robinson (with her husband, Ian) is quietly articulate and knowledgable. She explains that pinot gris and pinot grigio are not simply French and Italian versions of the same grape but different methods are used in their processing: the Italian variety is picked earlier, before the sugars develop, while the gris is left to mature longer, resulting in quite different wines.
Everything here speaks of care and devotion. Vines and grapes are handtended and hand-picked. Robinson tells us about the perpetual battle to outwit the black jays (currawongs) and silver eyes that love the grapes as much as we do the end product (Barringwood Park IJ is their sparkling wine label, named for the silver eyes and jays as well as for Ian and Judy).
We also make a quick visit to Ghost Rock Vineyard at Port Sorell, a short drive east of Devonport and one of the first plantings in this region. Three hectares have recently been added to the original 1ha of vines. The cellar door here is also glass-wrapped but with wide, sweeping views across pasture land to the sea. On the walls are the equally eye-catching works of local artists.
Everything is gleamingly new, including a well-equipped kitchen and dining area. Ghost Rock produces a bottle-fermented pinot noir-chardonnay sparkler (Catherine Sparkling), chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot gris, rose and pinot noir.
There are other cellar doors, too, within a short radius of Devonport, and a raspberry plantation and Ashgrove Cheese farm and factory close by. I must return. Judith Elen was a guest of Silversea and Virgin Blue. www.glencoeruralretreat.com www.anvers-chocolate.com.au www.barringwoodpark.com.au. www.ghostrock.com.au www.silversea.com www.virginblue.com.au
Secret harvest: Clockwise from main picture, Remi Bancal serves his blueberry tart; Glencoe’s gardens; cafe counter at Anvers