A paddock-to-plate cookery school is adding another dimension to Tasmania’s beautiful Derwent Valley region, reports Michelle Rowe
S cooks go, Adele Boag makes an excellent deep-sea diver. So appalling is her kitchen prowess that her 19-year-old son has made her the subject of a short film, TheCookFrom Hell , a window into the nightmarish mealtimes experienced in their family home: mashed potato prepared from Deb packet mix, grey sludge masquerading as schnitzel, cakes so flat and burnt they’re passed off as brownies.
Which is why Boag, an Adelaide-based art gallery owner, is perched on a stool at The Agrarian Kitchen, a cookery school in the heart of Tasmania’s Derwent Valley, making a last-ditch attempt to turn her life around.
And she could hardly have picked a better place for an epiphany. The Agrarian Kitchen owners Rodney Dunn and his wife Severine Demanet ventured out of their own comfort zone just over 18 months ago, giving up secure jobs in Sydney (Dunn was a magazine food editor, Demanet a personal assistant) and moving to Tasmania with their then four-month-old son, Tristan.
Dunn was following a long-held dream of getting back to the land, growing his own produce and opening a cookery school. His role model was Britain’s Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the dishevelled city dweller who decided to put some of his free-range eggs in another basket and set up a farm in Dorset, southwest England. The spin-off River Cottage television series and books proved that getting back to basics was a good move in several ways.
Dunn says, I watched the River Cottage series and said to a friend, Where in Australia do you reckon you could do something like that?’ Tasmania was the natural choice. When I first came here, it blew me away how beautiful the place was. And I’d hear chefs saying, I’ve got this lady who grows salad and stuff and she brings it to the restaurant for us.’ Tasmania is the only place we could have set up something like this.’’
After a long search for the right property, Dunn and Demanet found the house of their dreams, an old school building at Lachlan in the Derwent Valley, 40 minutes northwest of Hobart. The light and airy former classroom with huge picture windows provides the perfect backdrop for cooking classes; a large preparation table now takes pride of place in the centre of the room, a pizza oven has been built, burners, gas ovens and an industrial dishwasher have been set in place. The old classroom still has a blackboard, but today it lists the menu to be prepared by students of a different kind.
In tandem with the schoolhouse renovations, work began on establishing the gardens that would support the school. Dunn sourced and planted dozens of heirloom varieties of fruit and veg and started an orchard that, once mature, will supply an abundance of apples, pears, apricots, plums, cherries, nectarines and more.
Two Jersey cows, Jemima and Josephine, were added to the mix, alongside a couple of Wessex saddleback pigs, a handful of barnevelder chickens and some geese.
The aim has been to create a fully sustainable, handson cookery school that offers a complete paddock-toplate experience. And today our group — including the hopeful Boag — is the first to try it out.
We are taking a class called The Agrarian Experience, and on the menu is prosciutto, ricotta and silverbeet rotolo, pork neck braised in milk, chickpea soffritto, foragers’ salad, blackcurrant leaf ice cream and lemon and elderflower cordial.
We’ll be doing everything, from picking the produce to be used in the recipes, to preparing the dishes and then sitting down with a well-deserved glass of (local) wine in hand and eating all our hard work for lunch.
Dunn proves a font of knowledge throughout the day, talking us through the varieties of veg in the garden as he pops some fresh peas from the pod and offers them
Chop to it: Trainee cooks learn new techniques and recipes in a class at The Agrarian Kitchen in Lachlan, northwest of Hobart
School’s in: Rodney Dunn starts class to us to try. They are as sweet as honey. Likewise some asparagus freshly plucked from the ground, a vibrant green in colour with a crisp snap as we bite into them.
The class is informal and jolly. It’s a communal effort as everybody pitches in to prepare each dish; two sets of hands roll the pasta, another chops some silverbeet, a third studs the pork loin with garlic. Dunn watches over the action with a hawk-like eye, paying particular attention to Boag, it seems.
I tell Dunn I am amazed at how easy it is to make ricotta; just add a little vinegar to a few litres of milk, gently heat and skim off the resulting cheese. A lot of people don’t realise that it’s so simple,’’ says Dunn, whose aim has been to put people back in touch with the simplicities of life and to make connections with likeminded neighbours in the Derwent Valley, especially the growers and producers who have pursued their passions. With its cool climate, rolling valleys and English countryside appearance, the Derwent Valley is an ideal place for agriculture-based ventures such as Dunn’s.
The Agrarian Kitchen is surrounded by people producing everything from elderflowers to cherries, salmon and even boutique beers. At the end of our class, we are offered a glass of sparkling wine from the acclaimed Stefano Lubiana Wines, a boutique, familyrun operation nearby.
Monique Lubiana puts the success of their wines down to location, staying small and loving what they do. This is a really good region. There is no real competition as there are mono-climates between [vineyards], so you can do whatever you like. Tasmania inspires creativity,’’ she says.
Although it is very hard work, it is a beautiful balance of life. We’re not doing it for the money. It’s for the love of it, and that’s the difference [between us and larger mainland winemakers].’’
Ashley and Jane Huntington, meanwhile, run The Two Metre Tall Company, a boutique brewery producing handmade real Tasmanian ales’’ named after rivers in the area, including Huon Dark Ale, Forester Pale Ale and Derwent Clear Ale. Ashley Huntington is 2m tall.
Previously general manager at winemaker Hardy’s Domaine de la Baume, in the Languedoc region in southwest France, Huntington couldn’t be happier than he is now, brewing beers on this small island. And he agrees with Lubiana’s take on the region.
Newcomers like us, and I include Rodney Dunn in that, can come in without any baggage and see the Derwent for what it is, this amazing agricultural area with all its possibilities,’’ he says.
We don’t need a critical mass of people. Just a handful, doing the sort of thing that they are doing. The last thing any of us wants is to be big and industrial. This is a great place for small producers.’’
Huntington makes a point of using local ingredients in his beers. Ninety per cent of Australia’s hops are Derwent Valley grown,’’ he says.
Not many craft brewers in Australia are using them though, which is a shame.’’
To raise awareness of locally produced goods, Dunn and Demanet hope to set up a small produce store as an add-on to The Agrarian Kitchen, selling the likes of Huntington’s beers and products made by local company Ashbolt Farm, among others.
Annie Ashbolt is a long-term resident of the valley, with a 354ha farm on which she and husband Bob harvest olives and elderflowers. It was a business born out of necessity, says Annie, whose mother died of asthma. I was very keen for our kids to be healthy so we grew all our own stuff,’’ she says.
Ashbolt decided years ago to plant elderflower trees, which she discovered have excellent medicinal properties. Today, her elderflower concentrates and olive oils are sold widely around Tasmania and used in some mainland restaurants.
Alongside the Lubianas, the Ashbolts and the Huntingtons are a plethora of local operators quietly turning out some of the state’s best-quality foods and beverages.
Reid Fruits, a family-run business, was a pioneer in the apple-growing business and has diversified to produce cherries for the international market; and the Salmon Ponds, just a few minutes from Dunn’s school, was the original salmon hatchery for the southern hemisphere and continues to operate, these days with a small cafe attached.
Another of Dunn’s neighbours is Derwent Valley mayor Tony Nicholson, whose family has brewed cider for generations. The mayor is considering running some cider-making classes at the school. It’s all about putting people back in touch with the farmer, and the connections in the region,’’ says Dunn.
We’ll be doing specific masterclasses. We know a great local lobster fisherman who will come and do lobster classes for us. Mary up the street is a grower and we’ll do something with her. Sally Wise, mother of [chef and Gordon Ramsay protege] Alistair Wise, is the queen of preserves so we’ll do a preserving class featuring her.’’
The school is also conducting a two-day masterclass, The Whole Hog, with Wessex Saddleback pig breeder Lee Christmas on January 24-25, for which there are still places available. The possibilities are endless, it seems, in a little-known region that is capable of bringing to life the dormant foodie in even the most reluctant of home chefs.
Says Boag who, before her foray to Tasmania, reveals in her son’s video that she thinks flavour is overrated’’:
On my return from Rodney’s class, I went and bought several varieties of lettuce and three tomato bushes, a small but significant start on my road to redemption. I feel I have definitely picked up some new skills.’’
It’s something that Dunn, Tasmania’s newest sustainability advocate, will be thrilled to hear. Not quite as thrilled, one suspects, as Boag’s long-suffering family. Derwent Valley accommodation — Page 4 www.theagrariankitchen.com www.slw.com.au www.2mt.com.au www.ashbolt.com.au www.reidfruits.com.au