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A pad­dock-to-plate cook­ery school is adding an­other di­men­sion to Tas­ma­nia’s beau­ti­ful Der­went Val­ley re­gion, re­ports Michelle Rowe

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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

Pic­tures: Michelle Rowe

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