Tasting Tasmania

Nov 27, 2008

by SUE DYSON & ROGER MCSHANE

Tasmania has traditionally been associated with apples, potatoes, raspberries, strawberries and honey. But these days, visitors to rural roadside stalls and farmers’ shops are in for some surprises.

Tasmanian farmers have been experimenting with produce that would have their forebears scratching their heads. Ginseng, baby abalone, saffron, truffles and new berry varieties are just some of the tastes luring foodies to the southern state. The shifting taste in crops has come about for a number of reasons. Wool, for example, once guaranteed many farmers a good income, but since the demise of the reserve price scheme in the early ’90s, remuneration has become less reliable and some woolgrowers have looked for other options.

Tasmania produces about 80 per cent of Australia’s processed vegetables, but this market is increasingly at risk from competing imports. Local vegetable farmers have fought the competition with high-profile initiatives such as the 2005 Fair Dinkum Food Campaign, which encouraged Australians to buy locally grown produce. At the same time, farmers have been taking out insurance, diversifying into other crops such as opium poppies (for medical use) and pyrethrum, for its oil. State government and university research programs have supported some of these initiatives.

For many growers, though, the decision to experiment with something new is based on the belief that the way of the future lies in crops that can compete in international markets on the basis of quality. It’s a belief fuelled by changing eating habits. We might still appreciate the perfect raspberry or an apple picked straight from the tree, but modern cooks are just as keen to include saffron and wasabi in their repertoires.

Truffles

Perigord Truffles of Tasmania
Rockdale, Tasman Road, Grove.
+61 3 6266 4213.
In the early 1990s, Duncan Garvey and Peter Cooper formed Perigord Truffles of Tasmania, planning to produce tuber melanosporum, the variety of black truffle so prized in France. In 1993, they inoculated the roots of hazelnut and oak trees with spores from imported truffles, convinced farmers to trust their scheme and planted the trees in locations around the state. With no guarantee the spores would ever produce truffles, they had to wait six years to find out if their plan was anything more than a pipe dream. Their patience, and that of the farmers who bought their trees and worked with them, was rewarded in the winter of 1999, when a trained dog sniffed out a truffle at one of those farms, near Deloraine.

Although still an infant industry, as more truffires come on line, locally grown truffles are now a winter treat keenly anticipated by restaurant chefs and the dining public – shaved over scrambled eggs or richly infusing chicken, seafood or steak dishes.

Perigord is involved with more than 20 truffires in Tasmania, and has successfully expanded its operations into other states. Since 2006, they have had sufficient quantity to begin small-scale exports to Asia and Europe, and in 2007 hand-delivered fresh truffles to Princess Mary in Copenhagen.
Website

Berries

Sorell Fruit Farm
174 Pawleena Road, Sorell.
+16 3 6265 2744.

Tasmania’s temperate climate has always been conducive to growing raspberries, strawberries and blueberries, but in recent years more unusual varieties have joined the summer pudding mix. One of the best and most easily accessible plantings is at the Sorell Fruit Farm, a pick-your-own farm just out of Hobart, where the crop includes tayberries and jostaberries. Tayberries, which were first grown in Scotland, are a cross between a blackberry and a raspberry. Like raspberries, they are richly flavoured, but soft and not easily transported, so you need to go to the source if you want to eat them fresh. Jostaberries are a cross between blackcurrants and gooseberries, usually used in jams, jellies and liqueurs. Sorell Fruit Farm also grows and sells loganberries, silvanberries and boysenberries, alongside their more familiar crops.
Website

Pinnacle Berries
288 North Yarlington Road, Colebrook.
+16 3 6259 7142.

Pinnacle Berries also grows jostaberries and uses them to make a savoury jelly and a jam. Ian and Alda Black, from Pinnacle Berries, use all the fruit they grow in their own jams and jellies. As well as jostaberries, they grow purple and golden raspberries. The latter are used in a uniquely delicious layered golden and red raspberry jam they call raspberry band jam.
Website

Baby Abalone

Abalone Farm Australia
Harveys Farm Road, Bicheno.
+16 3 6375 1412.

Miles Cropp’s baby abalone find their way from a farm just south of Bicheno on Tasmania’s east coast to Australia’s best tables, including Tetsuya’s in Sydney and local restaurants such as Meadowbank. Twenty-one years in the making, Abalone Farm Australia, like many unique Tasmanian producers, started as a small operation, with many years of trial and error in establishing the best way to farm a “crop” that was available only as a wild harvest.

But, about seven years ago, finally convinced he had discovered the most effective farming method – one that involves breeding in large enclosed tanks on land – Cropp found a partner willing to invest in the business. With the extra funds, the farm expanded and it now produces almost 50 tonnes a year. The abalone, which take about three to four years to grow, are mainly sold live locally, but are also frozen or canned in brine and exported to Japan, among other places, for sashimi.
Website

Wasabi

Shima Wasabi
42 Mulgrave Street, Perth.
+16 3 6393 1799.

Matthew and Jessica Marston are rearing exotic wasabi plants on their two-hectare block in semi-rural Westbury. They have nearly 4000 plants and are planning further expansion, patiently waiting for each plant’s 16-month maturation period. Although not the first to grow wasabi in Tasmania (their plants came from Tasmania’s pioneer grower, Ian Farquhar), the Marstons have sought to evolve the product, developing a wasabi-based dipping sauce that adds bite to fresh oysters, and a wasabi pickle that begs to be paired with either raw beef or sashimi. While the Marstons are just beginning their enterprise, Farquhar, a Winnaleah farmer, has been growing wasabi since the mid-1990s. He supplies fresh wasabi to interstate markets and his dried wasabi roots and leaves are used by other Tasmanian producers. Among them is Jane Bennett from Ashgrove Cheese (website), near Deloraine, who has developed an extraordinarily successful wasabi cheese. Another Tasmanian producer, Naturally Nichols (website), has just released a mustard made with Farquar’s wasabi.
Website

Sea Urchin Roe

Aquamec Marine
PO Box 34, Franklin.
+16 3 6266 3260.

Sea urchins thrive on a combination of cool waters and good food sources, especially seaweed. A cool temperature is vital because once the sea temperature reaches 18C, they begin spawning, like oysters and mussels, which adversely affects the flavour of their highly prized roe. Will James from Aquamec Marine has been studying sea urchins for more than 20 years, trying to work out the best way to turn them into a manageable crop. With three marine farming leases in cool waters near Maria Island on Tasmania’s east coast, he holds the sea urchins in cages and manages to control their availability by moving them between different temperature zones to speed up or slow down their development. He’s also just taken on an extra lease that he’s using to trial the farming of seaweed to be used as food for his urchins. The better the seaweed, the better the flavour of the roe, so it’s another way of improving the quality of what was, until recently, a wild product of uncontrolled and variable quality. Will James’ sea urchins are currently sent to a wholesaler in New South Wales, and from there they are sold throughout the eastern seaboard.
Website

Ginseng

41 Degrees South
323 Montana Road, Deloraine.
+16 3 6362 4130.

On the B12 route from Deloraine towards Mole Creek, an intricate cross-thatch of wooden stakes and shade cloths can be seen in a distant paddock. These constructions are the framework for Ziggy Pyka’s latest plantings of ginseng. Ziggy and his wife Angelika have been growing ginseng since 1996, but it is only in the past couple of years that they have been rewarded with their first sales. Last year, they ventured into commercial planting and now have four hectares. It will be at least another two years before they can harvest their first crop; longer if they can afford to wait. Prized as a medicinal herb in Asia, the older and larger the ginseng root, the more valuable it becomes.

In their farm shop sits a preserved sample of one of their most impressive older roots. While they wait for the ginseng to mature, the Pykas farm and smoke baby Atlantic salmon; visitors can view the salmon farm and the wetlands they have created to filter the farm waste.
Website

Saffron

Tas-Saff
155 Dillons Hill Road, Glaziers Bay.
+16 3 6295 1921.

Terry and Nicky Noonan are the first to admit they were naive when, 19 years ago, shocked by how expensive the saffron they needed for a curry was, they decided to grow their own. Had they known just how backbreaking it would be picking the three-pronged red stigmas from the flowers of the crocus sativus bulb at just the right time (after the flower has opened, but before it’s fully open), they may not have jumped in so eagerly. And that moment of flowering doesn’t happen until several years after the bulbs have been planted. Fortunately, by the time they realised how difficult the process was, they were too taken by the idea of saffron farming to turn back. As well as their own crop of about half a hectare, which grows on their farm overlooking the Huon River, they have also contracted another 15 or so Tasmanian growers, and more interstate and in New Zealand, to produce saffron for them. They provide the contract growers with advice on how to grow saffron, then buy it from them to market under the Tas-Saff label. All Tas-Saff saffron is tested by the University of Tasmania, and to
be acceptable for sale it must be graded Extra Category One. This is the highest of four grades, according to an ISO standard measuring colour, taste, flavour and aroma. To reach Extra Category One, the colour rating must be at least 190 and flavour must be 70. Tas-Saff’s ratings have been as high as 260 for colour and 100 for flavour, making it some of the world’s best-quality saffron.
Website

Source: Qantas the Australian Way December 2008

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