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To Tasman Island

A massive school of bottlenose dolphins approaching our Zodiac. Photo by David Lansing.

Sunday morning I fly back to Sydney and then on to Fiji so I thought today I’d do something a little bit wilder than visiting cheeseries and saffron farms. So at my friend Malcolm’s recommendation, I booked a four-hour wilderness eco-cruise between Port Arthur and Eaglehawk Neck. The tour information I got said to “dress very warmly.” I asked Malcolm what that meant.

“Well, I’d wear thermal underwear if you’ve got it,” he said. I told him I hadn’t packed my thermal underwear. I wasn’t expecting to go skiing. My choice, he said, but it would be bloody cold out on the water. “You’re going to be on the edge of the Southern Ocean. It can be tempestuous.”

So here’s how I dressed at 6:30 this morning: I put the bottoms of my track suit underneath my jeans and on top I wore a long-sleeved turtle neck shirt, a thick polo shirt, topped by a fleece jacket and a water-proof parka. Surely, I thought, that would keep me warm.

When I showed up at Tasman Island Cruises in Port Arthur a little after nine, they issued me a full-body water-proof Gortex suit. I asked them if I was to take off my other jackets and coats or put the Goretex suit on over them. “Put it over your clothes,” they said.

I guess they weren’t kidding about it being cold.

Still, it all seemed a bit much to me. The morning was gorgeous and there wasn’t a breath of wind when we pulled out of Port Arthur, siddling past the old convict’s prison and the Isle of the Dead. There were a dozen or so school kids aboard our vessel which was basically an over-sized Zodiac with maybe two-dozen blue plastic seats, all with seat belts (I should have known from the fact that we were instructed to always wear our seatbelts that this wasn’t going to be a gentle float down the river).

We looked at some seabird rookeries and saw lots of lazy seals sunning on the rocks and then circumnavigated the towering sea cliffs of Tasman Island and Cape Pillar. It was as we were admiring the old lighthouse atop Tasman Island that I first noticed the very black sky to our south. Our captain and tour guide (both named Damian: “Most folks call us Damo and Damo”) had noticed it to.

“We just need to get past the point and we’ll be okay,” said one of the Damos. The sea got choppy and the other Damo lurched around the Zodiac handing out wool caps to put on underneath our Goretex hoods. At first I declined but then it started to rain a bit and I grabbed a cap. Five minutes later, all hell broke loose. It was the most amazing meteorological event I’d ever experienced. We went from a cool but mild morning to a very scary storm, complete with hail coming in sideways at us thanks to gusts of sixty miles per hour, in just a matter of minutes. Everyone, including me, sealed themselves up in the Goretex as tightly as they could. I left only the tiniest of slits above my nose for my eyes.

Mind you, I was wearing more clothes than I’ve ever worn skiing—including helicopter skiing in Canada—and I was still shivering with cold. Nobody spoke. The water had really gotten turbulent. Everyone just held on as best they could while one of the Damos gunned the Zodiac up the coast trying to outrun the storm. Eventually we came around the point he’d been aiming for and just like that, the wind and rain ceased. I pulled down my hood, grateful to be out of the storm, and looked out on the horizon. Coming directly towards us was what looked like a river of white water. Something—thousands of somethings—were breaking the water up ahead and coming our way.

“Dolphins,” said one of the Damos. “Thousands of them.”

And that’s what it was. The largest school of giant bottlenose dolphins I’d ever seen or heard about. Damo estimated there had to be at least three- or four-thousand of the animals. They surrounded our Zodiac and swam beside us and in front of us and underneath us. One of the largest cruised right next to us and began intentionally spanking his flipper against the water as he swam, soaking us. He did it over and over again. “Bastard knows what he’s doing,” said Damo.

This went on for fifteen or twenty minutes. And then, just like the storm that had appeared out of nowhere from the Southern Ocean, the dolphins were gone and the sea was still again.

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Tasmanian saffron

Nicky Noonan looking at about $7,500 worth of her Tas-Saff saffron.

Had another great dinner at Henry’s in the Henry Jones Art Hotel. A lovely, fragrant seafood soup made with lots of local fish and mussels and flavored with saffron. After dinner, Andre Kropp, the executive chef, came out and we talked about the meal over a glass of wine. I told him that, for me, what really made the dish, besides the fresh assortment of seafood, was the saffron. It seemed particularly delicate and flavorful. I asked him if it was from Spain.

Nope, he said. It’s local.

I thought he was joking. Or that he meant it was “local” in the sense that he had picked it up from a local restaurant supplier. But he told me there was a crazy couple who had a saffron business up in the Huon Valley. I called up my buddy Sally Legosz of Herbaceous Tours and asked her if she knew anything about them. Of course, she knew them. Said she was planning on taking a cake out to the owner, Nicky Noonan, the next afternoon since it was her birthday and asked me if I wanted to join her.

Hell yes.

When we arrived at Glaziers Bay, which is where the Noonan’s Tas-Saff farm is located, Nicky, who looks a bit like Penny Marshall’s younger sister, was somewhat frantically running about the place. She’d just gotten a call saying some Australian food inspector was coming by for an impromptu visit. The Tassies are crazy about quarantine laws and the like and since a big part of what happens at the Tas-Saff farm is the sorting and packaging of crocus bulbs, which are then parceled out to some 50 bulb growers throughout Tasmania, these inspectors, she explained, are very concerned about how clean your facilities are and making sure there’s no contaminated soil on the bulbs.

Anyway, Nicky took us inside the tiny little room where the spice is measured on carefully calibrated scales that are so sensitive that they can be affected by people just walking across the room, where she made tea while Sally cut into the cake she’d brought with her. I asked Nicky what made her decide to get into the saffron business.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I think we were crazy.”

Like almost everyone in Tasmania, she and her husband, Terry, were living a much different life elsewhere in Australia when they decided, as Nicky says, “To get as far away from Sydney and that life as we could. So we headed south to Tasmania with this vague notion of leading some sort of subsistence farming on a little handkerchief of land we’d bought.”

Then one day Terry, an accomplished cook, decided to make some paella and went shopping for saffron. “All he could find was a tiny little bottle of Spanish saffron for $15,” says Nicky. “We both wondered why on earth it was so expensive.” Terry wondered if they couldn’t just grow their own saffron. “We didn’t know at the time that saffron came from the dried stigmata of the crocus flower and that each flower only produces three tiny little stigmata. Or that it takes the stigmas from almost a quarter of a million flowers to extract one kilo of saffron.”

Twenty years ago, the Noonans imported 5,000 corms from Europe. It took three years before they got their first flowers. Which they harvested by hand. A decade later, they were harvesting nearly 120,000 flowers from their little plot and getting about a pound of saffron for the effort. “Crazy, right?” says Nicky. Which is why they developed a growers network throughout Tasmania to grow the flowers for them. Still, all the saffron ends up here at the Noonan farm where two seasonal workers carefully weight and package it before shipping it off to food geeks who clamor for it—like Chef Andre Kroop.

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How to make whisky

Bill Lark at his whisky distillery in Mount Pleasanton. Photo by David Lansing.

Late yesterday afternoon I stopped in at Lark Distillery which is just a two minute walk from my hotel. It’s not really a distillery; it’s just the storefront in Hobart where Bill sells his whisky (along with Moo Brew which, funnily enough is a brewery owned by David Walsh, the math savant and owner of the Museum of New and Old Art). It was just about five in the afternoon and the place was packed. A local bluegrass group was playing. Bill was sitting at a table near the back door, drinking whisky and beer with his wife, Lyn, and one of the young guys who works at the real distillery out in Mount Pleasanton. They were listening to the music and sampling various Scottish single-malts (Bill has recently been hired to act as a consultant for a new whisky distillery in Fife in Scotland, so he said he was “doing my homework”).

Bill has a real love of bluegrass music. He told me the story of how last year he’d been asked to give a presentation at a whisky symposium in Louisville, Kentucky, and one of the main reasons he agreed to go was so he could listen to some authentic bluegrass music.

He says: “Well, I asked the guy at my hotel where I could go to hear some bluegrass and he said, ‘Darned if I know.’ I never did hear any bluegrass in Louisville because there wasn’t any.”

So now he hires a Tasmanian bluegrass band and has them come in to the distillery and it gives him an excuse to sit around with his friends and listen to the kind of music he likes and drink a little whisky and beer.

I had a dram or two with Bill and afterwards he invited me to join him this morning out in Mount Pleasanton to tour the working distillery. We met back up at the Davey Street store around ten and Bill drove us out to the distillery which is about 15 minutes from downtown Hobart. I’ve been to any number of distilleries in Scotland, including some the biggest brands in the industry, and they’re all pretty modest affairs. But Bill’s place takes the cake. From the outside, you’d think it was just a large storage barn. From the inside, you’d think the same.

There was a big industrial-looking pot where the “mashings” for that day’s whisky were being slowly turned, and a couple of miles of piping along the walls where the mash was cooled and transferred to a copper still, and a few other gizmos but that was about it. What you learn from touring a whisky distillery is that it’s a pretty simple process. You get some malted barley (Bill gets his from Cascade Brewery in Tasmania), add water and yeast, brew it just like a beer, ferment it, and then distill it. That’s about it. Oh, and then you age it in oak barrels and put it in a bottle.

It seems so easy that I’m thinking of making my own whisky when I get home. I just need to come up with a good name for it. Any ideas?

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The girls at Grandvewe

The girls at Grandvewe Cheeses getting drained. Photo by David Lansing.

The local cheeses Sally and I enjoyed at the Red Velvet Lounge in Cygnet were really luscious, particularly the Blue which was softer and creamier than a traditional Roquefort. As we were leaving, I mentioned to Sally how much I’d enjoyed it and she said, “Would you like to stop by the cheesery? They’re friends of mine.”

Sally’s friend is Diane Rae who, along with her husband, Alan Irish, and their kids, own and run Tasmania’s only sheep milk cheesery, GrandvEWE (get it?). Sally told me as we drove along from Cygnet to Birchs Bay, where the cheesery is located, that Diane used to be a financial planner in Queensland before moving to Tasmania ten years ago.

“I think she got fed-up with the whole corporate world,” Sally said. She told me that it was her husband who rescued “the girls.” I asked her who “the girls” were and she laughed and said, “Oh, that’s what they call their sheep. They’ve got names for all of them.”

Anyway, when we arrived at the cheesery, there was a bit of a stir. It seemed it was milking time at the cheesery. We followed a half dozen other people into the barn where dozens of ewes were lined up single file waiting to get on a shoulder-high platform to have their udders relieved. The girls were actually pushing and making loud noises trying to hurry the process. “It’s probably a great relief for the girls to get milked,” said Sally. “Must be uncomfortable for them.”

According to the young woman with multiple ring piercings in each ear who was draining the girls, they get one to two liters of sheep’s milk from each ewe from September through March, and it takes about six liters of milk for a kilo of hard cheese (they are known for their fine Pecorino) and about two or three liters for softer cheeses like the Blue Sapphire we’d enjoyed at the Red Velvet Lounge.

Diane wasn’t around but I did chat with her daughter, Nicole, who is the farm manager and wine maker. She said the cheese making business was a bit of an accident. Originally the family intended to start a winery at Birchs Bay (she started her career as a wine wholesalers in Queensland) and they were looking for a way to organically control the grasses between the rows. “We figured sheep would be best and then my dad heard about a flock that was being sold and shipped to the mainland. He rang the owners and said he’d buy them. ‘They’re Tasmanian sheep and they should stay in Tasmania.’ So that’s how we ended up with the girls. And then we had to start milking them and doing something with the milk. That’s how we ended up owning a sheep cheesery. It was just circumstances. Now I spend more time running the cheesery than making wine. Such is life.”

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She wore Red Velvet

The Red Velvet Lounge in Cygnet, Tasmania. Photo by David Lansing.

I was telling you the other day about the Huon Valley which used to be the center of thousands of surrounding acres of fruit trees and berry farms, all growing the stone fruit and raspberries and such that went in to IXL Jam (from an early story on the jam factory, which is now my hotel in Hobart: “The raspberries were brought up in kegs, and inside the yard is a pile of these vessels, which were nearly all afloat during the raspberry season. The currants, gooseberries, and stone fruit were all brought up in cases that went as far as the eye could see…”).

Anyway, Sally and I were driving around the Huon Valley and just passing by all the little roadside stands selling strawberries and blueberries and cherries was making us both hungry so she suggested we drive into Cygnet, long the center of the Huon Valey, for lunch. She took me to the Red Velvet Lounge, a funky, eclectic brick restaurant that is the heart of little Cygnet. It’s the sort of place that’s almost too popular for its own good (even though it was well past one, the place was jammed and two young women were going crazy trying to keep up with all the orders).

The lunch menu was fascinating. They had smoked eel croquettes and quail saltimbocca and cold English pork pie (which, our waitress told us, they were out of), but in spying on the other tables, it seemed the most popular item was their cheese board: several different types of local cheeses (Heritage Double Brie, Grandvewe Blue, King Island Surprise Bay Cheddar), plus grilled fruit bread from their bakery, crackers, and apple slices. So that’s what we ordered.

The other cool thing about the Red Velvet Lounge were the shelves lining the brick walls that were filled with the restaurant’s own preserves, all made from goodies grown in and around the Huon Valley: preserved apricots, peaches, cherries and well as some exotic jam combos like plum and vanilla or apricot and saffron. They also make (and sell) their own mustards, sandwich pickles, olives, and something called Gentle-woman’s relish. I’ve heard of gentleman’s relish in England which is either a) a spicy anchovy relish or b) slang for jizz (take your pick), but have never heard of Gentle-woman’s relish. Which is why I had to buy a jar.

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