Tasmania - Scots eye for southern culinary coup

Graeme Phillips
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Thorpe Farm Tasmanian Highland Cheese, Bothwell, Tasmania

Thorpe Farm Tasmanian Highland Cheese, Bothwell, Tasmania [©Photographer: George Bignell]

John Bignell from Thorpe Farm Tasmanian Highland Cheese, Bothwell, Tasmania

Under the southern end of Tasmania’s glacier-scarred highlands and lakes, the country opens up to sweeping grass plains watered in spring by snow melt. For millennia, this country around what is today the historic village of Bothwell was home and hunting grounds to the Big River tribe of Tasmanians.

The author of Australia’s first cookbook, Edward Abbott, tells of eating his first (and possibly last) wombat near Bothwell, an area which also inspired one of his most infamous recipes, Slippery Bob - kangaroo brains sautéed in emu fat. Little did he realize the contribution Bothwell would make to Tasmania’s culinary scene 150 years later.

In the 1820s, Scot colonists settled the area, bringing with them sheep and golf clubs. Bothwell’s became the first golf course in Australia, the region grew rich off the sheep’s back and kangaroo brains gave way to roast lamb, which remained a fixture on Anglo Australian menus until challenged by risotto, laksa, nahm prik, tagines, confits, sushi and sashimi in Australia’s culinary coming of age in the late 1900s.

On Thorpe Farm at Bothwell, John Bignell, direct descendent of one of the earliest Scot settlers, was the first to recognize the opportunities this culinary revolution provided.

In 1970, he captured animals from the state’s large wild herd of fallow deer to establish his own deer farm and supply venison to restaurants. In 1982, he travelled to Europe on a Nuffield Scholarship ostensibly to study deer farming. Instead, he was seduced by the flavours and variety of the cheeses and found himself visiting dairies in England and France.

Soon after his return, he built a small cheesery where he hand crafted what were among Australia’s first goat cheeses. Then he restored an original water mill on the property to grind the farm’s grain and supply flour to specialist bakers and chefs in Hobart. Next it was growing horseradish for the local and Sydney markets, experiments with growing wasabi in the cold water races that powered the flour mill and, finally, planting specialist vegetables including black salsify, a vegetable popular in continental Europe but one that hadn’t been seen in Tasmania since it was planted by French explorers in gardens at Recherche Bay in Southern Tasmania in 1792.

Little wonder he was presented with the Australian Gourmet Traveller Jaguar Award for Excellence in 2002.

Today, his Thorpe Farm Tasmanian Highland Cheese range runs from marinated fetta and white mould goat cheeses to sheep and cow-milk blues, his problem being able to keep up with demand from quality restaurants and food stores around the country.

In Hobart restaurants, you’ll find his goat curd turned into delicious pannacottas and his fresh goat cheese crumbled through dishes like a beetroot and rocket salad or, in spring, accompanying fresh asparagus, the perfect partner to a crisp and racy Tassie sauv blanc.

Then there are his unique goat crottins, small disks he dries and ages for 12 months to be shaved onto pasta and salads, as you might a mature Parmigiano Reggiano. Better still is to shave them generously onto good crusty bread with a glass of fresh young pinot to hand.

His Billy Blue and sheep and cow’s milk blues are aged for anything from six months to more than a year, the older ones - what locals refer to as his “back-of-the-fridge-range” - providing a fabulous Tasmanian treat when eaten with a drizzle of wild leatherwood honey. Accompanied by a glass or two of golden, aged botrytis riesling or gewürztraminer is to discover what to-die-for truly means.

While Bignell’s cheeses, venison, milled flour, wasabi and specialist vegetables have put Bothwell firmly on Tasmania’s culinary map and the historic village, its original golf course and golf museum are worth a visit, it now boats another attraction that makes it well worth the detour – single malt whisky. Neighbouring Thorpe Farm, the Nant Distillery is spectacularly housed in a beautifully restored colonial water mill producing what it rightly calls “the spirit of the Highlands”.

Then there is great trout fishing in the River Clyde and surrounding lakes and, at the Castle Hotel in the village, the best venison pies to be found anywhere.

Regions

  • Southern Tasmania (TAS)

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