All things seem to move at a different pace in Tasmania. There’s less rushing and more space. Phones drop out of range so you give up trying and time magically stretches out further than it usually would. Nature visibly expresses the change of seasons and people seem more willing to put time into doing things well. If you’ve ever been there, you’ll know this, and at The Agrarian Kitchen it’s all part of the experience.
One former city-dweller who’s made a permanent leap from urban life to rural idyll is chef Rodney Dunn. After many years working in high pressure Sydney kitchens alongside the likes of Tetsuya Wakuda and as food editor of Gourmet Traveller magazine, Dunn – along with his wife Severine – decided to make the serious tree change to Tasmania in 2007. The food-loving pair had long been inspired by TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage, a lush, sustainable farm set in bucolic Dorset, and when on a trip through southern Tasmania they came across an historic 1800s former schoolhouse in the tiny Derwent Valley village of Lachlan, it was clear that their dream had found itself a home.
After a dedicated two years of planting and establishing the gardens, The Agrarian Kitchen opened in 2009 and has since established itself as Australia’s leading sustainable, farm-based cooking school, winning awards, attracting plenty of media and regularly selling out classes months in advance.
It’s now a must-visit destination for anyone who appreciates a real connection with their food and its provenance, offering workshops on everything from patisserie and charcuterie to preserves and bread-making as well as the popular ‘Whole Hog’ – a two-day masterclass on porcine nose-to-tail butchery and cooking. We recently visited for the classic, full-day immersion class ‘The Agrarian Experience’ and within our small group (there are never more than 12 people) there were folk from all ends of Australia.
The day starts easily, with a warm welcome, some strong coffee and a generous wedge of Rodney’s just-baked date and pistachio cake. Everything here is led by the seasons, so our day’s menu is only finalised hours before, when it’s known what is ripe, abundant and at its best in the garden. We’re soon donning gumboots and anoraks and heading out for an amble round the two-hectare property, leisurely foraging for all of the fresh produce that will go into the three-course lunch that we’ll later make – and eat – together.
We take in vast vegetable gardens and fruit orchards as well as herb-filled hothouses and a purpose-built smokehouse – which is stacked with fillets of local salmon and plump legs of last year’s Wessex Saddleback pigs, ageing their way into a fine prosciutto. It’s then on to the milking shed to get hands-on with the farm’s affable British Alpine goats, Myrtle and Pretty Girl, whose milk later becomes the ricotta for our spinach and pancetta rotolo and a milky base for the delicious ice cream that accompanies our rhubarb, cumquat and frangipane dessert.
Using organic principles, the garden produces a remarkably diverse harvest – with dozens of heirloom herb varieties, an orchard of nearly 40 fruit trees and over 60 types of tomatoes. “Sustainable farming practices are at the core of The Agrarian Kitchen philosophy,” says Dunn. “The gardens are based on organic principles, growing heirloom varieties without the use of chemicals or artificial fertilisers.” His impressive professional knowledge also means that we’re getting insights and recipe tips at every turn, as well as the chance to taste, touch and smell worlds of amazing new things like wasabi leaf (“use like celery”), goat’s rue and sweet cicely (“perfect with rhubarb”).
Rare breed animals like the Wessex Saddleback pigs, Barnevelder chickens and a small flock of geese also have a happy home here, and anything else – like truffles, pheasant or freshly caught salmon – usually appears when one of the locals drops by with enough to share. We fill our baskets with mountains of spinach, freshly plucked herbs, muddy carrots, asparagus, artichokes and dozens of eggs then head back to the kitchen to prepare the extensive menu that Dunn has created for our lunch.
There’s a real sense of satisfaction when we finally sit down to enjoy the food around the beautifully laid-out, rustic dining table. Again, the pace is slow and leisurely; we enjoy local wines, share stories and experience the particular sense of gratification that’s inherent in eating delicious, seasonal food that has been prepared with love and harvested just that morning with our own hands.
The romance of the hands-on, paddock-to-plate experience is undeniable. It recalls childhood memories, the ways of our grandparents and simpler times. It reminds us of things smelling and tasting as they should. It slows us down and connects us to the seasons, life’s cycles and the forgotten pleasures of living simply.