With the Tassies


The following is report to friends and family on a lecture tour “downunder” in the summer of 2002.

As I sit typing this I am looking out my windows at L’Astrolabe, the Institut Polaire’s Antartic research vessel. Moored next to it is the massive Spirit of Tasmania car ferry. My hotel is less a hotel than part of the city of Hobart’s conference center built in a converted apple shed. Yep, and they’ve done one spectacular job. I’ve been a lot of places, but this one will be right at the top of the list. Nancy and I will have to come back here some day.

The apple shed is on a wharf that juts out into Hobart’s port. It’s a two story affair. Each room has its own loft. I can look down the long cathedral-roofed corridor out onto the harbor and the Tassy ferry sitting there at the dock.

I’ve flown a lot in the past few years and I don’t look out the window much anymore. But I let that child like sense of adventure that was lurking below the surface bubble up and took a seat near a window and watched as we crossed the Bass Straits and swung down over Tasmania. Maybe it was the chemicals but I like to think it was the sense of adventure returning: a smile crossed my face and I couldn’t wipe it off for the next several hours.

Normally I just hop in a cab at the airport and speed to my hotel. Something struck me this time. The pace at the small airport was laid back and casual and no one was in hurry. There were plenty of taxis but I came up to a shuttle service first and followed my instincts to take a slower approach to town. It was cheap and I got to see a bit more of the city. An old, well-dressed man got off the shuttle with me. With his red cheeks, and tweed coat he looked so British. He saw me carefully arranging all my luggage for the walk down the wharf and offered to help me. That was just one of those moments.

The Tasmanian Devil plays an important role here in how Tassy’s think of themselves. It’s emblematic. The tourist logo here features a Devil with it’s characteristic side markings peering through stylized tall grass with the slogan “Tasmania, The Natural State” below. Of course the Devil is on the beer but it’s also other commercial products, buildings, and boats. There are a couple of other ferries moored near my wharf. One has a racing Tasmanian devil painted across the side.

I tried to track down the French crew from the L’Astrolabe but couldn’t find anyone on the pier and I couldn’t find any bar that had the sound of a French accent. Meanwhile I searched for a place to eat.

The Harbor, though still active, has been gentrified. Former grain silos have been converted into apartments. I am sure the view is spectacular. And along Salamanca street the old stone buildings that were once probably wherehouses or maritime offices have been converted into artist colonies, trendy shops, and restaurants. Some were just a wee bit too trendy for my tastes.

Now I know Denny is more adventurous than I when it comes to food. He might have enjoyed the slow-cooked ox tongue at one, or–Nancy don’t read this–the poached lamb brains in a lemon butter and caper sauce at another.

While peering at a menu in the window of one small eatery a leather clad and helmeted man got off a big Honda near the door. He took off his bright red helmet, opened the door, reached in, grabbed a paper menu, thrust it into my hands and said, “everything’s fresh, nothing comes from the warmer, it’s all made on the premises.” How in the hell did he know that I wondered. So I asked, “Are you the proprietor.” “Yes,” he replied.

I explored the streets for another half hour, it was getting cold, my throat was beginning to bother me (too damn much talking) and it was time to dine somewhere. The whimsy of motorcycle man and the tiny intimate restaurant was appealing.

My instincts didn’t let me down. I didn’t recognize him when he came out to explain the menu. He had loud black and white checked pants, a well-designed tunic, and a chef’ toque. I commented on his pants because French chef’s, in fact most chefs, wear checked pants, but the checks are small. His were large almost garish. He replied, “Ah, but it’s what in em that counts.” True enough and he lived up to it.

I was in one of my inquisitive moods and since there was only one other customer, another single man, I good-naturedly queried my waiter and as well as the chef. As he was going on about the menu I stopped him. I asked, “Where did you go to culinary school?” “I didn’t,” he said. “I am an electronic technician, I am self taught.” Well, that answer begged a lot more questions but I didn’t want to abuse my welcome.

I picked a Tassy pinot noir, light in colour and body as my waiter explained. Light yes, but it grew on me and it was flavorful enough to satisfy my palate. I’d decided on the beef roulade before I’d come in the door. John, chef man, explained that it was different from the rouladen that I thought it was. He seemed quite knowledgeable about German foods and I overheard him say something about living in Germany. It was a beef filet, split and rolled and stuffed with a tourtenade (sp) paste and spinach leaves. (It’s ok Denny, you would have loved it.) He said it was from “mature” beef, but very tender. It did seem to have a whiff of dead cow smell but it was faint and that may be the way Tassy’s eat their beef. He cooked it the way I like it and it had a red wine demiglaze. (As I understand from his explanation it’s long-simmered beef juices in wine and a roux–ok, to me it was a brown gravy.) The portions were manageable and not over the top like in many American restuarants. For example, the bread course was just one roll. Hey, I thought, why not another roll. But I had room for dessert and that too was a treat.

I looked the waiter in the eye when he said everything on the dessert menu was made on the premises. “Even the chocolate-mocha ice cream?” “Yes,” he said. “The chef makes up a batch of chocolate ice cream then a batch of the mocha, then we layer it with the bits of pine nuts and chocolate.” Ok, I put them to the test, and while it wasn’t the heavy cream ice cream that we think of it was homemade and it was good and the pine nuts added some texture to it as well. Of course the fact that it was swimming in Kaluha didn’t hurt matters.

While I was eating I could hear the apprentice’s joking around in the kitchen just over the partition where I was setting. So while I was paying I told them to compliment the chef for me and they jovially kidded me in their heavy Tassy accents that they would take the compliment but they wouldn’t pass it to John since they cooked the meal. We all had a good laugh. I noticed that they were still both at the stove so I asked who they were cooking for. “Hey, we eat here too.” Touche.

Time to turn in. Clothes are ironed. Hall is ready. One last day of lectures. I’ll get in late to Sydney and may not have time for another message. So my notes on the flight into Hobart and on Sydney may have to wait.

Hobart, Tasmania

The end of the earth.