Tasting Port in Porto

Port Lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia

On the banks of the Douro River, a stone’s throw from the sea, snuggles a city of terracotta roof tiles atop narrow houses, their facades decorated in coloured tiles. Clustered tightly together, they stagger unsteadily up winding cobbled lanes that wriggle, almost vertically, to the top of the surrounding hills, where huge churches perch in splendid sobriety, their interiors, in stark contrast, ornately decorated and garishly gilded. Several miles upstream, a plethora of ancient vineyards – now a UNESCO world heritage site – mark the source of Portugal’s Port wine industry.

The Douro River flows east to west for almost nine hundred kilometres, from the Spanish province of Soria, down through northern Portugal to the Atlantic Ocean, which smashes and swirls over the sea wall at Foz. The Douro Valley is one of the oldest demarcated wine region in the world, protected by an official appellation with which it was blessed in 1756. Here, grapes grow on walled terraces along the steep sides of the valley, still harvested by hand. Here, the Portuguese have been making wines for two thousand years. And here, the English have been producing ports for almost four hundred years, a fortified wine named for the nearby city of Porto (Oporto), where it must be aged in warehouses, or ‘lodges’ before being exported to Britain and beyond.

Over a hundred grape varieties have been identified in the Douro Valley for Port production, but only five now dominate the industry: Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cão, Tinta Roriz (or Tempranillo), Touriga Francesa, and Touriga Nacional. While a few winemakers have experimented with single variety Ports, it is, generally speaking, a blended, fortified wine. 

Although Port is now made in other countries around the world, including Australia, the name ‘Port’ legally belongs only to those fortified wines produced here in Portugal, specifically in the Douro Valley. Ruby, Tawny, Vintage and, more recently, White Port fill the local wine shops and bars, but in fact Port has gained far less traction with the Portuguese than one might expect. Most of it will be exported abroad. I have learned an awful lot about the process of Port making this week, but the details could distract us for days. Let’s just say, that the final result is very much appreciated by hundreds and hundreds of tourists to Porto. And me.

Until trucks took over the transport business, rabelos – curiously curved wooden boats shaped like the paper boats we used to make as kids – carried the wine barrels down the Douro from the wine estates – quintas – into Porto. On the south bank, at Vila Nova de Gaia, the barrels were unloaded and stored in lodges, to be blended and aged, away from the intense heat of the Douro Valley to the north. Now, the river – far safer to navigate since it was tamed by five huge dams constructed through the 1970s and 80s –  is used largely for pleasure boats. Last weekend we, too, joined the flotilla sailing upriver from the marina and beneath the six bridges that span the Douro, including the iconic Dom Luís I Bridge.


This beautiful, double-decker, arched iron bridge crosses the river between Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia. Over 170 metres wide and 145 metres high, the views, particularly from the upper level, are magnificent – as long as you don’t mind heights. Although it is often credited to Gustav Eiffel, his original plan for a single span bridge was apparently rejected. It was actually designed by one of Eiffel’s colleagues, German engineer François Gustave Théophile Seyrig, with whom he had co-founded Eiffel and Company. This company had run an earlier project in Porto to build the similar Maria Pia railway bridge, a mile upstream. In the 1880s, now working for a Belgian engineering firm, Seyrig won the competition to build the Dom Luís I Bridge, beating his former colleague to the punch.

But I digress. Back to the business of Port wine.

Last weekend, after our river trip, we were given a private tour of the British Factory House, an impressive 18th-century Neo-Palladian building on the north side of the river. This grand old granite house is a symbol of the relationship between the Portuguese and the British Port wine merchants, or factors. Hence Factory House. It was effectively a private gentleman’s club (now mixed membership) where foreign merchants could talk business and strengthen the Port Wine trade. To this day, it remains a gathering place for the families that still make Port in the Douro.

Our tour guides, Jamie Graham and his American brother-in-law, Ben, come from one of those families. The Grahams, English to the core, have been making Ports in Portugal for two hundred years. Although Jamie’s grandfather sold Graham’s Port business to Symington’s in 1970, his father John started a new family business in 1981 with his two brothers, naming the company after his wife, Caroline Churchill. Today, Churchill’s Estates make some very special vintage port from the Quinto do Rio in the Torro valley, as well as 10 and 20-year old Tawnies, and some delicious white port, which, by coincidence, we had already been drinking enthusiastically during our boat trip up the Douro earlier in the day.

Every Wednesday, members meet for lunch in the long, elegant dining room. Vintage ports are selected from the Factory’s own wine cellar, where some 15,000 bottles are stored. Apparently, a good vintage can be stored for at least fifty years, but winemakers aim for a hundred years, as a gift to the future Port drinkers of the world. In the entrance hall, wooden plaques list the names of all the Treasurers (Presidents of the club) since 1811. Many of those early British names are still associated with the great Port Houses, such as Cockburn, Forrester, Graham, Sandeman, Symington and Taylor.

Chatting with our tour guides about all things Portish, clutching a glass of Churchill’s golden, oaked Dry White Port, we wander down through the cellars and up the granite staircase to the entertaining rooms above. A large ballroom boasts at least half a dozen crystal chandeliers and a minstrel’s gallery. Fabulous old maps are on display in the official Map Room. Other walls are decorated with signed photographs of a plethora of royal couples who have been to visit, including, in 1982, the newly wed Charles and Diana. The library, several rooms filled with floor to ceiling bookshelves, is generously stocked with old, leather bound books that I long to explore. And on the top floor, to limit the damage of fire, is a vast Victorian kitchen, the highly polished, black cast-iron ranges once cooking to perfection those roast beasts to be fed to hungry members. Eventually emerging into the tasting room, we examine a copy of The Times, dated 100 years ago to the day, on display beside a table laden with glasses, Port bottles and handsome ships decanters.

Relatively small production allows the Graham’s to continue using traditional methods of production, even crushing the grapes manually – or should that be ‘footily?’ – which avoids bitterness from the pips. Using natural fermentation and minimal amounts of brandy provides wonderful structure and balance. So the Ports that are so generously poured into our glasses are a delight.

First, we get to try a Churchill’s 2007 Crusted Port. I have never heard of crusted post before, and if you haven’t either, it’s a high quality Ruby Port, younger and lighter than Vintage Port. Blended and aged in oak casks for three or four years, it is not filtered when bottled, leaving a sediment or ‘crust’ to form in the bottle, and should be decanted when poured.

Next up was a complex, richly flavoured 2003 Quinta da Gricha Vintage port made from Graham’s own grapes. It has a lush, fruity character, which promises to be even better in fifteen to twenty years. There are gasps of admiration around the table.

Until we get to the classic 1985 Vintage Port, a drink of spectacular depth and smoothness, from the early years of Churchill’s Estates. Deep purple with aromas of plum, prune and chocolate, it tastes of sweet dark jam – black cherry or plums? – and dried fruit, such as prunes and figs. Not to be rushed but sipped slowly and thoughtfully.

And finally, Ben pours us each a glass from the forty year old Vintage Port, a doyenne of luscious maturity. Its deep, glossy amber colour glows in the glass, and the nutty toffee flavours, beautifully blended, flow sweetly across the tongue. Rich and delicious, it makes a great dessert wine, and a perfect finish for our decadent afternoon.

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Designer Dining

On the flight to London, I watched a movie starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, and Ralph Fiennes reprising his role as Voldemort but in chef’s attire. Touted as a sinister dark comedy, The Menu explores the philosophies of top-tier chefs and challenges the pretensions of pompous diners. Chef Sowek (Fiennes) has a stygian and fuliginous plan to punish his superficial, self-absorbed, disdainful and decadent clients for years of gluttonous elitism, and for destroying his passion for cooking.

So, it felt somewhat ironic that we spent Saturday night at The Yeatman, in Porto, indulging in the most amazing haute cuisine; a degustation menu created by Chef Ricardo Costa as ‘a journey through Portuguese gastronomy and wine’.

Showcasing local produce and traditional flavours, and Costa’s superlative cooking skills of course, the menu was inevitably reliant on fish and seafood, each mouthful a fusion of intense flavour, glorious aromas and fascinating, often unexpected textures, ‘designed to create an immersive sensory experience, to awaken sensations, evoke nostalgia… and to provide lasting memories.’

It did.

The Yeatman, overlooking the Douro and the historic Port lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia, not only has a prime position on the Porto landscape, but also secretes an award-winning wine cellar beneath the hill. In the kitchen, those regional ingredients are whipped together with fervent imaginations, top notch cooking techniques and the magic of molecular gastronomy to redesign or reinterpret traditional Portuguese recipes. Such creative cooking earned the restaurant two Michelin stars in 2017.

As we settled into a private dining room, at a large, oval table set for six, we explored the menu eagerly. It wasn’t giving much away.

‘An Evolution of Aromas’ started with langoustine, chicken skin and nori and ended, eighteen courses later, with coffee and mignardises. Yes, I had to look up that word, too. It means ‘bite-sized desserts.’ Of course. It is a tasting menu after all.

The only problem with such an immense tasting menu is retaining the high level of concentration required to focus on each mouthful, while also maintaining one’s place in the dinner table conversation. I sadly lapsed on the latter, as I delved eagerly into each beautifully presented morsel. Everything becomes a character in the operatic theatre of such a dinner. Not just the ingredients themselves, but the cutlery, the crockery, the matching wines, the waiters, even the lighting. It is hard to keep any sense of self amongst such a star-studded cast. And it is hard to recall the taste of each ephemeral flavour as the next one steps into the spotlight to take its place.

So, I’m not going to describe every dish that passed before my eager eyes. Firstly, because I would soon run out of convincing adjectives. And secondly, despite having the menu by my side, covered in copious notes, I am struggling to recall everything that passed my lips, and could not do them justice if I could. I will say, quite simply, it was a truly awesome gastronomic experience.

I do recall the aroma of the smoked cauliflower being surprisingly strong, and the velvety texture of the custard-creamy sea urchin, whose subtle taste I have learned to appreciate but will never long for. And I remember the bizarre combination of tuna (in tiny cubes), pomegranate gel and foie gras in a most unexpected colour and form (rose pink ball bearings, or crumbs) that literally melted in the mouth, giving off an intensity of flavour that created an ecstatic response from my taste buds. Even the hot Douro bread, with its satisfyingly crunchy crust giving way to a satin-soft and spongy inner sanctum was a joy to chew upon, dipped in a pungent olive oil. (As a quick aside, apparently the pros taste olive oil like wine, swirling it in a glass to help release the aromas, then slurp it noisily into their mouths to emulsify the oil and spread it over their tastebuds, to bring every flavour to the surface. We didn’t do this, but I feel we got equal satisfaction by dipping into it heartily with that divine bread.) And there was that national tapa pastéis de bacalhau –somewhat heavy, dry, fried codfish balls – that had been reformatted into a light, soft, moist meringue, that slid down my throat almost as soon as it touched my tongue.

And, of course I noted every fork and each tactile, unusually shaped and often warmed bowl or plate that arrived at the table, even before my eyes and nose started dissecting the much heralded arrangement upon it. I do wish I had remembered to take a photo of everything – but multi-tasking has never been my strong suit, and anyway, I was too busy tasting!

Our waiter, Sara, did a marvellous job of introducing each dish, although her heavy Portuguese accent meant I often had to waylay her for a personalized repeat performance. Oh! to be able to speak Portuguese. To date, I have only mastered ‘Obrigada’, which is useful, but pretty feeble for a lengthy conversation. Nonetheless, Sara and I had lots of long chats on the way through the menu, to clarify as many details as possible. It became a master class in Portuguese flavours and Asian fusion, and I loved every moment. But I do regret the ephemeral nature of any meal, that leaves me struggling to recreate more than a tiny impression of each dish.

Chef Sowek (aka Lord Voldemort) in the movie was very put out when a client who had come often to his restaurant could not recall a single dish he had eaten there over the years. To be fair, it is actually hard to do, even when one thinks one is utterly focussed. It is the nature of the beast. But I think I will remember, forever, the surprised delight of those soft pink foie gras crumbs. And there were so many of these extraordinary experiences during the meal – those moments when what my eyes looked upon did not equate to the texture and taste on my tongue. It was pure magic.

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A Final Glimpse of Tasmania, Past, Present and Bucolic

Runnymede House, New Town, Hobart

Scrimshaw.’ My favourite new word for the week.

What is scrimshaw? A character from Harry Potter perhaps? No, not quite. That was Rufus Scrimgeour, I believe. Scrimshaw is, in fact, the art of engraving images on objects made from whale bone, baleen, or the tusks of walrus – once considered waste products of the nineteenth-century whaling trade. Objects such as walking canes, knife handles, pill boxes, or simply ornaments. The scrimshander (one who makes scrimshaw) would use pumice to smooth the surface and a small knife or a sailmaker’s needle to etch in a design. Ink or lamp black was then rubbed into the image to make it stand out. Such artistic endeavour was apparently a popular pastime for bored mariners working on whaling ships. Their artistic endeavours could then be kept as souvenirs, or given as gifts, or even traded.

I discovered this lovely word at a National Trust property in Hobart. Once the home of a Tasmanian whaler, Captain Charles Bayley, who carved several pieces of scrimshaw himself – now on display at the property – Runnymede is a gracious sandstone house in New Town. On the day we visit, our guide, Christine, is full of detailed information about the house, its history and the families that have lived here.

It was originally built in 1836 for Robert Pitcairn, a Scottish lawyer and free settler, renowned for campaigning against convict transportation to Tasmania. Two miles beyond the somewhat seedy, smoky settlement at Hobart Town, Pitcairn hoped to create a safe country retreat for his family, where his young daughter could recover from typhoid. He called his new home ‘Cairn Lodge.’

In 1850, Pitcairn sold the house to Francis Russell Nixon, the first Church of England Bishop of Tasmania, who arrived in the colony in 1843 with fifty pieces of luggage – including an organ – his large family, and a governess. Bishop Nixon renamed the house Bishopstowe and added a substantial music room. In 1863, after travelling widely throughout his extensive diocese, creating a cathedral, establishing three schools and a family of eleven children, the Bishop travelled back to England in poor health, never to return.
Bishopstowe was then sold on to our artistic whaling captain in 1864, who renamed it Runnymede, after his whaling vessel. Dying childless, he left the house to his brother and business partner, James. Runnymede was to be the Bayley family home for almost a century, until the last remaining daughter of the family passed it to the National Trust in 1963.

The house stands on five acres of land that originally descended down to the Derwent River, in a cove deep enough for Captain Bayley to park his whaling ship. The cove has since been reclaimed and built upon, but the five acre garden remains, and has obviously been well maintained by its various owners. Today, it is full of large and aged fruit trees, hedgerows, heritage roses and a plethora of red and white geraniums, to match the Runnymede‘s ensign.

Inside, each room depicts a different era of the house’s history. In the dining room, a curious, mahogany dining table, circular but extendable, has centre stage. And the elegant wallpaper is an accurate reproduction of the original, designed with the help of notes from the Bishop’s lady, Anna Maria Nixon. Hidden on the inside of a cupboard door, pencil marks delineate the heights of all the children who have lived in the house.

A small room near the back of the house – probably a housekeeper’s sitting room – has been decorated with a variety of craftwork that the ladies of the house may have indulged in. Sewing was a marker of genteel femininity and accomplishment for the middle class lady who did not ‘need’ to sew, but could direct her artistic urges into pretty and decorative, often sentimental art with which to decorate the home. On display is a beautifully handstitched crazy patchwork quilt, framed pictures done in cross stitch, and the tools for lacemaking. Known as ‘fancy work’, such household crafts played an important role in the lives of many middle class women, as an acceptable means of self-expression and a worthwhile social activity.

Of course, my favourite room is the kitchen. Once separate from the main house, in case of fire, but now connected, its grey flagstone floors are cool and uneven. The dairy, unlike its counterparts in the grander homes of the Mother Country, has no marble surface on which to make butter and cheese, but otherwise has all the tools of the trade. Although, to my surprise, it backs onto the fireplace that houses the cast iron range. Surely not the coolest spot in the world for making butter?

There is a great collection of art work at Runnymede, much of it down by past inhabitants, and some beautiful Huon pine furniture. Oregon pine floors. Commodes galore. An elegant library. There is a wealth of historic detail in the furnishings and furbelows of this elegant homestead.

* * *
From the sublime to the ridiculous, we left New Town and headed north along the Derwent River, to visit MONA, the Museum of Old & New Art. We first heard about MONA just after it opened, as the home for ‘Cloaca,’ that bizarre construction otherwise known as the poo machine. It was designed by Belgian artist Wim Devoye, whose neo-conceptual, often somewhat shocking artwork, we had come across in Luxembourg, where the Mudam ( The Contemporary Art Museum of Luxembourg) had its own Cloaca on display.

Now a major Tasmanian tourist attraction, MONA is the creation of millionaire art collector and professional gambler, David Walsh. Opened in 2011, I had been looking forward to visiting this iconic gallery for years. But I have to say, this cultural pygmy was seriously underwhelmed.

The brochure struggles to define this extraordinary space, but the one that struck home with me: ‘not sure about the art but the architecture is amazing.’ I agree on both counts. An app is available to guide you through the galleries, and provide the titles of the artwork, without ever trying to define or describe what each piece is actually about – and generally, they were beyond my wildest imagination, subversive and dark, full of sex, death and despair. The Gallery itself is also dark. Sunk into the rock of the Berriedale Peninsula, a network of industrial walkways and circular staircases link the various galleries. Darkness and dim lighting is the overarching impression, which, for me and several others, quickly became claustrophobic. A spiral staircase drifts down to the lowest level, and from there, you work your way up, through a maze of dimly lit rooms and broad corridors.

Feeling hemmed in, I left the One & Only behind quite promptly, and found my way to the surface at record speed, out on the plaza overlooking the Derwent and the hills beyond. More stairs led up to a selection of dining outlets serve food, coffee, Tasmanian wines and craft beers, overlooking an outdoor stage surrounded by an eclectic collection of seating, from giant beanbags to tree trunk stools.

Is it simply an expensive and elaborate marketing stunt? I guess that depends on your taste and perspective. Our own South Australian marketing stunt, the blue cube at d’Arry’s in McLaren Vale, certainly pales by comparison. And the views alone make it worth a visit. Whether the $35 entrance fee to the Art Gallery is justified, I will leave you to decide.

* * *
Once upon a time, back in the 1970s, I went to Wales with my parents and siblings, aboard our campervan Bella Bus, to stay with some distant cousins on the south coast. Lawrenny is a tiny community, upstream from Milford Haven, within the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. It was established centuries ago, and maintained by fishing, boat building and as a staging point for shipping limestone from quarries further inland. One of its lesser known sons of dubious reputation, made his way to Tasmania in the early 19th century. In 1803, Lieutenant Edward Lord joined Lieutenant-Colonel David Collins to sail to Port Phillip. A year later, he was part of the first contingent to sail to Van Diemen’s Land to establish a settlement on the Derwent. Some years later, Lord, soon to be cattle baron, acquired several thousand acres in the Central Highlands, and named the estate after his family’s estate in Wales. Over the next hundred and twenty odd years, Lawrenny changed hands several times. Eventually, at the end of WW II, it was sold to the government and subdivided into 200 acre dairy farms as part of the soldier settlement scheme.

These days, the house and some 400 surrounding acres, are owned by two former Queenslanders, Ross & Mary Mace, who came in search of a sea change back in 1991, and discovered the remains of this beautiful property on the upper reaches of the Derwent. Over the years, they have restored the homestead, an elegant two storey Victorian wedding cake of a house, and bred Black Angus beef cattle. And they now produce a collection of spirits made from the crystal clear waters of the Derwent River: whisky, vodka and gin. Having initially caught my eye with its link to childhood memories of Pembrokeshire, what further temptation did I need? A visit was slotted into the agenda for our final lap of Tasmania. We packed up our bags and boxes in Hobart and eagerly headed north.

There are about seventy gin distilleries in Tasmania these days, apparently, and I’m sure many are excellent. However, the setting for this particular distillery is something special. We found the farm on the outskirts of Ouse, and followed the signs down the long avenue, past the glorious two-storey homestead with its wrought iron balcony railings, and drew up beside the cellar door, housed within a beautifully restored, century old barn made from roughly hewn Tasmanian Oak. Wandering in, we admired the shiny copper stills, and rows of old oak barrels in the adjoining barn. I ambled across to the tasting bar as the One & Only explored the buildings. As our hostess introduced me to an array of pretty bottles, their labels bearing an image of the Victorian homestead, we chatted about the property’s history and it’s rebirth as a distillery. Lawrenny Estate Distilling is apparently one of only a handful that produce ‘paddock to bottle’ single malt whiskies, growing the barley they use to produce it. Once harvested, the barley is mashed, fermented and distilled in the copper stills that sit ponderously around us.

Sadly, I have never learned to enjoy whisky. The One & Only loves it, but he had a long drive ahead of him that afternoon, so I got to dip into the Lawrenny gins on my own. The language of gin is similar to that of wine, but with different flavour profiles. The botanicals used are generally taken from Lawrenny’s own orchard and gardens, and the descriptions I was given were full of flowers and fruit, herbs and spices: positively poetic.

After I had tiptoed my way through an array of gins, a vodka and an unusual cold brew coffee liqueur, I eventually succumbed to buying a bottle of their Settler’s Gin, and much to my surprise, their St Clair Vodka. To quote their website:

The [navy strength] 1818 Settlers Gin is a tribute to those that withstood adversity — those with strength, persistence, and full of character. Bold juniper comes through both on the nose and the palate, as herbal notes from the property’s own rosemary intertwine with the freshness of caraway. All bolstered by the warming spice of pimento berry and cassia bark. The 1818 Settlers has a mild smokiness, not usually associated with gin, from a careful blend of the intense botanical brown cardamom that graces the finish, without dominating the dried fruit notes below.

See what I mean about poetry? And how about this for a view?

The Vodka sounded – and tasted – equally lyrical.

The crystal waters of Lake Saint Clair are some of the world’s most pure. Swept by wild Antarctic winds, these pristine waters meld gently into the River Derwent, and down through Lawrenny Estate. Saint Clair Vodka incorporates these pristine waters, truly encompassing the purity of the region and delivering a crisp and clean palate. With a very careful selection of botanicals, such as rose buds found in the gardens, herbaceous thyme and classic lemon zest, we ensure that the signature style of Lawrenny is found in each glass.

Honestly, who could resist? After a brief spending spree, we pulled out our picnic lunch and sat in the shade of a bouquet of deciduous British trees – a perfect little arboretum – on the lawn in front of the barns. Behind us, the broad, shallow Derwent ran blithely by, heading towards – or probably away from – the smoky grey hills in the distance. The sun shone, the birds chirped. Feeling mellow, serene and a little sleepy, we reluctantly clambered into the car and headed back to the road. It had been a blissful interlude.

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The Joy of Cheese

“Dessert without cheese is like a beauty with only one eye” ~ Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

When we first visited Tasmania, back in the late eighties, it was known as a destination for serious hikers, those keen to explore the wilderness and test their mettle by trekking over mountains and through marshes, in extremely variable weather. These days, this far-flung island state has become a destination for the Foodies of the world. So, it is probably about time I stopped dwelling on Tasmania’s past and looked to its present and future…

First, have you ever heard of Bruny Island? Neither had I, to be honest, until I discovered that a family friend had moved there to make cheese, where he was using the traditional techniques that he had learned in Europe. About ten years ago, nosing through an elegant little cheese shop, tucked away in the basement of the old GPO in Martin Place, Sydney, I came across The Bastard, a cheese of ‘slightly dubious parentage’ that had been made from a mixture of cows’ and sheep’s milk. And lo, it had been made by that same family friend. Since then, Nick Haddow has expanded his cheese business to include beer, wine and a herd of dairy cows to provide milk for the cheese making.

Have I ever ‘fessed up’ about how much I love eating cheese; that I am, in fact, a cheese fetishist (Fetish: an object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion; a fixation); that a fridge without cheese in it might as well be empty? Well, that’s me. Now that’s off my chest, you will perhaps understand why Bruny Island was number one on my list of places to visit in Tasmania this summer. As it turns out that Nick also has a bit of an obsession about cheese – only he doesn’t only love eating it, he makes it, too.

Truganini Lookout on The Neck

Bruny island is located off the southeast coast of Tasmania, the ferry just half an hour from Hobart. It has a miniscule population of about 600 people, although it is almost seventy kilometres from top to toe. Bruny Island actually comes in two parts – North and South Bruny – separated by a long, narrow spit of sand dune and beach – the Neck. Here, thousands of mutton birds or shearwaters breed in burrows among the dunes, before flying 64,000 kilometres back across the Pacific ocean to the Bering Sea. Once a seasonal delicacy, these birds are now jealously guarded from over-hunting, but in the past few years, Bruny Island has become famous for the excellence of other more available local produce: fresh oysters, artisan cheese, chocolate, honey, beer and whiskey.

At nine o’clock one wet Wednesday morning, the car ferry chugged across D’Entrecasteaux Channel, the rain lashing on the windscreen, the coastline a blur. Luckily, by the time we reached the Bruny Island Cheese Company, the clouds had begun to recede. We booked a cheese tasting, and waited eagerly, armed with a warming coffee and homemade biscuits, as we explored the shop, full of locally made condiments and cookbooks. I couldn’t resist a jar of tomato kasundi relish, rich, aromatic and spicy, and of Indian origin. Designed ‘to complement your food rather than dominate it,’ it is absolutely divine, and I know I will be using it on everything.

A couple of days later, we caught up with Nick for lunch on Salamanca Place, in Hobart. Unfortunately, our time together was all too short, and exchanging decades of family news left us little time to talk cheese. Luckily, Jess had filled us in on the background to the Bruny Island Cheese Company and its various products. As Nick has become something of a media personality since we last met up, you, too, can find out all about his amazing, and exhaustingly busy life both online and on TV. In brief, he has been part of Slow Food Australia, sold cheese in Melbourne, judged cheese competitions, written about cheese, and joined his epicurean mate, Matthew Evans on the SBS series Gourmet Farmer, not to mention winning an armful of awards. And that’s on a quiet day!

Nick and his wife, Leonie, turned up in Tasmania with a Kombi and a surfboard way back in 2001. Eventually, they found themselves a few acres on Bruny and settled in to make cheese the old fashioned way. Nick is a boutique cheesemaker, handcrafting his cheeses in relatively small numbers, His range of artisan cheeses is also small and select, each style distinctly different. The ‘limited edition’ mentality reigns here on Bruny Island.  Mass production? Begone. And twenty years down the track, its not just about cheese. Over the years, Nick has turned his hand to farming, brewing, baking and cheesemaking, using traditional techniques all the way.

Poster above the cheese counter

As we make ourselves comfortable on the rustic veranda at the Bruny Island Cheese Co., Jess brings us four cheeses to taste, served up with a warm baguette, fresh from the wood oven. While there is no sign of my old favourite, The Bastard, it is nonetheless a great selection, paired with either a hand crafted beer or a glass of wine, whatever we prefer.

The cheese list is also seasonal, Jess explains. Everything is about careful attention to detail, or ‘quality over quantity,’ as the saying goes. And the milk, once sourced from local farmers for thoroughly Tasmanian cheeses, is now delivered by Nick’s own herd of twenty heritage cows in Glen Huon, where even the grass is heritage. According to the website, the farm is a showcase of ethical, sustainable, small-scale, organic dairy farming that is all about maximising animal welfare and milk quality.’ Nick’s ‘ladies’ come from three unusual breeds that have gone out of favour with those who are mass-producing cheese: the Brown Swiss, the Australian shorthorn and the Normande. All three provide particularly rich, creamy milk. In limited amounts. Apparently they even take holidays!

The Ladies

Most notably, Nick plagued the Australian government to provide him with a special licence to create cheese made from unpasteurized or ‘raw’ milk, which he achieved in 2009. Pasteurization boils the milk to 72 degrees to kill off any bacteria. Unpasteurized milk is heated only to 35 degrees. In Australia, this process is heavily regulated and raw milk has been widely condemned as unsafe. Pasteurisation of milk does prevent diseases – those notoriously nasty ones like tuberculosis, diphtheria, and scarlet fever – but it also destroys some of the good bacteria we need in our bodies, and has a tendency to reduce the flavour profile of the cheese. Nick has written a book, Milk Made, in which he discusses the pros and cons of pasteurization. As I failed year 10 chemistry, much of the scientific detail went over my head, but the message was clear. Raw milk from healthy animals eating healthy grass is perfectly safe. And it will make your cheese much tastier.

So, we try one of his unpasteurized cheeses, and it is delicious. Back in 2009, Raw Milk C2 was the first raw milk cheese in Australia. Imitating a type that has been made in the mountains of France and northern Italy for generations, this curd cheese ages well, we are told, developing a sweet aroma and a mildly nutty flavour.

‘Tom’ is a hard cheese with an edible rind, related to the Tomme cheeses from the mountainous Savoie region of France. It is very easy to nibble on. Traditionally made with sheep’s milk, Nick uses cows’ milk instead. Anyone got a pear?

The ‘1792’ is one of the company’s signature cheeses. Commemorating the year that the French landed in Tasmania, this cheese is washed in brine twice a day, for two weeks, then aged on Huon Pine. Pungent and wonderfully creamy, if you like your cheese to smell like malodorous feet, as I do, you will love this one.

And finally, O.D.O, which stands for one day old. This simple curd cheese is drained overnight, lightly salted and then marinated in olive oil that has been flavoured with garlic, chilli, black pepper and chives. I could happily eat it with a spoon, but apparently it is also ‘perfect on an antipasto plate, stirred through hot pasta or crumbled over grilled vegetables.’ I seem to remember tasting something similar on a goat farm in the Philippines, topped with grilled peppers… yum.

Cheese, cheese and more cheese!

As we are heading home tomorrow, driving north beneath the summer sun, we decide it might be wiser not to fill the car with smelly cheese. Instead, we will wait till we got home, then sign up to Nick’s cheese club for a regular delivery. A box of joy filled with cheeses and other delights, such as condiments, baked goods from the wood fired oven, and perhaps a craft beer or two. Who knew such a thing was possible? My fridge will never be bare again….

Brand Tasmania began in 2018 with a mission ‘to inspire and encourage Tasmanians, and those who want to be Tasmanian, to quietly pursue the extraordinary.’ As Chairman of the Board, Nick Haddow practices exactly what he preaches, in the company of his inspiring team of cheesemakers, bakers, brewers and farmers. As the late, great Anthony Bourdain once said, “You have to be a romantic to invest yourself, your money, and your time in cheese.” So, let’s raise a glass to the romantic cheesemakers of the world. They certainly have this cheese lover’s everlasting devotion.

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‘A Pack of Thieves’

Port Arthur. Today, it is an hour and a half’s drive from the pretty, waterside city of Hobart. Two hundred years ago, it was a day’s sailing from the decidedly seedy and often violent waterfront of Hobart Town, which had already developed a bad reputation for bawdy behaviour and violence, as visiting sailors and ex-convicts gravitated to the pubs, brothels, and gambling houses for cards and cock fighting.

These days, Port Arthur is an attractive, peaceful outdoor museum. Fifty acres of lawn and pretty gardens, brick and weatherboard houses, the remains of a hospital, a garrison, a lunatic asylum, a church. Fire has damaged many of the original buildings, but their presence can still be felt, in the arched doorways and decorative stone carvings of the church, in the bars on the empty windows of the penitentiary, in the watch tower below the ruins of the garrison. For back then, Port Arthur was a prison for hardened criminals and repeat offenders.

The penal settlement at Port Arthur was established in 1830 by the Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, later to be known as Tasmania. For almost half a century, thousands passed through its gates – and not only convicts, but the soldiers sent to guard them, priests to pray for them and a handful of civilians: doctors, accountants, teachers and their families.

St David’s Church

On a sunny day, the plethora of ghostly inhabitants at Port Arthur are shadowy, invisible to the naked eye. Only the scattered information plaques remind us that here dwelt real people, individuals with their own stories to tell, not merely historical profiles or a nameless hoard of mad and dangerous criminals. Many of these men were unemployed veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, or unwitting victims of Britain’s industrial revolution. Forced to relocate from tenant farms to smog-ridden and stinking city slums, many found only unemployment and starvation. Stealing became a means of survival in a harsh environment, as any reader of Charles Dickens will be aware. Around half of those who ended up in Van Diemen’s Land already had a trade or skill useful to the new colony, and were given the opportunity to work off their sentences in meaningful employment, and not necessarily behind bars. Others were forced onto chain gangs; slave labour sent out to build the foundations of our ‘new’ world, in the form of roads and bridges, and even their own prison buildings.

Historians have worked to retrieve some of these individual stories. ‘Pack of Thieves?’ tells the tales of fifty convicts sent out to Port Arthur in the 1830s, in an attempt to differentiate a small, random selection of men and boys from the morass of disease-ridden, sullen and vicious prisoners, herded into dank sailing ships and deported to the ends of the earth for the terms of their natural lives. Some got a second chance, others ended their days covered in welts inflicted by the cat-o-nine-tails, or mentally deranged by their experiences of isolation and exile.

By 1840, Port Arthur was home to around 2000 people: convicts, soldiers and civilians. For almost half a century this multifarious community of misplaced Britons dwelt at the end of the earth. The prison was finally closed in 1877, but it has been a site of historic interest since 1916 and was listed as a World Heritage Site in 2010.  

The Commandant’s House

Today, it is a fascinating place to spend a day or two, learning about Australia’s convict past, exploring the houses of the resident civilians, and imagining the isolation of a penal colony more than thirteen thousand nautical miles from home. Ensconced in my comfortable life, picnicking by the quay, a stone’s throw from a cafeteria and a gift shop, it is almost impossible to put myself in the shoes of Benjamin Stanton who, only fifteen, and undoubtedly cold, stole a coat. Or John Jones, convicted to transportation for life for stealing a shirt, previously imprisoned for vagrancy. Foul language and several escape attempts led to months in chains and fifty lashes. It seems that the myth of exile for stealing a loaf of bread is in fact only a hair’s breadth from the truth. Many of these convict tales speak of petty theft, and an underlying urgency to survive.

Perhaps easier for me to envision, is the isolation thrust upon the women in the colony who accompanied their husbands to this far flung island. Innocent of any crime, they had nonetheless been torn from their comfortable lives and families in Britain, and flung upon a largely male community, with its garrison full of soldiers and its prison full of convicted felons. Any staff they employed were likely also to be criminals; women brought from the ‘female factory’ in Hobart. One governess was reported to be drunk and disorderly, and was promptly dismissed. But who could blame her, stuck in no man’s land, neither gentry nor convict? She must have been as lonely as hell, her social isolation almost as complete as those men removed to the ‘Separate Prison’. This new model of psychological torture for recalcitrant prisoners forced them to live in tiny cells, silent and nameless, reduced to a mere number on a door, their isolation completed by a mask when they emerged for a daily, solitary, hour of fresh air. Here, they were supposed to contemplate their crimes for 23 hours a day, although they were also provided with tasks such as sail-making or shoemaking. Meanwhile, the rest of the inmates were housed in the penitentiary, a converted flour mill that accommodated about five hundred men in cells or dormitories.

Across the cricket pitch from the garrison and the penitentiary is a small village, within walking distance to the Church. Attending services on Sundays was compulsory, presumably for the civilians as well as their convict neighbours. Some of these houses have been furnished in the style of the era, and it is a fascinating trip through time to find yourself in the accountant’s kitchen listening to ‘Dad & Dave’ on the radio.

After our picnic lunch, a catamaran takes us out into the bay to see the Isle of the Dead, a rocky outcrop that became the burial place for more than 1000 Port Arthur residents. Yet, even in death there is a hierarchy. While free men, women and children lie on the higher side of this island graveyard, often with elaborate headstones, the convict dead were planted at the bottom of the slope, in unmarked graves.

Opposite the cemetery, is The Point Puer Boys’ Prison, the first separate boys’ prison in the British Empire, renowned for its stern discipline and harsh punishment. Three thousand boys were imprisoned here between 1834 and 1849, some as young as nine years old. For it seems that under English common law, the minimum age of criminal responsibility was only seven years old. Most of these children were put to work cutting the stone to build the church and houses across the bay at the main penal settlement.

Steve Harris has written a book about the transportation of these boys; the juvenile male prisoners shipped to Australia ‘on an industrial scale’ and brutally treated. The Lost Boys of Mr Dickens is a confronting read, even when only flicking through it, but it really brings the horrors of this now peaceful and beautiful setting to life.

*Thanks again to the One & Only for his superior photography.

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Wildlife Among the Gumtrees

Give me a home among the gumtrees, with lots of plum trees, a sheep or two, a kangaroo, a  clothesline out the back, verandah out the front, and an old rocking chair’  – John Williamson

Craggy Peaks. An old golf course at the foot of Ben Lomond that has been reconditioned as a holiday camp, containing fifteen self-contained cabins nestled among the trees, overlooking Mistletoe Creek. No plums, sheep or rocking chairs, unfortunately, but gallons of gumtrees and a plethora of native Australian animals.

We have taken a somewhat circuitous route to get here, around the rim of the Ben Lomond National Park, and along miles of dirt tracks, but you can always choose the rather smoother route on bitumen roads through farmland, wooded hills and the old mining town of Rossarden that ensure an easy and attractive ninety minute drive from Launceston.

The trees are full of birds – kookaburras, a family of tawny frogmouth, and many others that remain out of sight, but make lots of noise – and the surrounding woods are alive with wallabies, wombats and quolls. And, strangely, deer, that were introduced into the area, wander freely through the nearby town of Rossarden, where they are much loved and protected. The gushing, rushing creek hurtles down the hill and across the middle of the property. The wind soughs through the trees like the Whispering Woods of Enid Blyton’s imagination. Frogs chortle around the rim of the dam, invisible among the bulrushes. The craggy outline of Ben Lomond looms above us, cast in shadows as we pour our first G&T and relax on the deck. And we are soothed to sleep by the sound of rain on the tin roof.

We have been advised to bring everything we needed in the way of food and drink, as the nearest supermarket is in Campbelltown, 60kms away. But once we were settled, there seemed little need to wander so far. Strenuous hikes up Stacks Bluff or gentle strolls through the bush, sunny days and cool nights, fresh air, space and the scent of eucalyptus… what more could a girl want? It is blissfully relaxing and a welcome escape from tv and the internet, phones and newspapers, with the added joy of spotting the local wildlife.

One night, we leave some ham on the deck and watch with fascination as two quolls pop in for a bite to eat. The quolls are smaller than I had imagined. Knowing them to be carnivorous, I have expected something the size of a fox, but these are only the size of small cats.

The quoll – once known as the tiger cat despite the fact that it is spotted, not striped and not much like a cat at all, apart from its bushy tail – is nocturnal, and will build itself a nest underground, in a crevice in the rock, or under a fallen log. Some can also climb trees. Its soft, thick fur comes in a range of colours from strawberry blond to dark chocolate brown, spotted with neat white dots. Bush Heritage Australia explains that quolls have up to eight pups per litter, which spend the first weeks of their lives in a pouch. They have a limited life span in the wild – even without our help – of two to four years.

Once prolific across the continent of Australia, new Australians have unfortunately had a huge impact on quoll populations. Cars, trapping and loss of habitat, not to mention species we have carelessly introduced, have wiped out quoll populations everywhere. Apparently cane toads have decimated the Northern quoll population, and the Eastern quoll is now extinct on mainland Australia, thanks to feral cats and foxes. It is surviving in Tasmania by the skin of its sharp, pointy teeth. It uses those same teeth to keep down the population of rabbits, mice and rats, and also likes to munch on spiders, cockroaches and grasshoppers. As this helps to maintain a natural balance in the ecosystem, there is good reason to ensure that we don’t eliminate them entirely. Many wildlife charities are working hard to preserve the ones we have left and boost their numbers.

Then there is the possum, also a marsupial, also nocturnal. In the wild, he can be appealingly cheeky – unless protecting young – but possums are generally unpopular in towns, and considered a pest for their tendency to get into one’s roof space and demolish your fruit trees. Actually, I find them appealing, even in suburbia. They have big, dark eyes and soft, woolly fur, and an ability to hold onto things with an almost human grip. The common brushtail possums eat flowers, fruits and seeds, and occasionally grubs, birds eggs and even fledglings. They spend most of their time in trees – if they are not clattering about on your roof!  Supposedly somewhat solitary, they nonetheless communicate in a very noisy fashion,  using hisses and grunts, alarming screeches, chattering, and deep, guttural coughs. In. the wild, minus a busy road, they can live up to thirteen years

A couple leap onto our deck one night, with heavy thumps, just as we are falling asleep. Startled to see us peering through the window, they quickly retreat, but the following night, a braver – and larger – male arrives, who vacuums up all the ham we have left out with the alacrity of a drug addict snorting cocaine. Before long, he has worked his way along the deck to the sliding door, and is peering through the glass, obviously keen for more. The One & Only carves up an apple, offering him a piece at a time, which he grabs firmly with both hands. Apparently, this was insufficient to quell a rumbling stomach, and our uninvited guest clambers onto the railing, to peer in through the door that we have left open just a crack. We know if we invite him in, he’ll soon be sitting at the table, demanding dessert. So we don’t.

Down by the creek, wallabies drop by at twilight, knowing the staff are happy to provide sundowner nibbles. Deborah, who has worked here for a couple of years, tells us there are five friendly wombats who occasionally waddle through the camp to say hello, but sadly, we don’t get to meet them this time. Pademelons and potoroos are also abundant, but I have yet to learn the difference. So, for now, they are all wallabies!

While it rains every night in this temperate forest, the days are glorious: clear and sunny and warm, and the clouds are cotton puffs of lightness. Yet, in winter, the pond freezes over, the grass glistens with frost, and there is snow on Ben Lomond, which brings cross-country skiers and toboggans to the national park. I am keen to come back in winter – armed with Ugg boots and thermal underwear, and tyre chains of course. Oh, to see a wallaby in the snow!

*With thanks to the One & Only for his lovely photos.

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Return to Tasmania

This summer, we finally realized a dream of long-standing: to return to Tasmania. You may remember that I wrote about my first visit in the late 1980s, when the One & Only took me on a trek to Frenchman’s Cap? Thirty five years on, and I have refused point-blank to lug a rucksack through the wilderness and live off Deb and freeze-dried meat for days on end. Instead, we are having a civilized road trip, exploring the highways and byways of this remote island state of Australia.

According to my sources, over 20% of Tasmania is protected by UNESCO as a Wilderness World Heritage Area and just over 40% of the entire island is designated as a national park or reserve. A good portion of the remainder is farmland. The scenery, almost everywhere, is breath-taking.

Tasmania’s economy once depended largely on mining, food production, fish and forestry, but in recent years – COVID years aside – tourism has become its backbone. (Thus, the huge carpark at Cradle Mountain to accommodate the ever-increasing influx of visitors.) Sadly, tourism may be good for the economy, but it is, without doubt, a disaster for the native wildlife. Currently, the number of resident Tasmanians is around 550,000. Tourists can add more than double that number to the population every year. That’s not to say that tourists are responsible for all the deaths, but the extra cars on the road obviously don’t help. One report I read suggested that an average of 32 animals die every hour on Tasmanian roads – and it is estimated the native animal roadkill toll reaches at least 500,000 annually. And that’s just the ones that get counted.

The carnage on the country roads quickly becomes distressing, as we pass the corpses of potoroos and possums, quokkas and quolls, wallabies and the occasional wombat. Small, fluffy brown mounds on the side of the road, or dead centre (pun intended), are carrion for either crows or the rare and carnivorous Tasmanian Devil, foraging for dinner. I pray that each battered body died quickly and didn’t suffer.
The Tasmanian Conservation Trust, among others, works to preserve and protect the state’s flora, fauna and cultural heritage. The website for Wildlife matters provides a few tips on how Tasmanians and tourists here can help reduce these deaths:

Drive more slowly at night, particularly at dusk and dawn. These are the times when animals are most active.
• Always expect that there could be an animal just out of sight. Many animals are killed on road bends, rises or dips.
• Be alert. Watch for shadows and movement at the road edge.
• If you see one animal or bird crossing the road, expect others to be following.
• Never assume an animal or bird will move before you hit them. Modern cars are very quiet.
• You shouldn’t swerve suddenly as it is dangerous: just slow down enough to give the bird or animal time to escape. Or toot your horn.
• Be aware that in spring and summer reptiles appear on the roads so look closely at anything on the road that at first glance appears to be a stick.
• If you do hit something, stop to check if it is still alive and call a rescue service for advice.

So, we are driving very cautiously, And, despite the sadness of so much death and destruction, the scenery is awesome. Inland, we discover an almost Scottish landscape of rocky riverbeds and mountain tarns, boggy moorland and craggy hills, with gum trees and marsupials thrown into the mix to differentiate Tassie from its northern hemisphere cousin.

And we soon spot enough living wildlife to give us a buzz: five echidnas in one afternoon, strolling along the verge, and one in the garden where we are staying, known to our host as ‘Ed’. Wallabies, black cockatoos, a snake, a couple of hawks hover near the road. But could someone please teach them not to play in the traffic? Even the increasingly rare Tasmanian Devil often loses the fight against the armoured invaders (cars, trucks, utes, buses), as he heads for these ‘rivers of death’ to dine on the proliferation of roadkill. Reptiles especially like the roads because they are warm. And roads often cut across the territories of native animals such as wallabies and pademelons, who try to cross to the other side, unaware of the danger. High banks or thick undergrowth along narrow country lanes can also prevent a quick escape, as cars bear down upon them with blinding headlights.

The coast road, too, is strewn with small bodies. Yet, lifting my eyes from the deadly asphalt, the view is glorious. Bite-sized bays are strewn with or interlocking, dark grey, hexagonal basalt columns that look like man-made forms of vulcanized tyres, miniature versions of The Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. We found some of these up in the hills too, paving the way for a waterfall above Burnie. The amount of water, in rivers, creeks, tarns, dams and reservoirs, is astounding to this South Australian woman.

Many of these waterways also create treasures below the ground, in the form of a stunning series of caves. Nearby, Gunns Plains has an incredible number of them, but only one that is open to the general public. This limestone tunnel was formed by an underground river, the limestone dripping through to create an astounding collection of stalactites, stalagmites, helictites and flowstone. This cave was accidentally discovered by a local farmer while out possum hunting. Early visitors had to descend down a rope, through a hole in the ground, until a staircase was finally constructed. For two months last year, floodwaters filled these caverns, after which all the electricity boxes needed replacing. Currently, the accessible path is only 275m long, but apparently a further kilometre of caverns has been mapped.

In a group of ten, we descend the steep concrete staircase into the bowels of the hill. Known as an ‘adventure cave’, the steps and pathways are uneven, damp and sometimes slippery. Often, we need to duck, or even bend double to squeeze through the narrow gaps between rocks and formations into subsequent caves. Trish explains that ‘her’ cave is home to a variety of animals. Fortunately, it is too cold for bats, who would inevitably draw the snakes if they were to roost here, but fish, eels and freshwater crayfish have all found their way in, and recently, a platypus has nested here to raise her puggles. Isn’t that the best word for a baby platypus? (And also used for a baby echidna.) Glow-worms sparkle on the roof – a much prettier name than the gnat larva they actually are, as bioluminescence is a more attractive name for the blue-green light they emit from their luminous bottoms. Long strings of saliva hang from the ceiling of the cave twinkle like fairy lights in the torchlight. These are created by our predatory little glow worms, who use their light to lure insects into the long strands of stickiness they have created. Talk about beauty being skin deep.

Above the ground, Tasmania abounds with names that would be familiar to any visiting Brits: the Tamar Valley and Launceston (Cornwall), Ulverstone (from Ulverston in Cumbria), the English counties of Somerset and Hampshire, Devonport (near Plymouth on the south coast) and Sheffield (from the midlands of England). There’s even a Mersey River. Scotland rates a mention too, with Leith also sitting beside the Forth River. Abel Tasman, the Dutch explorer and the first European to come across this island, officially named it Van Diemen’s land, to honour a superior. Later, it would become better known as Tasmania, for Tasman himself, in an attempt to detach it from its past: an horrifically infamous penal settlement and the European destruction of the island’s aboriginal tribes.

We have spent gentle days weaving up and down winding lanes, through farmland and forests, along deep gorges cluttered with blue gums soaring towards the sky. The memories of the past may overshadow the present, but it is easy to forestall those historical miseries as we zip along the ravishing coast road between Ullverstone and Stanley, on the lookout for lighthouses and penguins.

Despite Antarctica’s relative proximity to Tasmania, its various penguin species remain aloof. Only the 33 cm high mini penguins, (eudyptula novaehollandiae) live and breed around the Tasmanian coastline. Fairy penguins – or Little Penguins, as they are known locally, are the smallest penguins in the world. Common to southern Australia and Tasmania, many of the colonies on the mainland have been destroyed, or seriously diminished by dogs and foxes. However, they are apparently still breeding along the northern coast of Tasmania. So, on our last day in the area, we head down to the beach at sunset to see if we can catch a glimpse of them arriving home from a day’s fishing.

Our hostess recommends Lillico, a Conservation Beach between Devonport and Ullverstone. Here, a watching platform has been built above the penguins’ nesting grounds. As the sun starts to set, the platform fills up with families keen to see these little fellows at close quarters. We wait and wait, and eventually someone spots an adult penguin just below the walkway, denuding itself of last year’s coat. Until the new one grows in, this bloke is landlocked. But come the autumn, when the chicks, too, have replaced their soft down with thick, waterproof coats, they will all head out to sea, where they will spend the next few months fishing, until the next breeding season calls them back to shore.

Little penguins don’t fly, but their stubby wings make excellent flippers for swimming in the ocean. They spend approximately 80% of their lives at sea, only coming to shore during the breeding season (August to February) to raise their young, and moult. Before landing, they apparently gather offshore in groups or ‘rafts’, waiting for dusk to cross the beach, in order to evade any waiting predators.

The pack of sightseers in the front row prevents those further back spotting the adults coming into shore and waddling up the beach, but there is now plenty of activity backstage, where the babies – full height but still fluffy – are emerging from their holes. One pair keeps us amused for ages, flapping its stubby little wings frantically, as if determined to become airborne. One even clambers awkwardly up on a rock, in the hope that gravity will launch his flying career. A friendly guide spotlights them with a torch covered in red cellophane so as not to harm their eyes or distress them. Gradually, others emerge, waiting patiently for their parents to appear with dinner. Two young teenagers of the penguin variety are canoodling right beside the boardwalk, where kids of the human variety squat down, knowing not to touch, but so close that it would only take another inch or two…

The penguins must be aware of their audience – we are virtually breathing down their necks – but are they bothered? Not at all. One actually looks up and waves a flipper at the smallest child peering over the wire. It is a magical night, and the efforts of local conservationists to support the penguins survival is encouraging. Numbers are gradually increasing as practical initiatives such as weed eradication, habitat restoration, fencing, and the installation of artificial burrows, as well as educational programs, have led to recolonisation and increased breeding at many sites .Perhaps something will eventually be achieved for those native mammals, birds and reptiles, who so regularly and abruptly lose their lives on the roads, or due to the conflicting interests of farmers and forestry. After all, would Tasmania be so well worth visiting if there were no wild animals to enjoy?

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“Core of my heart, my country!”

An opal-hearted country,
A wilful lavish land –
All you who have not loved her,
You will not understand –
Though earth has many splendours,
Wherever I may day,
I know to what brown country
My homing thoughts will fly.

For many Australians, the words of poet Dorothy McKellar ‘I love a sunburnt country’ are more familiar as a song, and, like the National Anthem, we may only know one verse. This Christmas, however, I was given a beautiful book of traditional bush poetry by my younger son, which introduced me to the fact that this is actually the first line of the second stanza of her iconic poem. And my favourite verse is actually the last one, that I have copied above.

In Australia, it is common knowledge that our population is now – and has been since the settler colonials first encroached on this glorious southern continent – largely urban. And yet the romantic myth of the past persists: that we, as the second wave of Australians to inhabit this sunburnt country, are as embedded in the stark contrasts, challenges and ethereal beauties of rural Australia as the First Nations peoples. Even my One & Only, raised in the suburbs by the sea, a first generation son of European migrants, has recently discovered an attachment to the outback that has crept unexpectedly over him.

In the early days it was all about plunder: grabbing land we could develop as we had done in Europe, planting crops and breeding animals that did nothing to sustain the fragile environment onto which we had trespassed and unwittingly, ignorantly despoiled. Today, there is a strong sense that the time has come to reverse that trend and redress the balance.

In the Hindmarsh Valley, on the traditional land of the Ramindjeri people, is a farm of around 600 acres. Owned by the Retallick Family for over twenty two years, Gary and Sandy have been breeding alpacas and providing sanctuary for endangered native animals such as the brush tailed bettong and the southern brown bandicoot, both previously threatened to the point of extinction by feral cats and foxes. They have also planted around 65,000 trees, thus reinvigorating land that had previously been aggressively cleared for grazing sheep and cattle. Alpacas were chosen to replace the ungulates, as their soft, padded feet are kinder, minimizing the impact on pastureland. Originating in South America, these gentle, doe-eyed animals are bred for their super-soft fleeces, and the Retallicks’ brood have become incredibly successful, boasting a room filled with ribbons, cups and awards for their excellence.

We first visited Softfoot Farm last year, to dine at the Swagman, another great business venture on the property. Beautifully situated above a billabong, the Swagman is rural chic with a nod to poet Banjo Patterson:

‘Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong,
Under the shade of a coolabah tree.
And he sang as a watched and waited till his billy boiled,
“You’ll come a waltzing matilda with me.”’

In the old days, particularly in the 1890s and the Great Depression, many swagmen wandered the country roads looking for work. With few possessions, they carried a bedroll (a swag, ‘shiralee’ or ‘matilda’) and slept under the stars. A ‘tucker bag’ held basic ingredients for cooking, and a billy can for making tea or cooking stew over the fire.

In my teens, I discovered the Australian writer, D’Arcy Niland. His novels ‘The Shiralee’ and ‘Call Me When the Cross Turns Over,’ are both about itinerant Australians, a habit we seem to have caught by osmosis from First Nations peoples, who traditionally, go “walkabout” as a rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood.

The Swagman restaurant is a hidden gem. As it says on the website, ‘Our passion is bringing you a taste of Australia. We lovingly create delectable foods with native bush herbs and spices, the majority being grown on-site in our native gardens. We are committed to providing signature house-made flavours unique to the Swagman.’

As always, we all try to order something different. A rack of lamb, chicken pie, crocodile tagliatelle and grilled flathead are preceded by oil and salt bush dukkha served with damper style bread. It is a slow food experience, and surely, there is no rush. We are more than happy to take our time, sipping bubbles from the Adelaide Hills, admiring the display of pottery in the next room, and enjoying the view. And the food is worth the wait. We all savour and share what we have chosen. The chargrilled lamb smells divine, served with salsa verde and wedges tossed in native herbs, and my chicken, leek and mushroom pie flavoured with lemon myrtle, and also served with those tasty wedges, is delicious. The crocodile did not come out of the billabong at the bottom of the hill, (thank goodness!), but is still firm and fresh. And there is more perfectly grilled flatfish than my friend can possibly eat. Shall I help?

After lunch, I have booked a tour of the farm with Gary. He escorts us to a buggy fit for five, and we rumble off down the dirt track. While explaining the history of the place in his quiet, slow voice, Gary briefly interrupts himself to rev the engine and race across a creek, filling the footwell (and the One & Only’s boots) with water, and splashing the rest of us with mud. It’s obviously the highlight of his afternoon, and we all shriek in what must be a very satisfactory result. Gary also introduces us to the remaining herd of alpacas in their variety of newly shorn coats: black, chocolate brown, honey, blonde. Often used on the farms in the Adelaide Hills to ward off dogs and foxes, they are generally docile animals, and greet us cautiously.

The Retallick family has a strong focus on sustainability and reducing its carbon footprint on the world. Planting trees, digging out billabongs and creating wetlands, there are also four fenced sanctuaries. All these areas provide a variety of natural habitats for endangered marsupials, rare native fish and freshwater crustaceans, a huge variety of birds, echidnas, and long neck tortoises. They have also effectively eliminated the need for chemical pesticides and their dreadful effects on flora and fauna.
We weave our way through the scrub and around the sequence of billabongs, two natural, and a handful more that Gary has dug out himself with his trusty earth mover. Towering eucalypts shade the creek and the wildflowers bloom, brightly pink among the native grasses. We follow the fence line surrounding one of the sanctuaries that range in size from two to fifty two acres.

Over the creek, and we come across three cabins – Billabong, Coolibah and Ironbark – the latest additions to the family business, completed only last year. With huge windows looking out on native forest, paddocks and grazing alpacas, it is a serene and alluring retreat from city life. There is even an outdoor bathtub on the veranda, and the opportunity to join Gary on a night tour of the nocturnal animals on the property.

All these business ventures – alpacas, restaurant, cabins, tours – help to fund the Retallicks’ numerous conservation projects. One of their most recent projects has been the construction of a three kilometre fence across the neck of the Dudley Peninsula on Kangaroo Island. This will give them a chance to clear out those ubiquitous foxes and feral cats, and thus provide a safe refuge where they can relocate their growing family of endangered marsupials. Sandy, Gary and daughter Clancy see their role ‘as custodians of the land during their lifetimes, and to be responsible for the health of the soil, plants and animals that fall under their care.‘ They seem to be doing an impressive job of fulfilling their remit.

And so, back at the Swagman after our tour, we sit down to a final glass of wine and/or dessert, where I indulge in my new favourite: an affogato with Cointreau. Happy, happy, happy….

  • With thanks to my friend and partner-in-crime, Vicki, for sharing her photos.
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Of swimming, surfboards, and River Cats…

Broadbeach, Queensland

It’s only 7am, but already the beach is awash with bodies: walkers, joggers and surfers, canoes and paddle boards skim along the edge of the sea. The coffee shop is buzzing, and families are hoeing into enormous plates of eggs and bacon, bowls of chips, vast mugs of coffee. A family of Pacific Islanders are setting up camp on the lawn for a pre-Christmas picnic that promises to last till dusk. Toddlers skip between the tables. Tweenies are down on the sand kicking balls to their dads. Young teenagers are training with the surf lifesavers. An older man emerges from the waves and heads to his bike to ride home for breakfast. An elderly couple stroll gently along the promenade, another perch on towels on the dune. Young women in lycra, and clutching coffee cups, march along to the beat of a tune only they can hear. Young men are washing off their surfboards, already finished with their dawn surf. Every demographic is accounted for.

Surf lifesaving originated in Australia in 1907, and many other countries have adopted the idea since then. Volunteers patrol the beaches, trained to keep bathers safe from drowning by promoting water safety and providing surf rescue services.. Today, with around 190,000 members and 314 Surf Life Saving clubs across the country, Surf Life Saving Australia is a huge volunteer organization.

This morning, decked out in brightly visible yellow and red, the Broadbeach Lifesavers are gathered on the foreshore. Back by the dunes, their watch tower is decorated in Christmas baubles. While the Pacific Ocean is much warmer than our own Antarctic waters in the Spencer Gulf, the surf is much rougher, and I retreat to a coffee shop on the promenade to watch.

These days, people flock to beaches all over the world to swim and surf. Yet, swimming in the sea is a relatively new pastime, and only started becoming popular during the second half of the 18th century when it was suddenly proclaimed to be good for your health. In the UK, bathing at Brighton became popular under the patronage of the Prince of Wales, the future George IV. Of course, bikinis and lycra were non-existent back then, and both men and women were expected to be modestly covered to swim in woollen costumes that covered you up neck to ankle – presumably till they got wet!

Children’s book

Bathing Machines, something like a wooden caravan, were pulled into the water by horse or pushed in by muscly men, so one could enter the water discreetly. Women would change in the privacy of the bathing machine, then descend into the sea from the rear end so as not to be seen from the beach. A female ‘dipper’ would then hold them afloat, as few people could swim. Queen Victoria had her own bathing machine and personal dipper whenever she stayed at Osborne House on the isle of Wight, as Prince Albert was an ardent advocate for sea bathing.

Up on the thirtieth floor, we have heard the surf in our dreams, crashing along mile upon mile of white sandy beach. The horizon stretches forever, iced with soft, cotton-wool clouds. The sea is a cerulean blue frilled with white foam, the sun twinkling on its ruffled surface. People, like ants, scurry along the sand. Bodies in black wetsuits lurk a hundred metres out to sea, awaiting the perfect wave. Between the flags, swimmers launch themselves into the curling waves, rinsing out their sinuses. The breeze whispers in through the open doors, kissing my toes. We have no agenda, and I am perfectly happy with that. It is rare for us to live without a plan, or at least some idea of what the day ahead may look like.

Back in Brisbane, we board a river cat (catamaran ferry), and spend the late afternoon buzzing along the Brisbane River from West End to Hamilton and back again. It’s a great way to see the city, at the tiny price of public transport for a three hour cruise. Peckish and chilled, we disembark at Hamilton to check out Eat Street. The riverside is chock-a-block with families decked out in Christmas attire and waiting for the fireworks show. Eat Street has been created on a disused wharf beside the Brisbane River. Covering several hectares, the stalls have been built from recycled shipping containers. Almost two hundred of them. We wander past a variety of food stalls offering a taste of cuisines from around the globe, before settling on a Mee Goreng and some spring rolls. Then its off to watch the fireworks before boarding the ferry back to the city with a boat full of sleepy kids.

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Post Production Ponderings

November arrived with a clash of cymbals, a tarantara of trumpets and thunderous drum rolls. I submitted my thesis on the first of the month, which was a huge weight off my shoulders. The following day, the Lyceum Club Adelaide launched its fabulous Centenary book, 100 Years of Women’s Voices. Of course, I would say it was fabulous, as I played a small part in creating it. Nonetheless, it is a wonderful book. It is the work of a team of driven, strong-minded women who all volunteered their time and talents over many months to produce a history of the Lyceum Club, and stories about many of its members, past and present.

Since then, I have been catching up on a little travel and a lot of reconnecting with friends and family that I have neglected this year. So, in the calm before the storm of Christmas and the New Year, I have put aside some time for a little reflection…

Firstly, as I said earlier, my history honors thesis is complete, so I can now begin pondering my next step into the deep waters of academia.

Constance Smedley

Secondly, this has been the year of the Lyceum Club’s centenary, and there is much to report. “What is the Lyceum Club?” you ask. Well, the idea originated in London in the early twentieth century. Constance Smedley, a British artist, playwright, and novelist, was keen to provide a club house for women writers and artists. So, her father – fortunately a wealthy Birmingham businessman – bought a suitable building on Piccadilly, the former home of the British Imperial Service Club no less, and ironically, given our own Adelaide home (read on) currently the home of the Royal Air Force Club. The Lyceum Club was launched on June 20, 1904. Grace Brockington wrote that ‘the International Lyceum Club for Women Artists and Writers… earned itself a prestigious reputation and set up sister clubs throughout Europe and the British dominions. It became… a social and cultural centre for women all over the world.

128 Piccadilly, London

The Lyceum was not the first women’s club in London, however. The times were a’changin’ and, according to Brockington, by 1906, there were thirty-six clubs for women, catering for ‘all interests and social classes, from aristocrats to actresses, university lecturers to city clerks. Their sudden popularity bore witness to women’s changing aspirations, and their willingness, if not to challenge, at least to match, the Victorian institution of the gentleman’s Club.’

Smedley, an ardent feminist, also used her club to promote women’s suffrage, wishing to free them from the limitations imposed by nineteenth century ideals of femininity and the role of middle-class women as merely domestically decorative. As Brockington says, ‘the Lyceum’s solid, institutional presence allowed it to negotiate controversial feminist debate with tact and decorum. It was able to reconcile traditional models of womanhood with radical new ideas about women’s liberation, giving professional women a passport to respectability at a time when many objected to their working outside the home at all.

Dr Helen Mayo

In 1922, Dr Helen Mayo, one of South Australia’s early female medical graduates, gathered a group of like-minded friends and colleagues (including a handful of my predeccessors), to discuss the establishment of a Lyceum Club in Adelaide. This report in The Critic made me giggle. ‘There are so many brainy women in Adelaide now that they feel the absolute necessity of forming a club, where brain will meet brain, and a community of kindred spirits can foregather away from life’s piffle. The Lyceum Club promises to fill the need.’

And fulfill a need, it did. Lyceum members gathered for pertinent discussions on all sorts of topics and interests. And, unlike the London Lyceum, it was not just for writers and artists, but was open to any female university graduate; women eminent in art, music, or literature, or women who had ‘rendered distinguished public service.’

The Lyceum Adelaide spent its early life in two rooms. Within five years, the Club had outgrown its limited space (twice) and had moved – with its 200 members – to 209 North Terrace. Since then, the Lyceum has continued to lead a somewhat nomadic existence, moving several times around the Adelaide CBD for one reason or another. Today, it is, rather bizarrely, sharing space with the Naval, Military and Air Force Club, in a beautiful, heritage-listed building on Hutt Street, where it has continued to thrive.

111 Hutt Street, Adelaide

At the beginning of 2020, Janet Gould, then Lyceum President, and Vice president Dianne Campbell, thought it would be a great idea to produce a history of the Club to celebrate its centenary in 2022. Although short histories had been produced for both the 50th and 80th celebrations, this project planned to be much more sophisticated. A team was put together that would expand as fast as the ideas for the book. Not only would we write the history of the last twenty years to add to earlier editions, but we wanted to tell the stories of individual members, past and present. To include every member would have meant a book of encyclopaedical proportions, but we did manage to compile more than eighty cameos of members who have worked in a veritable rainbow of professions. There are doctors and nurses, politicians and lawyers, writers and artists, scientists and architects, educators and aviators, to name but a few. Talent and trailblazing abounded, but whatever their chosen paths, all have contributed to the life of the Lyceum Club, Adelaide.

The book looks beautiful: a handsome coffee table book, with plenty of meaty reading. And on November 2, 2022, Her Excellency the Honourable Frances Adamson AC, Governor of South Australia, and Patron of Lyceum, came to launch it. She spoke in praise of our rich history and mentioned some of the women who had contributed to moulding the Lyceum into the special club we enjoy today. It seems particularly fitting that she has agreed to join us as our Patron – only our third female Governor in SA – in this auspicious year.

And, as someone commented when the team had a sneak preview of the finished product, it was a truly amazing achievement. Not only had we created a spectacular book, but this group of volunteers, despite some tense moments and fervent debates throughout its production, were still smiling, and still friends.

The Lyceum really is a very sociable and friendly club. I only joined eighteen months ago, but I already feel fully immersed, and have been totally accepted by this wonderful group of educated, intelligent women. Club Circles provide a great opportunity to meet people with similar interests – and there is so much variety. Art Appreciation, Opera and Music, Film Club, Current Affairs, Bridge and Mah-jong, Asian Culture and History, Travel and the Theatre Collective, Poetry, Literature, and French. There are special events throughout the year as well: regulars dinners and lunches which always includes a guest speaker discussing something captivating. This year, for example, there have been talks on Provencal Gardens and Architecture in Adelaide during the 1930s, a performance by Fringe artiste Michaela Burger on our Steinway baby grand, and another by world renowned Russian pianist Konstantin Shamray. I have managed to get to most of these events and have been duly impressed with the quality of the speakers and performers, the food and the conversation.

Queen Adelaide portrait at the Town Hall

Special centenary offerings this year began with a Civic Reception held in the beautiful Queen Adelaide Room at the Adelaide Town Hall, and hosted by The Right Honourable Lord Mayor of Adelaide, Sandy Verschoor (only our third female Lord Mayor in 100 years and a past Lyceum member). In July, a centenary lunch – complete with a huge and delicious birthday cake – included seventy members and two special guests: an Honorary Life Member, who also celebrated her 100th birthday this year, and our Patron, Her Excellency the Honourable Frances Adamson AC. As a bonus, last month there was a super exhibition of Lyceum Art Treasures at the NMAFC.

In October, Lyceum Adelaide was finally able to host the Australian Association of Lyceum Clubs, an event that has been postponed by COVID shutdowns more than once over the past three years. Participants enjoyed various social gatherings and two days of back-to-back lectures on the theme ‘A is for Adelaide’, with performances from the Melbourne Lyceum Choir. Guest speakers covered a fascinating range of topics, from fashion to folklore. Adelaide Atelier Paul Vasileff, of the Paolo Sebastian Couture House, introduced us to his incredible talent for exquisite dress design. Associate Professor Diego Garcia-Bellido discussed world famous paleontology finds in South Australia. Lainie Anderson spoke about her novel based on the transcontinental air race from England to Australia after World War One, which was won by South Australian aviators Ross and Keith Smith. There was a talk by Emeritus Professor Carol Grbich on the book she co-wrote with her partner John Gerber, The Accidental Heiress: Journey of a Glencoe squatter’s daughter, and another by Pamela Rajkowski OAM, on the history and heritage of the Australian Afghan cameleers. The brain food over the course of the conference was as filling and satisfying as the delicious meals provided.

And so we marked the end of our centenary year with our annual Christmas lunch. This included a terrific talk on Ukrainian Christmas traditions by the president of the Ukrainian Women’s Association in SA, who had also cooked a Ukrainian Christmas dessert for us to try. Now, after such a stimulating year, I think we are all looking forward to some R&R and the hope that summer will finally put in an appearance in South Australia!

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