Food, glorious food

Forget apples. Tasmania is the holy grail, it seems, for those seeking to shed skins and reinvent identities.

Curtis Stone’s fine dining restaurant, Share, on the Sun Princess.
Curtis Stone’s fine dining restaurant, Share, on the Sun Princess.

You meet all kinds of people on a food-themed cruise of Tasmania. A German-speaking linguistics graduate turned ginseng grower and salmon farmer. A sixth-generation sheep grazier turned lavender grower. A winemaker who raises fat lambs while producing a sparkling pinot gris. A cauliflower farmer and fencing contractor who moonlights as a radio host, tour guide and indigenous historian. A Joni Mitchell-quoting businesswoman turned truffle farmer.

Forget apples. Tasmania is the holy grail, it seems, for those seeking to shed skins and reinvent identities. It’s home, too, to a tribe of passionate and entrepreneurial small farmers all zealously nurturing their little patch of heaven. We meet a cross-section of these rural mavericks over the course of a six-day food cruise of the isle on the mammoth Sun Princess, a floating palace of 2900 passengers and crew that sets off from the White Bay cruise terminal at Rozelle, Sydney, on a drizzly Sunday afternoon.

Sun Princess, refurbished in 2016, is the third ship in the Princess Cruises local fleet, alongside Ruby Princess and Emerald Princess, to feature Australian chef Curtis Stone’s fine dining restaurant, Share. Gourmet fare and cruising may seem strange bedfellows, but Stone has long been adamant it can work, and so too does Christian Dortch, Stone’s corporate chef as well as Share’s executive chef.

Share executive chef Christian Dortch with the restaurant’s creator, Curtis Stone.
Share executive chef Christian Dortch with the restaurant’s creator, Curtis Stone.

Over the past two years, the genial Californian-born Dortch has effectively been Stone’s eyes and hands on the high seas, jumping from ship to ship training staff, monitoring quality control and fine-tuning the Share menu, tailored for regional tastes and featuring everything from local wines to signature dishes such as beef cheek pie and roasted crab legs with tobanjan. It makes sense, he says, to target a growing cruise market of discerning seaborne foodies and agritourists keen for paddock to plate experiences and locally sourced food. “Curtis knows what’s in season, and what’s going to be in season. So in the bigger ports, we are constantly stocking up,” he says. This foraging for local ingredients — be it at the old fish market at Stavanger, Norway, or for soppressata and tomatoes in Brisbane — is what continues to keep things fresh for the young American go-getter who first worked for Stone at his flagship Beverly Hills restaurant Maude in 2014.

Dortch is all anticipation on our first shore excursion at Burnie in Tasmania’s pristine northwest, a patchwork of prime productive farmlands, picturesque villages, homesteads and historic homes. He clambers on the tour bus carrying a big white cooler. By the end of the day, he hopes to fill it with produce for meals on board.

He strikes it lucky at our first stop, Cradle Country Truffles in the sleepy hamlet of Lower Barrington. Standing guard is Jennifer Hunt, an Akubra-hatted, voluble ex-Queenslander framed by her two dogs Chicken and Toby and a lush orchard of fruit trees, heirloom vegetables and a menagerie of animals, from poultry to ponies.

Hunt has happily reinvented herself in Tasmania. A corporate high flyer in her old life, her business nous has paid big dividends. Despite being one of the few women in the island’s male-dominated truffle “mafia”, as she tartly terms it, she’s built a thriving black winter truffle business out of her orchard of 700 oak trees.

A seafood platter from the Bangor Wine & Oyster Shed in Dunalley. Picture: Alice Gray
A seafood platter from the Bangor Wine & Oyster Shed in Dunalley. Picture: Alice Gray

She harvests between 200 and 250kg from June to August, at a price of up to $3500/kg. Her philosophy of sustainable, closed loop, organic farming done according to “solstices, seasons and actual nature rather than almanacs and dates” has stood her in very good stead. She quotes Joni Mitchell, “Give me spots on my apples/But leave me the birds and the bees.”

Dortch is in foodie heaven. He loads up on lavender, herbs, tomatoes, heirloom purple kale and eggs for Share’s kitchen, and charms Hunt into selling him a huge 165g truffle, fetching about $500 on the market, for $100. He cradles it lovingly like a proud new father. It will be on the menu in the next day or so, he promises.

From here, it’s a shortish hop to 41 Degrees South, near Deloraine, a family-run salmon farm that opened in 2002, where we meet Ben Pyka, a multilingual dynamo, handyman and self-taught salmon farmer whose German-born parents, Ziggy and Angelika Pyka, cleared the 16ha property of gorse and willow in 1998. Aware of the fallout from a 2016 Four Corners investigation of Tasmania’s salmon farming industry, Pyka is keen to stress the property’s environmentally friendly credentials of recycled water, solar power and a wetland that acts as a natural biofilter. The family also grows ginseng, targeting the expanding Asian market.

After a lunch of young salmon, it’s down to business for Dortch. A fat silver specimen is chosen, hauled out of the tank, clubbed with brutal but precise expertise and thrown into his trusty cooler.

We race back to the ship laden with ginseng and other treasures, driving through lurid green country dotted with farms growing strawberries, potatoes, pyrethrum, capsicums, mushrooms and cherries.

The next morning, we drop anchor in the sheltered harbour of Port Arthur. From the balcony of my stateroom, I spot a lone leaping dolphin. After a visit via tender to the historic penal settlement, grim but serene under a thin blanket of cloud, we explore Port Arthur Lavender Farm, run by fifth-generation farmers Clare and Brendan Dean who talk us through the harvesting and processing of more than 16,000 lavender plants across 12 varieties that the family grows here and at their Pawleena property, where they also farm poppies.

Like so many of the island’s farmers, the Deans faced a single, stark choice after years of drought — to diversify or die. Adversity has spawned a rich vein of entrepreneurship, particularly among the younger generations on the land, says our local driver, Dennis, who adds, “there is a lot of vibrancy in farming in Tasmania, a lot of younger people really having a go”.

The lucrative agritourism trade is a big reason, with farmers targeting passengers on visiting cruise ships such as Sun Princess. Another driver, Trevor, a former Sydneysider, later tells us that cruise visitors have heard Tasmania is a food hub “so they get off the ship and want to see where strawberries or crawfish or salmon or oysters are farmed.” He adds that it’s “pretty big business”.

Evolve or perish was the same stark equation that led sixth-generation farmers Matt and Vanessa Dunbabin to set up their Bangor Wine & Oyster Shed in Dunalley. Perched on a hill overlooking pristine Norfolk Bay, the property has been farmed since the 1830s (it supplied beef to the Port Arthur settlement) and cared for by the Dunbabin family since the 1890s. But, Matt says, “after three years of drought, we had to think how to make the farm viable”. They planted their first three hectares in 2010 with pinot noir, pinot gris and chardonnay vines. One of the most southerly vineyards in Australia and the world, this is a true cool-climate site. After sampling a few crisp vintages in the vineyard, we sit down to a spectacular lunch of local lamb, Norfolk Bay oysters and whisky-cured cold smoked salmon before heading back to the ship, Dortch’s trusty cooler filled with potatoes purchased at the shed.

Coal River Farm owner Daniel Leesong tends to one of his ornery goats. Picture: Chris Kidd
Coal River Farm owner Daniel Leesong tends to one of his ornery goats. Picture: Chris Kidd

Hobart sparkles under a clear blue sky when I draw my stateroom’s curtains. Today’s offshore excursion is to nearby Coal River Farm to pick strawberries in a field bordered by a pen of ornery goats under the guidance of owner Daniel Leesong, a former tourism and hospitality bigwig who moved here in 2000 from Canberra with lawyer wife Melanie. We tuck into pinwheels of triple cream brie (the farm produces 170kg a day) and artisanal chocolates spiked with everything from leatherwood honey to soy sauce made on site by Belgium-raised master chocolatier Dimitri Smet before a Moorilla Estate lunch of abalone so fresh it’s practically twitching on my plate.

There’s more feasting to do that night at a farewell dinner at Share where Dortch unveils the fruits of his week’s foraging. Ben Pyka’s salmon appears in several iterations — butter-poached salmon with fennel, and then lightly cured salmon belly with pickled lavender flowers from Jennifer’s farm, her eggs with brioche, that giant bargain-rate truffle shaved lightly over the signature creamy potato gratin, and duck breast marinated in Pyka’s ginseng. For Dortch, and for us, the romance of the paddock to plate journey gives each mouthful piquancy and richness. “I love all the stories behind it — it made it more personal for me,” he says as we lift our glasses in a farewell toast to a wonderful week afloat. “Knowing how hard they had worked, how much work went into producing it, how much passion.”

Sharon Verghis was a guest of Princess Cruises.



Fancy a ginseng and salmon hunt? Pinot gris and fresh oysters in a vineyard lunch setting? How about lavender harvesting, berry picking and sampling artisanal cheeses and chocolates on a family-run farm? All such activities, or similar, are available to Sun Princess passengers on Tasmania itineraries. Visits to 41 South Tasmania salmon farm are included on Tassie Tasting Trail shore excursions. Curtis Stone is at the Share kitchen “as often as possible”, according to Princess Cruises, which is generally four or five times a year. When not at sea, he works on menu development with the cruise line’s culinary team and his corporate chef Christian Dortch at their test kitchen in Los Angeles. Fun facts about food aboard? Every seven days, Sun Princess passengers consume about 40 tonnes of food and drink; 10,000 bottles of wine and champagne, 10,000 cans of soft drink, 2500 litres of milk, 2400 bottles of water, 25,000 eggs, 500kg of bacon, 1.4 tonnes of chicken, 500kg of lettuce, 1.3 tonnes of rice and 375kg of coffee. Sun Princess was the first Princess ship to be based fulltime in Australia. When it arrived in Sydney in 2007, it was the largest passenger ship to sail under the Harbour Bridge. Its 2900 passengers and crew equal more than the capacity of five fully loaded Airbus A380s.



A seven-night round-trip from Sydney to Tasmania on Sun Princess departs December 16. From $1299 a person twin-share for an inside cabin; balcony staterooms from $1849. Port stops are Melbourne, Hobart, Port Arthur and Burnie. There’s a nominal surcharge for passengers to dine at Curtis Stone’s Share; six-course menus are $39 a head. More: 1300 551 853.

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Jo-nathan avatarErzsebet avatarAndrew avatar


Avatar for Andrew

Shame about the smoke the ship belches out when docked in Hobart - so much for clean and green... Still it’s only the locals that have to put up with that.

Avatar for Jo-nathan

An 8 minute read of infomercial dross. I lived in northwest Tasmania (Burnie) a  few years ago, and the likes of the produce described in this article, which was my naive expectation when I arrived, was nowhere to be found (for the locals at least), even after a substantial exploration of the region. Local Coles and Woolies the only source of fresh produce, standard quality, veg sometimes a bit wilted, perhaps from the mainland.

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