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Matt Packwood and Sarah Hollings founded Alchymia Distillery in 2022.
A festival in Tasmania’s north - west celebrates the delicious, fresh produce of this prolific region of our island state.
STORY + PHOTOS RICKY FRENCH | OUTBACK MAGAZINE
Two laps of Tasmania. 14,000km. 200 property inspections. That’s what it took for Matt Packwood and Sarah Hollings to find the perfect place to start their new life. The couple “jumped off the corporate bus,” as Sarah puts it, leaving their home in Maclaren Vale, SA, to reinvent themselves as distillers. They just didn’t know where. Selling everything they’d ever owned or earned, they arrived in Tasmania in 2019 with nothing more than a ute and a roof-top tent.
“We had 11 criteria,” Sarah says. “One was fresh, clean water, and another was a region that had exceptional producers we could collaborate with.” Table Cape, 7km north of Wynyard, ticked every box. On a hilltop overlooking Bass Strait, an old shed housed their new business, Alchymia Distillery. A regular stream of passers-by now pull off the Bass Highway to buy a bottle of whiskey, gin or vodka, and stock up from a fridge full of local cheese, cider and seafood. “The produce that comes out of this place is the best in the world,” Sarah says. “There really is something in the water.”
Pip Gunningham of Shakespeare Hill Eggs, with daughter Olivia.
There’s also something in the ground. The red, volcanic soils are so fertile and the rainfall so reliable they say you can hear the grass growing at night. Cape Grim Beef is already a household name, named after the state’s most north-western tip, which has the cleanest air in the world, thanks to the “laundering” effect of thousands of kilometres of unbroken ocean. Then there’s the ocean itself, stocked with sustainably managed fish, oysters, octopus and abalone. Even the cool temperate rainforests of the Tarkine provide for the table, with the sweet nectar of its leatherwood trees collected by bees to produce premium honey.
Last November the region held the first Stanley and Tarkine Forage Festival, a 10-day celebration of local produce. Circular Head Tourism Association manager Kim Bailey says it’s all about “getting people to turn right,” once they disembark the ferry at Devonport. “The north-west sometimes gets overlooked but word is finally getting out,” Kim says.
For some, word got out some time ago. Pippa and Matthew Gunningham emigrated here from England 20 years ago and operate 2 organic dairy farms near the Shakespeare Hills between the inland communities of Mawbanna and Montumana. In 2019 they branched out into free range chickens, launching Shakespeare Hills Eggs. The 2500 chickens share the pasture with the 1400-head dairy herd, and get moved around in specially-designed mobile coops to ensure they have access to the best pasture. “It all starts in the soil,” Pippa says. “Our hens peck from a smorgasbord of species, complemented by organic grain. The yolks are an intense orange because the eggs are so high in beta-carotene.”
Pippa says dairy farming and chickens are a perfect match, with the chickens following the cows’ rotational grazing patterns, and free to display what she calls their “natural chickenness”. What started as a roadside stall has now grown into a tidy business. “We’re just proud to be part of such a productive community,” Pippa says. “Everyone is involved in something.”
Blue Hills Honey at Mawbanna has produced premium Tasmanian honey since 1955.
The Charles family just up the road in Mawbanna has been involved in honey production since 1955, when Reuben and Beryl Charles first introduced bees to the leatherwood trees of the Tarkine. Robbie Charles is a second-generation apiarist who grew up working on the farm, and now oversees 2000 hives with his wife and co-owner Nicola and leads tours of the factory. Visitors to the farm shop, café and interpretation centre can also don virtual reality goggles and get a 3D immersion in a day in the life of the beekeepers. Nicola says they enjoy inviting visitors into their world. “We love showing people the work that goes into producing our honey,” she says. “So much is down to the quality of the leatherwood tree nectar, which is only found in these rainforests.”
Sue Glynn of KimchiMe with her German short-haired pointer Archie.
Honey is universally loved, but kimchi was a tougher sell in this rural pocket of Tasmania.
Sue Glynn swapped Sydney for Stanley in 2016, moving with her husband Tom to live a self-sufficient lifestyle. “It’s not hard to do here, because you can grow anything!” Sue says. A native of Seoul, Korea, Sue uses the traditional methods she learned as a child to make the fermented vegetable dish, growing everything on site. She sells her KimchiMe brand kimchi out of a converted shipping container on their farm in Wiltshire, just out of town, and runs online courses teaching people how to ferment their own kimchi. Sue says locals embraced kimchi once they learned about its health benefits, and how well it complements other local produce. “That’s what makes this region so special,” Sue says. “It’s a land of plenty – whatever you want, you can get it.”
Fresh catch at Tarkine Oysters.
In the town Smithton a steady stream of visitors is filing into Tarkine Fresh Oysters to enjoy freshly shucked Pacific oysters, harvested that same day from the estuarine waters of Duck Bay. Farm manager Jarrad Poke says it’s a combination of the 3.5m tide, the clean, nutrient-rich water, and the family’s aquaculture expertise that makes their oysters so sought-after. “They end up in high-end restaurants, but we also love serving them to visitors and locals, right here in the shop,” Jarrad says.
The seafood trail continues in Stanley, where the sight of Hursey Seafood’s bright red fishing fleet returning to harbour with a fresh catch of southern rock lobster is iconic in the historic town. Andrew Hursey says fishing is in his family’s blood, and when he watches the boats leave harbour he often thinks of his uncle Patrick, who drowned while trying to rescue a kayaker in 1986. Hursey Seafood’s newly renovated wharf-side restaurant sports a suitably nautical look, decked out with artfully knotted ropes, fishing charts and pops of red, with everything on the menu fresh from their fishing boats.
Mike Pine has cultivated his own style at the Stanley Wine Bar;Martin Hardy from T.O.P. Fish.
Post dinner, many patrons take a short stroll to the Stanley Food and Wine Bar, eclectically furnished in the upcycled wonders of yesteryear, and tended to by the dapper Mike Pine. Mike doesn’t produce local food or wine, but he certainly champions it, and has a knack for curating a unique tasting experience for each guest. “I like taking people on a journey,” Mike says. “You never know where you’ll end up.”
At some point though most people who visit Stanley end up at T.O.P. Fish, family-run octopus purveyors who pluck their catch from Bass Strait using simple but ingenious traps designed by Michael Hardy in the late 1970s. Michael’s son Martin Hardy manages the business, and says their pre-cooked, pickled octopus jars are crowd favourites. “The marinades are delicious, and it’s so versatile, “ Martin says. “You can add it to a cheese platter or fry it up on the barbeque.”
Down at the Stanley Foreshore Festival, Sue Glynn is doing just that, sizzling octopus on a gas cooker and tossing it with her cabbage kimchi to make chilli octopus stir-fry. The marquees that ring the foreshore park are a who’s who of local producers, cooking up a storm as an actual storm rolls in across the sea. Rain lashes down and revellers grab their food and dash for cover under a circus marquee, to dance the night away to the tunes of local band Kitty and the Heartbeats. It’s a fitting end to a festival with its finger firmly on the pulse of local produce.