As I have espoused many times prior to this scribbling, I am a lucky man! When my Darling Loving Partner says those magic words, ‘How do you feel about salmon tonight?’ I salivate in expectation each time. Mind, it could be the mention of her cooking a steak, or the promise of one of her amazing butterflied roasts on the barbecue and I am equally in culinary rapture. DLP is not a foodie in the Matthew Evans’ sense, but she is a damn fine cook. When she is ‘rostered on,’ I know I am in for meat or fish cooked to perfection and presented to the table in a manner that would do any restaurant of reasonable quality proud. I also like to think that I know my way around a kitchen and can rustle up an acceptable repast, but DLP has the touch.
I am also a lucky man in where I have chosen to live with my wondrous DLP. My island in the southern seas is gaining a reputation for standard of product that sees it ‘punching above its weight’ in national terms. The exceptional freshness and attention to quality ensures our seafood; beef and lamb; cheeses; cool climate fruit and wines; as well as craft beer and ciders are a gourmand’s delight. Our vegetables are grown in the world’s cleanest air on some of the richest soils in the land. Then there is the ability of our producers to take risks into fare such as olive oil, saffron, quinoa, and truffles that are audacious, but ultimately commercial success stories. Of a weekend, all around Tassie, farmers’ markets bring this harvest of excellence to its towns and cities – fresh, fresh foodstuffs that were in the soil or sea only a few hours prior to selling.
Sometimes I hanker for the days of my upbringing when the connection between source and consumption was even closer – days when tucker was shot or collected by a range of family members, friends or close connections – backyard poultry and eggs, bandicooted potatoes, game meats (rabbit, roo wallaby), mutton birds, oysters from trips to Black or Detention Rivers, abalone collected from the sea rocks below our house, fish we caught off Burnie’s wharf, sugar bags of cray tails down from Circular Head or freshly shucked scallops. In my ideal world supermarkets would be factored out of the equation – but for most of us, even here on a paradisical island, the world has changed.
But Matthew Evans is not most of us. Working as a highly respected (although reviled in certain quarters) restaurant critic in Sydney, he was living the big city lifestyle, but, increasingly becoming disenchanted with it. He developed a dream and had the blinkered will to pursue it. He wanted control over the whole journey of what entered his stomach. He had a yearning to farm and that’s what bought him to Tasmania’s Huon Valley – to Puggle Farm at first, then taking on Fat Pig as well. Both were sited in the hills around the valley town of Cygnet.
The Huon, south over the Wellington Range from where I live by the Derwent on the northern outskirts of Hobart, is where both my parents hail from, growing up when it produced apples for the British market. Once the Poms went all European on us, that industry faltered and for a time the Huon went backwards economically. It has now largely bounced back with diversification. Its decidedly four seasons of climate now also attracts an overlay of tree and sea-changers from all over Oz. And it is stunningly beautiful to boot with the wilderness just beyond the tree line.
Evans’ transition from urbanite to rustic landholder has been well recorded in the three seasons of ‘Gourmet Farmer’ on SBS. As one can imagine, this huge change in his life had its ups and downs – with it still being a work in progress. Such has been his persistence, he now has a ‘brand’ within his adopted state.
I was as enamoured of this book as I have been of the show. It was a pleasure for me to have him sign my copy of ‘The Dirty Chef’ at his book launch late last year. I also own a couple of his recipe compilations, but this tome is a different kettle of fish, although recipes close most chapters. It takes over from his television programmes and gives a more detailed account of the territory covered in ‘Gourmet Farmer’ – especially the challenges that beset Matthew as he strove to attain his goal. In Series 2 of the show and in his tome he is latterly joined by new wife Sadie, with Hedley arriving in due course. Along the way he also gathered good mates Nick and Ross as his companions for ‘adventuring’ on the farm and throughout the island as they set out to conquer their version of the world. This made for terrific reading – close to home reading. From now on, going up and over Vinces Saddle, then down into the Huon, will be, for me, as closely associated with Evans’ series and book as it is to family.
I do, just a tad, take issue a little with his definition of the Huon. His seems more or less based on municipal boundaries, but for me the area after Geeveston, moving away from the river, is the Far South. The country changes, the communities are more hardscrabble and there is less of a mainland invasion. The eclectic disappears. But I am being pernickety.
There are wonderful moments in the book – his description of tasting his first farm egg from his own chooks; his assertions as to why Tassie should now be nicknamed ‘Spud Island’ rather than the outdated apple appellation; his descriptions of the foibles of the long standing residents, as well as their sense of community. There are the relative hardships winter presents down in these parts, although Evans has come to terms with the season of the frost and ends up rather liking it. Many of the farm animals, including the dog, have their own personalities. He describes the coming to terms with the necessary deaths of such beasts that need to occur to fulfil his vision. He argues persuasively for many of the practices vegans and vegetarians abhor. He describes the battle it is in this economic climate to make both farms economically viable. Then he describes the joys of the goose.
For a time my mother was married to a farmer – a lovely salt of the earth fellow called Bill. I remember well several Christmases at Bill’s farm, up behind Somerset, on the island’s North West Coast. On his property the soil was so rich it was almost edible. Bill had made an arrangement with one of his rural pals to prepare a goose from his flock for our yuletide table. Of course, it was my mother’s task to roast it. Now my mother claims never to have taken to the art of cookery. But I aver, based on the fact she raised three healthy sons and a daughter. And to me, those several birds we devoured those Christmases at the farm would be amongst the finest meals I have partaken of. The flesh of the king of poultry is even superior to that of duck, which I similarly adore. Oh to have another goose at some stage down the track! Evans does write, with evidence, that raising them is a little on the tricky side.
An earlier tome by Matthew Evans (‘Never Order Chicken on a Monday’) had left me somewhat underwhelmed in terms of its shallow content and pedestrian prose. With this publication his standing as an engaging writer has come ahead in leaps and bounds. In what he now scribes he is a lively and engrossing author. Perhaps it does help to know its setting so well, but all kudos to him for making the time to share his journey with those of us who are not prepared to shake up their lives to the same degree. He has presented the island I love in positive tones to the outside world and I congratulate him on that.
Matthew Evans’ website = http://www.matthewevans.net.au/