It was one of those rare moments where I got the opportunity to experience something that I have always wanted to do – something that has been on my bucket list for a very long time – well, over 10 years to be exact – and something that is very close to my heart.
A few weeks ago I packed a tiny suitcase and set foot in the small rural town of Lachlan, Tasmania to visit Rodney Dunn and Severine Demanet’s Agrarian Kitchen Cooking School and Farm. The ultimate paddock-to-plate cooking experience housed in a 19th century schoolhouse and nestled amongst the beautiful Derwent Valley.
Sharing and eating food that is close to the source is just so delicious. The simple pleasure of walking out into your back yard to discover what could be picked in that very moment – something fresh, crisp and ripe to eat.
You pick that piece of produce with your bare hands – getting dirt underneath your finger nails – and then decide what you are going to do with it.
Preparing and cooking this fresh produce into something that can be shared with your tribe – the people that you love and want to spend time with – is very rewarding. Carefully cleaning, plucking and pruning this food takes time – and, it is this time that needs to be savoured as it can be quite a meditative experience.
We are not talking ‘fancy schmancy’ or ‘master chefy’. Far from it actually. I am talking about cooking and sharing simple wholesome food with your family, friends and community. To connect in a meaningful way that nourishes and nurtures us.
I have been following the story of Rodney Dunn for a very long time. He is someone that I truly admire. In my world he is somewhat like a ‘rock star’ to me where I would probably be too nervous to ask for his autograph or even take a photo.
*Picture courtesy of ‘The Hobart’ independent local magazine. May/June 2019
His ethos and philosophy surrounding the establishment of the Agrarian Kitchen and Cooking School – and, more recently their two hatted Eatery at Willow Court in New Norfolk, showcases his exemplary commitment to reconnecting the kitchen with the land.
Our aim is to create a place where people can rediscover the simple pleasures of gathering and cooking with produce as close to the source as possible
Rodney grew up in country New South Wales where he was influenced by the classic Italian principles of cooking fresh seasonal produce. In the early part of his career, Rodney trained as a chef under the acclaimed Tetsuya Wakuda. Working at such a high level gave Rodney strong cooking techniques with discipline and precision. It also earned him respect in the industry.
He then became the Food Editor of Gourmet Traveller magazine and on the off chance, traveled to Tasmania with Gourmet Traveller – fell in love with the place and it all went from there.
He dreamed of doing the whole ‘River Cottage’ experience – after watching the television series. His concept evolved as he looked around Tasmania to see what was on offer and from that the Agrarian Kitchen Cooking School and Farm was born. A carefully planned and well thought through venture which has paved the way for continued growth.
This year, my husband Matt asked me what I wanted for mother’s day. And I said to him that it was truly time to go and visit this cooking school and would he like to come with me? And he said yes!
I was beyond excited because I recently found out that they were moving the cooking school from their family home at the end of the year – so I knew I just had to go this year to experience the ‘original cooking school’ and have a look at what they have been creating over the years.
So in true style, Matt not only designed a specially crafted card to surprise me – he also planned and booked the whole trip which made me feel very special.
So after months of waiting – off we went! It was very cold in Melbourne when we left and also very cold in Tasmania when we arrived there – but it was crisp and fresh and we wore our winter warmers.
On our first day, we visited the beautiful town of Richmond, one of Tasmania’s most popular destinations and only 20 minutes from Hobart. Richmond is famous for their Georgian architecture and also has Australia’s oldest bridge. I particularly enjoyed exploring the op shops and antiques. I discovered this beautiful heart which I loved.
We checked into a quaint abode with cute little figurines to make one feel at home. It’s the little things. Nothing expensive. Just enough to create a beautiful warmth and ambience.
For dinner, we ventured out to our favourite Greek restaurant in Salamanca Square called Mezethes Greek Taverna. We have been to this restaurant many times in the past and it is classic traditional Greek cuisine made very well. We always love it.
Finally the day had arrived! I woke up early and we drove to the beautiful old quaint town of Lachlan. We parked the car and walked to the house where we were warmly greeted by this beautiful red door which made me smile.
As we walked inside I was immediately struck by how many cook books he had. And this was only one shelf! There was another big shelf full of books as well. Rodney mentioned that he had lots stored at the Eatery too. Such wonderful reference materials – a mix of very old and very new cook books. Including the two books that he had published himself which were on display. A true sign of someone’s commitment and passion.
Because his family home is an old school house – he explained to us that the first room used to be one of the classrooms. Now it is a beautiful dining room with the most lovely wooden table.
As you walk through to the kitchen – which was also a classroom – you are greeted by these big windows overlooking the paddock. It had such lovely light and warmth to it. A dream kitchen for some and such a fabulous place to cook!
On the right hand side there was a warm crackling fire keeping us all warm.
And on the top of the fireplace was the menu for the day. You actually don’t know what you are going to be cooking until you get there as Rodney decides what he has in his garden that week. This provides the inspiration for the menu. I was excited to see nettles on there as I had never touched or cooked with them before. I was also very excited to be learning how to make home-made ice-cream too. Yum.
So, we get started! And the first thing we do is grab some gum boots, a coat, providore basket and an umbrella and venture outside to learn about the evolution of his garden and pick some fresh produce.
It was cold and wet. But that made it really special actually. Everything was glistening.
We first went to have a look at Rodney’s smoke house where he cures and smokes his meat. Listening to his stories and learning about how he set things up and what worked and didn’t work was extremely interesting.
I learned that sometimes things work and sometimes they just don’t. And that is ok. In life, this is also an important lesson to uphold.
We moved around his farm learning about the sustainable farming practices that he is utilising – it is a closed loop system that houses very limited outside inputs. He would call this an agrarian system.
The agrarian system – which predated the industrial revolution – was subsistence farming where farmers grew a range of food crops and animals that complemented each other to provide food for their families and local community.
During our walk we stumbled across the stinging nettle which was very exciting for me. We all gathered around and picked some.
Stinging nettle is a herbaceous perennial flowering plant in the family Urticaceae and comes from Northern Europe and Asia. Its scientific name is Urtica dioica.
This plant boasts pretty, heart-shaped leaves and yellow or pink flowers. The stems are covered in tiny, stiff hairs that release stinging chemicals when touched.
When you are picking the leaves, in preparation for cooking – it is best to use gloves.
We continued to walk around the property and I learned that the garden is based on organic principles where they grow heirloom varieties without the use of chemicals or artificial fertilisers.
And to rejuvenate the soil and prepare the beds for the next crop, they use pigs who spend around 4 to 5 weeks eating all the weeds and leftover greens growing underneath the soil. As long as you give them shelter, water and a little bit of food, they are very happy to do this! Once again, a very natural way of farming.
I was also in awe of the large variety of espalier fruit trees all lined up in a row. When planted and grown properly they can produce lots of fruit – even higher yields than a fully established fruit tree. The nice thing about that is that you don’t have to get on a ladder to pick the fruit. A win win for all!
After picking what we needed for our cooking session we ventured inside to get cooking! Everything was set up and ready to go and we had so much fresh produce to use.
So, as a team of 10 we all had lots of jobs to do. Matt and I were the lead chefs on the dessert because we were very keen to learn how to make home-made ice-cream. Everything had to be measured correctly as dessert making is very much a science.
At one point – we were down just one egg. Rodney very quickly went outside to go and find one. He said to us – I’m not sure if we will find one – but I will get out there and see if there is one lying around. Rodney walked back inside with foggy and wet glasses gleaming with complete happiness of his find! Alas – we were in luck! The joy on his face said it all for me.
It was a hive of activity in the kitchen for many hours. Everyone was contributing, learning and just so happy to be there.
If there was a cooking technique that needed explanation, Rodney would stop the whole group and teach the concepts in a very simple and easy to understand way allowing each individual to touch and feel as the ingredients progressed to new levels of creation.
We learned how how to make fresh ricotta cheese.
Used this ricotta to make ravioli. This can be a tricky cooking technique – but under Rodney’s guidance it was so easy and achievable.
And those wonderful nettles were ‘ready to go’ for our nettle and garlic burnt butter sauce.
There is an ‘art’ to making sure the burnt butter has a nutty flavour to it and it was great to have Rodney there to teach us how to do that.
As with many pasta dishes, it is always very good to add the pasta to the sauce and mix them gently together to really develop the flavours.
Success. The most beautiful ‘melt in your mouth’ ravioli. Warm, buttery, light morsels of deliciousness.
We were spoilt with such beautiful food and had a complete feast on our hands on the ready to enjoy for lunch.
The polpettone wrapped in pancetta did not disappoint. From the fresh mincing of the meat we learned that a pork shoulder has a natural ratio of 70% meat an 30% fat. Perfect for making sausages and meatballs.
We carefully moulded the polpettone and wrapped them in the most beautifully cured pancetta from Rodney’s smokehouse which were fried gently to release their natural flavours.
They were then simmered slowly in a rich tomato sauce and topped with grated Italian Parmesan cheese.
The salads were gorgeous as most of the ingredients were picked fresh from the garden that morning. We devoured the crisp winter salad.
And enjoyed those wonderful carrots we picked by making chermoula roast carrots with steamed quinoa and yoghurt.
And for dessert….the Meyer lemon meringue tarts. Matt and I were in charge of this dessert. Not only was it fun to make – we also learned so many cooking techniques.
We made a beautiful cardamom leaf ice-cream, the pastry cases, lemon curd and the Italian meringue that adorned the top. We even got to use a blow torch for wonderful effect!
Rodney showed us how to prepare the dessert.
Quite a professional finish.
I’m not sure if Matt’s meringue tops were as professional as Rodney’s! But…as we always say in our house – as long as it tastes good!
So because of that effort, I decided to steer clear of the pinnacles and went with a swirl – so much easier and garnered a few chuckles from the crew!
As the cooking class came to a close. I savoured my last coffee and some closing conversation with the great group we were privileged to have spent the day with.
Over this coffee, I listened to the conversation at the table. In particular, from those who lived on farms in Tasmania who were also producing their own food. The passion for the land and what they were producing was very interesting. As a city girl, I felt somewhat removed from this.
They talked about how they were bartering their fresh produce with neighbouring friends so everyone would have enough variety. The sharing of fresh meat straight from their farms – using a local butcher who drives from farm-to-farm – and prepares all the meat on-site. There is no double handling and they are assured it is their animal.
They also help each other out to harvest their produce. There was one story shared where someone landed a wonderful crop of pine nuts. A good excuse for a get-together. Their friends spent many hours taking the shells off these nuts (a painful process!) to be left with a very small quantity of them to eat!
They quickly added that it didn’t matter because they loved getting together, the funny conversation and the drinking of lots of their home made liquors and wines. Just having that special time of connection and nourishment (of wine!) was truly enough for them to cherish.
Well, it was a lovely end to a wonderful day and left me yearning for a life like that one day. I looked out of those beautiful windows one last time and said goodbye to Rodney and the people we had met.
As we drove back to our apartment in Hobart, I suggested to Matt that we must now go and ‘round out the whole experience’ and visit Rodney and Severine’s Agrarian Kitchen Eatery in New Norfolk the following day for lunch before we go home.
I rang to make a booking on the day – they were all booked out! I very enthusiastically and persuasively mentioned that I was one of Rodney’s students from the day before and we had visited from Melbourne. I said that it would be lovely to even just ‘drop by’ to ‘have a look’. Well – we got a reserved window seat – which I was so very grateful for. They were just so lovely on the phone.
On our way – I wanted to visit the The Drill Hall Emporium in New Norfolk as I had read about this beautiful antique shop when reading one of my Australian Country Style magazines. Julia Ostro – a fabulous Melbourne Cook and Author – was interviewed and she talked about how much she loved this place. So I had to go and see for myself.
It did not disappoint. The outside looked so classically country.
And then you walk inside to be greeted by an eclectic collection of hand-picked antiques such as: country style furniture (made very well); kitchen and garden tools; interesting objects and lovely textiles.
I almost purchased this bundt tin! But had to restrain myself. When I was in Paris a few years ago – I saw one just like it at a flea market and regretted not purchasing it. I wonder if it is the same one? I still think about it from time to time.
As Matt dragged me out of this store (with our credit card in tact), we quickly walked for 2 minutes around the corner to visit their sister store called flywheel – a boutique vintage office, stationary and letterpress studio.
Another gorgeous place! I succumbed, this time, to purchasing some beautiful twine in all different colours to wrap gifts in. A little easier to carry home in my suitcase.
So off we went to the Eatery. I was full of excitement and anticipation.
When you walk in, you are greeted by a very big open space with expansive windows and high ceilings adorned in press metal. It was fully booked. And you could see the anticipation in everyone’s faces as they walked through the door.
When I walked around to take in the atmosphere, I noticed a beautiful big private dining space set up for special occasions and the kitchen was a hive of activity. A well built wood-fired oven was in there and the team were working in a rather relaxed way – you could see that they were truly enjoying each other’s company.
Rodney was in there too! I was too reserved to wave and say hello. You could see the passion and pride on his face. He guided his team and shared in their combined passion of working with produce that walks in the door with soil still on it and meat that is only broken down when needed.
I was very happy with our window seat and grateful that they were so accommodating. And when I looked at the menu I could see the same themes coming through where local and seasonal produce is celebrated – authentic ingredients – lovingly prepared.
We started with a yummy cumquat cordial.
Then enjoyed their famous sourdough potato cakes with spicy ketchup.
House made burrata with meyer lemon and dried pepper.
Sweet heart ham with pickled green tomato.
Left over bread ice-cream. Nothing is ever wasted.
Pavlova with morello cherry and kefir cream. So delicious.
Such a wonderful meal. And I will never forget the experience.
It was time to go home and jump on a plane back to Melbourne. So we left the eatery and hopped in the car to head to the airport.
A very quick turn of events in that very moment meant that the best was yet to come!
It was a very rainy day and unfortunately our car got bogged on the lawn – so we were stuck there. Matt said…’let’s ring the RACV…’. And I said … ‘I think we should go back into the restaurant and ask someone if they know anybody in the community with a strong car and rope to yank us out…’. We agreed that we should do that.
So we walked back in. And I said to the lovely lady at the door…’remember me, the one that you generously gave us a window seat at such short notice?’. And, the woman said…’yes, I do’. And then I said…’well, we are in a bit of a pickle and was wondering if someone could help us out…?’.
She immediately said…’no worries, I’ll speak to Rodney!…’. And I’m thinking in my head…’Oh, no…let’s not bother Rodney…!’. He was out in a flash, with his apron on looking all concerned. And he said to me…’I remember you from yesterday…!’. He then said…’well, I’ve got a ute and a thin piece of rope – let’s see if that will work’.
He was going to yank us out! Good grief! So he walked out with Matt and assessed the situation.
Rodney then arrived in his ute and yanked the car out for us. We were so grateful and I thanked him with a warm hug. No photo or autograph was required for this hero moment!
Well…that for me, was the highlight of the trip. And such a dramatic ending too.
What an experience. What a bucket list moment for me.
I would like to go back one day to visit the next evolution of their dream and vision. There are plans now to move the whole cooking school out of the family home and extend it on this site where the restaurant is.
They have plenty of room to build a very large farm to grow and house all the produce and they will build a purpose built kitchen and dining room to continue with what has been for me, an exceptional farm to plate experience.
Until next time.