For slow foodies and curd nerds

Carli Ratcliff tends her organic food - from paddock to plate - on a hands-on gourmet tour of the Derwent Valley.

I have a glass of warm whisky mash in my hand on a Friday morning. Porridge for alcoholics, the mash is whisky in its earliest form. Taken from a vat of hot Tasmanian spring water with locally grown barley swimming in it, the mash has an intense sweetness.

I've arrived in Hobart on a morning flight with other "curd nerds", led by Sydney cheesemonger Claudia McIntosh, and the mash is our breakfast. It is soon chased with a "breakfast whisky" at Larks Distillery at Mount Pleasant served by a whisky expert, Mark Nicholson.

Whisky aside, our group is eagerly anticipating the first cheese tasting of the day at Australia's only organic sheep cheesery, Grandvewe at Birchs Bay, 40 minutes south of Hobart. Cheesemaker Diane Rae moved from Queensland to Tasmania in 2001. An experienced organic farmer, she acquired a herd of East Freisland sheep and took cheesemaking courses at the University of Melbourne. She soon began milking and in 2002 produced the first wheels of Grandvewe cheese.

Rae has recently expanded the herd to include goats. "We suddenly had a glut of goat's milk on the island so I figured I should take advantage of it, diversify and come up with some new products," she says.

Rae has four sheep cheeses in her range as well as sheep's milk yoghurt and ice-cream. We taste the cheeses with matched wines from grapes grown on the property. After the tasting, Rae invites the group to don shower caps, gumboots and lab coats and we help oil large rounds of hard, cooked curd, Manchego-style cheese called Primavera. Our work for the day is done, so we're off to lunch at Meadowbank Wines. Salmon gravlax and local lamb cutlets are accompanied by pink-eye potatoes - Nicholson tells us that they are grown further south and have just come into season. After lunch we wander through the vineyard and down a dirt road to the distillery for more tastings, including aged whiskies and a sample of the "middle cut" from a batch brewing in the copper still, at 90 per cent alcohol.

Unsurprisingly, Saturday morning begins slowly, with a wander through Hobart's Salamanca markets. Stalls sell local strawberries, scallop pies, sourdough breads and Bruny Island cheese. There is charcuterie from the Rare Foods company, including bacon, pancetta and pies made from heritage-breed pigs by chef Ross O'Meara and former Sydney Morning Herald food critic Matthew Evans, who lives in the Huon Valley, and he grows much of his own food.

From the markets we drive to the Agrarian Kitchen. Rodney Dunn, a former food editor of Gourmet Traveller magazine, and his wife, Severine, have established a cooking school at Lachlan in the Derwent Valley, 45 minutes north-west of Hobart.

They have a large organic vegetable garden - lettuces and leeks grow beside purple garlic; zucchinis, cabbages, rhubarb and blackcurrants are in abundance, while heirloom raspberries and tomatoes will be ready to pick in a month or so. The garden keeps the family fed and produces the ingredients for the classes.

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Dunn has designed today's menu, and we're here to cook: tortellini stuffed with stinging nettles and ricotta, dressed with garlic and burnt butter; Angus beef involtini with raclette, pancetta and sage; more pink-eye potatoes and, for dessert, individual cheesecakes made using Rae's goat's curd, topped with poached rhubarb in rosewater syrup.

Everything is made from scratch. I skim the cream from fresh milk so it can be used for home-made butter, and roll shortbread for the base of our cheesecakes. I watch as Dunn teaches the group how to make ricotta to fill the tortellini.

Lunch is served in the garden overlooking paddocks of new spring lambs and baby goats. We throw back a 2006 merlot made by the Lubiana family, fifth-generation winemakers who live nearby, and a d'meure pinot gris from Birchs Bay made by former law professor Dirk Meure. As our cheesecakes hit the table, we're joined by Ashley Huntington, the artisan brewer of The Two Metre Tall Company. He trained and worked as a winemaker in France for seven years before returning home in 2004, then turned his hand to beer and beef cattle.

As tall as his company name suggests, Huntington claims he is the only brewer in the world to grow all of the ingredients for his beer - hops, wheat and barley for malt are grown on his farm at Hayes, 50 minutes' north-west of Hobart. The ingredients are mixed with rainwater and pure river water from the Derwent to create his range of four beers. We taste all four, starting with the unique Derwent Clear Ale, made from hops grown on the banks of the Derwent, and ending with the rich Huon Dark Ale, comprising unfiltered apple juice from the Huon Valley and five types of malt barley.

The beers taste unlike any we have previously encountered. "The beer industry worldwide, including Tasmania, has become so commercialised that what you get in a bottle can barely be defined as beer," Huntington says. "Preservatives, colouring, stabilisers, sugar and carbon are added. We use nothing but Tasmanian ingredients and natural fermentation." A couple of cases make it into the van for the journey back to Hobart.

On Sunday we take the ferry to Bruny Island, a 15-minute ride from the port at Kettering, 33 kilometres south of Hobart. A drive around the island includes a view of salmon-feeding pens, said to be capable of housing 40,000 fish. This prompts discussion about our fish-buying habits. But we are here to see animals in the wild. On our boat tour we see a soaring albatross and sea lions basking in the sun. We float amid sea birds diving for krill. As we head back to land, baby dolphins chase our boat.

The curd nerds are looking for a cheesy conclusion to the weekend and a visit to Nick Haddow's Bruny Island Cheese Company is our holy grail. Haddow greets us with a lunch of just-plucked Bruny oysters, Rare Foods rabbit terrine and Berkshire pork rillettes, bacon-and-egg pies, freshly baked sourdough bread and cheese cut from rounds in the centre of the table.

Remarkably, everything we have eaten and drunk this weekend has been produced by hand and grown within an hour's drive of the table on which we dined. Real food.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Virgin Blue, Jetstar and Qantas fly to Hobart from Melbourne and Sydney; Tiger Airways flies from Melbourne only. Tiger fares from $38 one way; Jetstar fares from Sydney from $69 one way.

Touring there

McIntosh & Bowman Cheesemongers, based in Sydney, run tours to key cheesemaking destinations, including Tasmania. The next tour to Tasmania is on April 24-26. The author took a three-day trip, which costs $2200 including flights, accommodation, transfers, tastings, classes and most meals. Phone 0422 728 505; see mcintoshandbowman.com.

Larks Distillery produces whisky and spirits from Tasmanian ingredients including its unique mountain pepperberry liquor. At 14 Davey Street, Hobart. Phone (03) 6231 9088; see larkdistillery.com.au.

Grandvewe Cheesery and Cellar Door is a working sheep and goat farm run by cheesemaker Diane Rae at Birchs Bay (sheep's cheese pictured). It has a licensed cafe and cheese tastings at the cellar door. At 59 Devlyns Road, Birchs Bay. Phone (03) 6267 4099; see grandvewe.com.

Salamanca Market opens on Saturdays 8.30am-3pm. Between St David's Park and Princes Wharf, Hobart. See hobartcity.com.au.

The Agrarian Kitchen runs specialist cooking classes weekly. At 650 Lachlan Road, Lachlan. Phone (03) 6261 1099; see www.theagrariankitchen.com.

The Two Metre Tall Company produces artisan beers from local ingredients. Call ahead for tastings at the cellar door. At 2862 Lyell Highway, Hayes. Phone (03) 6261 1930; see 2mt.com.au.

Bruny Island Cruises runs half-day tours around Bruny Island and to the edge of the Southern Ocean in search of wildlife. Phone (03) 6293 1465; see brunycruises.com.au.

Artisan cheesemaker Nick Haddow welcomes cheese lovers to Bruny Island Cheese Company's cellar door and cafe. Cheeses are available to take home. At 1807 Main Road, Great Bay, Bruny Island. Phone (03) 6260 6353; see brunyislandcheese.com.au.

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