Though undoubtedly one of history's greatest navigators, William Bligh was not a green thumb. In 1788, the year before he was cast adrift by the crew of the Bounty, Bligh planted the first vineyard in the sandy soils of Bruny Island, Van Diemen's Land. As is often the case when an Englishman touches food, disaster ensued: within weeks the vines had shrivelled and died.
From such inauspicious beginnings, Bruny Island has emerged as a foodie destination, its delicious distractions joining the wild beaches, blue-gum forests and fairy penguin rookeries that have long tempted travellers to take the 40-minute drive and 20-minute ferry ride south from Hobart.
Despite being home to just 650 people (and 14,000 sheep), Bruny's lush pastures, stormy seas and passionate producers have made it a microcosm of the food scene "mainland" Tasmania is so loved for: pungent cheeses, pristine seafood, fat lambs and warming wines, all served at unpretentious gourmet eateries. Examining my map when I arrive, I notice Bruny's gourmet attractions are spaced equally across the 72-kilometre-long island as if on a stylised treasure map. My first port of call on this epicurean join-the-dots is the Bruny Island Cheese Company at Great Bay.
After a 10-year apprenticeship in the great cheesemaking regions of England, France, Spain and Italy, Adelaide native Nick Haddow chose Bruny Island as the site for his now celebrated cheesery in 2003 for two reasons: it had a suitable climate and sufficient isolation to keep the bureaucrats from bothering him about using raw milk, something he got permission to do only after a long and tedious process (not everyone is convinced the bacteria in raw milk is healthy).
A decade on, the Bruny Island Cheese Company remains Australia's only retail cheesery that uses unpasteurised milk, making it one of the country's favourite artisanal labels and Bruny's chief tourist attraction. A steady stream of "curd nerds" visits every day.
Unfortunately, when I visit, Haddow is at Flinders Island filming the latest series of SBS's Gourmet Farmer with culinary partner in crime Matthew Evans, so it's to senior cheesemaker John Bullock I ask the obvious question: why use unpasteurised milk?
"Quite simply," Bullock says, "because cheese made from unpasteurised milk makes your taste buds go 'waa', whereas cheese made from pasteurised milk doesn't make them go 'waa'."
While I struggle not to laugh at his Python-esque answer, Bullock cuts two slices of the same style of cheese for me to taste: one made from pasteurised milk, the other unpasteurised. The cheese is a Savoyard-style tomme and though I don't hear them go "waa", my taste buds can discern the difference: the unpasteurised tomme has a more complex, layered flavour, with a biting aftertaste lacking in its pasteurised equivalent.
In the cheesery's adjoining garden cafe, I sample a selection of the soft cheeses in which Haddow and his team specialise, all made from cow's milk from the one herd. Particularly memorable is the ODO, a creamy one-day-old cheese marinated in olive oil, garlic and roasted red capsicum, but for travelling purposes I buy a surface-ripened Saint (a reference to Massif Central cheeses named after local saints) and a smelly 1792 (the year the French arrived in Tasmania), hand-washed in brine and matured on aromatic huon pine boards. Together with a loaf of sourdough baked that morning in the cheesery's wood-fired oven, these will form the basis of a picnic lunch.
My next stop is the Bruny Island Smoke House at nearby Sykes Cove. BISH is the acronym by which the locals know this deli and gastropub, where gourmet burgers and Bruny shellfish chowder are served beside the open fire in a cosy log-and-stone cabin. But it's what's out back that BISH is most famous for: an antique smoking oven used to cure local salmon, mussels, oysters and duck. BISH also sells chutney made from black devil cherries, a rare and, as the name suggests, diabolically sweet variety grown in the island's north almost exclusively for export. Along with smoked salmon and smoked leatherwood honey duck, I add a jar to my picnic basket.
Like a giant dumb-bell, Bruny Island consists of two chunky land masses joined by a narrow isthmus and as I cross The Neck, as it's called, brooding fingers of cloud turn the Southern Ocean to my left the colour of sump oil. To my right on the leeward side of the island, black swans bob among the brackish waters of the D'Entrecasteaux Channel.
I spend the afternoon exploring beaches and forests south of the isthmus, fuelled by my poacher's parcel of cheese, bread, cured meats and chutney. This part of the island was the site of several landings during the European exploration of Van Diemen's Land, with Cook, Furneaux, D'Entrecasteaux, Flinders (and Bligh) each dropping anchor offshore. The locals they encountered were members of the Nuenonne nation and had long enjoyed Bruny's produce, feasting on its fish, muttonbirds and shellfish.
As night falls, and with it sheets of icy rain, I head north in search of dinner. Though the pub at Alonnah serves tasty but unspectacular meals (steaks, fish and chips, pasta) and the Jetty Cafe at Dennes Point specialises in Bruny's juicy lamb, I am tempted by a quirky establishment near The Neck recommended by a friend in Hobart. The Hothouse Cafe is just that: a greenhouse-turned-eatery complete with garden furniture and a sand floor. I arrive unannounced, sopping wet, and am immediately chastised by the owner, Michael Morrison.
"You didn't book, did you?" he sighs, shaking his head as I drip over the floor and attract stares from the packed tables. Just as I think I'll be turned away, Morrison breaks into a sympathetic smile. "Well, I guess we can fit you in," he says. "You'd better sit down then, matey, so we can warm you up with a feed."
Much like Morrison himself, the "feed" I'm given is unpretentious, unalloyed and hearty as hell: a steak of Bruny farmed salmon served with a tangy yabby sauce and a side of vegetables grown out the back. Along with a glass of chardonnay from Bruny Island Premium Wines and a chunk of Morrison's legendary damper, it's the perfect accompaniment to the beating rain.
I start the next day with a feast reminiscent of Francois Mitterrand's infamous last meal. Though the late French president gorged on a dinner of Charente oysters, foie gras and the endangered ortolan songbird, my breakfast is also decadent: leftover smoked duck from BISH, half a dozen oysters from Get Shucked oyster farm and a heart-stopping scallop pie from the Lunnawanna Link Cafe (other flavours on offer include Bruny lamb and rosemary, rabbit and leek and, surprisingly, crocodile). I'm still wiping pastry flakes from my face when I arrive at my final destination, nestled on a hillside overlooking the pounding breakers of Cloudy Bay.
The daughter and granddaughter of Bruny orchardists, Bernice Woolley had always been tempted to grow fruit on the island, so when a site came on the market in 1997, she and husband Richard bought it and planted 2500 pinot noir and 1500 chardonnay vines, in the process establishing Australia's southernmost winery.
Today, Bruny Island Premium Wines has 6000 vines and a growing reputation; the 2009 chardonnay won bronze at last year's Tasmanian Wine Show and silver at the previous year's Royal Hobart International Wine Show.
It's mid-April when I visit and after a summer that came late, if at all ("Not an Indian summer, a Bruny summer," Woolley says), the vines have turned the colour of cornflakes and groan with fruit. As I nurse a glass of deliciously chewy pinot, Bernice walks me down to look at the grapes - a process that involves opening a gate, turning off an electric fence, climbing over a barbed-wire fence and lifting a heavy net.
"You've got to protect your crop on Bruny," Bernice says of her Guantanamo-like security. "If it's not the birds, it's the possums, wallabies and rabbits." Without such protection, Bligh's grapes never stood a chance.
Sam Vincent travelled courtesy of Tourism Tasmania.
Getting there From Hobart, drive about 40 minutes south to Kettering, where a daily car-ferry service plies the 20-minute journey across the D'Entrecasteaux Channel to Roberts Point on Bruny's north. Return fares (vehicles less than five metres) are from $28-$33 a person. See brunyisland.net.
Bruny Island Cheese Company, 1807 Main Road, Great Bay; open daily, 10am-5pm; phone (03) 6260 6353; see brunyislandcheese.com.au.
Bruny Island Smoke House, 360 Lennon Road, north Bruny; open Wed-Sun, 11am-10pm; phone (03) 6260 6344; see brunyislandsmokehouse.com.au.
Bruny Island Hotel, 3959 Main Road, Alonnah; lunch and dinner, Mon-Sat; phone (03) 6293 1148.
Jetty Cafe, 18 Main Road, Dennes Point; open daily; phone (03) 6260 6245.
Hothouse Cafe, 46 Adventure Bay Road, Adventure Bay; open daily; phone (03) 6293 1131; see morella-island.com/hothouse.
Get Shucked oyster farm, 1650 Main Road, Great Bay; open daily, 9am-5pm (October-June); Mon-Fri, 10am-4pm (June-October); phone 0428 606 250; see getshucked.com.au.
Lunawanna Link Cafe, 10 Cloudy Bay Road, Lunawanna; open daily; phone (03) 6293 1297.
Bruny Island Premium Wines, 4391 Main Road, Lunawanna; cellar door open daily, 11am-4pm; phone (03) 6293 1088; see brunyislandwine.com, discovertasmania.com.au.
Perfect for families, Beachfront on Bruny is a self-contained cottage sleeping four. It overlooks a sheltered beach and has kid-friendly features, including plastic buckets and spades and a torch with red cellophane over the lens for fairy penguin-spotting forays to the Neck (red light doesn't disturb the little critters). The cottage is $195 a night, minimum two-night stay. 1848 Main Road, Great Bay; phone (03) 6293 1271; see beachfrontonbruny.com.au.