The secret's in the source

Gardens, cooking classes and restaurants are on the menu as Julietta Jameson follows the food trail in and around Hobart.

Hobart achieves what mainland cities try studiously to capture: a life more intimate, connected and wholesome. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in its food scene. If there is a theme to island food, it's that it is authentic and seasonal. Growers explore heirloom and ancient plants to make seasonality a colourful adventure.

It all makes for a long, delicious holiday of exploration and degustation. I start with dinner at Ethos Eat Drink, housed in a reclaimed 1820s-built stable courtyard. As with the building, the menu is rustic, refined and unexpected. Lentils are laced with cinnamon. Roasted cauliflower is accompanied by pomegranate. An autumn veggie salad, featuring delicately sliced radishes of all kinds, artichoke, fennel and apple, is given texture with a sprinkling of golden purslane, a gorgeous, peppery succulent I'd never heard of but, I've since discovered, is an ancient food as full of goodness as it is flavour.

The revelations continue during post-dinner drinks. The bar at Hobart's Henry Jones Art Hotel stocks loads of local drops, from top-shelf whiskies to beers. I try a brilliant cider, Captain Bligh's, which displays a complex smoky depth that the barman tells me is because the cider contains no added sugar. He pours beers from a Derwent Valley sustainable brewery, Two Metres Tall, that has other drinkers in raptures.

The next day I head off to explore the New Norfolk region, about 35 kilometres north-west of Hobart. Within its valley folds is the Agrarian Kitchen, on many a foodie's list. A labour of love for former chef and food writer Rodney Dunn and his wife, Severine, the Agrarian Kitchen is housed in a meticulously restored 19th-century schoolhouse surrounded by several hectares of self-sufficient farm and old trees. Reconnecting with food sources is central to the Kitchen's philosophy and success.

Coffee, tea and a slice of a delicious cake Dunn has whipped up that morning is served before he talks nine students, including me, through the day, then lets us try our hand at bread dough. We wrap it, put it in front of the fire in the dining room and put on supplied gumboots and coats as we head into the garden to forage.

The menu, planned around what is, as Dunn says, "available to us, this place, this day, this set time", starts with a potato gnocchi with cime di rapa, pancetta and goat's milk ricotta. The main course will be rabbit and lovage pies accompanied by a winter salad, and a potato, Jerusalem artichoke and turnip gratin. Dessert will be a spiced poached quince and mascarpone dacquoise with burnt honey ice-cream.

We will cook the lot, not just stand about watching Dunn do the heavy lifting.

We pick herbs and vegetables while Dunn informs with his insights into growing food and eating seasonally. He divides the dishes to be prepared among the students and manages to be relaxed and attentive as we muddle about his kitchen. Then we all sit down to enjoy the fruits of our efforts with exquisite Tasmanian wines.

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I learn real techniques as I successfully complete the burnt ice-cream component of the meal and absorb invaluable tips on gnocchi, pastry and bread-making. It's such an instructive day, which in part explains why there are waiting lists for the Agrarian Kitchen's various courses. Dunn's passion is the icing on the cake, so to speak - a passion for produce and encouraging people to eat consciously and deliciously.

The following day, I decide to mooch around Hobart's touristy Salamanca Market and discover it's also an authentic masterclass in Tasmania's cornucopia: apples, purple carrots, succulent herbs and the seeds they grow from are sold along with handmade eating vessels, local wines of both the grape and berry kind, whiskies (very good), meads and ciders.

Behind the market in Salamanca Square is Smolt, where, aptly, the salmon and seafood menu is superb. Smolt is a partnership between Kif Weber and Scott McMurray, the owners of Tassal, a sustainable aquaculture salmon supplier, and the restaurant is pumping at breakfast, lunch, dinner and in between.

In the warren of stores that is Salamanca Place, I meet Bruny Island cheesemaker Nick Haddow, whose shop, A Common Ground, is a joint venture with farmer, author and TV host Matthew Evans.

The shop is a tiny space under sandstone stairs, but punches well above its weight on products from flour to chutneys alongside a selection of Haddow's cheeses.

"There's a real movement to small producers who are realising you can compete on quality," Haddow says. "So much here is high quality and that is driven by individuals, not corporations."

An example is the Sunday Farm Gate Market in the heart of the city, where producers - but not wholesalers - have stalls. The potato man's range of rare tubers is amazing - and popular. Locals queue patiently as he explains what's what to customers. Likewise, the sushi stall attracts a queue. It's where the man reputed to make the best sushi in Tasmania, Masaaki Koyama, has perfected the crispy seaweed wrapping and fresh local wasabi full of bite and warmth.

My holiday stay finishes with lunch upriver from Hobart at The Source, in the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). Chef Philippe Leban serves a degustation of refined, confident cuisine. The presentation is impeccable but not overly fussy, interesting but restrained.

Like the rainbow that sits across the horizon for the duration of the meal, the food runs a gorgeous spectrum from delicate seafood served on seawater jelly to an intensely flavoured steak with rich French-style mash - all local produce. The sommelier, Joseph Burton, surprises by serving wines from both the on-site vineyard, Moorilla, and selections from elsewhere in Tasmania and the world.

It's a statement of confidence.

Later, after I've accidentally, gushingly, proposed to Leban (the food is that good), he thanks me for the compliment, knocks me back and praises his suppliers.

"The real story in Tasmania is the producers," Leban says. "I'm happy to get the praise, but they are the heroes here."

Julietta Jameson travelled courtesy of Tourism Tasmania.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Jetstar (jetstar.com.au) and Virgin Australia (virgin.com.au) fly daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Hobart.

Staying there

The Henry Jones Art Hotel, Hunter Street, on Hobart's waterfront, is a boutique stay housed within historic stone walls. Rooms have high ceilings, original artwork, king-size beds and high-speed internet. From $234 a night. Phone 1800 703 006, see thehenryjones.com.

Hands-on there

The Agrarian Kitchen, 650 Lachlan Road, Lachlan, conducts classes from 9am to 4.30pm. A one-day Agrarian Experience class costs $350 a person. The Kitchen hosts two-day classes in Charcuterie; The Whole Hog; Secrets of Sourdough; and Birds of a Feather. Other one-day classes include Winter Braising; Cooking with Truffles; Desserts To Die for; and Pastry 101. On selected dates The Little Agrarian (classes for six- to 11-year-olds) takes place. Phone (03) 6261 1099, see www.theagrariankitchen.com.

Dining there

Ethos Eat Drink, 100 Elizabeth Street, Hobart, is open daily except Mondays. Phone (03) 6231 1165, see ethoseatdrink.com.

Smolt, Salamanca Square, is open daily from 8.30am. Phone (03) 6224 2554, see smolt.com.au.

A Common Ground, Shop 3, Salamanca Arts Centre, is open daily 10am-4pm.

The Source Restaurant, at MONA, Berriedale, is open daily except Tuesdays for breakfast and lunch, dinner Wednesday-Saturday. Phone (03) 6277 9904, see mona.net.au.

Sunday Farm Gate Market is from 9am to 1pm, corner Elizabeth and Melville streets. See tasfarmgate.com.au.

More information

See discovertasmania.com.au.

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