I’ve called Tasmania home since the heart-shaped isle was barely known beyond its Overland Track, shrieking devils and forbidden fruit; since the East Coast-site now home to luxury lodge Saffire Freycinet was covered in caravans. Yet Saffire and I were only recently introduced.
When I sit down for my first meal and scan the list of contributing local farmers, growers, bakers, delis and roasters, I see some familiar favourites of my own. Seasonal foraging is a way of life in this state and there are ingredients from Saffire’s garden, a local’s beehives and the bushland and shorelines of Freycinet Peninsula. In fact, Saffire turns out to be so genuinely Tasmanian flavoured, I have the easy sense we’ve met before.
Just as Saffire’s architecture frames, highlights and amplifies this peninsula’s natural beauty, executive chef and assistant general manager, Hugh Whitehouse, and head chef, Simon Pockran, are responsible for doing the same with the foodstuffs of the island. Or, on occasion, with some insanely exotic edible flown in from elsewhere on a wildly extravagant whim. Although Whitehouse has always been the central creative force, his entire staff is culpable.
One of Saffire’s chefs, Jay Whitfield, walked and talked me through the kitchen and lunchtime drill earlier in the day. It’s clear to me he loves what he does and appreciates being trusted to create what feels, smells, looks, tastes right. He also flashes me lists of information about guests; intelligence channelled into the kitchen so every visitor’s dining experience can be subtly customised. The data is so much more comprehensive than allergies and intolerances that I suspect they know whom I voted for in the last federal election and where I’m most ticklish.
My first meal is a six-course dégustation with matched wines served by Patrick and Ashley. These two young Tasmanians have such classic style and grace it’s only the sight of the sunset-pink Hazards that reminds me I’m not in an EM Forster novel. Patrick is unflappable, while Ashley does have to fight to hide his excitement once or twice when introducing us to his favourite European wines.
Dinner begins with a spring salad of pickled and fresh seasonal vegetables, quinoa and milk curd. This is followed by an eight-grain congee with scallops, green lip abalone and smoked eel that my dining companion finds so inexplicably delicious he nearly laughs the first mouthful back onto the plate. A second seafood dish is miso-caramelised hapuka with hand-picked spanner crab, fine seaweeds, oyster cream and shitake. The strip of Rangers Valley beef – one of just a few ingredients imported from ‘the mainland’ – is eye-rollingly tasty. Mango, tapioca pearls, mandarin granita, ginger cream and sheep’s milk yoghurt sorbet arrives after a cheese course of 18-month cloth-matured Pyengana cheddar with pickled walnuts, dried fruit and nut bread.
The menu changes every day and Saffire’s charming general manager, Justin King, tells me they will occasionally set up the whole kitchen for groups en plein air if the weather and vibe are right. We like to nod first, he tells me, then nut out the logistics second.
That this attitude, innovation and energy can be found on a fairly isolated peninsula of a remote island off a far-flung country is no great surprise to me. Places that offer space to move and room to think – they are usually geographically extreme with a well-preserved natural environment and low population density – have a tendency to encourage particular personalities to reach their full potential.
The next day, even though I’ve had Whitfield’s succulent slow-roasted goat with self-serve salads for lunch (because Saffire knows too much formal dining gets tedious), I’m peckish by mid-afternoon having already been conditioned by the hotel to eat something sublime every two hours.
So, I’m soon ankle-deep in mud and thigh-deep in seawater in Greater Swanport river estuary. Activity guides talk us through oyster farming in a nutshell before we slurp down Pacifics pried open within sight of their own breeding racks, and wash them back with lime and local bubbly or chardonnay. It’s a windy day but warm in the bright sun and my faded green waders insulate me from the cool water. Not surprisingly, this activity appears on the Saffire schedule every day of the week.
I squeeze in a cocktail mixology class before dinner and learn how to make what I now know is my favourite cocktail – an Eastside, with fresh mint from the kitchen garden. Cooking demonstrations, which I run out of time to fit in, are also available, given by either the sous or head chef.
Something else to come back for is the so-called wine and vine adventure, which alternates between tours of Freycinet Vineyard and Apsley Gorge Vineyard. The latter’s owner, Brian Franklin, was a crayfisherman who pursued a Frenchwoman all the way to Europe. He came home sans the girl of his dreams but avec a barrelful of her family’s winemaking knowledge. Or so the story goes.
In small insular populations, like Tasmania’s, people often develop a broader set of skills and transfer their knowledge and abilities between diverse occupations. Saffire’s devil wrangler is also a wildlife artist. The co-owner of Freycinet Marine Farm, specialising in mussels and oysters, was a sheep farmer a decade ago.
Whitehouse has also fallen fairly far from the tree having been raised on a farm in NSW. When I ask Jay, at the end of the kitchen tour, if he’s interested in working his way up to executive chef, he just grins and tells me he’s off next month to join the commandos.