Somewhere, out there, in the wide metropolis of Melbourne, is photographic evidence of me milking a goat. Said goat belongs to Rodney Dunn, owner of the Agrarian Kitchen in Lachlan, Tasmania, where I decided to spend my birthday earlier this year.
Those of you who have been reading this el rustico bloggo for a little while will know that I’m a tad in love with Tasmania. It’s become a special place that has stolen my heart with its abundance of amazing produce, rugged wilderness, tranquillity, artistic community, wines and, just to reiterate, its stupendous produce. To be in Tasmania is to experience a completely different way of life to that on the mainland. It wasn’t that long ago that I seriously contemplated moving to Hobart with romantic notions of working in one of its many produce stores, hanging out at Mona and going for weekly hikes, before one day beginning my own food venture.
So, when my birthday came around yet again in February, and I’d had a couple of months of being back in bustling Melbourne after living in Sweden, I decided it was time to head south for a weekend away. Big birthday bashes had lost their lustre for me some time ago and much to my mother’s dismay, all I wanted was a quiet one away from it all. There was also an ulterior motive. For years I had wanted to take part in a cooking class at the famed Agrarian Kitchen, and when I discovered they had one of their day-long ‘agrarian experience’ courses running on my birthday weekend, I booked myself a spot and put in my leave form.
The Agrarian Kitchen is a cooking school run by former Gourmet Traveller food editor, Rodney Dunn, and situated on his 5-acre farm in Lachlan, just outside of New Norfolk, which is about 45 minutes from Hobart. I had driven through New Norfolk on a previous trip and knew that the cooking school existed, but had never ventured to the hidden gem that is Lachlan. I’ll say that it’s a world away from the very interesting town of New Norfolk, and leave it at that!
Funny how the journey to tranquillity is often a frantic one. On the Thursday, I left work early and made my way to the airport with the overnight bag in tow. And then a freak lightning storm happened and the airport was closed. When I did arrive in Hobart at 9.30 p.m., I raced to the hire car office which was shortly due to close, and picked up my little car. I’ll admit, I was a fraction anxious. It was pitch black and I was driving out to god knows where, with no idea where this B&B was that I’d booked only that day. After a bit of loco self-talk (‘you’ve travelled overseas on your own, blah, blah, blah’), I got the music going and headed out onto the mean streets of Hobart (really, the safest, quietest streets of any Australian city). In no time I was on the East Derwent Highway, crossing over the River Derwent, then plunged into darkness as my car hugged the hills heading into New Norfolk. My phone was dying and my eyes growing tired, but with fierce determination I read every street sign and followed my nose until I found my final destination, a quaint B&B with a key conveniently left in the letterbox for me.
The next morning I awoke to a gentle breeze of crisp, earth-scented air gingerly floating about my room and felt a world away from the frantic Melbourne I had left behind. After a cooked breakfast and good chat with a couple who had been hiking for three months, I bid adieu to Explorers Lodge and drove to Lachlan for a day of cooking and feasting. I also discovered at this point that my car had a USB point to recharge my phone, and felt a tad stupid for panicking the night before. My ‘94 Audi at home doesn’t come with these kinds of modern-day luxuries (although it does have a V6 engine I quite like).
Driving into Lachlan felt like driving into a biblical scene. I’d watched a lot of what I called ‘Jesus movies’ as a kid. My sister and I were mad about them. Ironically we also had a thing for early 80s Eddie Murphy comedy, so we were destined for religious confusion from the get-go.
As I turned into the entrance of the Agrarian Kitchen, I felt sorry I hadn’t brought a few boxes of my belongings with me so I could move in. You know when you have that immediate feeling of ‘home’? There are a few places in the world I’ve had this … Malmö, London, south-western France, the south island of New Zealand and Melbourne, of course. (Just noticed a pattern here … my propensity to southerly-situated cities and regions … hmm).
Greeted by a goat, two ridiculously large pigs, geese and chickens, I hoped that somewhere lurking in me was the animal lover of my very, very early childhood. The thought of there being rodents because of the chickens did pop into my mind (when you have a very clear enemy, I believe it’s good to know about their movements), but I quickly dismissed this in favour of a new ‘farm girl’ persona I had decided on adopting only 5 minutes earlier. Farming is in my blood, after all.
But as I made my way into the restored schoolhouse turned cooking school, the farm was all but dead to me. The intense smell of Italian coffee and fresh berries, the smooth sounds of chillout beats and the contemporarily rustic décor straight out of Vogue living helped to remind me that ‘farm girl’ had a long way to go. After meeting Rodney and being served a lovely strong flat white, I wandered around the kitchen from heaven and made my way to the largest private cookbook collection I had ever seen. I never wanted to leave – this was my kind of farm. A kind of strange giddiness set in after that. We were joined by a family of three from Melbourne (who happened to live 5 minutes from me) – a couple and their uni-student daughter who worked part-time with a prominent chef in Melbourne. Fortunately, I’d reserved a spot in a course that wasn’t booked-out months in advance, as most courses are, and it was only the four of us.
We spent two hours in the extensive gardens, learning that almost everything was edible and hearing about herbs from distant lands, tomatoes shaped like pears, and meeting the animal-folk. When we arrived at the goat shack, I knew was I was done for. Rodney kindly offered for each of us to milk the goat, and I kindly let everyone have a turn while I tried to sneak into the background. But Rodney wasn’t having any of it. Once everyone had had their turn at successfully milking the goat (I think its name was Myrtle), I was up. I sat down on the little stool face to face with the udder. It was a big udder. I took a deep breath in and grabbed hold of a furry teat in each hand, gingerly squeezing and pulling each one as I aimed them towards the bucket below. It wasn’t working. I was a useless farm girl. Rodney realised after a time that I was having some trouble and crouched down beside me, patiently demonstrating how to milk poor Myrtle. ‘Yep’, I said confidently after watching him, ‘I can do that’. And so I grabbed a hold of each teat once again, firmly this time, and rhythmically pulled each teat downwards one at a time, squeezing each one. (Sorry … I realise this is all sounding rather crude now.) Still wasn’t working. ‘Place your thumbs like this’, Rodney said as he moved my thumbs in the correct position. Instantly milk squirted out, and straight into Rodney’s face. After much apologising I continued milking (aiming for the bucket now) and milked the goat! The great moment was captured on Melbourne Family’s camera. While the others chatted away I sat there, trancelike, milking Myrtle and feeling very much at ease. Yep, farm girl was coming alive.
The giddiness became worse after that. I listened to Melbourne Family chat about restaurants in Melbourne and afar, swap chef names with Rodney, talk about food we ‘must’ have. And all the while I wandered amongst the fruit, vegetables and herbs in a kind of happy stupor. Thankfully I was put to use when we were each given a basket and asked to pick certain veggies and herbs from the garden to cook with. In between digging up potatoes and picking baby carrots, among other things, I tasted warm ripe strawberries fresh from the vine. Truly the sweetest, juiciest and most delectable strawberries I had ever eaten. And raw baby corn, also beautifully sweet. And herbs like Thai basil and hearty lovage.
Soon it was time to adjourn to the kitchen and begin cooking up our feast. Over a second flat white I was asked, as the birthday girl, to choose the course I wanted to cook. I chose the beef brisket main and my bit of kitchen bench, popping on an Agrarian Kitchen apron and surveying the abundance of knives, pots, utensils, Le Creuset pots, Kitchen Aids … swoonworthy stuff for a girl like me. Suddenly I felt as though I was on a cooking program, but not one of those awful competitive ones. Still, could my ability to cook withstand this kind of pressure, I had wondered. I’d cooked amongst a crazy hullabaloo of loud Europeans at family gatherings, for my 30th birthday and my dad’s surprise 45th some years ago. This felt different. This guy was famous. He knew famous people. He was filming a TV series in a few weeks and had Gourmet Traveller people in his kitchen taking fancy photos and writing elaborate stories about eco-tourism and sustainable gardens and stuff. So, I calmed myself down (and reminded myself I was paying for the pleasure of being there and learning) and went about my food prep in my usual systematic fashion. It was lovely to have a vividly-coloured and freshly picked array of produce in front of me, and to have a rather large piece of Wagyu brisket to play with. Having Rodney commend my browning of the beef pieces was truly the cherry on top.
Soon we were moving about, helping each other out with various aspects of each other’s courses. I helped to make frangipane for the tart, fresh goat’s cheese with Myrtle’s lovely milk, and shape gnocchi. As each course was ready, we were whisked over to the dining room to enjoy our efforts with several matched wines. By the time we got to my main course, I was a wee bit tipsy. As Melbourne Family talked more about chefs they knew and cities they’d eaten in, I became lost in the details and smiled and laughed along in a truly daft manner. By the time Rodney poured us each some of his homemade beer (which was amazing, by the way), I had quietly lost it. I know this because I heard the words ‘Yeah, Frank was a hit in New York’ and I responded with, ‘Yeah … he’s really nice’ in a spacey drawl. They all looked at me with puzzled expressions then, and I just smiled away, playing with my tahini and honey ice-cream and thinking nothing of it. I realised on my drive back to New Norfolk an hour later that they were talking about their daughter, and NOT a chef who they had spoken about that morning. Perhaps I had had a little too much of the homemade brew, or was exhausted from all of the excitement, or had just heard enough about famous chefs for one day and had lost the plot a little.
After posing for some photos for a visiting camera crew (an almost daily occurrence, apparently) and wrapping up my apron to take home with me, it was sadly time to leave. I teased Rodney about becoming a rock star chef once his show went live (an unlikely event given how humble and, dare I say, down-to-earth Rodney and his beautiful family are) and talked about Tasmanian life with this ex-Sydneysider, who seemed so comfortable in his new surrounds that it was as though he had always lived there in the Derwent Valley. Rodney, if you ever read this, thank you for a truly magical day in your world. Although I’d like to move in, I won’t, but I wouldn’t mind aspiring to a similar cooking and produce-filled life to share with others. I’ll be back for The Whole Hog course sometime next year, and I’ll be cool this time, even if you’re Heston-famous.