I've been lucky enough to spend the last week attending an almost-all-expenses-paid workshop located at Freycinet Lodge in Tasmania. It's been an intense, productive and inspiring time shared with about 30 other scientists - a rare opportunity to tap into their creativity and the challenges they face, and to emerge with some exciting new ideas and collaborations.
Such progress has been aided by: (1) the incredibly comfortable and luxurious environment the lodge provides; (2) the equally decadent catering; and (3) the stunning surrounds of Freycinet National Park, guaranteed to clear the mind and make space for your own personal "Eureka!" moment.
What with this being a food blog, how about I give you a run-down of the catering? On our arrival at lunch time on Monday, we were greeted by a large deck with 180 degree views of sparkling Coles Bay and two chefs barbeque-ing us a gourmet lunch - charred and chunky vege skewers with dukkah and lemon juice for the vegetarians. If this weren't impressive enough, at 7pm it became apparent that we would be receiving three course dinners every night. At the table we received a nightly menu offering three different options for each course, one always being vegetarian. Here's what I had...
Monday: beetroot and chive bread;
cauliflower and pepperberry cheese soup;
kumara and pine nut risotto with sauteed spinach and brie cheese;
steamed banana and pecan nut pudding with anglaise and buttered pecan nut ice cream.
Tuesday: unidentified bread - I think it had a whiff of saffron;
char grilled Mediterranean vegetable stack layered with fetta and baby spinach enhanced with pesto;
Tasmanian organic tofu and aubergine coated with dukkah spices on spicy lentil puree;
lemon tart with creme fraiche and berry coulis.
Thursday: another unidentified but delicious bread;
carrot and cashew soup;
spinach, fetta cheese and walnut wrapped in filo pastry on a bed of spicy lentils;
chocolate parfait with pistachio ice cream and berry coulis.
Worth a special mention are the bread rolls - they were soft and warm, of a different flavour each night, and absolutely delectable. Freycinet Lodge emphasises local produce wherever possible, and this meant lots of fresh seafood for the wide-eyed meat-eaters, and wine and cheese all round. I found that this meant the vegetarian food was unrelentingly rich and usually cheesy - for example, I only could only eat about a third of the Monday night risotto. This should all really be special occasion food, and it was a bit over the top as a nightly occurrence, particularly when the super-sized morning and afternoon teas are taken into account. (Think scones, cookies and cakes bigger than your fist... twice a day.) The catering was exceedingly generous, but unfortunately had a bloating effect by the end of the week.
The only opportunity for sanctimony was breakfast, and even then a dazzling array of foods tempted. My personal favourites became the berry yoghurt with crunchy muesli (including toasted hazelnuts) and the porridge, flavoured with dried fruits and a dab of berry jam.
Michael didn't miss out on the fun completely - I'd reserved a cabin for us to share over the weekend after the workshop finished, and we're spending about a week making our way back to Hobart before returning to reality. We visited the Bay Restaurant proper for two dinners, finding the vegetarian meals to be of slightly better quality (probably because the chefs were not under pressure to produce 30 meals simultaneously), but still a tad rich and over-priced compared to what we can enjoy in Melbourne for just $15.
More generally along the east coast, it seems that lovers of King Island beef and fresh seafood will eat well even in the smaller towns. For vegetarians, however, the prognosis is less grand. The concept has certainly spread this far and it's not difficult to source a salad roll or spinach and cheese pastry for lunch. However the mid- to high-priced pubs and restaurants almost uniformly offer a $20 vege lasagne for dinner. The creative highlight has actually been the most processed and Aussie rendition of the vege burger that I've ever seen: a doughy white roll housing a Kraft plastic cheese slice, Kraft mayo, iceberg lettuce, tomato slices, a fried egg and a battered and deep-fried potato scallop as a patty. The venue, ominously called Pork's Place, proved to have more meat-free meals available than any other restaurant in Bicheno.
While the food has been somewhat hit and miss, the real reason to explore the east coast is the wildlife. In our two days based at Freycinet Lodge we walked roughly 25km, north to Coles Bay and then south to the Wine Glass Bay Lookout and beach, Hazards lagoon and beach and Fleurieu Point. The view from the lookout is spectacular, the beaches and different vegetation types are a feast for the eyes. We've had a few special encounters with fauna along the way, from wallabies feeding in the woods to scarlet robins and grey fantails boldly showing off their plumage. (If you're interested in a tour through our less edible photos, we've set up an album here.) Unfortunately an early morning tour of Moulting Lagoon failed to turn up many of the hundred or so species of birds present in the area due to heavy rain. (We bravely donned jackets and plastic bags and watched what we could, anyway, and learned a lot from our guide and keen birder, Tara.) The penguins nesting around Bicheno were much less shy.
The next few days will be based in Hobart, so the focus will no doubt swing back towards the edible delights of Tasmania!