If it were not for the Gourmet Farmer, the Huon Valley in the deep south of Tasmania might have remained a well-kept secret rather than one of Australia's fastest-emerging wine and food destinations.
Today the Huon, the valley that put the apples into the Apple Isle, is home to a booming cider industry, boutique wineries whose artisan bottlings you'll find on the lists at trendy wine bars in Sydney and Melbourne, and cute country cafes specialising in local produce.
Whether you are looking for saffron, fresh berries, locally grown mushrooms, or beef from Huon Valley Meats, you've come to the right place – and the Huon is only a 30-minute drive south of Hobart, making it an ideal day trip or weekend destination.
There are no traffic lights here. No McDonald’s; no chain hotels. You will find wild rivers, orchards, forests and farmers selling produce from honesty stalls at their farm gates.
The local council recently launched some ambitious region branding “Product of the Huon” with a vow to one day see the valley regarded among the top gourmet destinations in the country. [www.thehuon.com].
The hamlet of Cygnet, population 1000 or so, is the foodie capital of the Huon, dotted with eateries and surrounded by vineyards, apple orchards and berry farms. It is populated by an intriguing mix of traditional farmers and newcomers with an artistic bent. The hills surrounding Cygnet produce strawberries in abundance, apples for the locally-made Pagan cider, organic vegetables from Alex Taylor at Golden Valley Farm and saffron for Tas-Saff. These and mushrooms from Cygnet Mushroom Farm and goat cheese from Tongola Goat Farm make their way onto the menus of Hobart's trendiest eateries. Locally, the award-winning Red Velvet Lounge is something of an icon, with chef Steve Cumper serving up dishes with a swagger of local chic using ingredients like Huon Valley Berkshires free-range pork. Fresh, usually organic, produce is also the driving force behind the menus at the rustic Lotus Eaters Cafe, which always has vegan and vegeterian-friendly menu choices. Newcomer Port Cygnet Diner sees chef Asher Gilding serving high-end burgers and fish and chips featuring local flathead. There's good coffee and country food at the Schoolhouse Coffee Shop.The biggest winery in the region, Panorama, recently sold and its cellar door is currently closed but you can taste at Hartzview, where liqueurs like cassis are the speciality, and at Two Bud Spur (weekends only). Also look out for brands like Chatto (the personal label of Mount Pleasant winemaker Jim Chatto) and Sailor Seeks Horse, by rising stars Paul and Gilli Lipscombe. Chatto says: “This part of the world has the potential to be among the most exciting sites for pinot noir anywhere in Australia.” Those with a sweet tooth will want to pop in to Cygneture Chocolates, where Gillian Ryan uses fresh local fruits in her creations. Many of the local small farmers sell their produce at the Cygnet Market (first and third Sundays of the month), or you can pick up High Flint's home-made hummus, Cygnet exotic mushrooms and hot Huon Valley kitchen pies at the Cygnet Garden Larder on the main street.
On the road into Huonville, the largest town in the region, you can't miss The Apple Shed at Grove, home of Willie Smiths Organic Cider, and the venue for the Huon Valley MidWinter Festival. A range of ciders is available for tasting and there is appetising local produce and a museum devoted to the region's apple-growing history. A Tasmanian version of the apple brandy calvados is in production. In town, artisan chocolatier The Cat's Tongue and cafe The Local (with the best coffee in town), are popular with local foodies and just outside town, at Ranelagh, you'll Home Hill Wines. Home Hill won the Jimmy Watson Trophy at the Royal Melbourne Wine Show for its 2014 Kelly's Reserve Pinot Noir, and is also home to an excellent restaurant overlooking the vines. Boutique winemaker Kate Hill is based in a rustic nearby shed, and the town is also home to food writer Michelle Crawford. The Huon is also about to get its first craft brewery at Ranelagh with former home brewer Bradley Churchill expecting to launch his opening salvo of Church Hill brews next week. Also check out the Summer Kitchen bakery in Ranelagh and long-time favourite Huon Manor restaurant in Huonville.
SoHu (south of Huonville]
The Huon Highway meanders south of Huonville until it runs out at Southport. Next stop Antarctica. Turn left to find Huon Aquaculture at Hideaway Bay, producers of a wide range of salmon and trout goods that are sold globally and employers of close to 500 locals. Check the the attractive villages of Franklin, Port Huon, Geeveston and Dover. Franklin is home to Frank's Cider (where tastings are conducted in a former church) and the re-born Aqua Grill waterfront restaurant where two Italian chefs have revamped the menu. At Port Huon, also overlooking the river, Sass at the Kermandie Hotel is one of the few reliable places for eating seven days a week, while in Geeveston you'll find arguably the best sushi in Tasmania at Masaaki's – a hole-in-the-wall spot where chef Masaaki Koyama opens just on Fridays and Saturdays and is often sold out by 1.30pm. Bookings are essential – but he's also at the Hobart Farm Gate Market every Sunday. You can pick berries fresh from the hedgerows in season or maybe fish for river trout. You'll pass turn-offs for Heriot's Point and Wombat Springs -but will need an appointment for a wine tasting.
Where to stay
The Kermandie Hotel, overlooking the Huon and a marina at Port Huon, offers comfortable modern rooms.
Frenchman's River comprises two new luxury cottages; the Writer's House and the Helmsman's House, in the hills above Cygnet launched this month by author and former McLeod's Daughters and Hi-5 creator Posie Graeme-Evans.
# This is edited version of a story that first appeared in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald