King Island: Out where lobster is king

Fresh: Baked King Island rock lobster with seasonal vegetables.
Fresh: Baked King Island rock lobster with seasonal vegetables. Photo: Richard Cornish

A flurry of bubbles rises from the forest of kelp waving about in the Bass Strait swell. A head breaks through the surface, spits out a mouthful of water, then an arm triumphantly waves a massive rock lobster in the air. This is chef Ashley Davis from Southbank restaurant Pure South. Previously head chef at Helene Darroze’s two Michelin star restaurant in London, Davis is fishing for southern rock lobsters with restaurant co-owners Philip Kennedy and Peter Leary in preparation for the annual King Island Long Table Festival, which celebrates the produce grown on this 64-kilometre long Tasmanian island.

‘‘That was f---ing amazing,’’ says Davis. Drying off,  he reaches into his bag to pull out his notebook. In it he makes small sketches of the dishes he will make for the February 22 lunch. Inspired by the underwater landscape, he scribbles ‘‘southern rock lobster poached with kelp’’,  then adds ‘‘free-range egg custard’’.

Fishing with them is Paul Daniel. He’s a market gardener who grows richly coloured and full-flavoured vegetables in the swales behind the dunes on the outskirts of the King Island’s main town, Currie. Using biodynamic farming techniques, he uses compost to transform the sandy soil into deep, dark loam.

Pure South chef Ashley Davis with the rock lobster he caught in the waters off King Island.
Pure South chef Ashley Davis with the rock lobster he caught in the waters off King Island. Photo: Richard Cornish

Davis discusses with Daniel what vegetables will be ready for the big day. They agree on a mix of summer vegetables including carrots, radishes, snow peas and cucumber. Ashley takes notes and in his head forms a simple salad dressed with yoghurt, olives and locally harvested salt.

The team drops by the Harbour Cafe and orders a wallaby focaccia. Wallabies have bred up on the island, creating a problem for pastoralists. Instead of culling and wasting the animals, they are processed at the island’s small  abattoir. At the cafe the native game is slow-cooked and served with melted King Island cheddar, creating a long, lingering sense of deliciousness.

In the centre of the island, all thick green pastures intersected with snaking gravel roads is a little barn belonging to Janet Fuller and Peter Gillett. Inside, the walls are lined with bunting and antiques. In the centre is a long table laden with potatoes, honey, herbs, eggs – bounty from other growers on the island. Fuller and Gillett take us outside to meet Bob, a wessex saddleback piglet. Davis gives the rare-breed animal a back scratch before taking out his little book. ‘‘Bob the suckling pig  BBQ-style in crisp Vietnamese pancakes with Asian herbs’’, henotes.

‘‘We have this amazing relationship with our producers down here,’’ Kennedy says. ‘‘Being a restaurant that specialises in Tasmanian produce, we have to go on trips like this to find new farmers and catch up with our network of existing suppliers. Some of them grow only for us. So this little gourmet weekend in Feb is a chance for us to give something more back to the community,’’ he says before adding, ‘‘and we get a few days off to go diving.’’

To feed 150 people lobster requires more than a couple of blokes diving and getting lucky. Chugging in through the narrow mouth of Currie Harbour comes Jacinta II, a little crayfish boat  with a hold packed with freshly trapped rock lobsters. 

Co-owner Donna Summers talks through their stock list and Davis’ ears prick up at the mention of octopus, which are often caught trying to sneak into the craypots to devour the crustaceans. ‘‘You can get us some octopus?’’ There’s a nod and Davis pencils in ‘‘Bass Strait octopus and five shades of tomato’’.


Later that day the Pure South crew check out their accommodation, a small lodge-like house on a sandy spit with views of Bass Strait. Davis heads to the beach, only to return a short time later with hands full of greenery. ‘‘Native sea herbs,’’ he says. ‘‘Pigface, native spinach, sea rocket and sea parsley.’’ He makes a note to serve them with the octopus and tomato.

Passing King Island Dairy, Kennedy suddenly pulls the van over. Circling the factory, famed for its white mould and blue cheeses, is a Royal Australian Navy Seahawk helicopter.

Speaking to several of the locals, Davis finds out that while at sea, sailors are rewarded with the odd treat, so the sea-going naval helicopter crew combines flight training with the odd cheese purchase direct from the factory store. Davis makes a note. ‘‘Finish with King Island cheeses. Of course.’’

King Island Long Table Festival, February 20-22, includes King Island farm tour, drinks and eight-course lunch $150 (12 tickets are being held for Epicure Good Food readers, so get in quick!)