The Tasmanian Food & Wine Conservatory
Mother-daughter duo Vonda and Brielle Mason have created a place of provenance on the outskirts of Sassafras. Inside a striking white building on the side of the Bass Highway sits a treasure trove of quality Tasmanian food and drink.
As you drive along the highway, it is impossible to miss this modest white building. Tucked along a property road, the white walls and high art deco windows stand out in the sunshine, with an occasional rooster roaming freely and cheekily dodging customers seeking to park.
These days, it couldn’t house anything other than the Tasmanian Food & Wine Conservatory and it seems odd to consider that the building wasn’t established for this very purpose. But following a musically influenced trip through Europe in the early 1970s, local identity Graeme Brown returned to Tasmania with a mission in mind. He set about constructing a home for his 1910 Bechstein Grand Piano; a conservatory beautiful enough to house the music he wanted to compose. Seemingly overwhelmed yet inspired by the architecture he saw while wandering Europe and intent on replicating it in rural northern Tasmania locals weren’t sure what to make of his plans and Graeme was labelled “mad as a gumtree full of galahs”.
Forging ahead Graeme roped in his mother to establish a tearoom within the facility adding a sense of cosy welcome to his grand design. She passed some time later and following a series of events, the building was abandoned for nearly 20 years before interior designer Vonda discovered the site and followed her instincts to purchase it. After hosting her own wedding at the venue Vonda, along with photographer husband Glenn and daughter Brielle, was convinced they had a perfect location for their shared passion for local produce and products.
Walking into the Conservatory today you are greeted by a myriad of items that compete for immediate attention. The space has been lovingly fitted out by Vonda with dark greenery and tall ferns, parquet floors, long wooden tables, natural lighting and sumptuous armchairs. Large lazily swirling fans and that grand piano are artfully placed between the hundreds of products available to purchase.
This interior could feel claustrophobic but the space feels inviting, somewhere between a European sunroom and a Cuban café. Upon seeing the new fit-out former owner Graeme burst into tears, proclaiming his happiness at how the building had become everything he had dreamed it would be but could never do himself.
Originally intended as a small family business and opening in 2015 with five people the operational team is now over 20 strong. Supporting local producers has been a key ingredient to the success of the Conservatory with each visit essentially becoming a fun scavenger hunt to find new items that have been thoughtfully sourced and stocked. The wine list alone numbers 150 labels for browse and selection.
This local focus allows Vonda and Brielle to brief their team on what is being stocked and why, promoting product provenance that is often lost amongst outlets relying on a more nationwide supply network.
Beyond the white walls is an extended visitor experience. In warmer months, the Conservatory hosts a monthly garden market giving local producers an opportunity to chat direct to customers as they sell their cheese, chocolates, preserves, oils, crafts, wines and spirits. Special occasions call for the Container Cocktail Lounge to set up shop; a shipping container converted into an opulent 1940’s style lounge bar inviting visitors to settle into a chesterfield couch and sample a range of Tasmanian whiskey and gin as the sun sets over rolling green hills.
Gin is a very serious matter in Tasmania and each April the Conservatory hosts an annual Tasmanian Gin Fair. The distillers are on hand for discussions around their process, their products and the native botanicals in use – all elements that have propelled Tassie gin to the forefront of the spirit world, with labels such as McHenry Distillery Sloe Gin and the Poltergeist from Shene Estate standouts amongst a premium range. This along with pop-up events such as the Pure & Obscure Festival, held in December 2018 and featuring a fantastic range of local alcohol brands including Ocho Beer [p60], celebrate unique, obscure and proudly Tasmanian made products.
The passion of Vonda and Brielle for honest, local food that can be traced to its source. Their individual backgrounds in hospitality contribute to how well the business is run with attention given not just to the products on offer but also to the customer experience. In the kitchen Brielle leads a small team each day through breakfast and lunch service, navigating a cosy space with ease as they efficiently prepare a variety of dishes promoting local ingredients. Complementing plated meals is a choice of quality coffee or selected cocktails depending on the time of day or just your preference.
A menu highlight is the pork belly - softly fatty with a thinly crisped top, served with roasted carrots, pickled beetroot, carrot puree, cress and macadamias. Many customers choose to share one of the seasonal tasting platters that offer a generous serve that may include hot smoked salmon, smoked wallaby, paté, salmon caviar, pickled walnuts, olives, sourdough, fermented vegetables from local farms plus an array of beautiful Tasmanian cheeses that, once finished, will inevitably leave you eyeing the display cabinets unable to narrow down just which products to buy and take home for continued indulgence. Pairing your dishes with something to drink is easy. Sommelier Mitch is friendly, knowledgeable and ready with advice to enhance your dining.
Signature Gin tasting boards arrive as individual nips sharing space with aromatic spices and fruits. The wine list is long – very long – and filled with premium varietals. Sparkling is booming in Tasmania and for good reason. The combination of location and climate has led the Tasmania bubbles to world renown in recent years due to the high-quality output from multiple vineyards. Try the Radenti from Freycinet Wines over on the East Coast, or the Kreglinger Vintage Brut from Pipers Brook in the Tamar Valley.
Information is a hero element to your experience at the Conservatory. Wandering in, you will find the staff attentive, knowledgeable and sincere. Not sure where in Tasmania that gin is made? Keen to learn about the locally sourced ingredients used in the restaurant? Wondering what to pair with the chutney you just picked up? Interested in learning how that cheese you just sampled was made? All questions you have will be considered and explored in relaxed conversation so you will know that Vonda, Brielle and their team have spent many moons working with local producers and brands they are now keen to share with you.
It is this passion for detail that sets the Tasmanian Food & Wine Conservatory apart. Many operators would be content to stock only local products and leave it at that. Here, in the sunshine bouncing through those high arched windows is an example of how good a styled emporium can be. A showcase providore that stocks only Tasmanian produced items; styled to perfection with a surprising amount of space in amongst the labyrinth of products; with a kitchen offering fresh and creative menu combinations; and a team who excel in all aspects of service. Vonda and Brielle’s vision has become a must visit item for travellers and locals alike.
- To Eat: Choose a platter – any platter – and prepare to be amazed with the provided selection
- To Drink: Ask Mitch to recommend a Tasmanian Sparkling, or ask for the Freycinet Radenti
Visit at 9 Conservatory Rd, Sassafras
Read more stories like this in our Northern Tasmania issue, covering from Stanley in the northwest to the Bay of Fires in the east, through Burnie, Devonport and Launceston. We've jam packed 116 pages to bring you stories of our favourite eateries, farms, producers, wine, beer, spirits and social enterprises! Purchase here: