Talk about magic. Some stories come together so easily and this was one of them. Warren and I spent a wonderful morning soaking up the sunshine at Tasmin’s farm in Poowong. She was generous with her time and so open to sharing her story. It was a real joy. I am definitely going to get out and plant myself a veggie garden this spring … and then book a seat at that table.
words eleanor mckay photos warren reed
Every Sunday in the emerald green hills of Poowong, at the top of a long, winding driveway, you can find a little bit of magic. It’s a place where friends and strangers come together to experience food, conversation and joy.
A warm and homely welcome greets you when you step inside Tamsin Carvan’s farmhouse. Delightfully rustic, with stunning views across the hills, this modest home harbours what has become a sought-after dining experience. At the end of the main room, a large table is carefully laid with vintage glasses, bone-handled knives, cloth napkins and exquisitely printed menus.
Each week, Tamsin’s Table hosts mouth-watering lunches (and workshops) using meat and produce grown on the farm. Depending on the season and what’s abundant in the garden, you might find hand-made ravioli, pulled pork, chestnut pasta, pumpkin pie or succulent scotch fillet on the menu. The concept is brilliantly simple: 10-12 people share a table for a relaxed country lunch. Guests arrive with a few friends, as a couple, or even flying solo, for the chance to experience homegrown, home-cooked food right at the source. It has proved incredibly popular … so much so that lunches are booked out for the rest of the year.
When Tamsin arrived in Poowong almost 14 years ago, she was chasing a dream to have a little earth beneath her feet. Setting up a business was the last thing on her radar. “I arrived here by a very circuitous route, via most of the eastern states and territories,” laughs Tamsin. After a stint in advertising in Sydney, she moved to Queensland to study philosophy and then travelled across the country working as a social researcher. But the avid gardener was looking to make a change. “I always knew I wanted to do something outdoors. I didn’t have a concrete sense of what that was: I just knew I hated sitting in an office.” Her work in drought-affected areas around the Murray-Darling basin during the 90s did confirm one thing. “I didn’t want to be exposed to that kind of environment, so I literally opened a map of Australia and overlaid it with a rainfall diagram to find the places where the average rainfall exceeded evaporation.”
Jumping on a plane to Melbourne, Tamsin drove down to explore Gippsland. “I had no idea what to expect, but I remember stopping on the side of the road and crying with sheer joy at the greenness.” She bought a 113-acre farm in Poowong East, and along with her then-partner Mark, made the move. “I had no idea what I was doing,” laughs Tamsin. “Fortunately, Mark had grown up on a farm, so he had a bit more experience than me. Both of us were new to this climate and new to this land. We were on a huge learning curve.”
Tamsin’s initial goals were modest. “Originally, I wanted to have a couple of chooks and a bay tree at my back door … that was pretty much it.” Until her daughter Martha (born in 2006) started school, she continued her social research work, juggling travel with trying to create a garden next to the farmhouse. “When we moved here, there were a few established trees around the house, but the rest was gravel. In my naivety, I thought I’d just get all the gravel scraped up and moved off to the side and plant a garden. But I was trying to plant into earth that had been compacted under trucks for 60 years. Making holes with crowbars, shoving in little trees and trying to encourage them to grow with wind howling across the hilltop: it was an incredibly arduous experience.”
As the garden began to take shape, another idea crystallised. “I made a really strong commitment to myself to try and eat from the farm. I was thinking philosophically, ethically, nutritionally.” Part of Tamsin’s motivation came from trying to find a way to make a viable life on a small farm. “People used to make a good living on these farms, but now they’re relics of a time gone by. I’m really interested in finding ways for them to be viable pieces of land that people can look after and make a living from.”
Learning to get the most out of her farm and garden, Tamsin says she “grew everything, tried everything and did everything”. Over time, it’s been whittled back to what works in this climate and soil … and what her family likes to eat. “I’m always trying to think about this earth, this place, this weather, this hill … what can we do that tastes of here? When I cook, I’m not trying to replicate someone else’s flavours, but because our climate is similar to a Mediterranean climate, the ingredients we can grow are similar to what you’d find in Italian or Spanish cuisine.”
Although Tamsin has no formal cooking background, as her garden grew, so did her cooking. “I’ve always loved food, and cooking – but only when I’ve had lovely ingredients to work with.” Still, cooking only with ingredients produced on the farm presented challenges. “One of the hardest things about learning to live with what you grow is what to do when you don’t have a specific ingredient,” said Tamsin. “You’ve got to learn to improvise. And that’s when your cooking really starts to improve. You’re thinking for yourself. You’re thinking independently. You have to step away from recipe books and start thinking more imaginatively about how you eat.”
With so much joy – not to mention sensational meals – from her farm-produced cooking, increasingly Tamsin wanted to share the spirit of how and what they were doing. “I had more fresh produce than I could use. I was giving it away … selling vegie boxes to the neighbours … but I just kept coming back to the same question – how could people enjoy it right here where it was grown?”
She started to explore the options. “I loved the idea of having a little restaurant, but the shire had told me I could only ever have 10-12 people here at a time, so I thought I’d do cooking classes.” Then came the light-bulb moment. “Someone said to me, ‘I’d love to come and see what you’re doing, but I don’t want to do the cooking. I’m tired. I want to sit down and enjoy you doing the cooking’. At first, I wasn’t sure if people would enjoy sharing the table, but as it’s worked out, it’s been the most magical thing for all involved.”
That initial idea might have grown, but it remains true to Tamsin’s concept of sharing the bounty of the garden. “People often ask me: ‘if you didn’t have the garden, would you do as much cooking?” And the answer, really, is no. It’s all about being able to grow something, then do something with it that, to me, is utterly exciting. It never, ever gets less exciting, and it’s so beautiful – aesthetically and taste-wise.”
There is definitely a touch of magic about the Sunday Tables, a dream born out of an old-fashioned desire to live from the land. Nowadays, Tamsin runs the farm, lunches and cooking classes with her partner Allan (she and Mark parted amicably in 2011) and continues to explore all that her garden and farm have to offer. “If you looked at it on paper – it might not seem to stack up very well,” smiles Tamsin. “We work hard physically, we don’t have much money: but I never think of it like that. I’m always thinking ‘that’s the beauty of it … where we live, the food that we grow’. Everything we do is really geared around finding the beauty and the joy in things. I think that’s probably the essence of it.”