Bruny Legends

I may be back in Shanghai but I haven't quite finished with Tasmania yet - I have a couple more fantastic posts to bring to you from this gorgeous place in Australia bursting with good food! Today, let me introduce Bruny Island's most interesting couple, John and Penny Smith.

Sometimes life throws you an amazing coincidence and you just need to make of it what you will. A few weeks back I received an email from a reader, Penny, who had recently travelled through China and asked if she could use some photographs from my Xian Street Food posts for her own blog, BrunyFirePower. That's a coincidence, I thought, we're off to Bruny in a few weeks - I wonder whether her website has anything to do with Australia's Bruny Island? 

A few clicks later and it became clear this was one and the same Bruny Island. A few emails later and it emerged there were only three degrees of separation between us, with many friends and colleagues in common in the world of public art my husband inhabits. I don't inhabit that world, being rather poorly equipped on the art side of things, but it transpired Penny was also a passionate foodie(of course!) and environmentalist.

Being the lovely person she is, Penny invited us to visit her Bruny Island home when we were there last week for a cup of tea and some fruit mince pies. Yes please! 

Blogging, as fellow bloggers will know, can be quite a solitary process, and it's always exciting to meet someone in person you have connected with through your blog. I know all my readers are hugely interesting people (you are!) with a deep passion for food and wide-ranging interests in the world at large, and it's great to meet someone who embodies all of that. Penny is an incredibly talented ceramic artist, with works in major galleries and private collections around Australia, and was previously head of the Ceramics Studio and the Ceramic Research Unit at the University of Tasmania, but she also has fosters a passion for clay cooking techniques and cooking vessels from around the world. 

She and her husband John live in an idyllic corner of Bruny Island, right on the water and surrounded by towering gumtrees. Their incredible dome house, designed and built entirely themselves, resembles a lunar module resting gently on the earth, but in fact this dome dwelling is in perfect tune with its surroundings. Fully 'off-grid', it has solar power, rainwater tanks to supply their own needs and extra for fighting bushfires, and has a completely self-contained waste system. 

The inside of the house is as compact as a ship with every single feature beautifully designed and handcrafted, from the clever roll-away ladder to the loft, to the compact upstairs kitchen under the dome. Shelves are laden with clay cooking vessels from all over the world - Thaoland, South America, China and beyond.

John, a talented craftsman and accomplished furniture designer (he was previously Senior Lecturer and Director of the Centre for Furniture Design at the University of Tasmania), has shown his skill in every clever detail.  Outside is a deck with an amazing view over the bay, and a garden dotted with artworks like the View Finder, above, created for Sculpture by the Sea

The thing I'm most jealous of though, is the outdoor kitchen, where roasts, wood-fired pizzas and more come out of the oven, and the nearby fire pit where Penny indulges her passion for cooking with clay. Penny explains that she has always been besotted with clay and with cooking.

"Cooking with clay came together gradually.  Cooking food and cooking clay are both magical processes, whereby the alchemical changes that occur in both, render, in the case of food - the often poisonous to the palatable and in the case of clay from the porous to the permanent. "

On her recent travels through China Penny found "several regions....that have very distinctive clay pot making and cooking traditions that reflect the region through its pots and its food.  One of these days, I intend to return and visit them....." 

In the meantime, Penny recently tackled Hangzhou' famous but difficult Beggar's Chicken, a whole chicken stuffed with herbs and ham, wrapped in a lotus leaf then in a layer of clay and slow-cooked in its hardening clay 'pot' until it falls apart, all the delicious juices remaining trapped inside. When you read Penny's Bruny version of making this dish, you begin to realize the depth of her interest in cooking with clay. For starters, she digs the clay herself from the ground and tends the fire for hours until the chicken is cooked just so!

I found over the course of a long sunny afternoon, tea and fruit mince pies followed by local Tasmanian beer and cheese from the Bruny Island Cheese Company, that Penny and I share many of the same views about the joys of regional and seasonal food. 

She says "what is really inspirational is that cooking with clay and cooking food both reflect the seasons - making pots (particularly in the traditional vlllages that still make clay pots to cook in on an open fire) require the right weather conditions and the foods that are cooked in them reflect what is available at the time." It's what we're all thinking - food is always best when it's in season, and cooked close to the source.

Catch Penny's further adventures in cooking with fire and clay at BrunyFirePower

See John Smith's exquisite furniture at

And to my Penny and all my other readers - I look forward to sharing tea and dumplings with you anytime you're passing through Shanghai!