From owning our first ever pet pig Doris, to becoming full-time free range pig farmers, it's been a long, interesting - and, at times, emotional! - journey. This blog looks at how we first started out, and what it truly means to grow animals for meat ethically.
Warning: Contains graphical language and themes that may upset some readers.
About 12 years ago, I (Lauren) was running a little local food store, The Long Paddock Foodstore in Koondrook. With literally no experience in running a retail store or a kitchen, my business partner and childhood friend and I created a monster for our local community. My passion was using local produce and sharing it with our customers, and I loved cooking. It was a steep learning curve in making good coffee, cooking for the masses, sourcing local food, how not to cut my fingers whilst nervously preparing salads, poaching 15 eggs at once, how not to walk out of a kitchen and die when 50 orders were up in front of me... what a lesson in life! I guess this was the start of (as a good friend of mine says), 'bite off as much as you can, then chew like fuck!'. Yes, this pretty much describes my journey up until now.
After a few years in the 'paddock', I fell pregnant and was on the path of setting up a farmers' market in our local region. I'd just been to France with Mum and travelled around on a Royal Agricultural Society Rural Ambassador Award bursary. I wanted to see how French agriculture was entrenched in everyday life, and how local food was the hero so that on return I could be well equipped to set up a farmers' market. What a trip! Three weeks driving around aimlessly from market to market, eating as locally and seasonally as possible, talking with farmers and observing the close relationship people had with their food was fascinating, and a lifetime highlight. And the charcuterie! When we got back I was fuelled up and ready for a new project, leaving the food store to concentrate on motherhood and the farmers' market concept. We already had our first pig, Doris. The local gap in good free range pork was huge, so Doris was the beginning of growing our own meat for ourselves and the store. Surely growing pigs in a paddock couldn't be that hard? We just needed a paddock... surely it's that simple?
We searched high and low for free range Berkshire breeding stock. We took what we could get and travelled all over NSW and VIC chasing Gumtree ads for gilts (young females) and boars (the breeding boys). Some of the farms we visited were good, but mostly, the pigs had been mistreated or had been locked up. I think the girls were pretty happy to come to our place, but they had baggage. I remember crying when we were loading two sows over near Rutherglen, the loading race was shonky and too narrow and the pigs had obviously never been handled before in a race. The owners were using a cattle prod on them and the pigs were obviously in a state of high stress and were screaming. My husband Lach and I were shocked - surely this wasn't how pigs were treated? It took a while but in the end we had a good little herd of 20 sows (breeding mothers). I quickly grew emotionally attached to our animals and saw the value in having pigs roaming freely in paddocks and what that meant for their wellbeing, and mine. There's nothing quite as grounding as seeing pigs grazing in a paddock.
Pig Farming Lesson Number 1: Pigs remember. You have to earn their trust by treating them well, using your calm voice and ensuring that when handling them you have food on hand.
The first hurdle we faced was that we had no land (quite important when starting a free range pig farm!). Lach's parents live one kilometer down the road and suggested that we should try it out first at their place instead of investing in buying our own land. This was solid advice. Neither of us had any idea what we were doing, and Lach was full time running the family trucking business. So we took the generous offer and set up water troughs and some ingenious low cost pig shelters. The first few years were marked by dry, hot summers and wet, cold winters, but the pigs did well despite this and after 12 months we had successfully raised our first litter to finisher size without too much trouble (albeit a lot of swearing, broken fences, pigs out on roads, waterlines getting wrecked and pigs living in the nearby bush for days on end).
The first time we tasted our own homegrown, heritage bred paddock pigs, was the third weekend in September, 2011. It was the night before the first Koondrook-Barham Farmers' Market (that I'd also been working behind the scenes to launch), created with a group of local producers collectively known back then as the Red Gum Food Group. I'd done the first trip to the local abattoir, conveniently located 30 minutes down the road at Gunbower. The pigs were so quiet that I backed the float up to the paddock and put some food in it, and they literally just jumped in. "This is easy as", I thought! Lucy (our 6 month old daughter) was in the child seat, and off we went. I remember the day so clearly. I unloaded the pigs, I'm sure I caught the abattoir workers and the owner, Jack McGillivray, laughing at me, coaxing the pigs off with more food and gentle nudges to the loading ramp to the kill box. I wanted to see how it was done, to ensure that it was done well and that they didn't suffer - these were my babies! The pigs were cautious and stood quietly on the kill floor, taking their surroundings in. The next minute, the boys entered the floor with a huge knife and the stun bolt. They carefully placed the bolt on the forehead of the first pig and then bang, half a second later the pig was down and the knife had entered the pig's chest to release the blood and complete the kill. Repeat on the other pig and the job was done. I was overwhelmed. Shocked and surprised at the suddenness of life that was taken, which was now a carcass being cleaned of hair and gutted. I'd only ever witnessed our steers growing up leave the farm on a truck and return in a coolroom, I'd never been there to witness the deed, but had helped bag up lambs on the kitchen table. I jumped back in the car and bawled my eyes out all the way home. I called my good friend, Troy, who is a butcher, who had more experience with this side of meat production than me. He assured me this was normal, and that killing an animal will never be something that is viewed upon in golden light and rainbows. What was important was that the pigs weren't stressed, and that the process was fast and professional. I was still devastated but was also humbled that I had gone through the process with the pigs who we had raised from birth and had grazed happy until the moment they jumped in the horse float. I had done it. I had grown pigs for meat.
Pig Farming Lesson Number 2: The abattoir is not really a nice place to visit, but a necessary and integral part of growing meat. The process of getting the pigs there calmly and having them dispatched in a humane manner is what's important.
To get our pigs butchered, they were delivered back to the legendary Gunbower Meats, also run by the McGillivray family who owned the abattoir. Tom McGillivray butchered and packed the pigs, with myself and Lucy (in her pram) watching closely. I was fascinated. So many cuts, and the meat looked incredible. The meat was firm and the fat pure white and evenly marbled throughout the dark pink flesh. "We've done a pretty good job raising these pigs", I thought. My next thought was: "Sausages, we must have pork sausages". So we made up a mix of the pork and some rice flour (so they were gluten free) in collagen skins. As it turns out, the sausages were awful, and I was green throughout the entire butchering process.
That night we got home with all the meat and packed it into our Engel car fridge in preparation for the market in the morning, which I co-managed. So much meat! My anticipation levels were at an all time high; the next day we were kicking off the brand new farmer's market, plus selling our meat for the first time...and we'd still not tasted it! So we salted and seasoned up a pork shoulder and slowly cooked it for 4 hours. Mum and Dad were down visiting us to support the market kicking off and the launch of our free range pork brand 'Bundarra Berkshires'. The name originating from the indigenous name of our farm meaning 'place of many Kangaroos'.
So, the pork. We cooked it and set the table. It was momentous. We were all getting ready to tuck in, the moment of truth! The crackle looked sublime, the smell was mouthwatering. Hurry up and sit down everyone! Then Mum piped up with her verdict: "Wow Lauren, this pork is incredible!" In true form, Mum had taken the first bite. With no time to lose, we all tucked in for the first bite of our homegrown meat... The meat was sweet, juicy, and the flavour was nothing like we had tasted before. Is this really pork?! Is this what pork tastes like? I could never remember eating something so delicious, let alone pork. I was used to boring tasting pale and dry meat roasts and just ate it for the joy of sinking my teeth into crackling. This was a revelation. We had done it! With much relief and excitement, I slept very well that night, knowing that we had stumbled across a gem and that our lives were about to change in a huge way.
Every year around July, pig farmers around Australia kick into Christmas planning. This isn't just a process that starts in December when we're all buying hams. The planning starts many months beforehand, when we start deciding on leg numbers, storage, labelling, ordering systems, cure and cook schedules. We don't save all our pigs until December then do a mass cull to get the legs - farming just doesn't work like that (and I'm 100% certain that my butchers would kill me instead!).
So even though it's only September now, we are in full swing Christmas planning mode, storing fresh legs away in the deep freeze and working with our retailers on finalizing their orders and tastings, and about to send out pre-ordering information for our customers at home.
"The biggest challenge with our Christmas hams has traditionally been space and sufficient power to operate."
Before we moved into our new facility in March (Post COVID) we were busting at the seams at Christmas for cool space, pickling space and packing orders space. I cannot explain in words what a relief it is to me and the whole team at Bundarra it is to have a coolroom you can fit a few pallets in and power to actually run it (as well as a walk in freezer!)... oh the luxury!! All I want for this Christmas is to be able to make our hams and pack them without having to re-set the main power switch 20 times a day and tripping over boxes of hams in our 2m x 4m packing room! (you can read more about all this in my Love from a Pig Farmer blog).
So, back to the hams. We hand cure our hams one leg at a time. Most butcheries have a pickle injector that streamlines the process (and makes it very fast!) with evenly injected brine using hundreds of needles.
"We aren't that mainstream, so our butchers Gary and Glenn (bless their cotton socks) use a handheld single needle pickle pump to pickle our hams using a secret recipe of local orange juice and aromatic spices."
I still think this is the best way to produce our hams and is what makes them so textural and delicious and not rubbery and wet (like an overly processed ham from well-known large supermarket chains, just saying).
We then lay the hams to rest in a salty holding brine for 4 days before being removed and dried to settle, then hot-smoked over locally sourced red gum for 10 hours. Then the hams are chilled and hung for at least 48 hours before being packed, weighed and labelled. This process takes a few weeks to:
We have 2 smokers that hold 12 hams so we make a schedule of how this is going to roll out, so that when December comes, we have a clear path and expectation of when hams are being cooked and when they will leave our butchery for delivery.
"This year we are planning on making 400 hams, which I am super excited about and quite proud of our little farm!"
We make whole, half, boneless and baby hams. Then comes allocating them; you see pigs aren't all the same size and even pigs that are the same size, free-range pigs - especially rare breed - fluctuate in leg sizes. Our whole hams generally weight between 6kgs for smaller pigs and up to 9kgs for some of the whoppers that come through for making charcuterie. The challenge comes with matching people's needs with ham sizes, which I can tell you is pretty tricky when we want to make sure everyone is happy with the size and what they are paying for their ham. So generally, we suggest our hams weigh between 7-8.5kgs and if anyone needs a whopper or a small one, then we can find one to suit. The hams cost $40/kg.
So how many people will a ham feed? And do you need to cook it? These are the most common questions we receive (apart from when will it be delivered). A half ham can make 32 sandwiches, which we know thanks to the guys at Pope Joan who did a sandwich test on a half ham a few years ago. Our family usually has a whole ham weighing around 7kgs for Christmas - although last year we didn't get one! (Thanks to the no-space tiny shed, sore brains after a very busy Christmas period and project managing the new shed building... we missed out on one of our own hams!). On the years we do get a ham, we usually eat some at lunch between about 12 people and keep it the rest fresh in our little ham bags for at least a week or longer, and nibble away at it until just the bone is left - which we freeze to make soup in winter.
You don't need to cook our hams. Traditionally, a green ham or a pickled leg of pork (or a gammon if you're English), need cooking. We cook our hams as close to perfection as we can, so we recommend if you want to glaze the ham to do so gently or under the grill. Otherwise, the hams are best enjoyed carved on the table, served alongside the rest of your festive meats. I can highly recommend having carved leg ham on toast with lots of butter for breakfast (my personal favourite) or topped with two poached eggs and homemade hollandaise sauce. So good!
"Delivery is available in Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and surrounding suburbs, as well as regional NSW and VIC, and is with a refrigerated truck or van."
When choosing home delivery you must be home to accept or choose an address where someone can be home to accept. All of our delivery runs will be made between the 14th and the 19th of December, dropping off at different suburbs and regions on certain days. We won't be doing any deliveries the week of Christmas - this proved to be a logistical nightmare last year, and I was still answering phone calls late on Christmas eve about the location of hams being delivered - no one wants to be doing that again! It's too much on the drivers and last minute doesn't leave any room for logistical problems to be corrected. So, keep some space in your fridge for the week before Christmas. A whole leg will take up almost one shelf in your average-sized single door fridge.
Hams are coming online for preorder on October 1, we sell out every year before December, so I encourage you to order as soon as you can to avoid missing out. We take our hams seriously, plan all year for it and I really hope this Christmas we can bring some joy to families who have been isolating and have been restricted at home without seeing loved ones.
It's a privilege to our family being able to provide you with an ethically produced ham. I know it's just food, but to me that's what Christmas is all about - family and good food being celebrated together.
Nose-to-tail charcuterie: this blog walks through every part of the pig, and what we use to make our much-loved charcuterie products, from our Little French Ham to our locally sourced pheasant terrine - and everything in between. Absolutely nothing is wasted and each part of the pig favours a different kind of charcuterie.
When my mum and I travelled to France in 2010, we ate a lot of charcuterie. Ready to eat cured meats and salumi products are mainstream fare in Europe, preserved for non-refrigeration in the old days but proven over time to be a most deliciously enhanced way of consuming meat.
This appealed to the green pig farmer and butcher in me, preserving our gorgeous meat and being able to consume it months later in smaller amounts was a no-brainer. Travelling really opened my mind to charcuterie and planted the seed for what our business does today. Plus back then it was hard to source good Australian free-range charcuterie. I thought, "this is it"! The next obvious step in our pig production was to preserve preserve preserve.
We started out making whole muscle cured meat. Each part of the pig has different traditional uses. The cheek also called guanciale in Italy is a delicious fatty meat best used for pasta carbonara. Simply sautee finely diced onions, garlic and the guanciale in lots of extra virgin olive oil, then add white wine, breadcrumbs and loads of good parmasan and crack your raw egg to stir in while it's hot. Belissimo!
The neck of the pig or coppa makes a beautiful salumi called capocollo. Ours is aromatic and a hint of heat, marbled and ruby coloured. We love capocollo to eat alongside a good cheese and a good full bodied red wine like Shiraz. Also good on pizza with buffalo mozzarella and olives.
Next comes the loin of the pig, or Lonza. Lonza has the back fat and also the lean loin muscle. Ours is aromatic and delicate and matches beautifully with a white wine such as Chardonnay. Also great on pizza, all the salumi is good on pizza actually!
The other half of the loin is the belly, which we make a flat (sometimes seen as a round cut) pancetta from. Pancetta is such a great ingredient to use in the kitchen. Diced up to use in pasta sauces, enhance beef, lamb and chicken dishes, cook with eggs (guanciale also so good with eggs!), have on pizza or sprinkle over fish or potatoes. Also use pancetta for replacing bacon on oysters if you're into Kilpatrick... oh lordy. Delicious! So versatile, best cooked and it just lasts forever in your fridge stored in greaseproof paper.
The legs we use for two products. A whole cured ham, or prosciutto cured just in salt. The other is a French meat called Noix de Jambon or coined by us as The Little French Ham. It's a single leg muscle and varies in size as there are 4 main muscles used. Some have a fat covering, some are lean. It's a simple cure of salt and pepper and the end result is simply gorgeous. It's our best-selling product by far and we have trouble keeping up with demand. We match the Little French Ham with Semillion wine but also works well with cool-climate Pinot Noir and gooey triple brie cheese like L'Artisan Extravagant.
The shoulders are a versatile cut. We dice ours, marinate in spices and immerse it in rendered pork fat. Slowly confit cooked for 6 hours the meat is then shredded and potted in a jar and sealed in more rendered lard. Our pork Rillettes are amazing, many French customers have groaned openly after consuming telling us that they have finally found a French comparison in Australia. We pasteurize the jars so that they have a long 12-month shelf life.
The belly after making pancetta has a layer of soft fat at the edge near the nipple. It's too soft for sausages, too fatty for pancetta. We mix this with the outer edges of the shoulder and sometimes the cheek trim to make a little known delicious morsel called Fricandeaux. I first learned about this little beauty in Trentham with Annie Smithers when she had a fabulous French husband and wife pig farming and butchery team, the Chapolards and American charcutier Kate Hill visit for their 'French Pig' workshop. This little product was minced with potato and onions and wrapped in the caul fat (fat that separates the organs from the gut) much like an English faggot. Also confit cooked, the rich, salty aromatic meat is like a jarred terrine, and is so good with a sharp mustard and vintage cheese.
We also make a terrine, which is minced pork wrapped in bacon or pancetta - we make ours with a locally-sourced pastured pheasant and are about to launch a special Christmas one. Terrines are so good on a platter with some pickles, cheese and fruit. A staple in France at truck stops (hahaha, yes) and bistros.
Lastly, pigs have livers and heads so we use them to make a pâté and head cheese and also a bone broth. The heads are boiled down whole and the meat savoured with fresh herbs, garlic, onion and salt and pepper and spices. This is then pressed which produces a lovely aspic that holds it all together.
Our last step for our nose-to-tail charcuterie mission is to make salami. The licensing and regulations surrounding making salami is very strict because of the high-risk nature of the process but we are on track to have salami available for Summer.
The take-home message from here is to get into charcuterie if you haven't already! We don't use nitrates and the products are all handmade in small batches. Our sweet pork really shines when salt is added and time is applied. Yum!
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