Know your food! Know your farmer!
Food is one of those things we need. But it seems like there’s no end to the food factors we should consider; be it, health, nutrition, environmental impact, animal welfare, ethics, sustainability… in realising the impact you have with your food consumption, being a ‘passive shopper’ isn’t an option.
How can you be entirely sure of what you’re buying?
Your farmer is the person who grows and cares for the food you eat; they are also the person you can talk to about it. Passionate producers know what went into your food, they'll have the answers to questions a grocery store can't. And if there's one thing you should be able to ask questions about, it's the food you eat.
The beauty of knowing your farmer in this way is that there is no guessing. No wondering whether something is grass-fed, all natural or sourced locally. You can ask about their use of pesticides and other practices, learn about what you are eating and drinking and this can help you decide which foods to consume, or not.
As we talk about getting to know your farmer we have to address the benefits being so much more than simply knowing the location of where your food comes from. It’s an important factor for understanding, not only what it takes to make your food and appreciate it’s cost and value, but going even deeper, it is important for our environment and your health;
Forming a personal relationship with a farmer and the animals they raise, causes you to value their livelihood and appreciate the cost of what they produce. By knowing your farmer you’re giving back on a much larger scale, it’s an investment in ‘us all’.
Knowing your farmer is all about building a relationship.
Not everyone has direct access to go out and spend a day at a farm, but nonetheless getting to know the farmers’ at your local market will help you in facilitating a connection and deepen your relationship with what you’re feeding yourself and your family.
Going to your local farmers market and buying from local producers is a good place to start, but I would encourage you to go a step further and ask to visit their farms.
You can learn about their food production practices: how they tend to their soil, their plants, and their animals. This transparency and openness are unfortunately the exact opposite of what the big food corporations are about, which is why getting to know the ‘who’ and the ‘how’ of food production is so important these days.
When you connect with local producers and begin buying more of what you eat from them you gain access to fresher, tastier, and more nutrient dense food. Additionally, since the food is not being transported long distances, less energy is required getting it to your plate. Buying from local producers also strengthens the local economy, and builds resilience into the community in which you live.
Ask the important questions.
Everyone should ask questions. It's how we grow, learn, get better, and make educated decisions.
Most farmers are proud of what they produce - and farmers are usually happy to chat with you and answer your questions, even during busy market hours. Be curious and polite, don’t turn the questions for farmers into an interrogation. Show your curiosity. Slow down. Listen and learn. Chat as you shop. Other shoppers nearby might pick up a thing or two.
Here are a number of 'first date' questions you can ask to discover whether the farmer in question is right for you and values the same things you do.
Did you grow this? This seems basic, but don’t assume that they did. If not, ask about the people who did.
What variety/breed is this? Farmers that are growing their own can usually pretty quickly name the variety/breed they are growing, and how it is grown (if they don’t tell you – ask). Also, there is a difference in flavour and quality amongst vegetable varieties and meat animal breeds, so it is good to keep track of what you like and what you don’t.
When you say ‘……’ what does that mean to you? Farmers use many complex terms (such as, organic, sustainable, ethical, free-range, etc.) to describe their farming practices. Many farms may use organic practices, but cannot afford the expense of the certification process. Some farms may use some chemicals, but keep them to a minimum as much as they can. Farmers will be honest with you – so go ahead, ask what they mean when they use these terms.
What are the ingredients in your product? At the market, there is not only produce, dairy and meat products but also homemade goods, jams, breads, etc. It’s important to ask what their ingredients are - just because it was homemade doesn’t make it organic, natural or sustainably made.
What’s the best way to cook this? Maybe I’m biased, but I think the best farmers are the ones that actually eat what they grow. Especially if it something that you are unfamiliar with, let them share their knowledge with you on how to prepare it for maximum flavour awesomeness.
Where is your farm and can I visit? Usually 30 seconds on a farm is enough for me to know if this is a farm I want to do business with. Seeing a farmer’s passion for what they do on the land, makes it very quickly evident if their values line up with my own. Be respectful of a farmer’s schedule, always give them plenty of notice when scheduling a visit, or even better go on a planned farm tour day. Farming is busy and exhausting work and if a farmer took a couple hours out of every day to give a tour—nothing would get done!
Have I told you lately that I love you? Okay, maybe you don’t need to confess your love or anything, but please oh please tell your farmer thank you for all their hard work. Sometimes we forget that this tiny little potato we are buying had this magical long life before us. The ground had to be prepared, planted, watered, bugs killed by hand, fretted over, harvested, washed, packaged, driven to market, and then sold.
Developing relationships with the people who grow your food takes time, but it is well worth the effort. Trust your gut instincts and continue asking the questions that are important to you. Whether your food choices are to benefit your health, our environment, local economy, or all of the above, we hope that we’ve convinced you to seek out small local farmers in your community and get your food from them!
Like many traditional foods that are making a comeback, charcuterie is a culinary art developed from necessity; it is the way meats were preserved long before the days of refrigeration. And just like pickles, fermented vegetables, home drafted beer, broth and kombucha, charcuterie has been revived and brought front and center by the traditional food movement. And in our humble opinion front and center is exactly where it deserves to be.
One might argue that we no longer need this ancient preservation method. We have our fridges, our freezers, our ships and planes; we want for nothing and we have access to everything all the time. But there are serious consequences to this mindset, that of cutting across seasons and seas in the pursuit of all. It is also easy to forget that ‘food waste’ is a modern invention.
How long can it continue? Will we be forced to return to a more local, seasonal diet that draws on many past methods of preservation? Maybe?!
It is important to acknowledge that we have long-standing food traditions that make the most out of ingredients in order to survive and even thrive during tough times. There’s a sort of alchemy in turning what’s perceived as ‘nothing’ into ‘something’. From aging pork bellies to fermenting cheese, pickles and sausages, techniques have been honed to feed us through difficult periods, like long winters, famines, droughts, wars and recessions.
The significance of these old traditions is as important as ever as we observe our natural resources diminish and our climate rapidly change. It is essential that we look to the past to inspire innovation and technology for a more sustainable future.
As our population expands and the environment weakens, these practices could be of vital importance in the modern-day world.
In the charcuterie
If you have ever walked through the doors of the charcuterie, it feels as if you’ve entered an enchanted world of meaty wonders. Meats of all shapes and sizes, colours and flavours… tangy, funky, explosive and heavenly. Charcuterie transforms meat into something special.
At its most basic level charcuterie is the technique of seasoning, curing, processing and preserving meat, a charcuterier’s bounty ranges from confit, sausages, pates, terrines, and hams.Limited only by the imagination… the charcuterier can make any part of the animal a taste sensation.
But charcuterie goes well beyond the charcuterier… the landscape, the seasons, the breed, the diet and the weather itself shape the end result, creating its unique terroir.
In the Meatshed
On the shelves of the meat shed, you’ll find buckets brimming with salt and stacked containers crammed with whole spices. Tubs of garlic, onions, and freshly picked herbs.
Meat makes up the core of the charcuterie, but our farm and pantry provides us with a palette of flavours with which to work.
Walk into the Meatshed kitchen and you’ll likely smell spices toasting, bones roasting, and broths simmering, see fresh sausage being hand-cranked out into coils, cured meat being hung on hooks for aging, a veritable vat of pate de tete being shredded and seasoned with freshly chopped parsley, then packed into jars… all by hand.
Peer into our curing room where guanciale, bresaola and pancetta hang quietly, patiently, enrobed in a delicate snowy bloom of mould.
The entirety of every animal serves a purpose and is created into something amazing.
The issue of all natural
Preservatives are used as additives in meat products, such as sausages, charcuterie and canned meat, in marinated fish, and even dairy products. They usually take the form of nitrites and nitrates—substances that are added to foods, especially mass-produced foods, to speed up curing, protect them from microbial contamination, and to improve their appearance (pink colouring) and texture.
Today, the use of additives seems unavoidable and taken for granted, but it is overlooked that charcuterie has been produced for centuries using only natural preservatives, such as salt, pepper, chili pepper, spices and smoke.
Since the post-war period, the practice of using nitrites has become so widespread that even many artisan producers consider them to be essential, there are still (though increasingly fewer) producers that make preservative-free charcuterie, sold not only in their own shops, but throughout Italy, with no shelf life problems.
The widespread use of preservatives in charcuterie is just one of the many symptoms of the industrialization of food production.
While there are natural alternatives to synthetic cure mixes, such as celery salt, the amount of nitrate present can vary dramatically, resulting in sheer guesswork.
The decision as to whether or not to use nitrates or nitrites is a difficult one, particularly if you want to create traditional authentic salami. Current legislation in Australian requires the use of nitrates or nitrites in the production of fermented sausages and salami, which aren’t heat treated.
So why did we decide NOT to use synthetic cures? Put simply, they are incompatible to our approach, which is to use the most natural ingredients and the most traditional methods to showcase the natural flavours of the meat.
We do not believe you need them as long as you follow best practice, add the right percentage of salt, and keep the curing products in the right conditions. With the advantage of modern scientific knowledge, we can apply precisely the correct ratio of salt and monitor pH levels (low acidity being a crucial factor in the development of botulism), as well as air-drying in the best conditions so that humidity and temperature are perfect.
While the decision to cure without nitrates and nitrites means we aren’t able to produce and sell traditional fermented salami, we can produce ready to eat whole muscle cures, cooked and smoked products and we will continually be developing our product range.
Bacon is the food that drives vegetarians crazy, and it seems to have a natural way of finding itself on breakfast, lunch and dinner plates in a very complementary and unassuming manner and is one of the most celebrated and versatile foods.
Everything, is better with bacon... Or is it?
There is no doubt about it. Bacon is a much loved, iconic ingredient in Australia - yet what most people aren't aware of is that 80% of the bacon sold here is made from imported pork and this isn’t good for our farmers, our pigs or for you as the consumer.
So what does it mean when the label on the front of a pack of bacon reads 17 per cent Australian content? How can bacon be 17 per cent Australian? Well, boneless, factory farmed, imported pork, is defrosted, placed in tumblers with water, salt, sugar and chemicals to make this bacon - the water and possibly the salt and sugar are the Australian part. The rest is imported.
So be sure to check the Country of Origin label, a percentage of over 90% of Australian ingredients will ensure you're buying bacon made from Australian pork. Or better yet buy from your local butcher or farmers markets.
We grow the best and healthiest, disease free produce on this planet. So why would we import anything that we can grow right here in Australia?
First catch your pig...
Not all bacon is created equal. There are various versions of bacon around the world – they are all made differently due to variances in the quality and cut of meat, the curing process, the spices/ingredients used, and the smoking process (or lack thereof). The only common denominator of real bacon: you need to first catch the pig.
Principally, pork belly is cured to make streaky bacon, the loin section (the part with the rib bones) is cured to make ‘eye’ or ‘shortcut’ bacon. And the whole loin and belly cured together is a side of bacon.
Curing is an ancient food preservation technique that draws away moisture to help prevent spoilage. Two common curing methods are salt curing and smoke curing.
In salt curing, the large among of salt (mostly commonly, in conjunction with nitrates) deprives certain bacteria of water, which helps prevent the oxidation process that causes meat to spoil.
Similarly, smoke curing helps seal the exterior pores of the meat, making the meat more resilient to infection from bacteria.
With as many types of bacon as there are methods of curing and flavouring (honey or brown sugar cured…, apple wood or hickory smoked…) - the big differences come in either dry curing (with or without nitrates) or brining and hot or cold smoking.
So how do we do it in the Meatshed? Our bacon is the simplest and purest kind of bacon, with a mild flavour. We take a slow-grown, Berkshire belly slab or loin, massage it with our dry cure (only pure Australian sea-salt), refrigerate, rinse and then dry. Once it is cured, it is hot-smoked using local apple wood, then cooled and sliced into thick rashers. Our whole process takes about two weeks from piece of meat to bacon heaven.
And OMG… a slab of bacon just out of the smoker is heaven on a platter. It is hard to resist tearing off a little piece (or a whole belly) and shoving the still steaming, salty, sweet meat into my mouth.
As with most artisan made things, there is a threat to the existence of traditional cured foods. Sadly, the fast-food, accelerated version of smoking and curing is perhaps now the most prominent.
Mass-produced bacon is made in a different way – cured by injections of salty water, which can also include chemicals such as potassium nitrate, sodium nitrate and ascorbic acid. Add a little time and there you have it – Bacon.
Beware of cheap bacon that has been pumped with salted liquid.
It doesn’t take much to work out that not only is the original moisture still there, but so is the added water, salt and additives. When that bacon is cooked the heat causes the brine to be released – resulting in a pan full of water.
Cheap bacon and sausages may sometimes seem tempting and moreish, not because of any real qualities they possess but because of the combination of the comfort of familiarity and the deceptive, almost hallucinatory effect on the tastebuds of artificial flavours and preservatives. As with bad Chinese food and cheese and onion crisps, there is a shallow, pharmaceutical gratification of the taste buds but little, if any, lasting pleasure or satisfaction. The moment you turn to comparable products of worthy provenance and true quality, you realise what a cheap trick (literally) it’s been.
Take slow-grown, rare-breed pigs, make dry-cured smoked bacon from their backs and bellies, or sausages of coarsely ground pork from their shoulders. Flavour the former with nothing more than salt and smoke, the latter with a pinch of white pepper and nutmeg, and you’ll have all the robust flavour, deep savouriness and lasting pleasure that you could ever wish for from a rasher or a banger.
Did you know?
Bacon is not fully cured or cooked. It’s not safe to eat raw, like salami. Bacon requires further cooking.
Because of its high fat content, bacon keeps well frozen, making it easy to always have some on hand to throw into the pan.
The Best Way to Cook Bacon…there is actually more than one way.
The perfect method depends on the circumstances. Here’s how to get the perfect bacon every time, no matter what.
Making this essential food may seem like a no-brainer, but think back to all those floppy strips you’ve served up. Even the simplest food benefits from proper cooking. Here are a couple of foolproof methods to see you through breakfast and beyond.
The Classic Method: In a Frypan
This tried-and-true method is the obvious choice when you need to cook 6 to 8 slices at a time.
1. Pull out the bacon from the fridge 15 to 20 minutes before cooking. At room temperature, bacon just cooks up better (just like steak).
2. Don't preheat the frypan. Lay out the bacon strips without overlapping in a cold pan. This helps the fat render slowly, for consistently cooked strips.
3. Cook over medium heat — again, good for even rendering. Turn the strips as needed until they reach the desired crispness, 8 to 12 minutes.
4. Drain well on a paper-towel-lined platter.
For Feeding a Crowd: In the Oven
Make this your go-to method when you need bacon for a big group and don't want to bother making multiple batches. Plus, there's no turning and cleanup is simple.
1. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil or parchment paper, and lay out as many bacon strips as will fit snuggly without overlapping.
2. Place in a cold oven. Then heat the oven to 200oC and bake to desired crispness, ~25 to 35 minutes.
3. Drain well on a paper-towel-lined platter.
From the beginning of human history until the middle of the last century the word fat had positive connotations. Fat was valuable and useful. The best meat was well marbled and had a good coating of fat, with only the plumpest chicken selected for the pot. Fat was an integral part of our diet, and those that didn’t eat enough were sickly and often died. Eating fat and being a little plump was a sign of prosperity and health; no one wanted to be thin.
Nowadays it seems everyone is on a diet or watching their weight. Fat is no longer seen as valuable, and being plump is a health risk. Fat is no longer admired and worse still, the fat in our food is now inexorably linked to the fat on our bodies.
Our fear of getting fat makes us choose lean meats as we rejected marbled beef, fatty pork, and plump birds, producers responded by breeding leaner animals.
But fat is fundamental to the flavour of our food and essential for cooking it.
Fat is just as indispensable to our health as it is to our cooking. Every cell in our body needs fat, our brain and hormones rely on fat to function, and fat supports our immune system, fights disease, and protects our liver. Fat promotes good skin and healthy hair, and it regulates our digestive system and leaves us feeling sated. Diets low in fat, it turns out, leave people hungry, depressed, and prone to weight gain and illness.
All fats, however, are not created equal. While we have reduced our intake of animal fats, the total amount of fat in our diet has increased. We have replaced animal fats with man-made hydrogenated fats and vegetable oils which aren’t good for us. They’re full of Omega-6 fatty acids (not the good Omega-3s), that cause heart disease, obesity, and all sorts of health problems.
Note: Meat and butter from grass-fed animals contain omega-3, but animals raised on a diet high in grains are full of omega-6 fatty acids.
Fat makes everything we eat taste better, and eating fat is satisfying, so we eat less and our desire to snack is reduced. Enjoying our meals makes us happy and lowers our stress. And, as hard as it is to believe, fat is good for us, too.
Pork fat: The king
With its high proportion of fat to meat, the pig is truly king when it comes to animal fat. The pig is valued as much for its fat as for its meat… or at least it was.
Pork has lost its fat, and with it its flavour.
But the tide is turning for pork fat. The realisation of the dangers associated with trans fats has caused many of us to reconsider the benefits of lard. This trend, combined with cooks demanding pork with more fat and flavour, has led to an interest in heritage breeds such as Berkshire pigs. These pigs naturally put on fat and have a delicious, lightly marbled meat.
However the quest for lean meat is so ingrained in us, that our rosy Berkshire pork covered with a thick layer of fat is often met with resistance. We need to understand that this coat of fat tells us that the animal was raised slowly and that the meat underneath it will be much more flavourful. That fatty coat also means that there will be more fat to render into lard.
Pork fat in all its forms is not only very useful, but it is also good for us. Like all fats, it is a mixture of saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids. While the exact percentages vary with the pigs diet and the breed of the pig, pork fat is mostly monounsaturated.
Pork fat’s low level of polyunsaturated fatty acids means it doesn’t turn rancid easily and is very stable when heated. This makes pork fat an excellent fat for frying. Not only are foods fried in lard very crisp, but they also absorb less fat than if they were fried in oil. Lard is also great for making pastry, because its crystalline structure makes dough very flaky.
We use lard in nearly all of our cooking – it has a mild, bacony flavour and makes every dish stand out because it lends a rich, depth of flavour that you can’t get with any other cooking oil.
We sell jars of lard from our pastured pigs. Or why not make your own short-cut lard? It’s very easy to make; the bacon that’s been sizzling away has left lard in the bottom of the pan. If you’ve been slow-cooking a pork shoulder for a while, the fat that has rendered in the bottom of the pan is lard. One tip: pour that fat through a very fine strainer to remove any burned, black flecks. Those burned bits can turn your lard. Store it in a tightly sealed container in the fridge or freezer, and it can keep for months.
OK, I’m sold. How do I use it?
You can toss it in a sauté pan instead of butter to fry eggs or sauté veggies. Use it to baste chickens at the end of cooking to get a crackly skin. And you’ve got to try a lard pie crust at least once. Confit whole chickens and ducks, make scratchings (pork crackle), and even add a little umami boom to chocolate desserts.
Fat is good: so let’s cook our chips in lard, spread our bread with butter, make our pastry with real animal fats, grill a well-marbled steak, and enjoy them all, in moderation of course!