Pork

Pork

By
Justin North
Contains
5 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740664028
Photographer
Steve Brown

The Sweet Pork Company

Byron Bay is just north-west of Australia’s most easterly point in New South Wales. A lighthouse marks the promontory where many a holidaymaker has stayed up all night to watch the sun reach its first point in Australia on a new day. And in the hills behind the bustling holiday town is where you’ll find the cutting edge in pork farming, at Bangalow Sweet Pork.

Joe Byrne, a wiry, straight-talking man in his sixties, has invested a significant number of years and ‘just as many wheelbarrow-loads of money’ in creating pork that is tender, rich in flavour and low in saturated fats. He’s passionate about the quality of his product and has worked with agricultural scientist Jim Berting for more than thirty years to create the premium brand.

When Byrne is presenting his product to butchers, ‘The first thing I tell them is that we’re expensive and we’re fat,’ he chuckles. It has taken him years to open people’s minds to the idea that pork is a meat that must carry fat; that there are different kinds of fats in meat – both good and bad for health; and that the fat in pork is where all the flavour is found. ‘Pigs don’t have fur or feathers to keep them warm,’ he says, ‘so they’re bound to have more naturally occurring fat to compensate’.

So far, almost fifty butchers Australia-wide sell pork from Bangalow Sweet Pork and as the word spreads, so does customers’ desire for a tastier product. ‘We don’t go out of our way to make our pigs fat,’ Byrne says, ‘but we don’t restrict them, either’. It is this monumentally different attitude to the production of pork that distinguishes Sweet Pork from the rest of the pork on the market.

Turning back the clock

The Sweet Pork Company is rewriting the rules of pork farming and consumption in Australia. In the past, consumers have been led to believe that the leanest cut of pork is preferable, under the misconception that fat is always bad. This pressure pushed farmers to produce pork that was extremely lean. ‘The problem with that,’ Joe explains, ‘is that it tastes like cardboard. All the flavour of meat is gleaned from the fat. If you put chicken fat into beef sausages, they taste like chicken.’ Pork reared to be low in fat is often tough, dry and lacking in flavour. It was this realisation that paved the way for Byrne and Berting to develop their unique pork product.

The Sweet Pork Company pays great attention to the feeding and management of farm livestock, in the belief that this close proximity will lead to a better product. Berting has lived in the Bangalow area since 1980 and has spent the majority of this time refining pig feed. The three farmers currently producing pigs for the Bangalow Sweet Pork are well versed in Berting’s secret feed recipe but have signed non-disclosure agreements. Although Byrne and Berting won’t reveal what goes into the feed for their pigs, they’re only too happy to discuss what doesn’t.

You won’t find growth promoters, antibiotics or chemical metabolism modifiers in the animals at the Sweet Pork Company. These are used elsewhere to prohibit the development of fat in the animals, to speed up the growth process and therefore the meat yield. Similarly, fish meal is commonly used elsewhere in feed. While extremely high in protein and helpful in producing a very lean carcass, which has been in fashion in recent years, fish meal tends to make pork meat taste fishy. ‘It’s simply not what pork is supposed to taste like,’ Berting says.

With the policy of avoiding all chemicals in the meat and allowing the pigs a more natural diet and a longer, gradual weight gain, Sweet Pork has a high fat content and is a more expensive cut of meat. But for the exemplary taste and delicate texture, it is very much worth it.

‘Pork used to taste wonderful when I was a kid, but this paranoia about fat nowadays has spoiled how pork is meant to taste,’ Byrne says. He is keen to educate his customers to change their priorities. Along with Australia’s obsession with fat, the problem is, according to Byrne, a lack of understanding and experience in pig farming. Old methods have been lost to mechanised farming techniques and the philosophies that underpin those longtrusted techniques have disappeared.

‘Few of the newcomers to the industry in the past twenty years would have had the benefit of any experience in pig production that wasn’t in a “factory farming” situation,’ Berting says. ‘All research in feeding, breeding, housing and health is governed by the pressure – mostly from supermarkets – to produce a cheaper article, heedless of the quality. Worse still, the term “quality” has been misrepresented to mean “absence of fat”.’

The science of taste

Jim Berting studied agriculture with a postgraduate year in animal nutrition and genetics. After he completed his postgraduate studies he developed an interest in pig farming and it was fortunate that his studies were well suited to work in this area. Jim’s contribution to the Sweet Pork Company has been to address the connection between genetics and the quality of feed for pigs, the principal secret of the company’s success. Because of the relatively short generational interval in pigs (sows can produce two litters of eight piglets annually), it is possible to make changes to a pig’s genetic makeup rapidly. Breeds that have been experimented with include Hampshire, Wessex and Saddleback.

Berting explains that pigs take on the flavour of the food they’re fed in the last eight weeks of their lives. In Europe, pigs are sometimes kept in an orchard to graze on the fruit for the last few weeks of their lives, as it is said to bring a sweetness to their meat.

The breakdown of fats in Bangalow Sweet Pork’s meat is interesting in comparison to other brands. Mono-unsaturated fat constitutes 53.3 per cent; saturated fat 36.6 per cent; with poly-unsaturated fats making up the rest of the total fat content. Other farmed pork might have a lower total fat content, but of that content a far greater portion is made up of saturated fat, which is more likely to increase blood cholesterol in humans. People need some fat in their diet in order to process the vitamins A, D, E and K, as well as for other vital functions, but an unsaturated fat is better for this purpose as it carries less risk of forming cholesterol deposits in the arteries.

Bangalow Sweet Pork pigs are fed a diet that also enhances omega 3 and omega 6 production – a good thing for the human diet as we need these fats and our bodies don’t produce them.

The intramuscular fat in Bangalow Sweet Pork is marbled throughout the flesh, and it’s this that gives the meat its succulent texture and sweet taste. Cooks should bear in mind that while using this product it’s a good idea to cook the pork meat with all the fat left on it (including the ‘depot’ fat that lies between the skin and muscle) and remove it after cooking. ‘Just because there’s more fat on Sweet Pork doesn’t mean you’re obligated to eat it all,’ Byrne says.

Through nurturing a natural approach, the Sweet Pork Company is farming a product that defies the trend towards non-fat meat products while embracing flavour and healthy fats at the same time.

Recipes in this Chapter

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