getting old

(november 2013)

So you've worked your whole life, paid all that tax and generally contributed positively to society, I think you have the right to eat fresh and well in your twilight years, but it isn'y always the case....some food for thoughtt.

As a post script to the article above, it was promising to see such a well-attended session at the recent Tasting Australia 2014 Think Session, “Food in Aged Care”. It seems with conversations about the quality of food in aged care facilities being fostered in such an environment, that perhaps we’ll start to see a shift in the type of meals provided for residents. This topic is now firmly in the media spotlight with Maggie Beer leading a campaign to improve the quality of food prepared by aged care homes.

Here’s a snippet of the panel discussion from the Tasting Australia session, which included experts from the aged care sector including Klaus Zimmermann, Peter Morgan-Jones, Ellis Wilkinson and Karen Ferres.

Read more about:

to roo, or not to roo, that is the question...

(november 2012)

There are many shades of grey when looking at ethical food production. In many cases when it comes to best practice ethical producers and animal advocates seem to be on the same page, but not when it comes to the issue of kangaroo meat. If I put my chef's hat on, I'd say that all roo is not equal.

There are some inferior quality products that have in the past sullied the reputation of the meat. If the meat is processed badly it will be bruised which produces an undesirable texture and flavour. The industry has come a long way in the past few decades and there are some absolutely top quality products on the market now. As with beef and lamb, the breed, grading and treatment (processing, transport and packaging) of the animal has great influence on the quality of the product.

Of the 50-odd species of roo, four are targeted by the meat industry. Red kangaroo is highly sought after for its mild flavoured meat due to its open plain habitat and hence the pasture it grazes on. Then comes the slightly more gamey flavour of the hill dwelling Euro and finally the Eastern and Western Greys who ferret in scrublands and have an intense flavour which can be too gamey for some punters.

One local supplier is working towards a single area orientated, species specific, portion consistent product which will be a massive step forward for the industry putting it in line with the cattle/sheep industry where appellation, breed and farming method bring about a higher price and a more consistent quality product for the consumer; (think Richard Gunner's Coorong Angus Beef compared to just any old piece of beef).

From an environmental point of view both sides of the debate agree the effects of sheep and cattle grazing (soil erosion from their cloven hoofs, heavy grazing pressure and the subsequent vegetation and biodiversity loss) is a concern when compared with the environmental impact kangaroos create. Sheep and cattle also contribute to 11% of Australia's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, although the number of kangaroos needed to be annually harvested to replace sheep and cattle to negate these effects may well greatly exceed the total population.*

No one can dispute that kangaroos are truly free range and live a better quality (and longer) life than a factory farmed animal.

The argument for the need to cull high populations as roos have no natural predators is countered by the suggestion based on modelling that Australia's drought cycle makes the populations "naturally fragile."

The real controversy and debate about roos centres around two main factors; the killing method of the animal and the fate of joeys, whether pouched or young at foot.

Glenys Oogjes - Executive Director Animals Australia puts, "A conservative estimate of the number of adult roos not humanely killed at over 100 000 per annum." The concerns are centred around the lack of regulators present during roo shoots which are carried out mainly at night and in remote areas and that, "Wounded kangaroos that are not shot in the head as legally required may often be abandoned as they will not be accepted at the processing plant."

Ray Borda - CEO Macro Meats Gourmet Game and President of the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia points out there are random inspections and audits in the bush and furthermore all roos end up in his plant at the end of a shoot. It is illegal for a non-head shot and at the Macro plant every carcass is inspected. Like all other forms of livestock, if the animal is stressed the meat simply is not good so there is absolutely no incentive for a non- head shot, as Ray says," The meat tells the story."

The issue of joeys is paramount in Animals Australia's opposition to consumption of roo meat. Concerns around the killing method of pouched joeys (and there have been brutal examples here in the history of the industry) as well the fate of orphaned joeys who flee from hunters which are vulnerable to starvation, exposure or could become prey of dingos or foxes - numbers of which has been estimated in the vicinity 300 000 joeys per annum.

The policy and code of practice for kangaroo killing states that animals with pouch young should not be taken. The shooters point out that females are considerably smaller than the targeted size males which are around 40 kg or around 5 years old (incidentally a factory farmed "porker" has a similar weight but with a lifespan of only 4 months). If a female is large enough to be mistaken for a male they are quite possibly beyond their breeding cycle so the visual cues are easily identified. Around 90 % of roos shot in Australia are male and it is not in the industry's best interests to "shoot tomorrows profit."

Ray Borda points out that the industry is committed to best practice and is trialling a humane "captive bolt" for joeys, the method used to dispatch cattle in abattoirs. The trial is part of a larger project funded by the Rural Industries and Development Corporation after calls for research to objectively examine the humaneness of kangaroo harvesting and to determine where ongoing improvements can be made.

I suspect this debate will continue to be hotly contested for some time.

*University of Technology Sydney, the THINKK paper

cows on grass

Liam and Madeleine's triple b cows

(august 2012)

Grain fed beef is one of the most successful marketing stories in the food industry. There is simply not enough space in this article to begin a dissertation on how this happened so put a few keywords in google and get reading; (cheap US corn prices, faster growing cattle, marbled beef, higher yielding land density stocking rates, MARKETING companies).

Opponents to grain fed beef will site USA outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 which is linked (but not exclusively due), to high density feed lotting and the subsequent effect of cattle standing in their own effluent. The reaction by industry to this problem has been traditionally to use ammonium hydroxide to treat the meat.

Antibiotics and growth hormones are used to expedite growth rates of the animal. Imbalance in the meat's omega 6 (bad) and omega 3 (good) fatty acids is a result of prolonged use of grains, (particularly corn and soy) and their effect on ruminant's (i.e. cows in this case) digestive systems, including a lack of fibre in grains that can cause cattle to lick each and cause rumen abscesses.

It all sounds pretty scary but in my opinion, from both an animal welfare and health point of view, in Australia the raising of beef cattle along with our chooks and pigs (live exports and unethical dispatch methods aside) has managed to travel through the post war period of industrialized agriculture in a less worrisome way than both our overseas counterparts.

There are some exceptionally good "best practice" grain finished beef operations which run very low numbers of both days in lots and density's, especially in South Australia which are run with complete integrity.

If you do decide to give some 100% pasture raised or grass fed (the terms are interchangeable but don't be fooled by the term "free range" as it is a little deceptive in this context; the cattle could still be fed grain while they are on pasture) you won't have trouble finding it. Both flavor and texture are completely different to grain fed beef. We are so used to marbled beef (a result of grain feeding) that many people are quite shocked when they first come across a grass fed beef, especially some of the "prime cuts" like fillet or striploin. It's really just a matter of technique when you cook. I have used grass fed beef products for a number of years on menus with spectacular results. There is no doubt the flavour is unique to each farmer's pasture and working with these robust differences is a pleasure for a chef.

Bob Heath a stud cattle breeder turned beef farmer, raises his Najobe Park Red Angus near Wistow in the Adelaide Hills. He attributes his meat quality to a number of factors, absolute low stress and humane management techniques are the cornerstone. He uses no dogs, horses or helicopters for mustering. Testament to this approach comes when calving begins and Bob is able to move amongst livestock and pick up, tag, sex and weigh calves with no more than a gentle nuzzle and moo from the mothers. Familiarity with humans and calmness make the dispatch process less stressful for his livestock. In addition the cows are driven in a small fully enclosed trailer less than 12kms, and within two hours of leaving his property the cows are "on hooks". This is hugely important because travel, unfamiliarity with humans and final destination yarding time are major stresses on livestock. The result is no "dark cutters" (stressed cows produce a dark meat that is the result of pH changes in muscle and can make the meat tough); and a sense of pride whenever one of his Willunga or Adelaide Showground Farmers Market customers return for more.

Bob and son Ben say that many customers are asking questions about traceability. All of Bob's cattle come from one of 12-14 separate farms in the area. Density ratios? Well, one cow per 4 acres is not exactly high density and yes they are 100% pasture raised as Bob believes that cows should eat grass and that grain feeding produces a more watery final cut of meat.

Down at the Henley Organic and Sustainable Market you will find Madeleine and Liam Burns of Burns' Biodyanamic Beef (Triple B) who raise cattle on two separate farms on the east side of Lake Alexandrina. It is an amazing and tranquil place to be, the cows are calm and allow Liam within a couple of feet when walking his land which is run to certified bio dynamic principles. The cows are low density cell grazed through 18 different paddocks over 10 week rotations to ensure pastures are lush and to allow cow pads to break down with dung beetle action, thus lessening livestock worm burden.

Calves are left with their mothers until 8-9 months of age and are calm and stress free. Testament to the system's effectiveness is the visual condition of the cows (stunning) and a complete lack of drenching (which can be stressful to livestock). Instead the cows get apple cider vinegar, garlic, pepitas and molasses to control the nominal levels of worms and lice.

It is a method of looking after the land that Liam says has spilled over into their whole lives since Liam attended a BD workshop run by the Spranz family in 2003. They adopted BD principles after questioning the effectiveness of "traditional farming methods" with chemicals.

The raising of the Burns' Black Angus cattle all starts below the ground by feeding microbes in the soil, which then feed the grasses and in turn the cows. It's basically "old fashioned" farming whereby if you look after the land it will look after you. And as for dispatching the cows, well they are looked after very well with a short run in a dedicated truck (this is part of BD certification) and again NO holding pens at a small local abattoir run by two brothers, to minimize stress.

Triple B customers tend to sell the beef as the word of mouth about the sensational flavours spreads pretty quickly. Madeleine is also keen to educate market punters on how to cook some of the less "fashionable cuts" by way of tried and tested home cooked recipe cards. The price of prime cuts really isn't dear because of the lack of the middle man, but the secondary cuts are constantly on my own menus - not just because they are cheap - but because that's where the big flavour is.

chicken(ing) out

Matthew and Cathryn Greenslade's chooks

(june 2012)

I like chickens; they're intelligent, curious creatures with a way of going about their day to day business that just makes me smile. It's hard to be sad when you see a happy chicken.

Unfortunately 90% of Australia's meat birds are produced under "conventional methods" which is a nice way of saying, locked in a light and climate controlled barn for a life that is as short as 35 days.

Sheds hold an average of 40 000 birds and often up to a whopping seven times that number (up to 20 birds per square meter is permitted). About 2% of the chooks will die mainly due to the associated costs to the birds' welfare including trampling, stress and illness.

Over the last 60 years our appetite for chicken meat in Australia has grown from 3 million birds per annum to 400 million. Birds used to take nearly 100 days to reach market size but now our production methods can produce jumped-up, super tweens that weigh in at 1.6kg in 37 days. It's all a result of our unreasonable demand to eat chicken "on tap" and pay buttons for it. These magnificent birds used to have decent lives, were full flavoured and eaten only on special occasions (and we ate the whole bird instead of just demanding a skinless breast), plus we paid farmers fair money for the privilege.

Saskia Beer's Barossa Chooks are in my opinion the finest damn chook in the country. Her birds are grown out up to 60 days longer than the industry standard to produce proper muscle development (which gives the bird great texture). She uses a high corn, vegetarian diet which gives the birds a luscious, rounded flavour to compensate for the energy that the birds burn up while scooting around in outdoor areas; (free ranging can produce a dry, lean chook). Their pastures are stocked at no more than 100 birds per 350 square metres (that's 70 times more room per chook than the conventional system!).

Saskia fell into chook farming in a manner that comes as no surprise if you know the Beer Family. She just wanted the best possible product to cook with, and a good free range chook was hard to come by 16 years ago. Pheasant farming father Colin Beer encouraged her to give it a pop and Saskia became Australia's first corn fed, free range chook producer. It is an uncompromising attitude towards best practice that has led her to set an industry benchmark.

On a smaller scale, Ashley and Christine Boyer turned a hobby into a growing business by free ranging birds outside Yankalilla, south of Adelaide. Their Inman Valley birds are free ranged at densities less than one bird per square metre. Ashley rotates the birds into different outdoor areas daily to avoid birds ranging on "wet litter" (which can produce nitrogen burns if not managed correctly). Their chemical free, vegetarian fed birds are grown out up to 90 days and have started appearing on some of Adelaide's best menus - The Kitchen Door at Penny's Hill Winery and Fino to name a couple.

One of the South Australia's earliest free range operations in Riverton, north of Adelaide, is run by the Greenslade Family. Matthew Greenslade feeds his chooks wheat, barley and peas grown either on his own property or purchased from nearby Clare Valley producers. Greenslade birds have ample access to quality pastures, shade from trees and are grown out between 63 and 90 days in a "natural living environment," without the use of antibiotics.

If you don't want to contribute to the misery of 36 million fluffy lives a year, you have some very real options with the above producers. The term "free range" is however a minefield of inconsistencies in regard to density ratios, feeding regimes (animal by- products are permitted under some accreditations), the quality of land and access hours the birds have to outdoor areas (natural sunlight gives free range birds a more structured skin which is essential for good cooking). Consumer goodwill is easily exploited when a "free range" label is slapped on a chook if the birds' welfare is being forsaken for mass volume and profits, so be very wary of cheap free range chooks. I guarantee shortcuts will have been taken, most of them affecting both flavor and welfare.

Read more about:

if it's not "fair', it's just not fair

oxfam "fair" dark chocolate muffin (photo courtesy Oxfam)

(may 2012)

Fair trade week kicks off in May , here's some food for thought....

Funny to think that a dummy spit in the 1860s by a former Dutch civil servant about corrupt colonial trading practices could have so much impact on the chocolate that you purchase now.

Eduard Douwes Dekker penned his famous exposé of corrupt colonial practices in the Dutch East Indies some 150 years ago. The novel's eponymous hero Max Havelaar is a mouthpiece for the author's dissatisfaction with Dutch governmental reforms that imposed quotas and a commission-based tax collection system on Indonesian farmers in the 1800s.

The quota system emphasised growing tradable crops like tea and coffee at the expense of staple foods that the farmers needed to sustain themselves. The tax reforms resulted in corruption and the end result was widespread poverty and starvation of the Indonesian farmers. The novel was the first of its kind in that it raised the issue to Europeans that their wealthy lifestyle was a direct result of colonial suffering and its widespread influence has been indirectly attributed to the eventual end of Dutch colonialism in Indonesia.

How does this all relate to chocolate in 2012? Well, not a lot at a glance as a great deal of our chocolate consumption in the west still has nasty side effects for marginalising farmers (particularly in developing countries). However change is being driven by a swing in consumer demand towards "fairer" products.

While the fair trade movement has its roots in the 1960s, particularly in the tea and coffee retail markets, it wasn't until the late 1980s, when the first fair trade coffee labelling initiative "Max Havelaar" (branding inspired by the sentiment of the novel) was introduced, and the scheme really started to have some global consumer impact. The branding initiative challenged a number of key ethical issues and long term practices that were being raised by a growing number of other social justice and environmental movements that were gathering mass at a similar time.

Issues such as third world exploitation, basic human rights infringements and sustainability of natural resources were well and truly on the public radar. It is fair to say that Fairtrade movement was part of a bigger growing public consciousness that encompassed some crossover and shared sentiments with other foundations and organisations (such as early incarnations of Greenpeace), which began to generate a collective momentum that was hard for the public and media to ignore.

Today it's easy to spot certified fair trade products as they carry the Fairtrade label - look for the blue and green swirls surrounding what appears to be a cheering person (perhaps indicating both a happy producer and consumer). The trademark comes from Fairtrade International (FLO), which sets standards, audits and certifies producers under one umbrella organisation, and in Australia is managed by Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand.

Green & Black's were the pioneers of fair trade chocolate under this certification, marketing the first Fairtrade Certified chocolate in 1994. While consumer uptake was relatively slow, fair trade chocolate sales reached a whopping 74 million dollars in Australia/New Zealand in 2010 and eclipsed Fairtrade Certified coffee sales.

This is a huge trend, no doubt due to the ever-increasing number of top quality Fairtrade chocolate products hitting the shelves. There really is no excuse for not buying Fairtrade chocolate now - the old perception that the product wasn't as good and would cost a fortune to boot is well and truly buried. The reasons for supporting fair trade just can't be ignored.

While there are protections in the marketplace for chocolate growers, they really only benefit the top 10 per cent or so of growers, with small producers missing out (90 per cent of the world's 14 million small family producers grow on farms smaller than five hectares, producing as little as half a ton of beans). Fairtrade aims to ensure minimum prices are paid to these producers, as well as developing cooperatives that put funds back into communities through initiatives like community education and health programs. Fairtrade also removes exploitative middle men and sets environmental standards that prohibit the use of harmful chemicals and look at the long-term sustainability of communities and land. This is why so many organic products are also Fairtrade Certified.

Most importantly, the Fairtrade Standards also prohibit the use of slavery and exploitative child labour. The lucrative global cocoa market has been subject to numerous media exposés revealing wide spread practices of human trafficking, the most concerning of which involves child labour.

You would think that there is no way you could enjoy a piece of chocolate with the thought that children quite often as young as 12 had been trafficked across African borders and sold to a life of slavery working in cocoa fields, yet we do.

A number of investigative journalists have revealed "the dark side" of the chocolate industry and there is irrefutable evidence that a large number of children are "sold" and used illegally as cheap labour on cocoa plantations (particularly on the Ivory Coast), working under inhumane exploitive and abusive conditions. The issues are complex and the solutions more so; there are so many key players from government officials, farmers, global chocolate manufacturers (that knowingly or unknowingly buy this product) and of course the end consumers who provide the demand to keep these practices alive.

Now you may feel a little guilty when you eat too much chocolate. However, by choosing Fairtrade you can rest assured that it is not the guilt of oppression and exploitation that is lingering on your palate, they really are bitter tastes to live with

If you're cooking, you will probably want a 70 per cent chocolate; the ratio of cocoa solids, which is the butter and the cocoa mass, compared to the total weight. This figure relates to the blending process but is still a little confusing for most people because that tells you how much of the bar is derived from the cocoa bean (i.e. what is NOT sugar, soy emulsifier, vanilla etc) but what it doesn't tell you is the ratio of cocoa butter (the "gold") compared to the cocoa solids (the bitter chocolaty stuff). For that, you need to look at the ingredients breakdown on the packet.

Another factor that influences the quality of the chocolate is the conching - literally, the liquid grinding of the cocoa blend to produce tiny particles, hence smoothness. And finally the tempering, which is the controlled temperature crystallisation of the product for appearance and "snap". At the end of the day, have a taste and if you like it then forget all the techno babble and just cook with it.

Sure, a number of professional high-end chocolatiers demand the absolute finest couverture chocolate for their culinary masterpieces; products of this calibre bearing a Fairtrade Certification are a little hard to find. This is a niche market with a few players like Camino, a Canadian manufacturer, who have a number of spectacular Fairtrade couverture products. It's really up to professional chefs to start asking a few sticky questions to their suppliers and creating an industry demand for Fairtrade and other companies will inevitably follow.

I had the tough job of "testing" as much product as I could bear for three days. At my level of cooking and "chocolate ability" I have to say there is plenty of product that well exceeds my benchmark level of required quality.

My pick of the fair bunch follows:

Green & Black's is still there, with their 72 per cent cooks' chocolate. It has 43 per cent cocoa butter content which means it is smooth and full on the palate.

Oxfam fair Organic Dark 70 per cent, is a total value for money pick and cooks up nicely.

Alter Eco Organic Dark Blackout is a massive 85 per cent cocoa content but is surprisingly really palatable and if you are a "serious chocolate person" I would give this a try.

The other stand out is Cocolo Dark 70 per cent.

These are just the ones I would recommend for quality cooking, but there are also a host of Fairtrade gourmet and artisan chocolates of great quality like the Chocolatier range.

It all goes to show that in the end fairness can prevail, even if it takes over a hundred years and a few twists and turns to get there.

For more information on Fairtrade Labelled products and how Fairtrade Certification is creating a better life for cocoa farmers visit

oxfam fair chocolate muffin with dried cherry

makes 6 large

40 g dried cherry (or dried cranberry if u/v)
100 g roughly chopped oxfam dark chocolate
150 g bakers flour
150 g wholemeal flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
90 g dark brown sugar
240 ml buttermilk
65 ml olive oil
1 free range egg, beaten
2 tablespoon water
olive oil (extra) or butter, to serve

Preheat the oven to 190°C and line a 6-cup muffin tin with greased muffin foils or baking paper.

Mix all remaining ingredients gently in a bowl. You may need to add a little water just to bring the ingredients together, but try not to mix the batter as this will create tough muffins, just fold the mix together .

Spoon the batter into pre greased muffin foils or papers. Bake the muffins for 15 to 20 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean and tops golden brown.

Serve the muffins with olive oil or butter.

this little piggy

crispy skin free range berkshire pig belly (photo courtesy Rick Eaves)

(september 2011)

Okay, this picture of the crispy pig belly looks nice enough but could you eat it while thinking about images of sow stalls, farrowing crates, pigs crammed in sheds?

Thankfully the decision by Australian Pork Limited last year to phase out sow stalls voluntarily by 2017 should improve conditions somewhat but some producers and consumers feel this is only one step of many needed to ensure a happy life for pigs.

The ethical issues around farrowing crates (designed to stop sows crushing piglets after birth), which confine the sow in an area not much larger than its body size are still a concern. Sure, no one wants a crushed piglet but there are alternative solutions.

Warren Smith of Minniribbie Farm (free range Berkshire Pork), has two acres of his free range area set aside on his property, about 10kms north of Coffin Bay, for mothers to farrow piglets. It is a shared area for the sows and while he acknowledges you might lose a piglet now and again, comparatively mortality does exist in factory farms due to the associated stress and over crowding.

A comparison between Danish factory farmed pigs with sows confined in farrowing crates and Swedish farms where the crates are banned (sows are in 5 metre pens), showed no significant difference in mortality rates.*

Warren adds the key is in the Berkshire sows, who are naturally good mothers. Combined with the litter sizes that he achieves of 7 (ideal) to 8 (max) piglets, this enables the sow to care for all of her offspring effectively without losing condition or becoming exhausted.

Compare this with the traditional Large White and Landrace litter sizes that we have selectively bred to produce a dozen or so piglets and you can understand why you may not need farrowing crates if the mother can cope with the litter size and is not stressed from confinement.

Density rate and confinement are also issues in the intensive factory systems. Warren gives his animals no iron supplement, no antibiotics, there is no tail docking or teeth clipping done on the piglets. The latter common place (and quite painful for piglets), to stop tail biting which is often brought about from boredom, over stocking and confinement in factory systems. Warren points out the sows teach appropriate social behavior to the offspring and his livestock do not exhibit the above mentioned behavioral problems.

This view is shared by Louise Smith of Loxton who is one of a growing number of farmers producing Berkshire Free Range Pork for Richard Gunner of Feast Fine Foods. Feast started off with a handful of producers farming Berkshire's (among them Colin and Joy Lenient from the Barossa) and has now grown to a group of 10 free range producers, as awareness of factory farm conditions has risen and consumer demand for free range pork has subsequently grown.

Louise, a 26 year old who along with her brother, has joined the family business says the ease of managing and herding the intelligent, little, black Berkshire pigs is why her family started free ranging them. The Smith family provides ample straw bedding, chains and toys for the pigs to play with, shade and windbreaks for weather protection and has found no need for docking and clipping if the pigs are happy and active in their free range environment.

The resurgence of Berkshire pigs has come about because they are a hardy, little heritage breed ideal for free ranging due to their darker pigmentation, which means they don't sun burn like the modern factory farmed breeds that just would not tolerate our climate out doors.

Warren makes a point of providing conditions as natural as possible for his livestock, like wallowing baths for cool-down (pigs cant sweat); wallowing also enables the pigs to get a natural layer of "sunscreen " from the mud. Warren's favorite time of the day is feeding time, "...and the sense of well being from seeing his pigs healthy and content." This is a stark contrast with Warren's memory of visiting a commercial piggery, "...and leaving quite distressed from seeing these intelligent creatures in such conditions."

There are a few hitches with free range systems. Warren has a separate paddock for less dominant pigs and is able to put the more gentle animals in together to avoid the associated bullying that can occur from dominant pigs. Louise says on hot days they are out in the paddocks every hour or so replenishing wet areas to ensure the pigs are not heat stressed.

Growth rates are almost twice as long when free ranging, it takes 7 months to get a porker to reach 45kg as opposed to factory systems which can yield the same weight in 3½ months. This obviously is going to add to the cost of the final product but the price difference really isn't that great to the consumer. At the end of the day the meat of a free range Berkshire is moister, sweeter and the worth the price.

Here's a recipe you might want to try....crispy skin free range berkshire pig belly

*Weber R., Keil NM, Fehr M, Horat R. (2009) Factors affecting piglet mortality in loose farrowing systems on commercial farms. Livestock Science 124, 216-222.

lamb with a conscience

Andy and Kate's south rock lamb doing their thing on the coast of kangaroo island

(september 2011)

There are a growing number of lamb producers who have built a production process around the welfare of their flock. This is one of the happier food industry scenarios whereby the product not only tastes better but these farmers can command a better price for their toil and the sheep get a dignified and happy quality of life.

You cannot dispute the credentials of Jan and John Angus whose family has some six generations of history in the Eden Valley. Sheep farming in the region can be traced back to 1843 for the Angus clan. Their branded is an evolution of Hutton Vale Lamb is an evolution of Border Leicester and Dorset lambs being introduced to the existing Merino flock and the subsequent introduction of White Suffolk into the flock early this century.

With such a long connection to the land, a certain amount of wisdom is handed down through the generations and Jan explains that if you watch what the land is doing, watch what the sheep look like and err on the side of caution at all times with stocking levels, you will have happy lambs and maintain pastures in pristine condition. This ensures lambs are fed and able to roam on pasture.

Jan and John don't limit their involvement to just the process of raising the lamb but follow through with measures that ensure the lambs have a good and dignified end to their days.

A lot of mass produced, commercial, "fatter lambs" are finished intensively to prepare them for worst possible scenario of three days off feed and water; a day before transport, a day during transport and a day at the abattoirs. This is something that the Angus' don't do, the lambs are fed up to the night before and off to the abattoirs for a first-cab-off-the-rank, 6.30am "appointment". This keeps stress to a minimum as sheep off feed or held for too long in yards are stressed; and as Jan says the most important thing for her livestock is not just a good life, but a good death as well.

Spear Creek Dorper is an interesting lamb from the Flinders Rangers. Jamie McTaggart comes from five generations of wool producers. He picked the Dorper which is a hardy fast growing breed of South African origin specifically for its suitability to his land. The breed grazes and is naturally seasoned on the salt bush pasture of the region. Jamie acknowledges the fragility of the country and says that if the lambs are fat then he has his stocking levels correct and never runs anywhere near capacity on this front. It is a land care and welfare before profit approach.

He also is clearly reacting against 15 years of shearing experience where both he and the livestock were doused with chemicals, and the sheep (not him!) subjected to extensive mulesing (a common practice of removing sections of skin around the sheep's tail; often this painful process is performed with no anesthetic).

With the Dorper flock there is no need for crutching, shearing, jetting (chemical treatment for FlyStrike), the aforementioned mulesing or any other chemical inputs. This means nominal interference with the animals through handling and therefore reduced stress levels.

Phil and Michele Prince were driven to market their own branded lamb after a trip to market and watching their lamb go for a price that really didn't reflect the "welfare first" effort that was being put into producing a Kelvale Merino and Ashmore White Suffolk line that they hand feed in the Clare Valley.

Their Savannah Lamb is 100% antibiotic and hormone free; if grain needs to be used then it is from their crop, thus they have a 100% traceable product. They have planted 10 000 trees to decrease the salinity levels of the property which the Hill River runs through. The trees provide wind breaks and shade for their livestock and they use hay bales to form additional protection against the elements during lambing season.

They are moving towards a bare breach sheep (which means no mulesing), with the introduction of superior genetics because as Phil says, "Animals respond to kindness." The proof of which he feels is in the huge increase in lamb numbers, as a result of taking steps to ensure his livestock are happy. They don't use either dogs or prods in stock management as this is another source of stress.

This ethos goes right through to the stocks' final days. Michele refuses to double-decker-transport her livestock (which is a major reason why some lamb are kept off feed for 24 hours before transport, to eliminate the effluent being dropped to the bottom level of the transport truck). She transports the lamb herself in small weekly batches to ensure there is no stress from over crowding or excessive time spent in holding pens.

An independently audited and certified production system devised by Livestock Central falls under the banner of Red Star Gourmet. By buying Red Star lamb you are ensured that a multifaceted system which encompasses low stress production and transport techniques, quality and health guidelines and environmental issues has been followed.

Veterinarian Rick White is part of this team of multifaceted professionals which includes an agronomist and nutritionals. Their system ensures ewes are in top nutritional condition prior to joining (that's a vets way of saying what mummies and daddies do to make babies!); that lambs are only delivered during peak pasture; and weaning is undertaken slowly with a feeding regime that lowers stress. The cornerstone of the program is the protocols surrounding nutritional requirements of weaned lambs. The idea is that the less finishing time the lamb needs then the less the methane output will be, so the program encompasses a critical environmental concern in the area of greenhouse gas emissions.

There's an abundance of ethically produced lamb in our local markets so it's up to you to ask a few questions before you buy.

rolled lamb neck with almond and rosemary, mushy mint peas, lemon potato

serves 4 to 6

lamb neck, deboned
(For searing)
lots of cracked black pepper
1 teaspoon sea salt
juice of half a lemon
30 ml extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon sea salt
60 g almond, toasted for 10 mins in 180°C oven
8 sprigs rosemary
3 clove garlic, peeled
¼ bunch parsley leaves and stems
½ cup pitted green olives
2 white anchovy
25 ml extra virgin olive oil

Preheat a fan forced oven to 140°C.

Trim lamb neck and lay out flat, skin side down then season with the teaspoon of salt.

Blend almond, rosemary, garlic, parsley, olive, anchovy and olive oil in a food processor to a chunky paste.

Make a straight cut from the rack end of the meat to butterfly the chop. Don't cut all the way through the meat; you are just trying to "open up" the chop. Smear paste on the lamb and roll up. Truss with butchers net/string. Season the outside and place in oven for 3 to 3 and ½ hours.

Remove from oven and place in a preheated heavy based pan over a medium heat. Season with remaining sea salt and cracked pepper and sear all sides to render lamb skin and fat. Remove and rest for 20 mins. Carve and drizzle with a splash of extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice.

lemon potato
1 kg waxy potato (Dutch cream, bintje or nicola)
juice of 1 large lemon
1 teaspoon sea salt
4 sprigs rosemary stripped
4 whole garlic cloves

Par cook potato in salted boiling water from cold (about 12 mins after simmer is reached). Drain and allow to cool slightly. Cut potatoes lengthwise into quarters and throw into a bowl, then douse with lemon juice, rosemary and sea salt. Bash whole garlic cloves and toss in with potatoes. Transfer to an oven tray and roast at 200°C for 20 mins.

mushy mint peas
2 tablespoons butter
1 onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1½ cup peas (podded)
handful mint
sea salt and black pepper

Over a medium flame in a heavy based sauté pan sweat onion until glassy in butter, add garlic, salt and pepper. Sweat until garlic is aromatic while stirring. Add peas and sauté for a few minutes. Add a splash of water and pop a lid on for about 2 mins. Add mint and stab mix until mushy, but don't puree, leave some texture.

stepping on range eggs

blanksey's eggs (photo by jacqui way photography)

(september 2011)

If you are buying free range eggs there are a few things to consider. You may be surprised to learn Australia does not have a national enforceable independent certification system that applies to the whole industry like the EU has. This is truly a case of "buyers beware" as not all free range eggs are as free as others. There are however accreditation and auditing systems in place.

The Australian Egg Corporation Limited (AECL) is a national industry body that represents 90% of egg producers. They have laid down guidelines for their Egg Corp Assured scheme. Similarly the RSPCA has laid down some guidelines which can be voluntarily adopted with its "Choose Wisely" labelling. Free Range Egg and Poultry Australia Ltd (FREPA) and Australian Certified Organic (ACO) both have guidelines for their free range eggs.

Definitions of what free range means under these various schemes can differ greatly. Stocking densities in sheds from 5 to 14 birds per square metre, and in outdoor areas from 750 to 1500 birds per hectare; (and there is talk of one particular accreditation scheme upping that number considerably which is bad news for chooks).

Paddock quality guidelines can vary from, "avoid muddy or unsuitable conditions" which sounds a little vague to, "long term sustainability with adequate natural ground cover". Beak trimming is prohibited under some schemes and limited to "a once off trimming in the first to trimming only of the hook of the upper (beak)..." This de-beaking may come as a surprise but chooks that are in a density situation can become carnivorous so the guideline has been put in place for a reason. ACO and FREPA both prohibit the practice because their stocking densities are the lowest on the list.

There are a lot of criticisms regarding some of these guidelines for being too soft but there is nothing stopping you from finding out exactly which scheme meets your approval. All of the above mentioned free range accreditation guidelines are readily available on their respective websites. I will also point out that a producer may not be accredited with any body and actually be exceeding these guidelines (rare but actually true in some cases).

Jon and Joanne Mawby at Cleland Gully Free Range Eggs run 12 000 Highline chooks near Mount Compass. They do no de-beak the birds and there is easy access from the immaculate barns to good levels of outside natural ground cover on a property that has a gentle slope down to a river with lots of shade. All in all the birds are just kicking back doing whatever chickens do.

Jon's main concern for the industry is that there is talk that one code of practice's density levels for free range birds could be increased from an existing 1500 birds per hectare to possibly anything up to 10 times that number. These figures are purely speculative and unconfirmed but if it was to happen it is a density level that Jon says makes a joke of the low density producers who are doing the right thing by their livestock.

This is clearly bending guidelines to meet the increased consumer demand for free range product. It seems like a move to facilitate the easy conversion of existing cage and broiler factory farming infrastructures to "free range" but it completely misses the point that the idea of authentic free range is to put the hens' welfare first.

One in five South Australian free range eggs come from Rohde's Farm in the Clare Valley which produces around 32 000 free range eggs a week. This is another family business and is a broad acre farm at Tarlee also producing grain and sheep. The supplementary feed for the chooks can therefore come straight from the farm. This is an RSPCA accredited free range product so every couple of months a representative from the choose wisely scheme carries out an audit.

Angela Rohde shares the same concerns as the Mawby's in regards to opportunistic suppliers riding the free range band wagon and the possibility of even laxer guidelines being introduced by some of the accreditation schemes.

One of the most interesting operations is Tom and Fiona Fryar's Kangaroo Island Free Range Eggs. This couple started with 400 chooks in 1992 and were definitely visionaries in the free range field. The farm has 50 mobile shelters which are dotted around and moved continually to new pasture which is possible due to the Island's lack of foxes. This provides a continual and varied diet of grubs, seeds, worms and insects and no chance of manure build up.

Shortly after weaning, young Maremma stock dog puppies bond with the chooks. The Italian Maremma Sheepdogs are natural herders and act as hen bodyguards by keeping an eye out for eagles and feral cats. They now run 50 000 full beaked chooks over 4 000 acres near Kingscote and are Humane Choice Accredited.

There's plenty of other options, apart from my pics (mentioned above), so the choice is yours, but don't just assume that free range always means happy chooks.

free range egg omelette, field mushrooms,

alexandrina romano and sour dough

Omelettes are an art; they are an exercise in temperature control, egg protein coagulation and basic pan control. A good omelette requires the eggs to be broken and slightly mixed with a fork, NOT beaten (that's scrambled! as in scrambled eggs).

There is approximately 6 degrees temperature difference between coagulating (setting) egg whites and yolks. This is exploited by having a fairly cooked egg white component of the dish (which sets quicker at lower temps) and a softer runnier yolk, and therefore two different and distinct textures in the dish.

The addition of a yolk and water are actually softening the proteins which should never be cooked to a level that they squeeze or release water; this will produce a dry leathery result.

Butter sizzles at 100°C, the temperature that the water content of butter starts to evaporate. Adding room temperature eggs to a 100 degree heavy based omelette pan should give a final temperature of around the mid 70°C mark. Egg whites coagulate at around 72°C so the butter singing in your pan is telling you have sufficient temperature to set the eggs without shocking them.

per person
3 whole free range eggs
1 free range egg yolk
tablespoon water
30 g butter
sea salt
cracked black pepper
1 giant field or Swiss brown mushroom
additional 30 g butter
one or two good sprigs fresh oregano
handful shaved Alexandrina Cheese Company Romano cheese (or similar hard, salty cheese)
thick piece of sourdough bread
30 ml extra virgin olive oil

Dry toast the bread both sides on a hot grill plate and brush with the olive oil.

Place the butter on the mushroom with the oregano and season. Place in moderate to hot oven for 8 or so minutes. When mushroom is cooked transfer to the top of the bread and cover with the cheese, then grill until cheese melts.

Place an omelette pan over medium heat. Crack the eggs, add the water and fork through lightly to bust the yolks and "muddle" the whites. Season with salt and pepper.

Place the butter in the pan, swirl it around, if it immediately turns nut brown the pan is too hot, start again. The butter should just sizzle.

Add egg mix, turn up flame to fairly hot. As the egg starts to set drag a spatula or fork across the omelette and tilt the pan to allow uncooked portion of egg to slide into the bare space you have created, repeat after one minute from another direction. Now "wrap" the pan to release the omelette; add mushrooms then slide a third up the edge of the pan and flip it into the centre, repeat with the remaining third on the opposite side of the pan to create a cigar. The residual heat will cook the centre of the omelette, (grilling or flipping just over cooks the dish).

not all milk is created equal...

Beck and the jersey girls

(october 2010)

Pictures of happy herds on rolling lush pastures featured on product labels may not always be the case...

Imagine if the milk you drank was purchased at marginal prices from dairy farmers far and wide. The cows were in "full housing" and not free to access real pasture for the duration of their lives. Alternatively cows from huge herds walked for far too many miles per day from fairly barren fields to milking areas and then sent to concrete feed pads for prolonged periods (due to a lack of natural pasture), maybe resulting in lameness.

All this milk, regardless of origin, was then thrown together at one plant; permeated (a separation technology basically used to eliminate any seasonal differences and to produce a consistent product); and then cold chained for miles to a depot before being finally dispatched to your local shop.

Unfortunately this scenario is not fantasy as trends overseas are moving more towards full housing dairy farming and larger herds. There are however still producers out there making great milk and looking after both their land and cows' best interests. It's not just about getting the cheapest white stuff in a bottle; cheap prices on food nearly always have a consequence for our farmers, their land or animals.

If you love coffee you will probably love Jersey milk, these little cows were hugely popular until a turn around half way through last century. It might just be why your Gran says, "Milk just doesn't taste the same these days!"

In the words of Dan McCaul from Alexandrina Dairy, "The large globules (of fat in Jersey milk) help the feel in the mouth, and also digestion. Homogenization smashes them. So we don't homogenize the milk. We're anti smash."

Years ago Becky McCaul sent me an email ending with, "This photograph is Nigella. She is my newest little calf! I love her!" I still smile when I think about this; the McCauls still name all their heifers and Becky visits the new born calves twice a day for a feed, a scratch and knowing her, for a bit of a chat!

Three couples run the Fleurieu Milk Company. They have the best of both worlds; the Clarkes run a small Jersey herd and have the much talked about A2 milk; the Royans and Hutchinsons run Holstein Freesians, so together they have all the bases covered.

They have great pastures close to the dairy and all the milk is permeate free, so it will go through seasonal changes. As a chef I think it's refreshing to have a farmer that just works with his seasons and the changes they may bring to the produce and stands by that, it's real.

These guys say the best bit of their job is to take the dipper out of the vat and pop down to the house with the fresh milk for a cuppa, which is pretty much the stuff you get if you buy the un-homogenized range.

Tweedvale Milk sourced from pastures in Lobethal, in the Adelaide Hills has become a bit of a barista's favorite around town. Carlo Lorenzetti calls his milk, "A taste of the Hills."

It's also un-homogenized and comes from a collection of small herd properties in the area; a great solution to balancing volume yet still enabling individual farmers to manage the land and cows in a personalised hands on way.

A visit to the Spranz's Paris Creek B.-d. property in the hills a few years ago was another eye opener; this has got to be absolutely the most amazing pasture I have seen on a dairy farm. The cows, like the land are cared for under B.-d. principles, the herding and milking of the cows was one of the lowest stress examples of dairy farming I have seen. The result is milk that has huge and well deserved following.

It's about a balance of great tasting milk, happy cared for cows and good land care practices, so get out to your local farmers market and taste some milk and ask a few questions.

Once you've got some decent milk, maybe give this a bash ....make your own cheese!!!!

baked paneer cheese, coriander and green chilli, wilted silver beet

This is the simplest form of cheese whereby you acidulate hot milk and stand back with amazement as the curds form. A gentle touch is required to scoop the curds and once you master the correct technique for this, and the pressing of the curds, you will feel an incredible sense of accomplishment. The flavour is largely dependent on the milk you buy so I always opt for local "real" milk.

This dish is loosely based on Saag Paneer. I was taught to always puree the greens (which were spinach leaves) and fold in chunks of pressed paneer at the end. However, this deviate version came about because I love the texture and irony-flavour of wilted silverbeet over the cressy-flavor of pureed spinach.

serves 4

paneer - part 1
1.8 litre milk
160 ml double cream
70 ml white vinegar

paneer - part 2
100 ml yogurt, whipped lightly
pinch saffron threads, soaked in a smidge of warm water for 30 mins
good pinch salt flakes
1/8 teaspoon amchur powder (available from Indian grocers, aka mango powder)
1 lemon

Get 50 cm square of muslin cloth and line a 15 cm conical strainer, leaving edges of the cloth hanging over.

Bring milk up just below a simmer, over a low flame in a heavy based pot, fold in cream then continue heating and stirring with a spatula to prevent sticking. Just before the mixture simmers over (i.e. about 90°C, when it starts foaming up) stir to create a little whirlpool with a spatula. Turn off flame and pour in the vinegar in a steady stream.

Don't touch! Leave for 4 mins, then carefully scoop all the curds out with a flat fine strainer and place gently into the muslin cloth. Get the cloth edges and gather together to form a big ball (should be about the size of a softball). Loop string around the top and tie, squeeze excess liquid out very gently and then place the ball in wide shallow tray.

Put a plate on top and press with something weighing about 1 kg for 30 mins (e.g. the left over whey in a pot usually does the trick). The cheese will squeeze a little excess liquid through the cloth as it presses; this is normal, transfer to fridge for 40 mins to firm up.

Mix saffron and soaking liquid into yogurt

Remove cheese from fridge and unwrap. Lightly oil a baking tray, place cheese on tray and cover with yogurt mix, bake in hot oven until dark brown with a few black crispy bits. Hit it with a squeeze of lemon and the amchur (dried mango) powder.

saag (wilted silverbeet)
60 g ghee
1 big bunch silverbeet, leaves sliced across axis in 4 cm widths (the lower stems are not used in this dish)
2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds
2 brown onions, diced
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon freshly grated turmeric
4 cloves crushed garlic
1 small tin diced tomato
1 bunch coriander, stems chopped and leaves picked
1 large green chilli, sliced

Sauté onions and garlic in the ghee over medium heat turn up the flame when softened and add fresh grated turmeric, cumin and coriander. Fry until aromatic (a minute or so, some of the cumin should pop a bit). Turn down to low heat and fold in diced tomato with juices from the tin and simmer for 10 mins or until tomato is soft. Turn heat up and fold in silverbeet and coat with spices and tomato, add a splash of water and place lid on pan. Cook until silverbeet is wilted and check seasoning.

Rip the cheese up and toss on top of spinach, serve with pappadams.

And if you're keen to read a bit more about cheese making - specifically relating to the use of raw milk in its production, then take a look at Think ST Solutions - Andrew Thomson's article "The Australian Cheesemakers' Dilemma: Raw Milk vs Pasteurised Milk."

the problem with dogs...

sid eating me, (october 2010)

Throughout most of the world, dogs are considered to be companion animals, not food sources, yet the eating of dog meat is widely practised in a few countries in Asia.

The production, transport and slaughter of dogs and cats for food involves methods that severely compromise the welfare of these animals. These canines do not lend themselves to intensive or semi-intensive production, and no humane slaughter methods have been developed. This disastrous treatment of dogs is something you have to see for yourself to understand.

The markets are huge and yet the hygiene and sanitation of these places is appalling. Some of these poor little creatures slip between the cracks of the crates and are left to die. Many are severely dehydrated. But worse, as any dog lover would understand, they know when they're about to be slaughtered, (which made this process so hard for me to watch).

Chefs buy whole crates from the markets and kill them to order. Dog is considered a delicacy and more valuable if the dogs produce adrenalin before a gut-wrenching death involving prolonged suffering and pain.

Many chefs in Guangzhou (China PR) have been fired from their jobs because they refuse to cook it. They think the killing process is inhumane and disturbing, especially for those who have dogs as pets. But the problem is that jobs are scarce and not all can repudiate as dog cooking is so common.

There are organic ways to farm animals and a humane way of killing them. The dog is a pack animal, they are acutely intelligent and they are incredibly aware of what's going on - it's heartbreaking to see the looks on their faces as they are about to be slaughtered. Unlike other animals they know when they're about to be killed, so this practice has to be stopped. It's all about changing the public's perception through education.

Thankfully many local Chinese and international welfare groups, including Animals Asia Foundation, are campaigning for the practice to be banned, distributing information to their supporters and lobbying Chinese officials on a regular basis. If you want to get on board and make difference, start by checking out some of the links below.




Read more about: