How often do you get to meet your meal? Not often enough, according to Jerome Hoban, founder of specialist meat supplier Gamekeepers and friend to pigs across Victoria.
A former restaurateur whose love of local produce (and pigs) saw him put down the pans to raise Wessex Saddleback pigs on a farm outside of Melbourne, Hoban, like many food lovers, was unimpressed with industrial farming practices, particularly those imposed on pigs and chickens.
“I guess out of all the intensive farming practices that have been going on in Australia and around the world for the last hundred years, the two animals that really did get treated the worst were pigs and chickens,” says Hoban. “People have this perception that a cow’s in a paddock eating grass, but they see pictures of intensively reared pigs and chickens, and there’s just no way they want to eat that.”
Hoban went looking for a pig that would fare well outdoors. He discovered the Wessex Saddleback, whose black skin gives him hardiness under the Australian sun and whose foraging skills means he’s good for roaming around the farm. “They are a beautiful pig,” exclaims Hoban. “They’re very friendly, very affectionate and very intelligent.”
The Wessex Saddleback is a heritage breed that, along with varieties like the Berkshire and Tamworth, was once popular both for its meat and the production of lard. But as tastes changed around the 1940s, consumers began demanding leaner pork.
With the rise of industrial farming, breeds like the Large White and Landrace proved more suitable to the production of large volumes of pork. Bloodlines like the Wessex Saddleback became increasingly uncommon, to the point that in their home country, England, the breed is considered at risk.
Australia, however, has some of the strongest lineages in the world, and the rise of the locavore philosophy has only awakened interest in these peculiar pigs. A renewed public focus on slow food – thanks in part to chefs like Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Australia’s own Matthew Evans – means heritage breeds are getting a second chance.
“It wasn’t until about 10 or 15 years ago that people started getting back into these rare breeds,” says Hoban. “People realised the importance of keeping the genetics going, so they started breeding these pigs and getting the numbers back up again.”
Chef Paul Wilson, also an advocate of the rare breed, thinks Victorians have never been so fascinated with quality produce and ethical farming. “They don’t see eating off the land as a negative thing. It’s quite romantic,” says Wilson. “Ethical food production is an important thing to understand. You can meet the person and understand it firsthand, instead of going to the supermarket and checking the bag to make sure it’s not coming from the Eastern Bloc.”
Besides its excellent pedigree, Wilson also appreciates the unique flavour of the Wessex Saddleback. “Because he’s a happy fellow, he’s got a lot of fats and marblings,” explains Wilson. “They make great ham, great bacon. It’s a very fatty, happy pig.”
To highlight the many virtues of the Wessex Saddleback, Wilson plans to feature it in his upcoming Roast Collection series at the Middle Park Hotel, with a dish inspired by the food (and wine) of the Rhone Valley.
“We get a big bunch of hay – typical hay from a field – and we set fire to it,” explains Wilson. “We create this lovely, smoking cauldron and the ham sits inside the pot with all the embers. You put a lid on it and you leave it for several hours, then it’s slow-cooked with lentils and vegetables and herb bunches.”
For his part, Hoban is a fan of more than just the pig’s character. He describes its flavour as “strong without being overpowering” and points out that its fatty profile ensures it cooks beautifully.
“If you get a pork chop on your plate, no one’s saying you have to eat the fat. But to have that fat there when it’s cooking is hugely beneficial,” he says. “But you can eat it. Everything in moderation.”
Wessex Saddleback from Gamekeepers Meat will be featured during MPG’s Roast Collection, on at Albert Park Hotel, Middle Park Hotel and Newmarket Hotel every Saturday and Sunday in June for lunch and dinner.