Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Nothing plain about grain

The thought of becoming gluten intolerant (either legitimately or because it’s on trend) sends shivers down my spine. Giving up the delicious chewiness of a fresh sourdough, the delightful crumble of a shortcrust pastry or a delicate, light and fluffy sponge is hard for me to fathom. Flour is the backbone of so many great foods so I’m ashamed to admit that I had never given its source of origin a thought.

I couldn’t wheat to meet with Craig Neale from Wholegrain Milling- one of only three organic grain mills in Australia. Craig’s mother, Wendy, founded the venture searching for healthier and more wholesome products for her family to consume some 30 years ago. This organic mill now processes 35 different grains including cereals, wheat, rye, spelt, barley, oats, rice, sorghum, buckwheat and some ancient grains.

Craig sources his grain straight from producers down the east coast of Australia (rather than buying from grain storage facilities); however sourcing organic grain has become his biggest challenge. With 70 silos and over $25 million dollars in state of the art milling equipment, Wholegrain Milling has plenty of capacity to ramp up but they’re hamstrung by producers. So rye the difficulty?

Obviously, the certification standards that producers need to meet in order to claim the organic title are onerous. This results in more costly farming practices. According to Craig, the biggest struggle for organic farmers meeting regulatory requirements is the unpredictability and inconsistency of Miss Mother Nature combined with pricing pressure. Craig believes that there is a knead for minimum pricing standards to be introduced to ensure there is a long term susgrainable supply.

Craig mills 10,000 tonnes of organic grains annually, making up approximately 30% of the organic grain market. He suggests that demand is somewhere around 70,000 tonnes, approximately double what is available. This year, for the first time, he will use all of his reserves, milling 14,000 tonnes in an attempt to keep up with consumers.  Craig is also one of few that produces a 100% stone ground flour, a product that artisan bakers hunt down for their sourdough as it retains texture and colour from the grain.

So what does this ‘organic’ label actually mean? There’s definitely a price difference, a kilo of Craig’s organic flour retails at about $3 per kilo versus approximately $1 for some of the stuff at your local supermarket. With that, you’re ensuring that you and your family are consuming wholesome products where no synthetic pesticides or chemical fertilizers have touched your food.

Some Farmers’ Favourite facts on flour;
  • Flour dust that is suspended in air is explosive, some say it’s more explosive than coal dust
  • Flour is made by grinding cereal grains (predominately wheat) or other seeds
  • There are many types of flours, the higher the protein content, the stronger the flour. High protein flours are great for crusty or chewy breads. Lower protein flours are ideal for cakes as the flour is softer
  • 90% of wheat grown in Australia is by sole proprietors or family partnerships
  • Australia accounts for less than 5% of the world supply of wheat
  • Wheat is grown in all states of Australia, with the majority grown in WA. Wheat is predominately grown in a narrow crescent, known as the wheat belt which curves from Central Queensland  through New South Wales, Victoria and southern South Australia

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Calming the camels

Move over chia, quinoa, goji berries and kale, hipsters are now delighting in camel milk as the latest superfood on the market. That’s no typo; camel milk is now a ‘thing’.

With high demand in the Middle East and Asia, camel milk is claiming all types of benefits from assisting with digestive problems, behavioral issues, diabetes and food allergies. I’m told that only a 100mls of the super tonic a day will keep the doctor away.

I recently visited Michelle Phillips at Muswellbrook Camel Milk, the only licensed camel milk producer in New South Wales. Michelle invested in 20 head of feral camels late last year; 10 females, nine baby camels and one stud. I was astounded at the way she handled them, there was no yahooing or motorbikes mustering- these beauties have been tamed with patience and care.

When I first heard of camel milk I initially thought of a funky smelling, brownish brew, with undertones of camel spit and a few lice thrown in for good measure. What a revelation- the liquid (white) gold tastes just like ordinary milk. The only two differences I could spot was a very subtle salty taste and the price- $30 bucks will buy you only one litre!

With only five of the camels currently producing two litres each a day, you can see why it is a precious commodity (cows produce approx 35-50 litres per day). Michelle, who breeds, milks, pasteurises and bottles on site is a believer and urges people to give it a go.

The jury is still out for me, however the milk was certainly more palatable than I expected.

Some Farmers’ Favourite facts on Camels and their milk;
  • The gestation period for a camel is 15 months
  • Watch out- camels can kick in all four directions with all four legs
  • Male camels come into season, not females. When he’s ready for some lovin’ he makes a funky sound, like a broken insinkerator, out one side of his mouth
  • There are only two breeds of camels, two humps or one. Don’t get excited, you can only get one hump in Australia.
  • Camels have three stomachs unlike cows that have four
  • It’s said that camels can go for months without water!

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Going the whole hog

You may be aware that I married a butcher who is in the midst of building his dream smokehouse. Michael and I are lucky enough to call the Upper Hunter Valley, one of Australia’s finest food bowls, home. We decided that we needed to find a glue to connect our smokehouse with our farm. Pigs of course! Given the smokehouse will produce top line artesian smallgoods; any old pig simply would not do. After extensive research, we landed on free-range Wessex Saddlebacks. A rare, slow growing, black pig with a white belt that’s very chic in the paddock to plate foodie world right now. This rare breed originates from the west country of England (Wessex) but is said to be extinct in its homeland.

We ventured out and purchased two gilts (female pigs that have never produced a litter before, although our two girls are now up the duff) and a boar, Boris Big-Balls. Rather than producing pork from a bogas backyard venture we paid a premium, purchasing registered stock with traceable bloodlines. We are now in the process of becoming one of the few registered breeders of saddlebacks in the country.

Good meat is attributed to much more than just the breed. Environment and diet are critical factors. Free range pigs with plenty of space to fodder, quality shelter and fresh drinking water was a given so we then turned our minds to the food. Spain is undoubtedly famous for their jamon (Spanish for ham, although it’s more like a prosciutto), so we looked to the great for inspiration. Top class pigs used for jamon were traditionally finished off on a diet of nothing but acorns and olives. Our specific breed of pig traditionally scavenged their food in forests with a diet consisting of acorns and chestnuts. We have therefore agreed our next endeavour is to plant a number of oak trees around our pig pens to foster natural foraging of acorns. We’re also looking to plant a small apple orchard of different varieties and some nut trees for piggy treats – stay tuned on this.

Some farmers’ favourite facts on pigs below
  • A pig’s gestation is very easy to remember- 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days
  • A boar is a male pig with his family jewels still in tact
  • Pigs are said to have the intelligence of a 3 year old
  • Pigs have eyes in the back of their heads, okay they don’t actually have eyes in the back of their head, but they do have a wide 310 degree angle of vision
  • Pigs are not able to focus both eyes on the same spot
  • Grower pigs eat about 3% and drink about 10% of their body weight daily
  • Pigs cant sweat, they typically bury themselves in mud to cool
  • A ‘baconer’ is for exactly that, delicious bacon. Pigs used for bacon weigh in at approximately 60-80kgs after they've been slaughtered, whereas a backfatter is bigger. A spit pig generally sits between 15 and 30kgs post slaughter and a delicious suckling is generally 12kg live weight

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The Royal Oil

Straight from the tree, the taste of these little pellets are indisputably nauseating, but when processed, these particular olives (that would otherwise make you dry reach) turn into the most glorious golden goodness. I was fortunate enough to meet Steve Goodchild from Pukara Estate recently, one of Australia’s leading olive oil producers.

Pukara Estate grew, harvested, processed and bottled a remarkable 480 tonnes of olives last year and leads the industry in innovative automated farming practices. The first trees on the 200 acre property in the Upper Hunter Valley were planted in 1999, now 15 years on, this farm has flourished. The grove consists of approximately 20,000 mature trees with the vast majority of production sourced from Italian and Spanish varieties.
The frosty winters that we’re now seeing are conducive to pruning to increase airflow and sunlight within the branches while the trees are dormant. The trees are mechanically pruned annually, and then hand manicured every three years. During spring, the trees start to flower. The focus during this time is to keep the crop well watered in preparation of the pips hardening in Summer. Unlike many other farmers, Steve cringes at the thought of substantial rains in late summer, as heavy water threatens the oil within the fruit and increases the likelihood of fungal diseases. Autumn is when rubber hits the road- the crop is harvested using a mechanical shaker to drop the fruit on to a conveyor. This impressive machinery swiftly harvests a new tree every 20 seconds through a shaking motion. The press runs full noise 24 hours a day over a 4-5 week period to keep up with the harvesting. In fact 6-10 hours of harvesting demands a busy 24 hours of processing. If that wasn’t enough, olives only yeild 20% oil, so Steve has to deal with the remaining 80% as waste. He adopts a sustainable and inexpensive solution to this problem by distributing it amongst the trees as compost.
Olive oils are unquestionably Pukara’s staple provedore product; however Steve has fruitfully tried his hand at vinegars too. The grapes for the popular vinegars are sourced locally in the Upper Hunter and processed on site. The vinegars are hand crafted and the mother culture used dates back to the late 1800’s! The diverse vinegars vary from aged balsamic to pomegranate and guava.
So you’re worried about the calories. Olive oil is not only delicious but also nutritious! Let me ask you this, what do you think of when I mention Mediterranean women? I think of a bronzed beauty not a big booty! I recently read that this wonder product can improve your memory while making you more beautiful. No joke- the world’s highest selling book mentions that the Persian King Xerxes’ wives used olive oil to make themselves beautiful. Now, who are you to argue with the bible?!

Some interesting facts on olive farming and olive oil below
  • Initially Pukara Estate’s olive trees took 4-5 years to produce a commercial crop. Through improved varieties and care, the olive grove can now produce a commercial crop within 12-24 months of striking a cutting
  • Olives are considered 'cold pressed’. This term certainly sounds romantic but the fact is that the olive paste needs to be warm however the paste temperature can not exceed 28 degrees when processed, often this requires the fruit to be heated as temperatures during the late autumn period can be extremely cold!
  • They’re not pressed either, like many other oil products, olive oil is separated through a centrifuge system
  • Australia contributes approximately 2% of the world’s olive oil supply, and approx 8% of premium extra virgin olive oil globally
  • Many people think that ‘light’ olive oil is better for you or has fewer calories. Wrong! ‘light’ olive oil generally refers to a lighter flavour and a much poorer quality product that is not of extra virgin quality
  • Studies have shown that olive oil has a protective role on breast, colon, lung, ovarian and skin cancer and can reduce cardiovascular risk factors- so get into it!
  • An olive tree can live for an indefinite period, trees well over 1,000 years old are know to be alive today
  • All olives start out green and then turn black or a dark purple as they ripen
Steve’s tenacity and commitment has seen his products last the distance. Be it oils, vinegars or mayonnaise, Pukara products have become a household name and there’s a humble farmer behind the product to recognise. I’m certainly fortunate to have this incredible produce in my backyard.

Stephanie Alexander says all you need for an incredible fish is a piece of lemon in one hand and a good bottle of extra virgin olive oil in the other. I’ve also included a mouth-watering recipe care of Pukara Estate.

Grilled Dukkah Saganaki

  • 1 egg white, lightly whisked
  • 125g Saganaki cheese wedge (specialty Greek cheese similar to haloumi)
  • 2 tbls Pukara Estate Cashew and Roast Onion Dukkah
  • 2 tbls Pukara Estate Premium Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Evenly spread the dukkah on a flat plate. Gently whisk the egg white in a small bowl. Heat a small pan over a medium heat with half of the olive oil. Dip the saganaki wedge in the egg whites and then coat with the dukkah. Repeat for a second time so is well coated.

Place the cheese in the hot pan and cook on both sides until golden (about two minutes on one side, and a minute on the other).

Throw the saganaki together with some thinly sliced pears, rocket leaves, a small handful of chopped walnuts and dress with caramelised balsamic vinegar and the rest of the olive oil.


Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The Chief of Beef

Next time you enjoy a velvety, melt in the mouth piece of rump or rib eye, give some thought to the farmer that cared for the cow.
Charles Hanna needed a sea change from his apartment life in Sydney and decided to try his hand at farming. The successful business man ventured into a cattle property, ‘Colly Creek’ just outside of Willow Tree, approximately four hours from Sydney.  

Charles and Cheryl bought the Willow Tree Inn in 2009 and gutted the entire joint within a five month period. Halfway between Tamworth and Scone, this regal pub is nestled in a tiny town of just over 100 people but believe me- buying this business was no missed steak.  In fact, the pub’s restaurant, Graze, was awarded the Best Country Pub in NSW by the Sydney Morning Herald this year. 
A couple of local farmers at the pub

100% of the beef and lamb served in the restaurant are sourced from ‘Colly Creek’ where Black Angus graze open pastures. The finest cattle for the restaurant are handpicked anywhere between 12-18 months after being finished off on a diet of barley and dry lucerne at Charles’ feedlot for 150 days. Some would say that this is too young; however Charles believes the meat at this age is balanced in flavour and tenderness. Once slaughtered, the beef is dry aged in a dehumidified controlled cool room at the pub for a minimum of 4-5 weeks (which you can see in the restaurant).

Megsy (my husband) and Winemaker Dan Shaw of Philip Shaw Wines at the pub

During dinner, Charles kindly invited me to his property on Saturday morning to learn more about his operation.  As I drove up the gravel driveway through the magnificent arch of trees, I doubted this hobby farmer’s capability.  I thought to myself, there’s no way someone with his background could understand agriculture, but how I was wrong!  Charles unassumingly rattled off market prices of grain and beef, providing me with an with in-depth detail of cattle grazing, breeding and butchering. His eyes lit up when he spoke about beef.

Colly Creek Entrance

While ‘Colly Creek’ provides Graze Restaurant with 20 head of cattle a month, the farm also fattens up to 800 head of Black Angus cattle; 650 breeders with 50 stud bulls. Charles is a firm believer that the market has a strong, stable demand for Angus cattle as these black beauties yield  a 10% premium on others breeds. Charles used to buy in his grain for the feedlot but at over $300 per tonne it became infeasible. ‘Colly Creek’ now grows the barley and lucerne for a much more feasible cost of $120 tonne- you’re probably starting to see why Charles has done so well, right?  The grass fed cattle that don’t quite make the cut for the pub (pardon the pun) are  typically sold on Auction Plus. An online livestock tool, kind of like ebay, for farmers to buy and sell -another innovative business solution that Charles has adopted as there are no transportation costs for the seller.

Some interesting facts on beef cattle below
  • Bulls, heifers, cows and calves are commonly known as cows however the correct term is cattle. ‘Cattle’ is essentially plural for cow
  • A cow has four stomachs,
  • A cow drinks about a bathtub full of water a day
  • A cow’s gestation period is the same as humans- 9 months
  • Cattle drink water by the use of a sucking action; they don’t lap up water like a cat or dog.
  • Cows have almost 360 degree panoramic vision
  • India have the most cattle in the world
  • There are approximately 43,800 farms in Australia producing beef cattle, with a national herd of approximately 26.6 million head
  • The Australian beef industry (including live cattle) contributes about 17 percent to total Australian farm exports
  • Australians eat an average 33kg of beef per person, per year (unless you’re like my husband who enjoys a steak for breakfast, lunch and dinner)
  • The consumption of beef accounts for 24.7 percent of world meat consumption.
  • Australia is a small producer of beef, but is the second largest beef exporter (behind Brazil).

I have to steak the obvious; Charles Hanna is a Chief of Beef taking the paddock to plate concept to much greener pastures.  

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Thanks for the Shanks

 Next time you indulge in delicious, fall off the bone, belly warming lamb shanks, give some thought to the farmer that provided you with the amazing produce.
As I mentioned in my last post, Cr. Ron Campbell was good enough to invite me out to his property to learn more about the agriculture industry in Merriwa. The Campbell’s property, ‘Woodlands’  is an end to end operation breeding up to 800 head of hormone free angus cattle for contracts into Woolworths along with  4,500 sheep for export markets. They also grow grains such as canola, wheat, oats, lucerne and legumes. Ron's beautiful property not only provides food for the belly but also food for the eyes.
When I arrived at the 6,500 acre property that initially belonged to Ron’s father, I was asked to come inside for a board meeting to deal with the formalities. I was freaking out- I hadn't dressed for a board meeting!!!
Sitting around the dining room table with Ron, were sons Mark and Peter and fourth generation farmer to be, little Thomas. Not a tie, notebook or computer in sight! The ‘board meeting’ was made up of flannelette shirts, dirty boots and laughs but don't underestimate these boys, they're running a highly successful operation.

The Campbell’s are certainly set up for success, Ron grew up on the property and now two of his sons have moved back to the ranch with their families.  Both boys studied agriculture at university, Peter specialised in livestock and breedimg, while Mark, being an Agronomist, manages the crops which supplement feed both the cattle and sheep through feedlots on site.

I could write a book on this property but given Festival of the Fleeces, it’s fitting I focus on lambs. A couple of facts below
  • A sheep farmer has to deal with the delightful task of ‘crutching’. Yep, you guessed it, sorting out their crutch. This involves cutting back the wool from the buttock so flies don’t get amongst it and lay larvae that turn into maggots & eat the sheep. Gross, right.
  •  Adult female sheep are known as ewes.
  • Adult male sheep are known as rams
  • Sheep have a creepy field of vision of around 300 degrees, allowing them to see behind without having to turn their head.
  • A Sheep's gestation period is a short and sharp five months
  • Sheep do not have teeth in their upper front jaw
  • Sheep have a split in their upper lip which allows them to select the preferred leaves off a plant.
  • The life expectancy for sheep is between 6 to 11 years.
  • Sheep are animals that are over one year of age, whereas lambs are under one year old.

Over the years the Campbell’s have improved their farming techniques to increase efficiency, minimise manual labour and in turn build profitability. Where some properties specialise and master one particular product, The Campbell's breed the livestock, improve the pastures, supplement feed, sheer the sheep, sell the wool, market the meat and even cart the cattle, lambs and grain- they have everything in hand but it’s not light work. This farm produces two core end products being lamb and beef, but their property sees all the inputs produced on site, rather than finishing off livestock at a feedlot or buying in grain. This means there is never an ‘off’ season or a dull day.

The Campbell's were an absolute delight to interview. They're also passionate about connecting every day Australians with the origin of their food- so listen up!

Obviously the Campbell’s have an abundance of lamb, which has been tried and tested in various ways. The classic but simple family staple is of course Betty Campbell’s shanks.
Betty's Shanks
4or 5 lamb shanks (or 6 large chops).
2 large diced onions
3 medium diced carrots
2 diced stalks of celery
1 clove garlic
2 large tabs tomato paste
1 teaspoon oregano
2 table spoons butter or margarine
Half a cup of beef stock
Fry shanks in butter, brown on both sides. Fry onions till tender, then place meat and onions as well as vegetables, garlic and tomato paste into a casserole dish with stock then add meat and vegies. Cover and cook in moderate oven temperature until meat is tender (approx. 4-5 hours). The meat should fall off the bone when cooked.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

No dags for the main drag

 Sheep running down the main drag?! It was kind of weird but I liked it. Merriwa (pronounced merry-war), in the Upper Hunter Valley, hosts  Festival of the Fleeces every year to celebrate everything lamb.
 In fact the festival is mainly focused on 200 odd  lambs sporting red socks running down the main street. Surprisingly, this peculiar parade works.  
 I did feel kind of guilty as I inhaled my minty lamb and gravy roll while loveable lambs  ran down the main street, but you know, when in rome.

Following the sheep were the local school kids, also dressed up as sheep.

 Then of course was the parade of tractors and old school cars, most drivers dressed up as, you guessed it… sheep!
On crowd control for the day was Councillor Ron Campbell who invited me out to his property to learn more about the local farming industry.  An update on their beef and lamb property 'Woodlands' to be posted later this week.