Big Pharma, Big Food… who really controls the pig industry?

25 years ago I read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and became a vegetarian.

5 years ago we commenced farming free-range pigs and cattle at Jonai Farms.

3 years ago I became a butcher.

Last week we went to the Pan Pacific Pork Expo (PPPE).

This is not a story of slippery slides and selling out. Or is it?

This is a look at the lure of productivism, and seduction by technocrats, a story bounded by corporate greed and hegemony. I’m not going to bore you with lots of academic terms, but I will quickly define a couple and then move on to our time at the PPPE last week. Apologies for over simplifying what are complex and intersecting concerns.

Productivism is, simply put, the pursuit of more productivity. It is ‘growthism’ – the notion that more production is necessarily good. Applied to growing pigs, it means that more piglets per litter, bigger pigs in a shorter time, bigger hams, and more kilos yielded from each carcass are all indisputably desirable.

Technocrats are scientists and technical experts who have a lot of power in politics or industry due to a culture of valuing technological solutions. Applied to growing pigs, it means pharmaceutical companies who are quick to provide technical solutions to problems created by the industry’s unsustainable production methods. Air quality’s an issue? We have a vaccine for that.

Corporate greed is generally faceless. Many if not most of the humans inside corporations are individually decent people and mostly harmless, but collectively they wield disproportionate power and have a fiduciary duty to work for the benefit of the corporation aka its shareholders. Shareholders’ dividends are valued above all else, and are often served best by technocrats’ solutions. Corporate greed is not interested in system reform to create a fair world for everyday people and the animals they raise.

Hegemony as I am using it here is understood in terms of the ways that the elite or governing powers coerce consent from the very people they subjugate. Applied to intensive livestock industries, it is through a complex web of economic and cultural controls that big companies convince family farmers that confining their animals is morally just and ‘the only way’ to ‘feed the world’ (and their families). When the shed needs upgrading because half the pigs have pneumonia and your kids need new shoes, you’re hardly likely to embark on a philosophical journey through the ethics of confining animals, you’re going to buy another bottle of Ingelvac MycoFLEX and continue to complain about activists breaking into your sheds.

So what happens when a couple of small-scale free-range pig farmers go to the country’s largest gathering of intensive pork producers? We found ourselves so far outside the echo chamber I couldn’t even hear it anymore, but it transformed my thinking on strategies for reform.

The PPPE is the pork industry’s bi-annual conference that brings together pork producers, veterinarians, drug companies, feed suppliers, and manufacturers of equipment (mostly for intensive pig sheds such as farrowing crates). Very few small-scale growers attend as it’s perceived to be pitched at large, intensive production systems (and I can affirm that this is the reality, but an issue APL have stated they are keen to address).

As members of Australian Pork Ltd (APL), we are entitled to a flight and accommodation for one of us to attend, so this year we decided we would go and learn more about the concerns of the intensive industry to help in our work to get more pigs back out onto paddocks. We knew it would be challenging and frustrating at times, but I was really keen to put a face to the people who run intensive farms by spending a few days amongst them. I’m still processing my complicated emotions about it all, but one thing is very clear to me – farmers are not the problem.

As expected, people are mostly lovely. The producers we met are families with children young and old, more often than not multi-generational pig farmers who’ve been through the intensification of the industry and are now copping the community opprobrium of being considered ‘factory farms’ while trying to make a living in a commodity food system that is increasingly in crisis (just look at dairy).

Most speakers were vets, animal scientists, and sponsors – very few producers actually spoke in the sessions we attended.

The conference opened with a futurist who dazzled the audience with the promise of more shiny technology looming just over the horizon, but it was such snake oil I’ll be brief. He told us what we could do with Big Data on Google Trends, to sign up now for Skymuster (which we did, heh, but he also told us his plans to steal a Skymuster satellite from rural Australia because it will be so much quicker than his broadband in Sydney – great guy). He dangled the promise of ear tags for pigs that will be able to ‘smell disease’ and compute feed conversion ratios in real time. Have a look at Spider goats, and suffice to say that he was a true technophile and Productivism Personified. This set the scene for a more hopeful, technologically-enabled future for the pork industry.


Throughout the conference, there were a few defensive mentions of the broader community calling what they do ‘factory farming’. In fact, Robert van Barneveld, the CEO for Sunpork Farms (one of the largest pork producers in Australia with approximately 40,000 sows) made the rather telling comment, ‘we’re accused of being factory farms – if only! Life would be a dream!’ He went on to expound on how in factories everything is uniform and so production is seamless and efficient, and that this was apparently a goal for the pork industry to work towards by improving genetics and refining nutrition at all life stages of pigs.

Air quality only got one mention that we heard, when American swine scientist Mark Wilson was discussing recent advances in seasonal infertility and heat stress. He made a sort of parenthetical comment that there was sometimes over 50ppm ammonia in some pig sheds. For the record, anything over 10ppm reduces the respiratory defences and increases the risk of infection (in both pigs and workers in intensive sheds). Zinpro, the company Wilson works for, produces ‘performance minerals’ to ‘improve performance’/counter the ill effects of intensive systems.

The Zinpro website has this to say about lameness:

‘When a sow is lame, it leads to lower feed intake (especially during lactation), decreased reproductive performance and ultimately early exit from the herd.’


‘When a sow is lame, she’s probably suffering, and this should be avoided at all costs.’

The second statement requires non-hegemonic thinking – that is, one would have to question the system that is causing the lameness, but when one’s income and identity are entirely tied up in those sheds, this question is very difficult to ask, and performance minerals must seem genuinely helpful.

Air quality was flagged by the final speaker we heard (who runs 2000 sows in Victoria), who called for improvements in temperature, hygiene, and air quality, but did not discuss the latter two in his talk at all – they simply appeared in the concluding slide.


Sponsors introduced each session of the conference – Zoetis, Primegro, Elanco, Biomin, and Boehringer Ingelheim just to name a few of the pharmaceutical sponsors. They have a solution for everything, and at no point did we hear these sponsors or ag scientists entertain the question of why so many pigs have pneumonia, pleurisy, lameness, and post-weaning multisystemic wasting syndrome (PMWS) in the first place. (For comparison, none of these ailments are common in small-scale free-range pig farming except occasional lameness in sows from joining injuries.)

The very first session we attended was on biosecurity, a paramount concern to the intensive livestock industry. Biosecurity is important we were told because the advantages of lower infection include: increased animal welfare; increased production; decreased antibiotic use; and increased food safety. Infection in sheds can be catastrophic as disease moves through an immune-compromised herd of closely confined animals – imagine someone hops onto the Frankston line at peak hour with anthrax.

To manage biosecurity, the crowd of producers was told to eradicate wild poultry such as ducks so they don’t infect your herd; manage the inevitable rat infestations; and require visitors to shower and change into orange prison suits before entering the property so you can identify the risky stranger on your property. A question from the floor was ‘so how are the free-range farms managing their biosecurity?’ to general consternation at the risk farms like ours must be presenting to theirs.

When a room full of people unquestioningly accepts advice to force visitors to wear orange prison suits onto the farm you know we have a long way to go to get back to the reasonable person test. No wonder Joel Salatin wrote a book called ‘Folks, this ain’t normal’.

The planning requirements around intensive piggeries for buffer zones to protect the amenity of other humans, animals, waterways and soils should force a major re-evaluation of the systems we need buffering from, not constant revisions to just how far sheds need to be from us. If it’s not fit to be near to, it’s probably not fit to exist.

Technocrats cannot solve the problem of air quality in confinement systems. Vaccinations for pneumonia, pleurisy, and porcine circovirus (PCV2) are bandaids on an increasingly antimicrobial resistant wound. Vaccinations aren’t the solution, they’re just another problem. Same goes for more or better fans and air conditioning.

The solution for air quality is to have less pigs per farm and to keep them outdoors.

The solution for the risk of infection is to have less pigs per farm and to keep them outdoors.

I will mention one more speaker, an industry shill who did the conference no favours with her hyperbolic rant and defensive defence of intensive livestock systems. Jude Capper is a self-described ‘livestock sustainability consultant’ whose bio says she is ‘Defending beef daily! Passionate about livestock production, dedicated to giving producers the tools and messages to explain why we do what we do, every single day.’ She managed to misquote Michael Pollan while telling the audience they need to control their message so that ‘self-appointed food experts’ like him don’t, and encouraged the industry to recruit ‘mommy bloggers’ to their cause as people can relate to mothers.

Bovidiva, as Capper calls herself on her blog and social media, has posts in defence of routine antibiotic use, and even one objecting to concerns about industry-funded scientists like herself. The shame of her inclusion in the program is that we did hear discussions of the need to reduce antibiotic use and signs that industry is ready to start talking about some of the hard topics, and Capper’s performance belied the fact that the industry has made headway on a number of things such as the voluntary phase out of gestation stalls (though not farrowing stalls as yet).

People who set themselves up to ‘defend the industry’ are not helpful to society’s project of constant improvement – and it’s particularly shameful when these are allegedly academics who should be trained in the cool eye of objectivity and vigilance against bias. This conference would benefit from open discussions of the problems of air quality and its impact on animals and workers, management of effluent, overuse of antibiotics, and financial pressures inherent in the commodity food system amongst other concerns facing the industry. So long as the conference is funded by the pharmaceutical industry and others who profit from pig producers, this seems unlikely to happen, to the detriment of the farmers and communities they feed.

In March, the CEO of APL Andrew Spencer made a strong call for the freedom true transparency could offer the industry in his regular piece in the Australian Pork Newspaper. Spencer writes,

 ‘We at APL do have some initiatives under way to better show what happens on a pig farm, but disappointingly getting our producers to cooperate in using their facilities to host media or community groups has been very unsuccessful. This is a significant risk to our industry. […] Being profitable isn’t the same as being sustainable if the community doesn’t believe in what you’re doing. One of the communication principles I’ve previously written about states “we are not afraid of others seeing what we do.” Today, I don’t believe this is true.’

It is encouraging to see an industry leader calling for transparency, and pointing out that if you’re not willing to let people see what you do, then there might be something wrong…

The task before those of us working towards an ethical and ecologically-sound agricultural future is enormous, and we must work with farmers in intensive systems if there is any hope for reform. We have to listen to their financial and social constraints, and offer alternative financially-viable models.

In working with intensive livestock producers, we have to understand who holds the real power – the corporations who supply them with medications that make those systems function, and the processors and retailers like Coles and Woolies who set prices and leave farmers vulnerable to fluctuations on the global market.

Until farmers of all produce are able to control the price they charge for their food based on what it costs them to grow it, we cannot have a fair food system. The dairy crisis has sharply reminded us of how broken the system really is – let’s all work together before it’s too late for everyone.

Slow Meat 2015

While at Slow Meat in Denver I picked up a copy of The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business. This critical book details the history and current oligarchical state of the meat industry in America in no uncertain terms – an industry built entirely on unfairness to animals, land, and people. I’m planning to write more about the book and what I saw in America’s heartland in a later post, but I’d like to here foreground my account of Slow Meat with some key issues raised by author Christopher Leonard.

Leonard has this to say about Tyson Foods, one of the biggest multinational food corporations in the world:

…the company has swallowed up all the businesses that used to make up a small-town economy. It owns the feed mill, the slaughterhouse, and the hatchery. It owns the trucking line and the food-processing plant where raw meat is packaged and cooked into ready-to-eat meals. While Tyson doesn’t directly own most of the farms that supply it with animals, it controls them through the use of restrictive contracts. It’s as if the broad-based network of small businesses that were once the backbone of rural America had been sucked into a single, towering silo called Tyson Foods. The company owns everything that happens inside it. There is no competition among the various entities, no free market to determine the price at which baby chicks are sold to farmers or at what price grown chickens are sold back to a slaughterhouse. It all happens within the walls of Tyson’s corporate structure. (p.5)

There are just four meatpacking companies that control 85% of the meat industry in the US. When Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle in 1906 and exposed the seedy, dangerous underworld of meatpacking, the uproar led to the passing of the Meat Inspection Act and the precursor to the current Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Workers’ unions were formed, farmers flocked to foreclosure auctions with guns and ‘ensured that the original owner of the farm could buy it back for a bid of one dollar’ (p.57). The dollar auctions became a part of American history.

And yet now this wonderful country that once stood up against tyranny and fought for the rights of the oppressed is one of the most brainwashed and worst fed in the industrialised world. These are hard truths, evident in every Walmart aisle and on every fast food menu across the nation.

With this background, and as a long time advocate for fair food, and fair meat especially, you can imagine my excitement when I learned of the second Slow Meat symposium to be held in Denver, hosted by Slow Food USA. Described as a gathering of global thought leaders on the need for radical food systems change, focused particularly around meat, Slow Meat sounded like something I simply could not miss.

It was pitched as a competitive application process – I don’t know whether it was in truth competitive selection, but the 217 delegates were most definitely changemakers in their respective communities and many on the broader stage. The diversity and depth of the people I met over the three days I spent with them was stimulating, inspiring, and challenging. These are people who understand the food system, are well aware of its worst failings, and are working hard to both fix the old system and in many cases, to build new, alternative food economies.

And then the conference started.

A strong opening from the admirable Edie Mukiibi, Vice-president of Slow Food International and one of the leaders of 10,000 Gardens in Africa put me on the edge of my seat. Edie is a vocal and passionate advocate for ‘good, clean, fair food,’ asserting that ‘Africans can feed Africa, not a single multinational company.’ He offered insights into the negative impacts of aid on African communities, and spoke at some length on the flooding of African agriculture with exotic species, such as the Friesian cattle brought in for high milk production. Edie told us that every animal given to a family comes with a payout and a long list of chemicals because they can’t cope with the environment. The list of chemical suppliers follows. The new breeds are burdened with inhumane practices as well. For example, in Uganda a male calf was once celebrated, and raised to a bull or beef steer. Now Friesian bull calves are killed on birth because Friesians are milk machines. Edie finished by reminding us that Slow Meat is a fight for fairness and responsibility, and a fight against industrial agriculture, which he calls ‘careless production’.IMG_7656

With that global perspective at the commencement, things were looking great. Edie offered us global insights, authentic experience, and challenging ideas.

While I have a strong regard for most of the speakers on the panels that ran over the rest of the day, I feel like they were given the wrong brief. They were preaching to the converted (not to mention knowledgeable), and the promised collective brainstorming and challenging of each other’s assumptions was largely absent from the sessions.

The opening panel had a number of members on it who confessed they don’t agree with Slow Meat’s mantra, ‘eat better meat, less,’ and the floor was given no opportunity to respond. In fact, at no stage was the floor opened up for comment after the received wisdom from those on the stage (though one session took questions via Twitter). Even most of the breakout sessions posited as the smaller for a for discussion and debate ran essentially as lectures.

The first panel, Beef, included Nicolette Hahn-Niman (author of Defending Beef & Righteous Pork Chop), Will Harris (White Oak Pastures), Caroline McCann (Braeside Meat Market, South Africa), Gary Nabhan (author of Stitching the West Back Together). On the question of ‘eat better meat, less’ – the panelists expressed concern that this message might hurt the small farmer who needs people to buy their produce. Others were concerned that it lumps pastured livestock farmers with the intensives, suggesting that eating less meat across the board is what’s needed, when really people just need to stop eating factory-farmed meat. None that I heard defended the position to eat better, less.

Well, I’m a small farmer and we say clearly on our website that we want people to eat less meat – just because you found meat that’s raised properly doesn’t mean you should eat it with abandon. We cannot export America & Australia’s (or indeed the global north’s) meat consumption without utterly destroying the planet and ruining our children’s hope for a future. Meat raised responsibly is a delicious and nutritious part of any diet, but too much will still over tax the planet’s metabolism.

I will share the highlights of the event:

The farm to table tour of Black Cat Farm near Boulder, Colorado, a vibrant, vertically integrated mixed livestock and vegetable farm practicing what they preach. Eric and Jill Skokan have developed a thriving agroecological system that supplies their two restaurants and multiple farmers’ markets in their region. As Eric took us through the polenta he’d ground from their corn crop for the corn bread using his grandmother’s recipe, served alongside a lovely roast pork leg from one of his rare breed Mulefoot pigs and an array of other dishes grown and cooked within 20 metres of the table, his passion and satisfaction were visceral. This is Slow Meat.


On the Beef panel, Will Harris of White Oak Pastures shared with us that in his system, beef adds 30% to costs over industrial beef, whereas poultry adds 300%. He pointed out that the smaller animals too easily lend themselves to more industrialised systems. He left us with a little bon mot over the biggest meat company in the world, Brazilian JBS’ recent acquisition of a grassfed company– ‘I hope they don’t fuck that up’, said Will. Right.

Another highlight was the presence of Craig Watts, Perdue whistleblower, on the Chicken panel. Craig shared his experience as a contract grower for the huge intensive chicken company with a frank fearlessness to be much admired. He told us how the company lures people in to grow for them, telling them, ‘you’re going to be out of debt in 10 years and you’ll always have a market.’ And then he asked, ‘is the food coming out of these huge operations: sub-standard, making people sick, and causing superbugs?’

Craig told us that in rural communities Perdue (and others like them) have a monopoly – Craig can only sell to them, & Craig gets all his inputs from them. Remember that description of Tyson with which I opened? Craig finished by reminding us that just days before we gathered North Carolina (where he lives) passed an ag-gag law, making his important whistleblowing activity potentially illegal.

Craig’s honesty and earnest engagement with the delegation was heartwarming and heartbreaking all at the same time. And again delivered the authentic voice we were gathered to hear and address, I thought.

The final major highlight was easily Temple Grandin, who spoke at the Slow Meat Fair the day after the symposium. Temple held the floor rapt with her long, deep knowledge of the meat industry and focused efforts to improve animal welfare pre and during slaughter. She stated without hesitation that ‘you cannot overwork and understaff’ and expect good outcomes. She said she now sees more problems coming into slaughter such as leg confirmation and lice than she used to as systems have intensified, and single traits have been overselected with their attendant undesirable traits (eg a large loin on a pig may be linked to higher aggression). On overly burdensome regulation, she asserted ‘don’t dictate stun box floor area, measure outcomes’. Amen.


With the day structured by three species – Cow, Chicken, Pig – I thought we would methodically canvass the major issues facing the production, processing and consumption of each. On beef, I wanted to debate the role of supplementary feed, be it hay, sileage or grain, and what is a truly regenerative practice. On chickens, I wanted to hear others’ thoughts on what a truly regenerative pastured chicken operation looks like – including a debate about breeds – and grapple with the question of how much chicken is possible if it’s only grown in truly regenerative systems? On pigs, I wanted to talk about soil – it’s great that we all have our pigs out on the paddocks now, but are we moonscaping it? Does it matter if we are?

And while we ate plenty of food cooked by great chefs with care, I must have a word on the catering. Seafood in Denver is not Slow Meat. It might be tasty, it might be excusable as a ‘sometimes food’, it might be that most of you really don’t care, but it is not Slow Meat. And frankly, nor is pork from New York… in Denver.

Will I go back to Slow Meat in 2017? Probably. Do I hope they get the programming right and deliver on the promise to bring us together to work collectively for radical food system change next time? Definitely. Do I feel enriched by the people who did attend, and am I grateful to Slow Meat for bringing us together? Absolutely.


2013: Our Meat is Real

In 2010 it was sourdough. This year it’s meat.


My journey into the world of breadmaking resulted in a life of no bought bread, and I anticipate this year’s meat venture will do the same. In short, if we haven’t raised or caught the meat ourselves, we won’t be eating it at home.

As those who’ve been here before already know, I was a vegetarian for seven years and now I am a free-range rare breed pig farmer along with my hypercompetent husband Stuart and three orsmkids. I was not a vegetarian because I thought humans shouldn’t eat non-human animals. It was because I couldn’t bear to be complicit in the realities of industrial meat farming – ‘Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations’ or CAFOs, where animals are never given the opportunity to dig, scratch, munch on grass and otherwise express what Joel Salatin calls ‘the pigness of the pig’. I don’t want to make animals suffer throughout their lives so that they can end up on our plates, and nor do I want to participate in the environmental degradation caused by intensive systems. So when I came back to meat, I stuck with ethically raised, until ultimately we decided to take our ethics and our advocacy to the next level by becoming producers ourselves.

So as smallholders, we are in the luxurious position of being able to raise our own animals as part of a healthy agroecological system, whereby some of them are for sale for the economic viability that allows us to live here, and some are for our own consumption. The pigs are our tractors, efficiently turning the soil in preparation for the next season’s fodder crop (and for our expansive vegie garden), the sheep and cattle manage the grass growth and keep our paddocks healthy and safer from fires, and the chooks convert our kitchen scraps into a plentiful supply of eggs (and we eat the excess roosters).

On our 69 acres, we’ll ultimately have about 10 rare breed Large Black sows, two boars and an ever-fluctuating number of weaners and growers, and then we also currently have a dozen Lowline Angus cattle and seven Lincoln sheep. The very awesome Ellie also just brought us about 100 rainbow trout fingerlings that we’ve put in the Home Dam and are hoping won’t be eaten by cormorants… and then there’s the ever-expanding flock of heritage and common chooks.

We will, of course, be slaughtering pigs regularly as that’s our primary farming business, so I think there will be a ready supply of pork, both fresh and cured. However, we tend to serve lovely pork roasts only for gatherings here on the farm, and we eat mostly cured pork in small doses as a flavouring for otherwise vegetable-based meals, plus the occasional sausage. In short, just because we’re pig farmers doesn’t mean we’ll be binging all year on pork.

Our aim is to slaughter about one cow per month and sell the meat locally, which will also mean we’ll have access to beef when we want it, but I’m going to record our consumption and we’re aiming to basically eat one cow this year.

With the sheep, we have one ram and four ewes, all of whom had their first lambs last winter. One had twins who died of exposure the first night and another was killed by either a fox or more likely, our dog Maya, who sadly had to be put down as she was a menace to small animals. 🙁 That left us with just two lambs, a ewe and a ram (which Stuart castrated so is now a wether). As our original ram is not the father of the ewe lamb, we’re keeping her so we’ll have one more breeder, leaving us with just the wether to eat. And so what might have been as many as five lambs to eat this year was reduced to one, and that is what we’ll eat.

It’s these vagaries of supply that we lose touch with when our only connection to the meat we eat is through the butcher or the supermarket. Have you ever thought about how many lambs it took for your annual consumption of cutlets? Chicken thighs? Pork belly? And who eats all the parts you don’t like or know how to cook? I’ll be in a much more knowledgeable position as the year progresses to tell you what a smallholder can produce for home consumption in a year, and also which cuts become the real treasures when they’re only enjoyed once or twice in the entire year.

Roast chicken used to be an annual event, not a weekly one. And there’s a good reason for it – it’s bad maths (in both global and domestic economies) to eat too many chickens, and good maths to eat lots of eggs instead. We won’t be killing the goose, we’ll be collecting the golden eggs. Only surplus roosters that grow from eggs hatched by the broody bantams will be eaten here on the farm, which means very little chicken in our diet. And when you think about how many lives we take for consumption, one cow goes a hell of a lot further than a chook.

An exciting aspect of this adventure is that I’ll be butchering whole carcasses myself with Stuart’s help. I figure I need to so that I understand the cuts better before sending subsequent carcasses to the butcher with my cut sheet so we can have confidence in what we sell. I butchered our first pig last month and it was fascinating and extremely useful to understand more deeply how many pigs it takes to sustain a household of omnivores. Next up is a cow, which I’ve been sternly warned to have quartered at the abattoir to make it possible to handle!

In short, I’m hoping that through our year of what we propose will be a sustainable amount of meat eating in an ethical, smallholder system, we’ll be able to demonstrate how much meat (and the diversity of cuts and animals) is sustainable for the planet and its many inhabitants. We expect to continue our habit of roughly 50% vegetarian dinners, and of course small portions of meat at omnivorous mealtimes. In fact we’re starting the year with nothing but a slab of our bacon in the fridge as we wait for the next slaughter, so are looking at a purely vegetarian couple of weeks, which is fine with us, and a great season for divine salads full of nuts and berries!

But you don’t have to live on the land to eat like you do. Hopefully this will be a model for city dwellers and country folk alike, because we’re all living on the same planet. Here’s to a tasty 2013!

Happy ‘Free Range’ Holiday

I have an article up on The Hoopla today: Happy ‘Free Range’ Christmas. In it, I detail the certification standards around free-range meat in Australia, and give suggestions about which ones to trust and where to source ethically-produced poultry and pork, plus some advice and links on sustainable seafood.

There are more retailers and promoters of ethical and local produce than I had space for in the article, so I thought I’d put a few more here. Not all produce listed by these sites will necessarily be free-range meats – I’ve included local directories here, and you’ll need to do your own local homework on the details!

I’d be very interested in feedback on more sites – I’ll pop them into the following list as I’m made aware of more.


Australian Regional Food Guide

Pigeon House 150 (Wollongong, NSW)

Transition Mt Alexander Local Food Guide (VIC)

Daylesford Macedon Produce (VIC)

Local Harvest: The Sunshine Coast Regional Food Directory (Qld)

Feast Fine Foods (Adelaide, SA)


Between ecotarianism and ethotarianism is conviviality.

As we commence RoadTripUSA, I’m thinking a lot about food. Okay, I always think a lot about food, but there’s something quite specific I’m thinking about and it’s around ‘ecotarianism’, pleasure and conviviality…

In America we’ll eat a lot of good food and a bit of bad food. To judge good and bad I weigh up flavour, texture, ‘wholeness’, seasonality, regionality, sustainability, animal husbandry, workers’ rights, and to some degree, health (though food that’s ‘bad’ for you because it’s fatty, etc, is something I don’t spend much time thinking about regarding our family as our lifestyle of predominantly whole foods nearly always ensures a well-balanced diet – but that’s another post). Making choices that ‘tread lightly’ and treat food and producers respectfully is what I understand by ‘ecotarian’, a fairly new term, discussed on the ABC recently by Cristy Clark.

Like most people, sometimes we compromise our usual principles and eat what we consider ‘bad food’ to greater or lesser extents. Road trips inevitably include some potato chips and sometimes a meal from Subway or a local takeaway, and on Friday nights at home we’ll occasionally order pizza or pick up fish and chips. When we make these choices, we’re still able to avoid factory-farmed pork and chicken rather easily.

When travelling, we usually let our standards slide on ethical meat – we tend to just eat everything as a way of understanding culture better – and that includes pork and chicken that is most likely factory farmed. The traceability issues we face at home are compounded overseas where we’re even less certain of our food’s origins. We continue with our usual habits of not eating too much meat generally, but we do like to try all the local specialties. In America, we’re usually with my family or friends, so keeping to ecotarian principles is pretty easy as we generally know the provenance of the food. However, eating out presents a greater challenge unless dining in one of America’s many wonderful SOLE (Sustainable, Organic, Local and Ethical) focused restaurants and cafes.

This trip to America is different to a visit ‘home’. We’ll be driving through a number of unfamiliar regions, and there’s a world of interesting local dishes I can’t wait to sample, including such nommish delights as pulled pork in the South… but the odds of there being much free-range pork on the menus in Alabama are pretty slim, I reckon. Chicken will pose a similar problem, and thanks to America’s preponderance of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), commonly known as ‘factory farms’, even beef poses an ethical dilemma unless you know the provenance. I could go on about dairy, seafood, fast food franchises, processed snack foods… you get the picture, but I’ll use pork as my primary example given our plans to be free-range pig farmers.

Will we eat pork in the full knowledge that it isn’t from ‘happy pigs’?

Yes, we will.

We won’t eat a lot of it, but we’ll eat it. There are a few reasons why – more than simply ‘I really want to try that because it looks really delicious’, though I can’t pretend that’s not part of the decision-making process. There are a few key reasons why we will compromise our usual ethics, but the core one is conviviality. That is, while traveling, I don’t want to be ‘that person’ who makes everyone uncomfortable by listing all the things we don’t eat, or by turning down food that someone has offered us in their home with, ‘oh, we don’t eat factory-farmed pork’ every time. Such a response not only tells your host you don’t want what they’ve offered, it infers they have done the wrong thing in offering it to you. I would rather leave ethical food discussions to this blog and other writings, and to conversations that are not taking place in the presence of such food.

At home, standards are easy to maintain. We buy or grow the food and we cook it. When in someone else’s home, I don’t ask if the pork is free range if that’s what’s on the menu. In fairness, my friends all know how we are and are pretty unlikely to give us factory-farmed meat, but if they did, I’d eat it. The animal is already dead and cooked at this stage – in my opinion to refuse to eat it is wasteful and disrespectful of the life it gave as well as inhospitable towards one’s hosts.

Mind you, it’s not only when a host offers us something. There’s food on airlines, lack of choice in small country grocery stores and the usual road trip compromises. Or the myriad ‘hidden’ food ethical dilemmas, such as monoculture GM soy in the ingredients or factory-farmed eggs in some muffins at a diner. While our ethic enables us to avoid many such things, we would be miserable trying to completely avoid the horrors of industrial agriculture – sometimes the pleasure principle is achieved by not agonising so much and knowing you’ve done your best.

As I write these things I’m still sorting out the questions around hypocrisy and being complicit in an unethical food system. But the way I’m thinking about it is to understand ecosystems beyond their biological components – to include the social aspects as well.

If farming had not moved outside of ecosystems – as we all know industrial agriculture requires enormous external inputs and must find places beyond their boundaries to process their outputs – we wouldn’t have the severe negative environmental consequences we face today. But in addition to choosing food that comes from a healthy ecosystem, we should generally choose food that is still intricately linked to communities – that both sustains and is sustained by communities. When we conceive of an ethical approach to food this way, we must consider the human social interactions as well as those between humans and other animals or humans and the earth.

I guess rather than calling it ‘ecotarianism’ then, you might call it ‘ethotarianism’, because it’s about a consistent ethic of respect and pleasure. I’ve often said we should all be hedonists – in the tradition whereby one’s driving principle is to seek pleasure, both for oneself and for others, and taking one’s pleasure should not withdraw it from others, whether they are human, animal or vegetable.

But this complicates the question – the choices are in fact even more difficult than simply seeking ethically produced food – because sometimes the pleasure of various participants will be at odds. A clear example is when I’m offered a plate of pulled pork from unhappy pigs by a relative in the South – it’s too late to give that pig a happy life, but I can still be gracious to my host. Wherever possible, I avoid putting myself in such a position, but once in it, choices must be made, and mine will be to eat what I’m offered.

Tour de France Stage 12 means Cassoulet!

Presumably most of you have noticed that the Tour de France has been on. Given my recent work travels, my exhilarating participation in the democratic process of establishing a new peak representative body for international students (#allhailCISA), my usual family demands with the Jonai (who are orsm not only in my view, but by global consensus), and my public disavowal of all forms of spectator sport, I really haven’t. In fact, when someone said ‘Lance Armstrong’, I had an immediate case of deja vu/wait, what? But some time ago, I agreed to post something about the destination of Stage 12 of the Tour de France when the lovely Barbara of Winos & Foodies asked for people interested in posting something on the food of particular regions…

See, as my few regular readers will know, Tammi Tasting Terroir is meant to be about understanding, considering, eating and critiquing regional distinctions, variations, meanings and instabilities. So when Barbara asked who was interested in a project about such regional distinctions I think I might have extinguished a star as my hand shot up. But wait, it has to be about France? Hm, my research is about Australia, Vietnam & Italy, but sure, why not? It’s not like I don’t know how to do research… (increasingly, don’t you just ask the twitters?) <hopes her supervisor isn’t reading this>

Tami (one ‘m’, clearly not me, but an interesting confluence nonetheless) over at Running With Tweezers did a gorgeous post on tapenade, tomatoes provencale and roasted apricots for Stage 11, which you should definitely pop over and drool at.

So it’s lucky that I ‘ve been to France. In fact I’ve been thrice. I went with my family at 14 (please don’t ask them for the 4th of July story on the Orient Express), fell in love with Stuart in Paris while working as an au pair to earn enough money to survive (recounted briefly in this poem that is of no interest to anyone except us), and finally, with my entire American family plus our then 5yo, 3yo, & 3 month old children, mostly in the south. And that’s when we made it to the Languedoc region, which is where Mende is, which is where Stage 12 of the Tour finishes this year…

So what do you want to know about Mende, the Languedoc region, and its foods? Well, the critical dish we’re going to discuss here is cassoulet. Of course the region is also famous for its duck confit, and I could tell you about those I’ve made and those we’ve brought back from France in tins, but I’m not going to do that here… According to my much-beloved French sister-in-law, one of the things that makes cassoulet famous is that it takes three days to digest. 😉

So here goes – I’ve made cassoulet a few times, and it’s pretty hard to stuff up if you’re paying any attention and using plenty of delicious ingredients. The catch is that I’ve been urgently called to Sydney on work (and obviously I should have written this much earlier, but to be fair, I only just got back from two days on the Gold Coast – speaking at a conference – and a week in Tassie setting up CISA and researching the ethical raising of pigs. Okay, we also ate a lot of Bruny Island Cheese).

What this catch means is that I’m cheating a bit. I’ve made cassoulet, I’ve eaten plenty of it, and now I’m going to give you a recipe I’ve drawn together from my memory of making it, and recipes I’ve read/tasted/imagined/enjoyed and ask you to make it yourself. 🙂 I’ve crowdsourced photos from lovely food bloggers on the twitters (who enjoyed the versions below at Libertine, written up here by @tomatom) since I’m unable to cook it up here in the hotel in Sydney. I’m now tempted to make it for friends on Wednesday night, so will update with photos if I pull that off…

This photo was taken by the fabulous Penny (@jeroxie) over at Addictive and Consuming.


This hearty stew varies considerably in different regions (and even within them, as per any famous dish made in various households), and it’s fun to imagine the many spirited debates southerners must have about the requirements for pork, quality pork sausage, lamb or duck confit. Personally, I reckon you simply cannot go wrong as long as there is free range happy pork (‘only one bad day’), sausage and duck. Yes, I realise that means this is a very rich dish – that’s the point. And how fitting that I am offering it to you here in Australia’s depth of winter, as I cannot imagine it having any appeal in the current French summer!

1kg haricot (cannellini is fine, a variety of haricot) beans

1 duck, jointed

700g fresh Toulouse (pork) sausage (free range)

1 free range pig’s trotter

100g free range bacon or speck, roughly chopped

1 garlic globe, chopped

2 onions, sliced

pinch thyme

3 bay leaves

1 carrot, thickly sliced

1 stick of celery, sliced

2T tomato paste (you can also use homemade roast sugo, in which case double quantity)

Salt & pepper to taste

Soak the beans overnight. Drain and put on the heat for 10-20 minutes, until soft but still al dente. Take off the heat, drain and set aside. Meanwhile, you should be making a stock from the trotter, garlic, onion, thyme, bay leaves, carrot & celery. Simmer in water for at least two hours to infuse the stock with loads of flavour. When you’re satisfied the stock has a lovely flavour, it’s ready for its next starring role.

Meanwhile, fry the duck pieces just to brown and seal in delectable juices. Also fry off the sausages. You can then slice them and add to the beans or else leave them whole – this is purely a matter of your taste and aesthetic. Set the duck and sausage aside while stock comes to maturity.

Once both the beans & the stock are ready, and the meat is browned, layer roughly, including the bacon pieces, in a casole, or a casserole dish or oven pot of some sort, ensuring some sausage is pushed in at the top. It’s useful to put the trotter in the bottom for more flavour. Pour half the stock in when you’ve half filled the pot. Stir the tomato paste or sugo through.

I use my le Creuset (I should mention I have one that was a gift, & another that was found in the hard rubbish collection in Carlton – it has exactly *one chip* in the enamel in the bottom, but somebody threw it out – lucky us). Pour the rest of the stock into the pot, cover and put in a medium/low oven for around three hours (150-160C). Uncover after the first hour and allow the top to form a bit of a crust, cooking for a further hour or two, pushing the cassoulet down with a large spoon periodically. Pour more stock in during cooking if it dries out too much.

Some people put bread crumbs on top to form the crust, but my understanding is that it’s more traditional to allow the beans and sausage to form their own crust by slow cooking uncovered at the end.

Serve with a scrumptious fresh baguette, preferably homemade. Predictably, I prefer sourdough. 😉

Here’s another photo, this one by the orsm @snarkattack. 🙂

And now watch the food tour go on over at Barry’s Bistro as the Tour heads into Stage 13…

On Cooking and Feasting, Merrily

People who know me know that I cook for the pleasure of it, and that I am perhaps more of a feeder than an eater – I am compelled to cook for others, to nurture, love, entertain and delight friends and family with copious amounts of delicious food (well, usually delicious, sometimes ordinary and occasionally woeful). This is not to say I don’t like to indulge in sumptuous eating myself, but my focus is often more on the production and distribution side of the equation. And I love to cook with others who are as passionate about cooking as I am, especially when their motivations are similar.

The world is full of people cooking, but their drives to do so can be wildly disparate. Folks cook because they have to, for the pleasure of the creativity and results, to nurture community, to show off, and to accrue cultural capital, amongst other rationale (many subconscious). I suspect most of the time our motivations are complicated.

As a keen cook, I have many friends who are also passionate cooks, as well as many reluctant or aspiring cook friends. I love having opportunities to cook with friends and family, especially when our motivations are aligned, as that makes for the most comfortable sort of communal cooking. Those inclined to regale me with the expense of their ingredients, or to dictate to me a ‘better’ way to do something (though thoughts and advice are very welcome, controlling my creative process is not), or to rabbit on about how ‘there is only ONE extra virgin olive oil to use, and it must be Italian’ (etc ad nauseaum) are the ones I find to be kitchen killjoys, frankly. Admittedly, sometimes we will all comment on the high cost of a much-coveted item we are delighted to have, or go through a phase (it’s always a phase) where we will only buy a particular variety of something from a special place of origin, but for those in the market for more cultural capital, it’s a modus operandi.

And so it happened that the beautiful gift economy of the Twitterverse brought me a new friend who matched me fantastically in the kitchen these holidays. I met Zoe (@crazybrave, who also blogs here) in real life a few months back in Canberra (where she lives with her partner & two adorable children). That day she showed me her garden full of artichokes and chooks, the bathtubs housing the newly planted water chestnuts, and her copious shelves of a droolworthy cookbook collection, then made us a lovely impromptu lunch of grilled chicken and white bean salad before giving me a lift to the airport. A friendship was struck, and it was obvious to us both that fruits would be born of it.

Which brings us to our recent holiday near Crookwell in southern New South Wales. A trip that should have taken the Jonai about eight hours in the Volvster in fact lasted two days, due to a blowout just over an hour into the trip. Of course, we were travelling on the Sunday after Christmas, so nobody was open to sell us a new tyre. We limped at 80km/hr the 200km up to Albury, where the kids at least got to have a lovely swim in the Murray, intending to buy a new tyre the next morning for the final 400km. Alas, Monday was the Boxing Day holiday – everything was still closed – and even the cafe where we broke our fast added a 10% surcharge for the pleasure of serving us on a public holiday (think insult to injury). Twitter was consulted, then mostly ignored. The Jonai were unstoppable. Wild horses would not keep us in Albury for another night. And so we hit the road, at the zen-like speed of 80km/hr, and drove all the way to Mark and Antonia’s gorgeous country retreat, Hillview, wondering whether intrepid would at any moment become just plain stupid. It didn’t, we made it, and the feasting began.

The peace of Hillview cannot be overstated. Some years ago Mark accidentally cut the phone line, and they decided that suited them very well, thank you. And so it does. There’s no mobile reception for the most part either, so it’s kind of like camping, but in a really beautiful old Edwardian house, in beds, with a toilet and a shower. And electricity. Okay, it’s not at all like camping except that you disconnect from all social media, and just plain socialise with loved ones. And read lots of books. Lots and lots of books. Oh, and there’s an oven…

Before Zoe and the kids arrived (her partner Owen came up two days later), we feasted on such diversities as lamb marinated in yoghurt, garlic, lemon and salt, cooked out on the brazier, and Gado Gado another night, but things really got going with the new arrivals. Digging through Mark and Antonia’s awesome collection of cookbooks old and new, I found a Marcella Hazan recipe for a sort of baked risotto with layers of eggplant, sugo and parmigiana. I had a frozen ratatouille with me, so we improvised a Risotto Ratatouille Parmigiana that was out of this world.

The next night, we worked out our menu around the enormous t-bone steaks Zoe had brought from her sister’s farm near Bombala, complemented beautifully with a fresh horseradish sauce from the garden. As Zoe moved to prepare some green beans with cashews, I whipped up a garlicky cheesy pasta for the kids and some roast potatoes to go with our steaks. All of this was achieved with such ease and camaraderie you’d think we’d been cooking together for years, not a day. There were tastings, suggestions and questions, advice sought, notes compared on our usual techniques, and plenty of chatter about all things Twitter, food and family.

Did I mention we both brought the same knives? Each of us brought our ten-inch chef’s knife and our Chinese cleavers. Zoe’s was sharper than mine (for shame, tammois), but we managed to find a sharpener that was ‘not a gadget’ and rectify the situation.

The day of Owen’s arrival, we decided to roast the Wessex Saddleback pork shoulder the ever-generous Zoe had brought along, taking inspiration from the beautiful big horseradish leaves. So Zoe laid the leaves in the roasting dish, studded the pork with garlic and fennel flowers plucked from the roadside, rubbed it with lemon and salt and poured a bit o’ bubbly over the top. It marinated for a couple of hours and then we roasted it for about an hour and a half. Meanwhile, I stuffed tomatoes with garlicky breadcrumbs made from the end of my homemade bread (I got a starter going the first day and subsequently baked fresh bread every second day – this is a new thing for me, but watch this space!), as well as some fresh pecorino and lovely reggiano, and the basil we brought in a pot with us from Melbourne. Next, I threw together a potato gratin, steeping the milk with herbs from the garden before straining it onto the ‘taters, along with plenty of mozzarella, reggiano and Stuart’s home-cured olives. It was a spectacular dinner out on the patio with its marvellous views of the surrounding hills.

The final night we were all together, ravioli was on the menu. I figured I’d do a simple spinach and ricotta filling (Oscar’s favourite) and an even simpler burnt sage butter sauce with a little garlic thrown in (’cause it just ain’t a Jonai dinner without plenty o’ garlic). Simple, right? Sure, except that I left my brain elsewhere when I didn’t suggest we let the frozen spinach thaw and then strain it, resulting in a very watery filling that did its utmost to destroy the integrity of the pasta. When we realised where we were going so horribly wrong (much later than I should have recognised the problem), Zoe tried making pasta band-aids for the ill affected and I tried straining the filling through a clean chux. This helped, but the difficulties continued. Stuart even came in and did a big manly squeezing of the filling through a linen tea towel, after which I made the final tray of picture perfect ravioli. The earliest ones by this stage, we were referring to as the ‘crapioli’. Those that were clearly not going to survive a rolling boil I popped into a baking tray with water and put in the oven to cook, then served to the children first – to my surprise, they were highly acclaimed! And so were the many more that followed. The lesson? Well, aside from start cooking earlier (we didn’t eat until 8:30pm, which is a wee bit late for the kiddles), make sure your filling isn’t too wet, and be resigned to chaos if you want a bunch of kids to help, the main lesson Zoe and I took was that we all make mistakes, and in most cases, they’re salvageable. Sometimes, even delicious.

Of course there was more food than just the dinners, like the garlicky, basily, lemony hollandaise on mushies one morning, many pancakes, Zoe’s magnificent salad of air-dried beef, white beans, roast capsicum, pine nuts, baby spinach, olive oil, balsamic and mustard, Stuart’s delectable roast garlicky baba ganoush, endless loaves of fresh bread and the final quiche/pastie/pie making extravaganza to use up leftovers and dregs of ingredients. And although a lot of time was spent on the labour, it felt quite effortless, and often seamless. What a treat and a pleasure to cook together in this way, without competition or posturing, just for the love of it. All nine of us felt nurtured and nourished, bodily, emotionally and certainly for me, spiritually. Such is the joy anyone can have if they choose to cook with passion and pleasure, and to do so with others who take the same approach.

Salami Day with the de Bortolis

Sometimes, the stars are just aligned, and nothing you do will stop the goodness coming your way. At least that’s how it felt when food blogger and Twittermate @tomatom offered me the opportunity to accompany him to the de Bortoli family’s annual Salami Day in the Yarra Valley. This came on the heels, by the way, of the wonderful @Ganga108 offering to ship some cookbooks she was clearing out to any address in Australia; mere days later Kylie Kwong’s Recipes & Stories landed on my doorstep. The Twitterverse is an amazing land of plenty, especially if you hook up with your real community of interest. But back to Salami Day…

The day began before first light, as Ed and I followed our Google maps blue dot on the iPhone (well, technically the blue dot follows us, but on the return trip after hours of grappa and sangiovese, I was pretty sure we were following the dot…) up to the de Bortoli vineyards. Just as we pulled up, the sun having just risen, there was the pig, which had just been sawn in half. Within minutes, the head and other bits were on the table, where family members Maria, Dominique and Angelo set straight to work. (They had actually already butchered two pigs the day before, so were definitely in the groove.) There were only a dozen or so people around at this stage, including Darren de Bortoli (Managing Director) and his sister Leanne and her husband Steve, the winemaker and manager in the Yarra Valley. Just to prove what a small world Melbourne is, Stuart’s dad’s cousin Andrew Chapman was there taking photos for the family, accompanied by his lovely wife Josie.

As some headed off for their first coffee with a shot of grappa, Josie and I grabbed a knife each and helped shave the fat off the underside of the skin, which was then chopped up to be used for the cotechino sausages. The fat itself was a very pleasing smooth texture that felt scrumptious on the hands. These pigs had followed the strict diet for the last few months of regular acorn feasts, and the flesh was a beautiful dark pink/red as a result. In the adjoining area of the shed, another pig (not raised by the family) was on a spit for the sumptious lunch we would enjoy later… but we didn’t have to wait long before platters of salumi and freshly made ciabattas did the rounds, closely followed by trays of grappa.

By this stage, Maria, Dom, Angelo and the local butcher had made great progress on the pig, having sliced all the flesh from the bones (except the hams, which were left intact to cure and I believe some for prosciutto?). The meat was in pieces about the size of my fist, at which point they spread it across the metal tables, added the spices (chili, fennel, salt, pepper, and saltpeter), and mixed it up a bit by hand. Next it was time to pop it through the mincer (and the need for a nice big electric mincer becomes readily apparent when you see how much meat has to be processed!).As more people arrived and the accordion started to play, the atmosphere got both more festive and less intimate. For someone doing a PhD trying to unravel the difference between Hage’s ‘cosmo-multiculturalists’ (some would call them the ‘foodies’: people who are ‘into’ food for reasons of social distinction) and cosmopolitans (food + community = understanding, openness to cultural difference), the shift at this point was interesting. I felt enormously privileged to have been there from the beginning with the family, neighbours and friends, and had really enjoyed the easy comradery of the communal butchering.

After the mincing comes the salami stuffing. The previous day, they had made the salami with collagen casings, which are made from pork intestines, but reconstituted to get a more even and stronger consistency – hence those salami were quite straight and even as they hung in the cool room. Today they were using intestines (long enough to stretch round the shed!), so ended up with lovely curved salami, which Angelo expertly dipped in near boiling water, then tied up with twine to be hung.

I believe the main salami made would be described as sopressata from Calabria (but I could be wrong). There was some venison brought by the butcher that was also made into salami – apparently venison is too lean for a good salami (too dry) and so was mixed with the pork and fat. Finally the cotechino was made, requiring two times through the mincer with different blades to churn through the tough rind. Whereas the salami will be hung for about 6-8 weeks, the cotechino could be eaten immediately – I was told that you can boil it or cook it slowly for quite awhile to soften it up further.

The morning drew on towards lunch, by which time the crowds had really arrived and the wine was flowing freely. About a hundred of us sat down to a beautiful meal of pork sausages made the day before (to chef Tim Keenan’s recipe, which has renewed my belief that there are really good sausages to be had in the world – yum!), served with wine soaked caramelised onions and grilled polenta with a salad of mixed greens and vinaigrette. This was followed by a beautiful array of cheeses and that fresh ciabatta again. I enjoyed the charming and interesting company of Darren de Bortoli over lunch, and we conversed for hours on his family’s history, community, cultural diversity and cosmopolitanism in Australia (with a few forays into American politics and friendly disagreements over Howard).

As the afternoon waned, the conversation moved from kids’ lunches (“We used to be weird for our salami sandwiches, now they’re so common the kids say they’re boring and want sushi! Sushi, for God’s sake!”), to the resurgence in interest in the ‘old ways’, such as the salami days. Darren made the point that even the ‘skippies’ are into it now, and someone laughed that “people are calling them ‘foodies’, when all they are is wogs!” There was much talk of how the southerners (Italians) maintain the salami day tradition, with the requisite grappa, wine and sociality, whereas the northerners have the salami day, but just get in, get the job done, and get home again. This ‘northern/southern’ discussion was from people who were third and fourth generation Australians, yet still maintained their regional distinctions here in Australia. Fascinating!

Alas, it was time to bid the generous de Bortolis grazie e arrivederci, and follow our blue dot back into the city, where the children and Stuart had excitedly prepared us a three-course meal (not realising I would be too full to eat much!). I look forward to a sausage making day with the children one day soon in our own attempts to nurture our community with food and ritual.