Monday, February 26, 2024

Nutty pigs bring home the supreme bacon

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Artisan chorizo salami scoops top award at NZ Food Awards.
Sometimes you do want to know how the sausage is made – when it’s a story of sweet chestnuts, city acorns and a unique vision.
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The winning product of the New Zealand Food Awards 2022 is the result of the unique vision of Poaka founder Josh Hill, who is raising and farming pigs in a way that is quite rare in New Zealand. 

As the name suggests, Poaka Artisan Cured Meat focuses on traditionally made free-range meats. 

The 36-year-old entrepreneur set up the paddock-to-plate operation on his parent’s orchard in Aylesbury, near Christchurch, six years ago. 

Having previously worked as a helicopter pilot, general engineer, carpenter, welder and tractor driver, Hill spent a short stint on a Southland farm and fell in love with watching animals grow and thrive.

“A good friend asked me to help on his farm while he was recovering from a rugby accident,” Hill says.

“I had never had the opportunity to work on a farm with animals. I loved the rural setting and the animals. 

“My parents had land back in Canterbury and I had this idea on how I could utilise that.’

Initially his mother was not sold on the idea of turning their unused orchard into a pig farm, but Hill had a plan. It made good sense: he had done the research and he could utilise the 10ha of chestnut trees that were part of the 40ha block.

It was a case of bringing home the bacon.

He returned home to raise the happiest heritage pigs and make the best salami through traditional methods, in the knowledge that a chestnut-rich diet would enhance the flavour of the meat.

“A chestnut orchard to feed pigs is almost unheard of, but the old saying you are what you eat is proven really true with the pigs,” Hill says. 

“The nuts enhance the flavour, delivering the melt-in-your-mouth texture traditionally found in European charcuterie.”

When he was starting out, the biggest challenge was finding the right breed of pigs.

“Heritage pigs are not farmed in great numbers in New Zealand, so I found myself travelling from Havelock in the north to Gore in the south to get what I needed.”

With the pigs on farm, a new challenge arose – keeping them there.

“The fencing wasn’t great and heritage pigs like to explore, so we had to sort that one pretty quickly.”

 Poaka founder Josh Hill, pictured here with father Doug, scoured the country for the right breeds of heritage animals before settling on Tamworth, Berkshire and Wessex saddleback pigs.

Poaka’s heritage Tamworth, Berkshire and Wessex saddleback pigs are pasture-raised, grazing and growing slowly on a diet of acorns and sweet chestnuts to make not just a way of living that meets high animal welfare and food safety standards but also creates intensely flavoured, world-class salami, bacon, sausages and whole muscle products.

Keeping it all in house as much as he can, Hill grinds his meal, buying in the grain from neighbouring farmers, to complement the pigs’ diet of sweet chestnuts and acorns.

“We have this arrangement with the Christchurch City Council to clean up the acorns off Hagley Park. We harvest about 20-30t a season and the pigs finish on the mix of acorns and chestnuts.

“It helps the council with its vermin control and the pigs enjoy the acorns.”

Hill has a purpose-built craft butchery on the farm, and at the end of their journey, after about 14 months and weighing 140kg, the pigs are processed in Ashburton and returned to the farm butchery.                  

Hill is hands-on throughout the processes, including working with specialist butchers, fermenting the pork as traditionally as possible while maintaining food safety.

He also sells the products directly to the public at the Christchurch farmer’s market.

The supreme win was very much unexpected, Hill said.

“We entered because we knew we had a good product that would fit in. The supreme win caught us off guard, but we are very grateful, and it is recognition that all the hard work is paying off.

“Working seven days a week, big hours, sometimes I wonder why I do all this, but this pulls back to the reason – it is an amazing product, safe, sustainable, delicious and without a negative impact on the environment.

“It does put the wind in your sails, gives the business good exposure and delivers our customers a sense of pride and recognition they are backing a winning horse.  

“We run a different business model based on high quality, not high quantity. My aim is to make the best cured meats possible.

“The reality is we are not a massive player or producer, but we keep getting better at what we do, not bigger, and every day we learn something new.”

The judges described the Poaka chorizo as a unique product to be savoured by consumers in high-class restaurants, food service and speciality food markets.

“This is a delicious product with a compelling and engaging story and is an exciting contribution to New Zealand’s cured meats selection,” head judge Kay McMath said.

“A key aspect to the success of the product was the careful consideration and addressing of challenges along the whole value chain from animal production and feeding through to the development of new drying procedures and facilities and the journey to scale.” 

It was a triple win for Poaka, which also won the Cuisine Artisan Award and the NZ Food Safety (NZFS) primary sector award.  

NZFS deputy director-general Vincent Arbuckle said the high quality of entrants was a good illustration of the quality and innovation driving the food sector.

“We have an excellent food system in NZ, driven by passionate, hard-working New Zealanders,” Arbuckle said. 

“These awards are an excellent opportunity to recognise some of that talent.

“I’d like to particularly congratulate Poaka for taking out the supreme award. It’s well-deserved recognition for the talent and persistence of its people to bring its vision of handcrafted artisan chorizo.”

NZ Food Awards is run by Massey University, to recognise and reward excellence in the sector. 

The primary sector award category, open to primary sector food and beverage products, is sponsored by NZ Food Safety.

The award recognises researchers and manufacturers who have added value through the introduction of new varieties, cultivars, or breeds and new or alternative harvesting, processing, or packaging to extract or create new or innovative primary sector products.

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