A rug of pig flesh lies on the white marble table in the basement of Fitzroy’s Backstreet cafe. The cook, Simon Samuel, stands over the plump, pink pieces of pork that shine like silk against the strong lighting. He has spread each piece out – the belly, the head, the ribs, the legs – making a list of how each piece will be utilised in the kitchen. The spread is eerily beautiful and quietly ominous. Samuel’s boss, Backstreet owner Tim Tehan looks over the pieces.
It’s been part of Tehan’s plan for a while now, to produce smallgoods from a whole beast, raised by a known producer who cares for their animals. He always intended to make smallgoods for the Kerr Street hub and his other venue, Birdman Eating. While it may seem a luxury, it’s a financially viable option in the long-term, saving money on buying already cut and prepared beasts.
That said, setting up an operation like Backstreet with a temperature-controlled drying room just off the space Samuel butchers in, was a costly move. To add to the expense, finding affordable quality produce to work with was also a challenge. “I wrote a stack of emails to producers,” says Samuel. “I was looking for a small, artisanal producer who cared about the animals they rear and took pride in what they do, and only got two replies back. One was too expensive, but the guys at McIvor we found we could work with.”
He’s referring to Belinda Hagan of McIvor Farm in Heathcote, who sells Backstreet large female pigs, which haven’t been pregnant and are too large to sell in a normal commercial context. “She needed to sell the pigs and I needed a good price for the meat,” he says. “I won’t waste any of the animal. Only the blood clots aren’t used, we use everything else.” A deal was struck and since November last year, Backstreet has butchered and cured eight pigs.
The one on the slab today is smaller than others they’ve seen before, at just 63kg, but the head is included and that’s a good thing. “We don’t always get the head,” says Samuel. “The abattoir sends what the abattoir wants and when we do get one, we make one of my and Tim’s favourite dishes.”
He’s talking about Testa, where the head is brined for four or five days (the brine ridding all the impurities), the ears are cut off, the tongue removed and the meat from the head is filled with the braised ears and tongue and is wrapped tight in a cylindrical form and poached in veal stock for seven or eight hours. To cut a deliciously complex process short, it is then sliced into pieces, crumbed, fried and served with a Sauce Gribiche (boiled egg, caper and parsley).
The rest of the meat is intended for various purposes. There’s the belly for pancetta and neck for rillette; legs for prosciutto and proscuittini; the rib section to be cut roasted and even the skull is used: “It goes on the mantle piece in the share-house of one of the staff.”
What’s inspiring about this whole process is listening to Samuel, a Canadian-native who worked in New York city for years, who displays an intense knowledge and love of his craft. He believes in good quality and sustainable processes. He came to Australia because his “favourite movie was Chopper” and he “grew up listening to AC/DC”. He will only work with meat that has had a good life. “Why would I want to cut white pork from a feedlot, or corn-fed beef from a feedlot worth 20 cents a kilogram?”
Owner Tim Tehan plans to eventually sell the pancetta and prosciutto retail to the public, but at the moment the products are just for the restaurant menus. The lack of waste, the time it takes and the skill and passion needed for this job give a new perspective to the initial eeriness of the flesh and is a clear expression of the advantages of sustainable food preparation. These boys are doing it, pig and all.