When you first enter the industrial work unit in the back streets of Marrickville, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d taken a wrong turn. But persist past the dismantled skeleton by the front door and you’ll find yourself in the retail area of Feather and Bone: butcher, providore and purveyor of quality ethical and sustainable meat, whose customers include Rockpool, Billy Kwong and Kitchen by Mike.
On the weekends, there’s a flow of home cooks collecting cut-to-order fillet, skirt steak, rump or rib-eye and you can get your eggs, honey and chutneys from reputable local producers (think Malfroy’s Gold and Cornersmith) as part of the same trip, all while peering through the window to the cool room where whole carcasses wait for their turn on the butcher’s block. But it’s the black and white cowhide rugs in the offices that really bring home what Feather and Bone is all about.
“Our whole premise is around using the whole animal,” says Laura Dalrymple as she and husband Grant Hilliard sit down for a chat.
“If you want to use the whole animal you start to think: ‘What do we do with the bones? What do we do with the hide? How do you take that idea of respect and expand it across the whole process?’”
It’s this attitude and approach that really sets Feather and Bone apart. A painstaking search finally led the duo to a supplier who tans the Belted Galloway hides naturally, using vegetable based, non-toxic methods. But it’s a time-consuming process that requires the assistance of the farmer to make sure all goes to plan.
“The beauty of it is that it’s driven by this desire to think: ‘Couldn’t we make more use, couldn’t we do more’. It’s fundamentally about respect for the animal and that involves doing everything you can to use as much as you can.”
At Feather and Bone, you don’t just buy an excellent cut of meat – you get the assurance that the team not only knows the farmer that produced your chop or steak, but also know every aspect of the process that the animal has been through, down to firsthand knowledge of the farm where it was raised. Feather and Bone have formed a close relationship with every one of their suppliers, ensuring that they only support farmers committed to animal welfare and genetic diversity, starting at the root level of soil health.
“There are some basic questions that the people selling you your food should be able to answer,” says Dalrymple. “If they can’t answer those questions in a way that you think is credible, then you should question where that stuff is coming from.”
The benefit of buying from a providore like Feather and Bone is that the questions have already been asked for you and they offer complete transparency in their process.
It all started back in 2006 when Hilliard was working in hospitality. “It started with buying and sourcing wine for the restaurants,” he says. “I was interested in how they were growing the grapes, so I was visiting the vineyards. What I wanted to see were lambs that could be sourced in the same sort of way. It was the only product not differentiated by breed at that stage, lamb was just lamb.” He had heard that Southdown lambs were an old breed with superior eating qualities, so he set out to find the dwindling breed, initially bringing back three that he handed on to chefs Sean Moran, Jeremy Strode and Matt Kemp.
“I had a fairly open mind to whether they would be better and it was a curiosity to see if the older breeds were as good as they’re said to be… But the strength of response was such that it allowed it to continue.”
From there, the demand for rare and old breeds as well as organic and sustainable produce only increased, until it became clear that Feather and Bone was a viable business in its own right.
“The farmers were all talking to each other because suddenly there was someone who was going to give them a fair price and who recognised the work and commitment in their [sustainable] approach and could find an appreciative market for their produce,” says Dalrymple.
But even with a greater demand for their product, Hilliard and Dalrymple still find that there are questions about the price of sustainable produce. Confused labelling laws, endemic ambivalence in the butchering industry and huge price disparities muddy the waters for consumers.
“If you had to account for the costs that are imposed on the community at large by conventional farming, through environmental damage or degradation, then the price structure would start to look more even,” says Hilliard.
For now, you can taste the difference for yourself and decide if the price of sustainable meat is worth it when it includes peace of mind.
Order online at: featherandbone.com.au