Canberrans will have a rare opportunity to spend time in the company of the folk from Feather and Bone, in a MasterClass and five-course Feast of the Beast banquet to be held at Pialligo Estate this weekend.
Grant Hilliard and Laura Dalrymple share a love of good food, an interest in farming and concern for the environment. Their Sydney-based business, Feather and Bone, specialises in meat, poultry and eggs that are ethically and sustainably produced.
Their philosophy is simple: respect for the animal, the producer and the consumer.
Feather and Bone sources chemical and hormone-free whole animals from farmers who raise their stock outside, on sustainably managed pastures.
Working direct with the farmers they buy from, Grant makes regular visits to properties to gain an understanding of the unique characteristics and practices of each producer.
Provenance is guaranteed, allowing consumers a clear line of sight right back to the farm.
Laura and I shared a delicious and interesting conversation this morning. It follows below:
Thank you for taking the time to speak with me Laura. It’s great that you’re coming to Canberra. Tell me, what’s in store for your guests at the events at Pialligo Estate?
It’s a pleasure, Liz. Thank you for calling.
Grant does more of the road trips, than I do, so I haven’t been to Canberra recently. My father was a diplomat and, as a child, I spent many years in Canberra. There are aspects of Canberra that I really love. The food scene has exploded and I haven’t yet had the privilege of visiting Pialligo Estate, so I’m really looking forward to it.
The lamb that we are using in the MasterClass on Saturday comes from Vince and Janet Heffernan who own Moorlands Farm – a biodynamic farm at Dalton not far from Canberra. They are the sixth generation to farm that land and have done the most incredible work regenerating the property. They raise a heritage breed, Texels (an old Dutch island breed), which they sell at the Capital Region Farmers Market. We have been working with Vince for a long time and he is a very interesting fellow in his own right. We’re hoping that he will be able to join us, if not for the MasterClass, or for the lunch on Sunday.
Grant will talk about the lamb and the farm it comes from, how that influences the ‘confirmation of the body’, as well as how to cut the lamb and how to cook it. Our whole practice is very connected to provenance. It’s all about the farmers and we tend to talk a lot about that when we do the classes.
On Sunday, we’re having a big slap up feast. It’s a chance for us to showcase our produce and a chance for us to partner directly with the chefs at Pialligo Estate to make something delicious and indulgent.
Would you please explain what you mean by ‘confirmation of the body’?
It’s particularly pronounced when you are dealing with heritage breeds, and we do give preference to farmers who are growing different breeds. Our philosophy is around promoting what you might call the ‘alternative’ or ‘extensive’ farming industry. What we are trying to do with our business is to create a market and foster the alternative to the intensive, factory-based mono cultural approach to raising and growing food. So, we work specifically and directly with farmers who run completely pasture-based operations and we love working with farmers who are growing heritage breeds, because genetic diversity is a key pillar of sustainability.
What you find when you are working with different breeds of animals that are raised outside, out of sheds, completely pasture-based, you see it reflected in the way they their bones are structured, in the way that their muscles grow. They feel and look very different to an intensively farmed animal.
With poultry, for argument’s sake, you see the difference in the length of the legs. Almost all meat birds that are available in Australia are ‘Ross’ and ‘Cob’ birds – two breeds that are grown specifically for large breasts and to reach market readiness within five to six weeks maximum. Even if you take that bird and you grow it out in a pasture, you do see a difference. The legs are more developed because the birds are having more exercise. There is a different quality in the meat. It’s slightly darker in colour and has a slightly richer flavour. The birds are healthier and running around the pasture. Their diet is more diverse. They are grazing on grasses and eating insects. Those things are reflected in the meat.
Similarly, with lamb or beef, for instance, the fat is a different colour. The fat on a grass fed ruminant is completely different to the fat on a grain fed ruminant. It’s a different colour and a different texture. You can see it on the muscle as well.
These are the things that Grant will be talking about as he breaks down the lamb and shows people how it’s put together. He’ll also talk about the different ways to cook the lamb, depending on the fat and muscle.
Tell me more about the Cobb Ross birds, please...
99.9% of the birds that are grown in Australia for meat are Cob or Ross genetics, which are breeds that have been developed over the last 50-60 years, to grow incredibly quickly to quite a large size with a predominance of breast meat. Because it grows so quickly, a lot of the desire to forage and graze has been bred out of it because the more static the bird is, the faster it grows, the more fat it builds up and so the faster you can it to market readiness. These birds are incredibly efficient. Consequently the price has been able to fall for a long time. You can grow them packed in sheds, in intensive environments.
The birds that we are sourcing and selling are a combination of both Cobb and Ross – but exclusively pasture-raised Cobb Ross, with nothing in a shed, with very low stocking density.
We’re also working with an extraordinary couple, Michael and Kathryn Sommerlad, who are farming out of northern NSW, near Tenterfield. Michael has been working with poultry for many years, but over the course of the last decade he has focused on the idea of breeding alternatives to the Cobb Ross – birds that are actually designed to thrive outside on pasture on Australian farms. The birds are called Sommerlad, after him.
Michael has taken five or six main heritage breeds and crosses them to produce a bird that suits Australian conditions. One of the birds he uses is a Transylvanian Naked Neck (Laura laughs and tells me that she loves saying that). As the name indicates, they have a naked neck and vent. They don’t have feathers there. In the hot Australian summers, they do very well. They are cooler and are able to self regulate the temperature. He also uses Indian Game Runners and other birds, which are renowned for a range of different genetic and eating qualities.
From these, he produces a selection of birds that look wonderful. Unlike the Cobb Ross meat birds, which are exclusively white, Michael’s birds are much more like the images of chickens from the past. They are a completely different eating experience as well, because they’re not designed to have the enormous breasts – the preference we have come to expect. They have lovely long legs; their meat tends to be much darker, and needs to be cooked for longer. They taste rich and are delicious in nutritious fat.
The bones are strong and dense too, and make an incredible stock. While the flesh on a Cobb Ross grows fast, the skeletal structure doesn’t and, while the birds meet market readiness by five weeks or so, the bones aren’t strong. In a Sommerlad chicken, the bones are really strong and they are grown out for much longer as well.
Tell me about the Feather and Bone philosophy please...
We source directly from farmers and we only buy whole bodies. It’s an interesting topic. In winter, you go into a butcher shop and there are trays and trays of oxtail and shank, because that’s what people like to cook when it gets cold. But each animal has only four legs and one tail. What’s interesting is that the only way butchers can possibly supply all that oxtail and shanks is if a lot of cattle are being slaughtered – which is fine, as long as the whole body is being used. But, what most butchers do is that they will buy boxes of whatever consumers want for the season. Very rarely can they tell you exactly the provenance of the shoulder or the tail and where is came from, how it was grown and son on.
Our whole practice is around trying to create a clear line of sight from the consumer to the farm. So, we can tell you at great detail exactly how the animal you are eating was grown and what the farm looks and feels like, and what the farmer’s philosophy is – because we visit every single farm from which we source. We learn as much as we can from the farmer about their particular practice – because they are all different.
Buying whole bodies from the farmer means that we have to sell the whole body as well, which can be quite a challenge. It’s much easier to make a box of what everybody wants each season, than to buy the whole animal and sell it. It’s not an easy business model, but it’s central to our whole commitment to respect everybody in the cycle of consumption – from the person sitting down eating the meat, to the person producing the meat, and including the animal as well.
That’s the important distinction between us and other butchers. Most of us, me included, don’t really think about where things come from. We are so used to seeing disembodied animal parts that it doesn’t occur to you to think, ‘Why can’t I eat oxtail whenever I want or as much as I want.’
We would argue that eye fillet only comprises 2% of the animal, so you should probably only eat it 2% of the time. That’s the rule of thumb that you might apply to everything on the body of an animal. (I agree, this is an excellent philosophy).
Many people feel that way, Liz. It didn’t really occur to me until I was educated the way I have been by going to these farms and talking to these farmers, and looking at their practice and understanding their relationship with the land. Our whole purpose is to try and translate that across so that the consumer understands it as well and thinks about their interaction with food from that perspective.
For the benefit of those, like me, who have not been to visit Feather and Bone, do you call yourselves a butcher, a provedore or both?
We are both. We call ourselves provedores because what we do is curate and offer products from a whole range of different people with the same ethos. Primarily, we sell meat and poultry, but we also sell eggs and sell a small range of dairy products from producers who have a similar philosophy to ours. We sell pickles from Cornersmith’s because we have a close and long relationship with them and they have the same approach as we do to food and how it should be consumed.
In terms of our practice, we are butchers. We buy whole animals. We dry age our beef and our mutton. We cut it up into smaller parcels, which we offer to our customers. We are an old fashioned butcher, as well as being a provedore.
(I say that I think that there are not enough old-fashioned butchers around).
That’s because it’s a really, really hard thing to do, these days, Liz. We are just about to start running regular cooking classes on how to cook secondary cuts, because we have to encourage people to use the whole animal, which means cooking unfamiliar cuts like skirt and ribs. Cuts that people don’t necessarily know how to cook – but are more affordable and, some would argue, much more flavoursome because those muscles do much more work and so have a higher flavour profile. People sometimes feel intimidated by those cuts and find it’s much easier to buy chicken or steak.
We also want to teach people how to cook offal, because they are interested in the nutritional value of offal, but are completely freaked out when it comes to cooking it. If you are going to eat the whole animal, you have to think about eating offal as well.
(I tell Laura about how my mother cooked kidneys and liver regularly – and the gelatinised brawn my mother used to make from a pig’s head and trotters… and the peasant style chicken soup made with the whole bird, as well as the neck and the gizzards that the butcher would usually throw out).
I spend hours talking to people who come to us telling me stories similar to what you are talking about, Liz. There is this really strong sense of people wanting to reconnect with their heritage, with their past, their parents’ stories and these common threads that people seem to have from different cultures that pull us together.
The economics are completely different now, too. It’s not so long ago that roasting a whole chicken was not something you did particularly often, because it was quite expensive and when you did buy it, you cooked the whole thing and then you made an incredible stock and the bird gave and gave. It was an investment, if you like. But, because of the way that intensive factory farming has progressed, chicken is now appallingly cheap.
Once upon a time, good quality meat was more expensive because we were paying the true cost for the meat to be produced in an external production system on a farm in an old fashioned way, and not in the volumes and with the same intensity, comprised the way it is now. And people did buy those cheaper cuts, because they had to. People were more inventive and we had more interesting diets as a consequence of people like your mother, cooking the way she did, Liz.
We are trying to encourage people to commit to what we call a respectful approach – to eat the whole animal and to understand that you can do it on a budget. You can also give yourself a much more interesting and varied experience at the same time, than if you eat only two or three cuts of meat all the time.
With intensive production, we have thrown the baby out with the bath water and we tend not to change until we are forced to. We are now discovering the consequences or the implications from a health perspective, from an environmental perspective, from an ethical perspective of putting all of our faith in an intensive production model, and it’s starting to become quite concerning for a lot of people. People are starting to think twice and look at slightly different options.
Do you supply chefs as well as home cooks?
We’re not a big business, so we don’t have a huge network of restaurants – but we have a small group of people who like what we do. We sell to Peter Gilmore at Quay in Sydney and Pialligo Estate in Canberra, among others. There’s also a growing number of smaller cafés who buy from us.
And finally, Laura, tell me about your background, please.
Grant was a filmmaker and he worked in restaurants to fund his degree. He worked with chefs like Matt Moran, Tony Bilson and Sean Moran – they were passionate about what they did, and they were also passionate about produce. They had a simple, direct relationship with food that Grant found appealing. I was a graphic designer and ran big branding projects. Feather and Bone was something that we felt philosophically and emotionally like something that we wanted to invest in. So I left my job and helped Grant. We launched Feather and Bone in 2006, but we have only been a proper grown up business since 2010.
What, When, Where...
The not-to-be-missed Feather and Bone MasterClass and Feast of the Beast events will be held at Pialligo Estate, 18 Kallaroo Road, Pialligo, on Saturday, 9 July 2016 from 1.00pm to 4.00pm and Sunday, 10 July from 1.00pm to 4.30pm.
One and two-day tickets are available and price include a range of delicious goodies, including delicious tastes of different cooked cuts, selected beverages and a cut of fresh lamb on the Saturday. And on Sunday, you’ll be greeted with cured Feather and Bone meats, carpaccio of dry-aged, bio-dynamic mutton and local olives. Then you’ll sit down to a course of rillettes, pate and smoked meats, followed by the entree of chargrilled pasture-raised Piccolo Farm quail and a main course of roasted, pasture-raised Porchetta with a sweet, succulent centre encircled with salty crackling. Each course will be accompanied by a variety of local beverages.
Bookings are essential and can be made via Eventbrite.
Tell me dear readers, are you familiar with Feather and Bone? Do you share these wonderful philosophies?
Hello. I'm Liz, a writer, cook and traveller based in Canberra, Australia.
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.