Belconnen butcher Gino D'Ambrosio does not sell whole or half hams throughout the year. There's no demand for them, he says, customers are after just a few slices to put in their sandwiches. But December finds D'Ambrosio flat out curing and smoking, ready for the average 100 customers who want to take home a ham for their Christmas table.
Glazed and succulent, nothing beats a good Christmas ham. I have a relative so devoted to the festive pig's leg he likes to incorporate it into each of his meals from December 25 to New Year's Day. Many butchers and producers plan all year to meet the Christmas demand. But as with most things, not all Christmas hams were created equal. Artisan and mass-produced hams made from free range and caged, Australian and overseas grown pigs, are all on the market.
Canberra farmer Michael Croft raises a small number of Wessex saddleback pigs on his property at the foot of the Brindabellas. Extinct in Britain, where they were irretrievably merged with other breeds to create the British saddleback, the black and white pigs survived in Australia and have recently become popular with farmers in the region.
Croft says Wessex saddlebacks grow more slowly than most breeds used by large commercial operators, and develop a better flavour as a result. His pigs are free range and eat grass, roots and soil, along with pellets he gets made from left over flour from companies supplying commercial bakeries. He feeds them garlic, a natural wormer, and seaweed meal, which he describes as like a ''vitamin pill'', good for all-round health. For this, he collects seaweed from the beach and puts it through a shredder.
When it comes to producing really tasty ham, you get out what you put in, Croft says.
''Ninety per cent of it is nutrition, actually what goes in to the pig, because like humans, pigs are what they eat. So you have to pay very careful attention to their feed,'' he says.
Farmer Stephen Roberts raises pigs on his family's property near Temora, about three hours north-west of Canberra, and sells through the Exhibition Park farmer's market, where his brand, Bundawarrah Free Range Pork won a people's choice award for best meat. Roberts chose the American duroc breed for its marbled meat and red skin colour, which helps pigs cope with the heat, and crossed it with the large white landrace variety which produces more piglets. Roberts consults a dietician on what his pigs should be eating at different stages of their lives, taking into account price of feed and what is in season. He gets pellets made up in line with the recommendations.
Roberts says his pigs are born and bred free range. The sows live outdoors all the time, but piglets are brought into ''eco sheds'' at three weeks old. They are large, open, straw based sheds, Roberts says, which protect the piglets from the elements and protect the soil from the piglets.
Roberts' father and grandfather were both butchers, which has shaped how he farms his pigs. When he started in 1994, outdoor piggeries were unpopular in Australia, so he used old reference books and books from Britain, where the model was more popular, to learn how it was done.
''Take an ordinary piggery that just sells to the abattoirs or sells to a wholesaler, his focus is on his getting his pigs as large as he can, as quick as he can, for the most amount of money he can, so he can turn them over, which is completely different to us. We're focused on the quality of the carcass, the eating quality and flavour,'' he says.
Roberts says he plans for Christmas all year, putting legs into the freezer ready to be made into ham at the end of the year, which helps deal with the over demand for ham at this time of year. He uses artificial insemination to breed piglets, and also times his breeding program to get extra pigs ready for December.
Croft has just a handful of hams, about 20, ready for the festive season this year. He does not use any artificial breeding practices, so when he has ham is just a matter of when his sows get pregnant. ''There will be a very little bit available this Christmas, for the lucky few,'' he says.
D'Ambrosio sources his pork from free range or organic producers, two in NSW and one in Victoria.
At Buronga Organics, near Cootamundra, David and Mary Booth and their seven children raise a range of organic livestock. Son Charlie, 17, decided to give raising pigs a try when he was about 10 and supplies exclusively to D'Ambrosio. He looks after them before and after school, making sure they've got clean water and checking the piglets haven't escaped.
The pigs are free range, so they forage for food in paddocks. Charlie Booth also feeds them grain, often wheat, and vegetable scraps. They are organic, so the Booths do not use pesticides on the paddocks and do not give their pigs vaccinations. Mary Booth says Charlie raises about 50 pigs a year, which get sent to slaughter at five to six months old. They do not time their pigs to be ready for Christmas. Rather, they call D'Ambrosio a couple of weeks before the pigs are ready to let him know they're coming.
Before the pigs are sent off it's important to make sure they don't have too much fat on them - between seven and 10 millimetres is optimal, Mary Booth says, because butchers cannot sell meat that is too fatty. The Booths buy an organic grain mix to feed the pigs when they are finishing them off to be sure they are in optimal condition. It has been a learning experience for Charlie, she says.
''You've got to be careful with pigs because they run to fat quite quickly, that takes a bit of working out,'' she says.
D'Ambrosio also buys from Otway Pork in Victoria, which produces pigs on a much larger scale. The company has five farms and slaughters about 800 pigs a week. There are three parts to the business. They sell whole pig carcasses to butchers, butcher pigs and the sell cuts to supermarkets, and they make their own ham on-site. The ham makes up about 9 per cent of the business.
Similarly to Bundawarrah, Otway Pork are bred free range. The breeding sows are free range in paddocks all the time; at four weeks, the piglets are weaned and taken into shelters. Their diet is grain based.
Chief executive John Lochery says in December there is about a 30 per cent increase in demand for its ham, but Otway Pork does not increase the number of pigs it breeds for the festive season. Lochery says while it is a juggling act, the scale of the operation means, with careful planning, Otway is largely able to absorb the increased demand. The key is to get orders in early.
''Butchers want a lot of the legs leading up to November and start of December. What I'm hearing is by about the middle of December they go back to not wanting the legs because they've got enough, and that frees up some legs for us for ham. So there is certainly a demand for ham this time of year,'' he says.
D'Ambrosio stores legs of pork in his freezer, starting in January and February ready for Christmas - the only way to be sure he has enough of at this time of year he says.
He makes two types of ham. One is cured with salt only, the other uses some sodium nitrite, a curing agent found in nearly all hams. D'Ambrosio admits sodium nitrite is not very good for you, but it is where the flavour most people identify as distinctly ham-like comes from, so he uses just a little of it. Salt-only ham tastes closer to roast pork.
''With the salt only it doesn't keep as long, nowhere near it, it does come out a little more grey,'' he says.
To make a ham, D'Ambrosio soaks a leg of pork in salt water or salt water with sodium nitrite for three days. He then hangs it in his smokehouse, where it's dried for for two hours, smoked for two hours, and cooked. The process takes eight or nine hours.
D'Ambrosio says a few years ago he would sell about 130 hams in the lead up Christmas, but that has waned a little thanks to cut-price competition from the big supermarkets. But he still sees customers coming back year after year.
''The organic and free range just has a better taste, it's more humanely looked after and the animals are treated it better,'' he says.
Local manufacturer Balzanelli Smallgoods has been around for more than three decades, and took home two silver medals for its hams at the Sydney Royal Fine Food Show. The Balzanellis have a store in Queanbeyan, a factory in Fyshwick, a stall at the Exhibition Park farmers' market and sells to Supabarn and IGA supermarkets. Sandra Balzanelli, part of the third generation in the business, says they only use Australian pork, most of it from NSW, and make all their hams by hand. They use intensively farmed pigs in their products, but are aiming to phase out any pigs kept in sow crates by the beginning of next year. The change is out of concern for animal welfare, Balzanelli says.
When they receive a carcass, they break it down, trim the legs for ham and pump them with brine. Balzanelli won't tell me what is in it.
''It's kind of like your KFC secret spices, it's our secret recipe,'' she says.
They then smoke the hams in specially designed smoke houses, using just sawdust, no smoke liquid or artificial additives. They also avoid artificially colouring their products, so if their hams are brown on the outside, that happened naturally.
''We're very against modern advances in technology making the product look different to what it actually is,'' Balzanelli says.
She says there is a surge in demand for ham around Christmas time, although she couldn't put an exact figure on it. The Balzanellis are able to sell their other pork cuts in their butcher's shop or make them into other pork smallgoods so none goes to waste.
Canberra chef Janet Jeffs raises about 60 Wessex saddleback pigs each year, mainly because she likes the flavour and doesn't want to eat pigs that have been confined to sow crates.
''I think that's inhumane,'' she says.
Jeffs lets her pigs forage for food, and feeds them left over food that is in season, including apples from her orchard. A chestnut grower gives her seconds, and she collects acorns to feed them. Jeffs sent 14 pigs off to slaughter in early November, in time to be made into ham for Christmas, which she will sell at the Kitchen Cabinet.
For a really good Christmas ham, Jeffs says attention needs to be paid at every step along the way.
''You've got to have good pork to start with, and it's got to be nicely smoked, but to really finish it off you've got to glaze it really nicely,'' she says.
Jeffs' likes to use marmalade smeared under the skin as a glaze. It gives a sharp fruitiness, she says, and orange goes well with ham. For best results, pop your ham in the oven so the glaze goes a lovely brown colour, and serve warm.
>> Larissa Nicholson is a staff feature writer.