IF HAM orders were a financial barometer, we'd be set for a bumper Christmas.
Award-winning butcher and ham producer Peter G. Bouchier says "orders are amazingly strong this year".
"It's been a tough financial year, with customers focusing on cheaper cuts for slow-cook dishes like stews," he says from his Hawksburn butcher shop. "But now people have had enough austerity and are saying, 'To hell with the expense! We are going to splash out on a really good ham and celebrate this Christmas.' " Much of Bouchier's production of 7500 Christmas hams has already been ordered by customers.
In western Victoria, free-range pork growers Amanda and Anthony Kumnick at Willaura, 250 kilometres west of Melbourne, sold out of their Christmas hams two weeks ago. The breeders and growers of free-range, heritage-breed pigs have doubled their ham production every year for the past five years. "The demand for quality free-range pork increases each year," Kumnick says. "Customers are demanding better animal welfare and want to know where their meat is coming from."
The Kumnicks are among the largest free-range pig farmers, specialising in heritage breeds and raising 600 pigs for meat every year. They are looking to expand their herd – which grazes on pasture in the red gum forest by the banks of the Hopkins River – four-fold within five years.
Lauren Mathers of Bundarra Pork says ham sales have been "absolutely mental this year". She and her husband Lachlan rear heritage-breed Berkshire pigs at Barham on the banks of the Murray River, 100 kilometres north-west of Echuca. The pigs are fed a mix of grass, grain and avocados from a neighbour's farm.
"Each year we are seeing more people willing to pay a little more for the extra flavour that heritage and free-range pork brings to ham," Lauren Mathers says.
Like most ham producers, the Matherses start their Christmas production many months before, selecting the best hind legs to be frozen, then later brined and smoked in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
"Demand has been so great this year that we'll have to start preparing hams for Christmas '13 in May."
Peter Bouchier says that customers are also turning their backs on other traditional festive fare, such as turkey, because of the perception that it is hard to cook. "People just don't want to risk spoiling the big day with a dry bird emerging from their oven," he says.
In response, Bouchier is offering another Christmas meat that is gaining popularity across the nation: the "turducken". This is a turkey stuffed with a boned duck, which in turn is stuffed with a stuffed, boned chicken.
"We call it 'trio poulet'," says Bouchier. "Sounds more polite than 'turducken'." The hybrid beast costs $180 and weighs about five kilograms.