Hamming it up for Christmas

Michael Koziol
Pino Tomini Foresti of Pino's Dolce Vita Fine Foods. The hams are so popular customers are on a waiting list.
Pino Tomini Foresti of Pino's Dolce Vita Fine Foods. The hams are so popular customers are on a waiting list.  Photo: James Brickwood

Christmas hams might be common as muck, but for Pino Tomini Foresti, each leg is a work of art – marinated for at least 12 days, cooked for 18 hours, cooled and packed into bags tagged with the customer's name.

"A lot of people do not realise that it takes such a long time to prepare a ham," the master butcher says.

This week, the team have been working close to round-the-clock curing the final hams ahead of Christmas Eve. The artisan butcher will only sell about 300 hams this season, all sourced from the same northern NSW supplier, and supplies are tightly limited. Loyal customers have been on the waiting list since last year – and don't even think about a last-minute order.

"When we finish, we finish – we haven't got any more," Pino says.

The seventh-generation butcher, who migrated from Italy when he was 16, has watched Australians' tastes mature over the decades. These days people are more likely to serve prosciutto and lamb for Christmas lunch, he says, although turkey and ham remain the most popular centrepieces. They are also curious about the provenance of their meat and inclined to opting for quality over quantity.

And when it comes to a Christmas ham, Pino is particular. He and his supplier, Bangalow Sweet Pork, steadfastly reject the modern shift toward leaner pork. "It's got to have fat on it," he says. "No fat, no flavour." Legs of ham at Pino's sell for between $160 and $275 depending on size.

The 60-year-old opened Dolce Vita Fine Foods 37 years ago, in the same spot on Kogarah's busy President Avenue, although it was much smaller back then. The meat market has become an institution beloved by locals, Sydney foodies and some of the country's best chefs.

Indeed, a few minutes after the Herald turns up unannounced, who should arrive but the "godfather of Australian cuisine", Tony Bilson. The man who set up the Berowra Waters Inn was stopping by to plan for his family Christmas lunch, where he's planning to serve salami, lobster and – of course – ham.

Bilson calls Pino "the best butcher in Sydney", but it wasn't always his destiny. As a teenager he wanted to join the air force, and at one point he grew tired and sold the butchery before buying it back nine months later. But a passion for quality meat keeps him, and his three children, in the game.

"The beauty of that is bringing to people something they love," Pino says. "When I see people and they're happy like that, that's beautiful."