Berkshire is a rare breed of pig that is highly sought after in the culinary world. The ‘Wagyu of pork’ is originally from — you guessed it — Berkshire in South East England, and is one of the oldest breeds in the country.
It was bred for the sole purpose of eating and exported to countries including the United States, Japan and Australia, where it is just one of five rare breeds.
While Berkshire continues to gain traction across the globe, it was listed as vulnerable on its home soil in 2008. Fortunately, Berkshire from Australian producers is in near-constant demand from local chefs who say it’s unlike anything else.
Hospitality speaks to Black Label Berkshire Owner Linton Batt and Porcine Chef Nicholas Hill about what makes the breed so special, utilisiling the whole beast and how best to enjoy it (you really can’t go wrong).
Linton Batt grew up with Berkshire pigs. His family had a mixed farming business in the Great Southern region in Western Australia and he has steadily bred them since 2010. Berkshire were kept at Windsor Castle in the 1800s to feed the royals, but incredibly, there was a time in Australia where you couldn’t move the meat.
“We went away from breeding them because it was hard to sell Berkshire in the ’80s due to the black hair,” says Batt. “We started breeding commercial hybrid pigs because we just couldn’t make Berkshire work.”
It wasn’t long before Batt went back to the breed, in short, he “just couldn’t live without the quality of the meat”. Batt’s wife found a bloodline he had as a child and “paid a fortune” for the bore.
“It was from a very famous breeder Rob Bradley and it was my Father’s Day gift,” he says. “We bred a lot of good pigs from that bore and started off with a few sows. We have since built our numbers up.”
There are a handful of rare breeds in Australia including the Tamworth, Wessex Saddleback, Large Black and Hampshire, but Berkshire has a point of difference and it all boils down to one thing: “The only selection criterion is eating quality,” says Batt. “But it does come with tradeoffs; they have smaller litters, lower growth rates and they can get fat if you’re not careful. Richard Cole [breeder, Lachlandale] says Berkshire is simply better pork, and he’s right.”
If you follow Nicholas Hill on Instagram (@nikhill_smoketrap), you would know the Porcine chef is a devoted League of Pigs supporter. The ‘greatest pig championship in
the world’ sees five competitors jump across mini hedges and dodge obstacles in a series of rounds until a winner is determined. Smalls, Hoshi, Ginger, Pepper and Bear all have what it takes, but Hill is team Ginger.
“Every restaurant briefing, we have a quick discussion of the day’s race,” he says. “We even contacted them about sponsoring, but they politely declined.”
The chef is also a dedicated supporter of using Berkshire on the menu of Porcine; a French bistro above a bottle shop in Sydney’s Paddington. “We’ve been in operation for about six months now and we take a pig a week,” says Hill. “We pretty much only use Berkshire because we’ve found a producer that’s exceptional. Extraordinary Pork in Dubbo is so consistent with sizing and we generally see improvements with the pigs all the time. There’s something about the flavour of the fat of a pig that’s unsung.”
Porcine takes a whole Berkshire most weeks, utilising the beast across the menu. But before it makes it to the plate, the pigs are hung to dry out.
“My business partner at Smoketrap Eels [Michael Robinson] is also a butcher at Hungerford Meat Co and he’s a former chef, so he’s really forward-thinking with the way he looks at carcasses,” says Hill.
“The pigs go into a normal cool room with a high fan or into a dry-ageing room. It’s about the meat compacting and tightening up, which can take 10 days to two weeks depending on the pig and what else is in the room. We’ve had sows in the same room as beef, so you get that similar bacteria which gives a cheesy flavour with certain cuts.”
The pigs arrive at Porcine split and with their heads removed before the team breaks them down. “Every pig is different,” says Hill. “We might lose a chop or a tomahawk because the wing rib sits too far down. Sometimes we’re restricted with cuts and sometimes we find one that has a massive shoulder and the two ribs are big, so we can do a chuck steak on the bone.
“Generally, we cut T-bones for the racks and we cut tomahawks because we always have a pork chop on the menu. The neck and the shoulder are turned into a terrine mix and we use marbled high-fat cuts from the top of the pig for mince. We use the legs for ham and trotters go into the stock.
“We take coppa chops near the top of the loin where it meets the neck; it’s a neck chop, not the bone, and there’s some ribs left. We’ve been working on that cut with our butcher. We’ve also been doing 1kg sow steaks that we roast under medium. It’s dry-aged like beef and it has an almost gamey beef/nutty flavour to it. It’s probably the best piece of pork we’ve cooked.”
So what makes Berkshire so good? “The secret is the fat,” says Batt. “It has a lower melting point, which gives you that melt-in-your-mouth sensation. It also has high oleic acid, which humans seek. You can enhance it with nutrition, but Berkshires naturally have it.
“The myofibers are shorter in the pig and it has evolved in a similar way to Wagyu with the marbling and low melting point. Because of the breeding and the genetics, it will be the same every time — you will never be disappointed. It’s everyone’s little secret and I like that.”
The secret has been making the rounds in the culinary world, and Batt says Berkshire is generally in good supply. However, it is a niche product despite the commercial push and hard work of producers.
Gestation is under four months and it can take five to six months before Berkshires reach an ideal size, resulting in Batt producing around 2,200 pigs a year. “We have serious breeders in every state producing the pork and they have good distribution supply chains,” he says.
“One has up to 400 sows and they’re all successful. But the meat is expensive because production-wise, they cost more. People assume pork is cheap, and Berkshire isn’t; it’s a luxury item. It is a super-premium food and they pay for it. If we want our Australian standards, we have to pay for it, and there are some serious, credible people investing
money in production.”
Batt has also been investing in the breed, using genomics and technology to learn more about Berkshire. “We started a genomics program five years ago and the pork genome was mapped,” he says. “We can identify the elite genes and make sure it’s another selection pressure on our breeding stock, so our pigs get better and better.”
Black Label is also using ultrasound equipment to take measurements of live pigs, which enables them to identify animals with high intramuscular fat and determine breeders. “We can scan the roundness of the loin muscle and fat deposition,” says Batt.
One of the great things about Berkshire is that, like all pigs, it’s a productive protein source. Chefs are able to use every part of the carcass for multiple applications. Batt’s freezer is always full of chops and he always travels with a ham.
Hill is equally as enthusiastic and creative when it comes to getting Berkshire on the plate. Pork tomahawk (tomapork) is one of the highlights on Porcine’s menu: “We cut it like beef, roast it in the oven, rest it in butter and take off the loin once it’s cooked,” says Hill.
“We put some slits in the belly to open it up and grill it over charcoal and serve it on the side like a little chew toy. The flavour on a pig is paramount — it’s unreal.”
Hill recently dabbled in a take on osso bucco with pork stock, prunes and truffle mash potato as well as a spin on char siu with pork neck roasted in beer honey. “We braise the shoulders and serve with a simple garnish and we lightly brine the haunch of a pig and sauté as the chop for the night,” says the chef.
A whole pig head is perhaps the most show-stopping dish Porcine has put up thus far. “We boned out a whole head and made a farce with pistachio, ham, pork neck and Armagnac,” says Hill.
“We made a stock with the head bones and a cider consommé and glazed it — it looked like something from Henry the VIII’s time. It’s from an old terrine book. There’s a lot of stuff with pork if you look back. People really appreciate it.”
The conversation around pork has certainly come a long way and its rising status can be attributed to the hard work of local producers. Australia is incredibly fortunate to have Berkshire and the breed is certainly trotting along in the right direction. “We
are just at the beginning of the journey,” says Batt. “The future is Berkshire.”