Sounds like breakfast, but in fact it was the itinerary for the On the Road with Food SA tour I went on recently. If it had been breakfast, it would have been delicious as the products we saw and sampled came from three winning producers in the 2013 South Australian Food Industry Awards program, Rohde’s Free Range Eggs, Wintulich’s Smallgoods and SA Mushrooms.
Food South Australia
Food South Australia is the peak industry body for the food industry in South Australia and provides services and programs to support and promote its members. Basically they help connect South Australian food producers with markets and buyers, strengthen their brands and support them in making their businesses as successful as possible. One of their initiatives is the annual South Australian Food Industry Awards Program which recognises the State’s highest performing food producing businesses.
On the Road with Food SA visited three of the 2013 award winners to give those interested in the food industry a chance to see first-hand what these businesses are doing that put them in the winning circle.
Rohde’s Free Range Eggs
First stop was Rohde’s Free Range Eggs, winner of last year’s Thomas Foods International Primary Producer Award for businesses with less than 15 full time employees. This category was judged on the criteria of excellence in sustainable production of safe, high quality food that enhances the positive profile of the agribusiness industry.
John and Angela Rohde’s free range farm is located at Tarlee, near Clare and is the only RSPCA accredited free range egg farm in South Australia. Started by John’s parents in the 1950s, the property now runs 40,000 birds. That’s a lot of hens, but in accordance with true free range principles, they’ve got lots of room to move. There are 1500 birds per hectare, which John said works out to 6.5 square metres of personal space for each chook. On the day we visited, they certainly looked content, roaming freely around the sunny paddocks, scratching in the dirt, clucking, eyeing the visitors curiously through the fence and displaying all those unique behavioural oddities that endear chooks to anyone who’s ever kept their own.
The Rohde’s website notes that the hens have a blissful life, with plentiful food from grain grown on the farm and spacious, comfortable and specially monitored sheds for egg laying. If the best eggs come from happy hens, then it’s no wonder that Rohde’s are superior. If chooks could smile, these girls would be beaming.
It’s very much a family concern at Rohde’s with John and Angela’s children helping out when studies and other pursuits allow and employees who’ve been like part of the family for many years. Approximately 32,000 eggs per day are produced, and are graded and packed on the property.
Business is booming for the Rohdes, thanks to the quality of their product and the excellent relations they’ve established and maintain with their customers. As well, the growth in consumer demand for authentic free range eggs is providing a boost, although it would make life easier for producers and consumers alike, John said, if some consensus could be reached on accreditation methods. It seems this may be on the horizon, but in the meantime confusion reigns, as a visit to the egg section of your local supermarket will show, with the bewildering variety of differently labelled eggs on display.
When we left, the Rohdes kindly presented us all with a carton of eggs and a cute egg shopping bag, so I can personally vouch for the quality of their product. My carton is almost empty already so I’ll be stocking up again very soon at the nearest supplier.
The next priority on our agenda after the egg farm was lunch, which was a three course menu specially provided for our group at the newly refurbished Prince Albert Hotel in Gawler. The facelift has done wonders for the old boy (the hotel) and the food is delicious, so I’d strongly recommend a visit next time you’re out that way.
After a very short bus trip, our next stop was Wintulichs Smallgoods, also in Gawler, where we were welcomed by Chris Hummel, the General Manager. Wintulichs won the Peats Soils and Garden Supplies Sustainability Award for companies with more than 15 full time employees. As we learnt, the company sets a high standard in sustainable manufacturing, and has developed a range of innovative strategies in water and energy conservation and waste disposal.
Before we got to check out the products, Chris gave us a fascinating run down of the history of the company, which dates from 1909. Founded by the enterprising Jakob Wintulich, it has a strong German tradition which continues to this day, even though the company is no longer fully owned by the Wintulich family.
Contary to what I’d assumed, the Wintulichs range extends way beyond its famous mettwurst. They manufacture around 40 different products, including pepperoni, kransky, beersticks, ham on the bone, beef jerky, bacon and a lean beef salami, most of which are available through major supermarkets as well as small retailers such as bakeries, gourmet shops, liquor outlets and some meat companies. As well, they export all over the world.
Wintulichs is justly proud of its products which, as well as being produced to the highest standards of environmental sustainability and health, are uniquely flavoursome, 100% gluten free and made from wholly Australian meat.
After donning fetching looking hair nets, we were taken for a tour through the production facility, which we didn’t get to see in full operating mode as processing had finished for the day. Plenty of finished products were hanging on racks in the temperature monitored cool rooms however. Shivering in our winter coats we didn’t linger long in those, although Chris in short sleeves seemed immune to the Arctic conditions – clearly having built up a resistance over time.
Enticing aromas arose from the large crates holding the various herbs, spices and seasonings used to flavour the meat, including garlic, chili, cayenne pepper and more, which are added to the meat with cultures before blending and going into a mincer – the size and proportions of which would make it an ideal prop for a James Bond movie – a perfect way to despatch a villain. From there it’s put into the filler machine and casings, hung on a rack and placed inside the smokehouse where the fermentation process takes place. Then it’s ready for packing, sealing and boxing up ready for shipment.
We were treated to a tasting of the product range before we left, to which sadly we couldn’t do full justice, still too replete from our lunch. However what we did taste was delicious. Beef jerky, traditionally seen as very much the working man’s nibbly of choice, is becoming much more appealing to a wider audience according to Chris, especially women. Whether this is symptomatic of a new feminine gourmet assertiveness or just that Wintulich’s beef jerky is very tasty, I don’t know. Possibly both.
After a considerably longer bus ride, we arrived at our last port of call, which was SA Mushrooms at Waterloo Corner, where we were welcomed by Nick Femia, co-owner and operator. Winner also in the Thomas Foods Primary Producer Award category but for companies with more than 15 full time employees, SA Mushrooms distributes its products both locally and nationally and is the second largest mushroom farm in South Australia.
It was here I realised the full extent of my ignorance in regard to mushroom farming, having, without really thinking about it, envisioned them all sprouting happily in paddocks like other vegetables. Mushrooms of course don’t grow that way, as any kid who’s been given a mushroom farm for a birthday present will attest. They’re not vegetables, they’re fungi and they grow in the dark, without benefit of roots, stems or leaves, bursting from their bed of spawn and seemingly growing bigger as you watch, like some science fiction mutant. In fact they double in size every 24 hours.
The commercial cultivation of mushrooms, as we learned, is an intricate and almost mystical process, combining a set sequence of phases including composting, spawning, casing, pinning and cropping.
SA Mushrooms is a large, sparkling clean, climate controlled complex – a long, rectangular building, with a wide corridor down the middle, off which open doors to the cultivating chambers either side. These rooms are also long and rectangular, cool and moist with several tiers of racks reaching up to the ceiling on both sides, in which the amazing fungi silently but inexorably expand.
SA Mushrooms promotes its product as “delicately handpicked” and this is no advertising hype. Because the mushrooms can only be picked by hand and need to be plucked very gently to avoid damage, mushrooms pickers tend to be female. There’s no sexism here, (unless you count the fact that men tend to be ham fisted!) but teams of all female workers are the norm. They have no problem finding staff willing to work, as the conditions and pay are excellent and indeed Nick said they never have to advertise.
The material in which the mushrooms grow (called spawn) is specially produced – a blend of compost and other nutrients which is inoculated with spores. SA Mushrooms also has a thriving business in selling the used mushroom compost as potting soil, which can be ordered online for delivery to your door.
Another aspect of mushrooms about which I was in the dark is the amazing health benefits they provide. Containing more potassium than a banana, they are also high in antioxidants, contain no fat or cholesterol and many studies show they contribute to a healthy immune system, and in particular can inhibit the growth of tumours. You only need to eat three button mushrooms or one flat mushroom a day to reap big nutrition and health rewards. Often described as the vegetarian’s “meat”, mushrooms make a delicious addition to many dishes.
We left SA Mushrooms vastly enriched in knowledge about mushroom cultivation and also with a bag of lovely mushrooms which on consumption very soon afterwards, proved to be excellent.
Next time you’re in your greengrocer or market and pick up some mushrooms, there’s a handy booklet put out by the Australian Mushroom Growers Association, called “The Power of Mushrooms” which contains recipes and lots of information about mushroom health benefits. Nick drew our attention to the latest advertising campaign, (see below), which although not subtle, certainly gets the message across and is well targeted at those who don’t know much about this amazing food (as I didn’t before this very educational visit).
All our hosts were very generous with their time and knowledge, and it was great to get such an insight into how some of those products we take for granted make the journey from hen, beast or spore to end up on our plates.
by Anne Green