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Ross O'Meara's love letter to bacon

Ross O’Meara has sliced open his finger and the timing couldn’t be worse.  He doesn’t have time to leave the island to see a doctor, he has the CWA fundraising breakfast to cater for, 55 pigs to feed (not to mention his own 14 month old twins and 3 year old son) less than 24 hours until the market opens, and 25 kilos of sausages to make.

Such is the life of ex-chef Ross O’Meara, who in a past life spent 90 hours a week cooking in Michelin-starred restaurants in London and, in his own words, ‘partying an extra 30 hours on top.’

He’s been on Bruny Island for six years now. ‘We seem to have settled in quite nicely,’ he muses.

I’ll say.  One third of the ‘gourmet rat pack’ on Bruny Island, Ross O’Meara is now not only a rare-breed pig farmer and maker of high-end pork products, but something of a Bruny Island celeb and household name amongst food-loving Australians, chefs and critics.

Like all the best artists, Ross’s formative experience came about after buying a one-way ticket to Europe. After finishing his apprenticeship in Perth, Ross spent five years cooking at Michelin-starred restaurants in London including the Café du Jardin in Convent Garden and Antony Worrall Thompson’s restaurant Zoe.

 “The 90’s were fantastic in London,” says Ross. “Great food, great fun, and there were just a lot of things happening.”

It was in these restaurants that Ross learnt the secrets of charcuterie and processing whole animals, and, perhaps most definitively, the proper way to make bacon and sausages.

When he came back home, Ross tried his hand being the private chef for a consulate general and cooking at wineries in Margaret River, but it wasn’t long before he hit the road.

“I suppose with cooking it’s so volatile that to actually find yourself settling in a job is very hard,” says Ross.  

Whilst on a trip around Australia with his wife, Ross ventured south to the Bruny Island Cheese Company for a quick summer holiday.  He was enchanted, arranged to come and work at Nick Haddow’s cheesery the following month, and has been on Bruny ever since.

It was here that Ross met food-critic-come-farmer Matthew Evans - who is also partly responsible for Ross’s leap from cheese maker to pig farmer.  (This feat is doubly impressive when you consider Ross’s wife was a vegetarian at the time.) 

At Nick Haddow’s suggestion, the pair began making charcuterie under the label ‘Rare Food’ and selling it at Salamanca Market.  It was a venture that lead to Ross’s guest appearances on Matthew’s SBS TV series ‘Gourmet Farmer’ and lead Ross to start up his own venture, Bruny Island Food, on one of the oldest properties on Bruny Island.

“I started a business with Matthew which started with pork because we had access to pork,” says Ross. 

He now grows his own Berkshires and Wessex Saddlebacks  - 55 at last count– and his affection for his beasts is obvious. 

“They have the intelligence of a three year old child, the cheeky porkers, and after they farrow they become even friendlier and love a good scratch.”

In the European tradition of farming from a small plot holding, Ross manages the entire farm, including processing the animals, himself.

 “I had worked in restaurants in London that had a butchery section,” says Ross.  “When I did my apprenticeship I learnt from the old school Europeans.  I’ve just been one of those people who always made stuff in-house.  Now I just do it direct.”

One of the major attractions of pig farming for Ross is that he can use the whole animal and decide exactly what he wants to do with it from week to week.  He sells almost 30kg of coarse ground sausages in a week and his pork rillettes are hot sellers, but the options are endless.

“At the moment I’m cutting all my hocks and smoking them because everyone wants to make pea and ham soup and I can’t do that in summer. I’m selling lots of loins and bacon, and people seem to want to eat lots of fresh cuts at this time of year.”

In the evenings he hunts for wallaby by moonlight and cooks the meat for his family that he spends his days growing.  On the night I speak to him, they’re having pork and wild rabbit pie with a pig cheek bacon garnish.

It’s a far cry from those heady days cooking at the finest restaurants in London and partying until sunrise.

“I’m one of those people that lives right bang in the middle of everything or way out in the middle of nowhere,” says Ross.

I think the latter suits him.

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Ross O'Meara's pork rillettes are available here.