White knights

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Pork usually comes in at a lower purchase point than red meat, but you can sell it for a comparable price on your menu.

Shove over, red meat—there’s a new kid in town. Michelle Starr reports

Red meat has enjoyed a long reign as King of the Menu. Succulent and versatile, it seemed it could do no wrong. However, in recent years, white meats are forming a firm—and indispensible—section on pretty much any menu you’ll see.

Between a growing interest in experimentation, a constant stream of health information, and searching for cheaper alternatives to that prime cut of beef in an uncertain economic climate, patrons eating out (and home cooks) seem to be more willing to forego the wagyu in favour of pork belly, or the T-bone in favour of a chicken schnitzel. “Pork has been relatively consistent in price,” says Mitch Edwards from Australian Pork. “Where there have been increases in price, pork still remains competitive against competing red meats, like beef and lamb. In times of economic downturn, whether you’re a chef or a cook at home, you’re more conscious of your spend. If you’re looking at a cut-to-cut basis or a menu presence-to-menu presence basis, pork will generally come in at a lower purchase point to a restaurant, but it will have a similar menu price point.”

So, if you pay a few bucks less for a cut of pork compared to a cut of lamb, but can charge the same price for both cuts on the menu, it would make sense to promote the pork dish—it carries a higher profit margin. Or you can pass some of the savings on to the customer.

Cost aside, though, pork has undergone something of an image makeover in recent years. A few years back, pork was something that people ate either as a roast on special occasions or grilled-to-leather pork chops, when trichinosis was much more common and overcooking pork in particular was seen as a way to minimise the chance of infection. Now, the scare forgotten, pork cuts have really come into their own, both the lean cutlets and steaks and the richer, more succulent bellies and cheeks.

“We have worked on dispelling some of the myths of pork,” says Edwards. “People felt that pork had to be cooked well when, in actual fact, pork is best when it’s cooked to the stage when it has a hint of pink. Pork can be served as rare as beef and can be served with total safety.” As a result, we have grown to appreciate pork as a meat that is juicy and tender rather than dry and leathery.

And then there’s moisture-infused pork, which, through a process of moisture injection, allows the meat to maintain its savour without drying out.

“Restaurants embracing pork and doing different things with it is making a difference, too,” says Scott Martin from Hormel. “Rather than just pork chops and things, they’re really getting quite inventive. And pork belly is becoming big; and that then leads off to other things.”

Admittedly, chicken has always had a more or less unshakeable menu presence. Nevertheless, it, too, seems to be gathering momentum as a menu option—partially due, no doubt, to the fact that chicken is invariably cheaper than red meat, a particular consideration when the average patron spend is lowering.

“Chicken doesn’t have the price variations of red meat,” says Andrew Logan from Steggles. “Lamb, for example, often sees fairly seasonal price changes, where its availability changes, whereas chicken’s available year-round, so it has a consistent price.”

That year-round availability, coupled with stable pricing, are only part of it, though; chicken is a versatile meat, suitable for many formats,
and is seen as a healthier, lighter alternative to beef, lamb or even pork. And it has a milder flavour.

“With some other proteins, people either like them or they don’t,” says Logan. “But chicken has a pretty general appeal across all age groups, all demographics. It doesn’t have a polarising flavour like lamb, where people either do or don’t like it.”

When patrons order chicken at a restaurant, they know exactly what they’re getting; and, unless it’s undercooked, it’s pretty hard to mess up.

But more traditional meats aren’t the only ones enjoying a popularity boost. “I would say that crocodile’s on the rise because of some of the benefits that it has for you,” says John Dowling from Australian Crocodile Traders. “It is very low in fat. Fat-wise and protein-wise, it is one of the best things that you could be eating.”

Compared to a trimmed pork fillet, which contain 6.5g of fat per 100g, or lean chicken breast, which contains 3.5g of fat per 100g, untrimmed croc meat contains only 1.9g of fat per 100g. Naturally, though, consumers can’t be expected to know this without looking for the information, and with its price tag of $25/kg (depending on the cut), it’s a bit of a harder sell than the meats we’re more used to—particularly when you consider just that.

“I’ve seen a bit of consumer wariness, but not a great deal because we normally wholesale straight to a restaurant or retailer,” says Dowling. “But my own family won’t even eat it, they say, ‘Oooh, it’s a crocodile, I can’t eat that’, and a lot of people still have that perception. But I think if you were at a table and you were blindfolded, you wouldn’t even know you were eating crocodile at first.”

However, now that kangaroo has become a more mainstream meat, readily available on supermarket shelves, customers seem more willing to try local, native meats—particularly when they see it on the menu at a favourite restaurant. And the fact that it offers a unique eating experience doesn’t hurt.

It also has that valuable versatility, able to be cooked up however you would usually cook fish or chicken. “You could have it anywhere from a wet dish,” says Dowling. “We sell into Indian places, so they’re obviously making it into curries. We smoke crocodile as well—bee-yootiful. I know three of our restaurants in Cairns are selling our smoked crocodile through their restaurant and it’s very popular.”

Hormel has also looked at acquiring a turkey operation in Australia—although it’s not quite on the cards yet, due to the fact that the market is only just starting to burgeon.

“It’s a challenging meat because it’s seasonal—basically just for the Christmas period,” says Martin. “Even in America, it tends to be Christmas and Thanksgiving when it peaks; they obviously have a much bigger market for it outside of that, but they also have huge seasonal sales.”

Nevertheless, he feels it’s only a matter of time. Already, turkey is sneaking into sausages at gourmet butcheries and has been a cold processed cut for quite some years—and Ingham’s has just introduced fresh turkey cuts at Woolworths supermarkets.

“You have to get a number of people growing the birds and processing the birds and you can’t really do that until there’s more of a market for it,” says Martin. “I think it’ll get there, it just has to reach a tipping point where it’s not quite as dear. It’ll get there, because turkey’s great, it has a lot of health benefits, it’s a great carrier of flavour—it has a lot of good attributes.”

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