Farmer, butcher and charcutier Lauren Mathers is on a mission to change the way Australians eat pork, one country butcher shop at a time.
Written by Richard Cornish
Lauren Mathers is unstoppable.
The 40-year-old farmer, butcher, charcutier and businesswoman is a vocal role model in the regenerative food movement, inspiring many other women and men in small food businesses across Australia.
And she does all this from her family farm on the banks of the Murray River at Barham, 800km southwest of Sydney and 300km north of Melbourne.
She works alongside her husband and business partner Lachlan Mathers, whose experience in the family’s transport firm added to their success by nailing distribution from day one.
The couple raise 120 breeding sows on a free-range regenerative pig farm called Bundarra Berkshires, the productive heart of Mathers’ butchery and manufacturing business, Bundarra & Co.
Bundarra & Co. sits in a small industrial estate in Barham. A butcher’s shop front and small delicatessen hide a labyrinth of white panelled cool rooms for butchering, smallgoods and charcuterie, along with a distribution centre for home delivery for customers in Melbourne and Sydney.
Mathers has also purchased an existing butchery in Deniliquin in partnership with beef cattle farmer Hayley Pattison, with investment from Mathers’ mother and father.
And they also have eyes on other butcheries in regional New South Wales and Victoria.
Once COVID restrictions ease, Mathers is planning to open a charcuterie bar in the township of Barham, population 1520.
The final part of the vertically integrated businesses model will be complete when a micro-abattoir is built outside of Barham in the next 12 months.
“It’s about a passion for food,” says Mathers. “It drives everything we do and informs every decision we make.
“Everything we do is about making delicious food that makes people happy, so they pay us the right price to make enough money to look after our staff and for all of us to have a comfortable life.”
Mathers has always loved good, healthy food. A former athlete, she developed a palate for fine food and travelled to France with her mother to explore European food culture.
“It struck me one day just how delicious pork can be when we sat down in a park by the Eiffel Tower, with a baguette, rillettes and a bottle of Champagne,” she said. “Stereotypical I know.”
Mathers returned from that trip with the taste of great pate, salume and charcuterie on her lips and fire in her belly.
In 2009, Mathers bought a large Berkshire sow, a rare pig breed with sun-protective dark skin that makes them perfect for free-ranging. These natural foragers put on thick layers of fat to keep them warm in winter – a trait that made them unpopular as a commercial breed when the meat industry was focused on lean pork.
Mathers worked with regional butchers to process her pork, but she was not satisfied with the results.
“I want to work with people with a passion for food,” says Mathers, who went on to study butchery and built her own on-farm butcher’s shop and farm gate.
To increase public awareness of her style of pork, Mathers and her husband travelled to Melbourne to sell their produce at farmers’ markets.
“We had to tell people that fat is where the flavour is,” remembers Mathers. “Those who got what we were trying to achieve are still customers a decade later.”
Mathers stays connected with a mailing list, using Mailchimp to build her database and deliver regular specials and codes to access member deals. In the past, she has rewarded regular customers with on-farm events with celebrity chefs, spending the weekend cooking, eating and drinking with paying customers. COVID has put those events on hold for the time being.
Bundarra pork is truly excellent, winning many awards. Mathers has worked on the pigs’ diet and hand-picked breeding animals that are most suited to the climate and conditions. The thick layer of fat has reduced a little bit, giving a better flesh to fat ratio and her preserving techniques are being continually refined. The development of a deli with a pork takeaway section inside the Bundarra & Co. butchery in Barham saw her able to feed the local population with top-quality porchetta.
“One of the things about living in the bush is that we produce some of the best food in the world and then we ship it hundreds of kilometres away for other people to eat,” Mathers says vehemently.
“One of my aims to make sure that country people have access to great food, just like the city people have.”
Mathers also enjoys the direct, instant feedback she gets from customers about the meat she grows, butchers, cooks and carves.
But COVID restrictions have hit Mathers and her partners hard. At one stage this year, she had a surplus of animals she could not process. They were getting bigger and bigger, past optimum prime pork stage and heading towards animals only fit for making bacon and salami.
But there have been silver linings too.
“As anyone knows, staff are your greatest strength, but also your weakness,” says Mathers. “I need people who know food and who want to work in food, not just clock on and clock off then head to the pub.”
She now has a small, tight team with great skills: a master charcuterie with experience in top restaurants, a former owner of a successful butchery and a baker who has come on board to help with bread and pastries.
“Did I say we do a good beef pie?” Mathers says cheekily.
The production in the kitchen sees zero waste from the animals, and this requires a lot of skill. Bones are simmered for broth. Trim is minced for sausages. Muscles are carefully seam butchered, salted, and cured. Even heads are cooked, and the meat stripped to make an incredibly rich and lip-smacking ragu sold through the deli.
“It is not about being all things to all people,” says Mathers. “It’s about being true to yourself. And the satisfaction of working towards your goals creates its own energy. And brings good people along for the ride.”
Journalist Richard Cornish has been writing about Australian food and drink for almost three decades, amassing a cult following for his weekly column in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald. Richard has also co-authored best-selling books with MoVida’s Frank Camorra and bakery doyen Phillippa Grogan.