Environmental challenge becomes gastronomic winner

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 14th July 2008

Australia’s protracted drought has devastated much agricultural land, and water remains the key to survival for many farmers. So when the going got tough the lamb got tender in the Riverina district of N.S.W. and a value added meat production industry was developed by a gutsy farming family.

Bultarra Saltbush Lamb is now winning the praise of chefs and diners alike in restaurants in Australia and overseas.

In the 1980’s Robert Meares Snr commenced planting saltbush on his family property by the Murray River, North of Echuca, to reduce the devastating effects of increasing salinity. Thirty years and almost one million saltbush plants later, this has certainly reaped rewards. Black salty sludge has been converted into a bio-diverse wonderland of trees, saltbush and pasture. At the time it was one of the biggest private environmental initiatives of its kind. Rob Meares says now there’s more than enough saltbush to sustain the returned native animals on the Bultarra Property as well as his gourmet Bultarra Saltbush Lamb.

The CSIRO is excited by saltbush due to its remarkable ability to cope with drought and the most saline of soils. It is one of the more prominent of dozens of shrubs being analyzed by the CSIRO, in their endeavour to generate solutions to drought and salinity for Australian farmers.

The plant offers a practical solution to salinity and, importantly, it also provides exceptional meat quality. The nutritional value of animals grazing on saltbush has been established to be of a superior level. The plant is rich in Vitamin E, and the presence of this antioxidant has been credited with slowing the rate of browning and increasing product shelf life. As well as having health benefits, the slightly mineral taste is also very appealing and research by the CSIRO has indicated that saltbush fed meat is leaner, juicier and tastier than non-saltbush fed alternatives.

Australian chefs are now embracing this new style of lamb. Maggie Beer, the Barossa Valley icon and TV chef, has regularly featured it on ABC’s ‘The Cook and the Chef’, while many popular restaurants are letting the quality of the meat speak for itself. This has not surprised the Meares family, who quickly noted a big difference between the lambs coming off saltbush pastures compared to the lambs coming off adjacent paddocks, that had been simply grazing on grass and improved pasture. The saltbush lamb meat was infused with unique taste quality – not so much salty as robust, juicy and tender.

Having noted an improvement in the meat, the Meares family set about commercializing it. Working closely with veterinary and husbandry specialists and the Meats and Livestock Association (MLA), the Meares’ spent years working on perfecting their feed mix and refining their saltbush program to optimize the saltbush flavour enhancement. They are now the only saltbush producer to have received the esteemed Meats Standards Australia (MSA) grade – with every animal monitored throughout its life, from farm gate, through pasture, to abattoir, to export.