When Irishman Charlie Costelloe first went bacon shopping in Australia several years ago, he was perplexed. Decades of bacon eating and appreciation in his homeland told him what he was seeing on the supermarket shelves just wasn't quite right. The colour was wrong, the texture was different and, in his opinion, what was labelled as bacon looked suspiciously like ham.
''I was looking at the colour of it and I couldn't quite understand. It looks cooked,'' he says. ''After a bit of research we figured out a lot of it is cooked. It has to be heated if you're going to import pork. So that's why you get the colour.''
To Costelloe, Irish and Australian bacon were like apples and oranges. So he set out to put things right, setting up a smokehouse at Pialligo to make his own cured meats. It's a new business but has already won recognition on the show circuit.
But it goes much further than bacon. Costelloe and countryman Peter Curry also make smoked salmon and salmon gravlax, poultry and even homemade baked beans under their Pialligo Farm label, with plans for eel and octopus in the new year. And they're busy right now with Christmas hams.
Before moving to Australia in 2011, Costelloe owned a seasonal hotel business in rural Ireland and relied on selling produce at farmers' markets to survive in the off-season. So his weekly stall at the Exhibition Park farmers' market is a familiar scene for him.
They take a traditional northern European approach to curing and smoking their pork. Costelloe says commercially produced Australian bacon is typically pumped with water to expand the volume of the meat and speed curing. The result is bacon that sweats water into the pan and shrinks when cooked.
Boneless smoked ham at Pialligo Estate.Boneless smoked ham at Pialligo Estate.
If the meat has been imported it's also partially cooked for health reasons, which lends a different colour, texture and flavour.
''Our bacon is a completely different colour … what you call green bacon,'' Costelloe says. ''It's actually the natural product. We don't pump anything into it, so when you cook it you don't get that water residue out of the pan.''
The bacon is dry-cured by hand in a salt mix, cold smoked over smouldering oak chips, then aged until firm.
They use free range pork from Mulloon Creek near Bungendore and the resulting bacon is more dense, meaty and flavoursome.
''It's not what people are naturally used to, you know. European and the Americans instantly get it. The Americans are hilarious - because we do streaky bacon as well and they're so happy,'' Costelloe says. ''That's their version of bacon. It's bacon all over the world I guess - different people take different things out of it.''
It's a similar story with Pialligo Farm's hams, which have been on the market for only about two months - just in time for Christmas.
''We don't pump it,'' he says. ''Most of the commercial ham is pumped with a lot of water. You can increase the volume up to 50 to 60 per cent. There's this slight debate about moisture. But that's the traditional ham that we're used to, and we think it's a better product. It tastes like ham.''
Pialligo Farm's smoker, Peter Curry, who owned his own smokehouse in Ireland and started at Pialligo as a consultant, says traditional ham curing is painstaking but worth the effort.
When the hams have matured, they're cooked, stripped of their fat, glazed and cooked again, ''just to give them that lovely finish''. The smoked ham is prepared in a similar way, with a smoking stage added after the initial curing.
But familiarising themselves with the Australian palate has again been a learning experience.
''We've just figured out that most people in Australia eat their hams cold,'' Costelloe says.
Like its bacon, Pialligo Farm's hams have also quickly attracted accolades. In the National PorkMark Ham Awards, the smoked ham and ham on the bone won second and third place in the ACT. The bacon won gold at this year's Royal Hobart Fine Food Awards. The smoked salmon and salmon gravlax (salmon cured with sugar, salt and dill) have also collected awards at the Sydney Royal Show and the Royal Hobart Fine Food Awards, including champions medals.
The pair say the awards have been humbling. ''We really entered to benchmark ourselves against everybody else and sort of get some feedback … we were just absolutely over the moon about it,'' Costelloe says.
And despite all this success, they began not with pork, but with fish.
''The gravlax is actually probably the standout item. When we started the first week, I just said 'Oh we'll just do a really small amount of that because I don't think it will go'. And guess what, it's become our biggest seller.''
In the new year, Pialligo Farm will expand its cured offerings to eel, octopus and tuna.
Pialligo Farm is taking orders for collection from December 17 to 23, pialligofarm.com.au.