Like many other offices the conversation in our tea room often revolves around food be it what someone had to eat the night before, a new recipe, maybe a new product and we all like different things, but we all agree on one thing – everything tastes better with bacon!
Well, maybe not a vanilla cream sponge cake but you know what I mean, there is something special about the smell of bacon frying or grilling that is both comforting and makes your mouth water.
In Nelson we are lucky to have a bacon producer with a long history of teasing our taste buds with a beautifully cured pork treat, Pestell’s Rai Valley Bacon Company is a family owned business run by third generation butchers, Chris and Steve Pestell.
The identical twins literally grew up in the butchery trade, spending many hours after school hanging around their father’s butcher shop in Stoke so I think it is fair to say they were destined to carry on the family tradition.
They took over running the Stoke butchery in 1986 when they were 24 years old after Chris completed an apprenticeship with his uncle at Bamfield Butchers in Hardy St and Steve completed his with their father in Stoke.
“It was a real family business with two shops in Stoke and the one in town so I think we were always going to end up in the trade” says Chris.
And the family tradition is continuing, Chris’ daughter, Greta, is part of the bacon packing team and wants to take over the business as soon as possible while Steve’s son, Sam, started his apprenticeship last year; “All the kids have worked in the business during school holidays, so the fourth generation is well entrenched into the business already.”
For anyone who loves bacon the butchery at Rai Valley was a compulsory stop whenever you passed through, however owner Maurie Hebberd wanted to sell in 1998 and “he approached us to see if we were interested” says Steve, “it was an opportunity to good to turn down, we knew how good the product was so we bought the recipes and brand because we saw the opportunity to add a brand synonymous with quality ham and bacon to our business.”
The Pestell brothers incorporated the Rai Valley Bacon Company into their business and in 2001 relocated to premises that were fitted out especially for them in the Robinson Estate behind Super Cheap Auto.
When I sat down with them to find out more about them and their business it became obvious very quickly that they haven’t lost the passion for their trade and the products they produce, products they now sell right around the country as well as from their store in Stoke.
I asked them what makes their bacon, ham and their meat products special and Steve said it comes down to old fashioned traditional butchery, “we buy pork carcass and break them down ourselves, all of our pork comes from the Canterbury region and are ‘free-farmed’.
“Pork Corp NZ has been our supplier since we started, that loyalty means we have a great relationship with our supplier and they make sure we get top quality product.”
During the peak Christmas sales Pestell’s sell well over 10,000 cooked hams which are all 100% New Zealand pork, to supermarkets, wholesalers and all sorts of businesses around the country including many who use them as staff Christmas gifts.
Of course the Pestell brothers have the recipe they bought from Maurie Hebberd but that is a secret as closely held as the Colonel’s secret spice recipe, they did however tell me that these products are 100% gluten free, manuka smoked, dry cured and some are preservative free which is a part of their range that is getting more and more popular.
For bacon the process from full carcass to packed product takes about 10 days, it is dry-cured in a temperature and humidity controlled environment for seven days to remove some of the moisture, then it is smoked, sliced, packed and out the door.
Pestell’s produce and sell their popular hams all year round, especially to supermarkets and cafes, and while they hugely popular at Christmas they also sell quite a few at Easter, Steve says ham is actually a really cost effective meat “ours sell for $12.99 a kilo while something like sausages can be around $15 to $16 a kilo and you can feed a lot of people from a leg of ham.
“We sell our products all around the country and when I tell people how many we sell at Christmas they think I am telling them porkies” he says with a big grin.
While bacon and ham products are the core of the Pestell business, as traditional butchers they also produce a full range of meat cuts, with everything from sausages they make in-house to prime cuts of steak, lamb and pork along with everything else you would expect to find in a butchery.
When I stopped in I was delighted to see a familiar face behind the counter preparing those fine cuts of meat, Phillipe Gauthier who used to own Phillipe’s Butchery in the Marble Arch Arcade, and I am told it didn’t take his many French speaking customers long to track him down at Pestell’s after he returned from a break in France.
Chris told me he had been trying to remember how many butcheries like theirs there used to be in the Nelson region and he came up with a list of about 30, now they are the only traditional standalone butchery remaining in the region, the rest are in supermarkets and food stores like Westmeat and Raeward Fresh.
“There was a time when there was a small, local community butchery beside almost every corner store but they gradually closed as supermarkets expanded their meat sections and employed in-house butchers.
Pestell’s employs more than 20 permanent staff and up to 30 over summer, according to Steve “Kyle, Riche and karen have been with us for nearly 20 years and a number of staff for 10 years plus, when you find great key staff you need to look after them.
“We need to invest time in training, it is hard to find old school butchers like us and we always have a couple of apprentices on the go, we are passionate about keeping the skilled butchery trade going.”
The Pestell’s Rai Valley Bacon business may be very successful and is continuing to expand, they have just leased a further storage warehouse and will be constructing more freezer and chiller space in the warehouse, but this business is built on old fashioned hard work, taking calculated risks and letting the quality of their product speak for itself, as Chris says “we want to focus on producing the very best product we can rather than trying to sell something we aren’t happy with, if the product is great people will buy it.”