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Book Review: Saddleback Wife

Updated: Feb 21

Saddleback Wife by Fiona Stocker (reviewed by Claire van Ryn @clairevanryn)

After attending the book launch of Saddleback Wife and hearing firsthand its author's delightful British accent and her witty, if slightly dark, sense of humour, I couldn't resist taking a copy home. This is Fiona Stocker's second memoir (you may be familiar with her first, Apple Island Wife) which leans heavily on her experience as an English expat eking out a life in Australia's island state with her husband, Oliver, and two kids. No, you don't need to have read the first to appreciate the second. Nor do you need to have any interest in pigs (phew! I hear you say).

Saddleback Wife, with the subtitle Slow Food in Tasmania, is the story of a couple with admirable dreams of rearing Wessex Saddleback pigs and selling premium pork at bustling farmers markets each weekend. The pigs would live long and idyllic lives compared with their mass-farmed counterparts, and the customers would be agog for the delectable, superior pork product made from these happy creatures. It is the dream versus the reality. In fact, it reads like one of those Instagram posts that juxtaposes the glossy, colour-coordinated beauty of a photo with what it took to produce it. The warts-and-all, behind the scenes footage.

'Television lifestyle shows have a lot to answer for. They're responsible for many of the unexpected turns our married life has taken, and we've sourced many of our experimental ideas from them,' Fiona writes in the prologue. A newspaper article about Tasmania was impetus for the family's move to Australia, and the television series River Cottage was responsible for their interest in pigs soon after.

'As we sat on our sofa one evening, watching Hugh preparing a straw-filled birthing shed for his sows, Oliver turned to me. "We could keep those pigs in our bush block, you know," he said. I could have sworn I saw a light bulb flickering over his head.'

Saddleback Wife gave me a great appreciation for farmers, particularly boutique-style farmers with high-end product for high-end prices. Her insights on rearing an animal that requires more time for less quantity, made me appreciate the price tags, not to mention the incredible amount of back-breaking work, tenacity and self-belief required to make a go at something they had never done before.

At times, the memoir's accounts are frank to the point of being brutal. I'm not sure I would recommend this to someone who has just started a pig-farming operation. Then again, maybe it would help them avoid the same mistakes.

In the end, I was grateful for a glimpse at reality. In a world where I make pork stir fry with meat sourced from a plastic tray bought from a supermarket, it's easy to forget that life is sacrificed for our appetites. Whether you're an avid carnivore or a vegan, or somewhere in-between, I think we can all agree that society would be enriched and somehow more intelligent if our our spending habits were more considered.

This is a book for that. For understanding the backstory of our food, and allowing time to sit in that potentially uncomfortable place. Thankfully, it's told with Fiona's wry humour which makes it that bit more palatable.

Oh, and did I mention there are recipes? The carbonara was a hit in my household!


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