From Pig to Ham…
These are some of the things I learned last week while ferreting around the back roads of the Basque country in SW France. As a point of reference, although I have made several trips as tourist and culinary explorer to this region of between Bayonne and St. Jean Pied de Port, this is the second R&D trip with artist Elaine Tin Nyo for her This Little Piggy project (read more here) of which I am the official bilingual charcuterie consultant. Elaine and I are good friends, having bonded over helping turn 5 French pigs into paté one January many years ago. This sort of edible/documentary/collaboration is not new to us. But the scale of Elaine’s project along with my own growing understanding of how to teach the more esoteric elements (like taste, terroir, and character) of French charcuterie means stepping outside of my preferred comfort zone and letting the reality of other people’s choices teach me. I decided to post my observations as I encounter new information and let the information speak for itself. I’ll try to leave my usual rose-colored glasses off.
Eric Ospital’s Ibaiona Hams
To answer some of the questions from the Salt cured Facebook page:
On Pig Breeds– On the farms that I am visiting, there are two kinds of pigs:
- The Porc Basque (also known as the Cul Noir (Black Bottom) or Pie Noir de Pays Basque, Kintoa, or Euskal Txerria- the Basque name. My go to source for everything related to the Basque Pig is Josette Arrayet who ran the Filière Porc Basque (reference below*) for 7 years. She has 35 sows (down from 50 – more on that later) and breeds piglets as well as raising and finishing some 200+ pigs a year for meat. This ‘rare breed’ like many is slowly being rescued by careful overseeing of its development and marketing of the final product. There is a good comprehensive overview of this breed in English here: *http://porcbasque.fr/spip.php?rubrique31
- The three other farms I work with—the Chapolards here at Mezin (35 sows), and the Guenard (500 Sows) and Larre Farms (3200 meat pigs) in the Basque Country— breed and raise a typical all purpose cross breed: Large White, Piétrain and Duroc. This ‘commercial’ cross breed produces good mothers, abundant litters, lean and tasty meat when well-raised.
Age and Feed:
- It is interesting to note that here in France, there is much less emphasis on breeds and finishing among charcutiers and much more emphasis on lifelong feeding and age of the pigs. I am only working with high-end premium artisan products in which the Basque Pig is grown for 15 months and the Large White cross for 10-12 months.
- All the farms I work with feed a mixed grain diet consisting of triticale (wheat/rye cross), barley, oats, corn, sunflower and either feverole or soy. The Chapolards grow all their own grain on their 100 acre farm in this seed growing area of the Lot-et-Garonne. The Basque farms are much smaller acreage and buy their feed from the nearby Adour valley.
The Wooded Park on Larre’s Basque Mountain Farm
- The Basque pigs and pigs raised for the Ibaiona hams are essentially reared or finished outside in large wooded mountainous ‘parks’ (max 40 pig per hectare or 2.4 acres) while most other pig rearing is done in enclosed sheds. It seems to me that the amount of food they glean outside: acorns, beech nuts, chestnuts contributes to their overall health and taste but that high foraging Fall time only benefits a ‘finishing’ if the pigs are slaughtered in December. As slaughtering is year round now, a pig slaughtered in August having spent the drier summer months outside would have little ‘fat finish’ to compare with an early winter harvest.
- Most farmers here are more interested in slow growth on a balanced diet with a moderate amount of fat. The Clan of Lard hasn’t hit French culinary culture like it has abroad. Consumers look for a lean-to-fat ratio about 80-20% and charcutiers respect the traditional proportions of classic French charcuterie- 20-30% fat in dried sausage for example. Over the course of a 12-15 month life, the diet controls the fat ratio not the breed.
- Acorns are only a very small part of the diet. Does genetics have more to do with the fat texture than the diet? I’ll ask on my next visit.
- Ditto on the fat composition question, Illtud.
Elaine Tin Nyo & Josette Arrayet
I’ll talk a little bit more about the Basque Breed on the next post because I love those spotty bottoms and lopped ears and my BFF Josette is a wealth of educated information. She doesn’t hold back, couch words or hide the less romantic side of pig farming. She’s a modern farmer working with an old breed to produce an economically viable livelihood. She’s from Bakerfield California and has a a lovely family who open their cheese making and pig rearing farm to me, my friends and my students.