Driving across the Landes forest southwest from Camont and towards the Pyrenees, is a lesson in patience. I am in a hurry to leave our Camont cocoon, get in the van and start the day driving south. I know that once I pass the kilometers of scraggy maritime pines and sandy fern littered forest floor, I’ll start to get glimpses of mountain clouds, snow-licked peaks, and green pastures. Late leaving, late driving and smothered in fog as we leave the Garonne River Valley, I try to explain to my colleagues and students why we are driving so far… to eat more charcuterie.
I tell a few tales of Basque friends- a California pig breeder perched on the side of a mountain near the pilgrim’s trail raising her family and making cheese; a passionate charcutier who weaves magic with his salt and air spells; a group of small producers who banded together to build a state of the art small processing plant minutes from their mountain valley homes. I try to describe the small Basque auberge in a tiny village where we’ll stay and only end up dithering about church bells answering the sound track of cowbells from the pastures across the valley. I forget to say that that our rooms are large, new, clean and have great views from the balconies.
The roads that led me here originally are washed over with layers of other memories and jumbled with trips with friends, family or previous students. This trip is the only one that counts now. And I am anxious to get to the end of the road; a road that leads up and up over a mountain top, across a prehistoric path, and back into time. The skies are hazy all afternoon and as we enter the Vallee des Aldudes; smoke streams from the millennial tradition of écobuage or controlled burns as far as we can see and the mountains remain elusive. Where is the foehn effect? That warm dry fresh blowing breeze that helps create this a world class ham growing area. Here, in open air ventilated chambers like this one at Eric Ospital’s Hasparren site, special hams are hanging in white cloth bags for 18-36 months ripening to the temperate breezes and gentle temperature fluctuations.
From mountain pig to salt springs, the drying winds and historic fairs, ham is written across the hills as pigs have crushed chestnuts and turned up brambles. Medieval liturgy dictated curing and aging times and stone sculptures ring the porticos of area cathedrals. A leftover hospitality to pilgrim and patron alike insures that when we are invited in to the home of one Basque pig producer, we are fed soft shards of nutty ham and slices of chewy saucisson. We never get hungry here. This is along the Chemin de St. Jacques de Compostello and we are following in old footprints. We made new friends, we cemented old friendships and we celebrated the successful completion of 2 student’s own paths to discover their salty futures.
My students have been building up to this all month- they have watched, made, and tasted dozens of good farmstead products working alongside the Chapolard family and in our teaching kitchen at Camont. Now they are seeing out in a new world, how charcuterie–French farmstead charcuterie– rules an entire land. We meet the ham kings, the pig saviors, the community chefs that elevated the work of the land to celestial standing.
The wealth of ham–Ibaiona, Jambon de Bayonne, Jambon de Kintoa– leaves a salty impression on us all. The appreciation for the days and weeks and months of work that lead to a quality product that takes over 3 years old to produce is cemented forever in my brain as we hear over and over again about the need for the best raw material, the attention to detail, and the need for patience- patience to let time work its magic.
So I am back to the P word again- patience. I realize that after all the times I have visited Eric Ospital’s ham cave, I never seen these hams removed for sale. I have photographed them barely swinging in the foehn wind from their chains, draped like ghosts in their fine white shrouds, and waxed with lard and flour to keep them from drying too fast. This was the first time I had seen them removed from their place of patience and readied for delivery. How many other edible products need so much time and attention, space and patience before we place a thin slice on our tongues and whisper reverently? Oh, jambon…
For more information about eating ham and traveling through the Basque Lands with me- http://www.kitchen-at-camont.com/course/basquelandia-road-trip/