10 kilogram fresh pork leg & pure salt from Salies de Bearn
They say it takes a village… to do a lot things- raise a child, train a dog, create a civilization. In my corner of SW France, it takes this village to make a ham. Not just any ham, but the IGP (geographically protected) Jambon de Bayonne*. I happened to be passing by with a ham-driven student, so we stopped to make a ham with the rest of the village for their annual Fête du Cochon. I saw the link for the village celebration on the Pyragena site while looking for scientific information on curing charcuterie. (That’s what I do when I am not rebuilding barns and refitting barges.) When I spotted a notice at the bottom of the page that the villagers (and any passers by) were invited to come and salt cure your own ham at the amazing new ham house, I was in!
Beside the Englishman and me, there were only a few bereted men and one French housewife waiting in white overcoats, hair nets and blue booties. These ‘early birds of Arzacq’ wanted to be the first to make the first batch of public ham that day. We were escorted into the inner sanctum of stainless steel and gleaming white walls by the technical team responsible for transforming 1000 hams a week and to discover the marriage of a farmhouse tradition to a modern technical plant. Although the boar’s share of the production is a high-quality entry level created under the Consortium de Jambon de Bayonne’s guidelines, the facilities also salts and cures, dries, ages and refines artisan produced hams as well as personal hams. And this is where we fit in.
I had visited the facility before with students discovering some of the finer points of making a French ham in a modern plant that was designed to mimic the traditional flow of charcuterie making: from winter slaughter and salting to spring drying under windy dry skies, to warm summer aging and maturing. Although I extol and celebrate the small producer and artisan farmstead charcuterie, it is important to keep your eye on the larger scale as well. As Dominique Chapolard always says, “Tout seul, tu meurs“- in other words you can’t live and work alone. In the agricultural world of rural Southwest France, working in community- sharing equipment, running slaughterhouses and direct sales and marketing is critical element in financial and lifestyle choices. At the Consortium de Jambon de Bayonne, they have managed to keep a pulse on a growing global market (Jambon de Bayonne in the USA soon!) while preserving local traditions and supporting a broad local farming community. This means a large community of small pig farmers, approx 1500 farms, can supply 50+ charcutiers to create recognized global brand.
So what about our own personal hams? After massaging and then salting my 10-kilo ham, it was placed alongside the dozen other early bird hams on salted racks. By the end of the day several dozen village hams would be wheeled into the refrigerated rooms for a a dozen days to cure. After that, they will cycle through the man-made seasons drying in a foehn inspired wind, then aging quietly in the dark until they are deemed ready to eat. In 10 months or so, I’ll take a little 2-hour road trip to pick up my ham and bring it home to hang alongside my XL Chapolard hams at Camont secure in knowing that the village of Arzacq has lived up to it’s promise to share their Jambon de Bayonne with the world.
Making hams requires patience, So while my ham is curing under a careful eye a few hundred kilometers south of here, I’ll continue to share these ham centric tidbits with you. Want to discover Ham heaven for yourself? check out my next Spring Basquelandia Road Trip here.
Here are a few more process pictures of that leg of fresh pork becoming a fine Jambon de Bayonne.
After salting for a day a kilo, the hams are moved into a drying chamber for 2 months.
Next they are ‘woken up’ from their cold deep sleep and moved to a warmer drier environment to continue drying.
Once they reach at proper weight loss they are covered with a protective layer of fat and left to mature and develop the characteristic rich flavors of hamness.
The sweet salty thin slices of Jambon de Bayonne marry perfectly with the orange scented madeleine. A Gascon breakfast en route.
*Jambon de Bayonne is a PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) European product. This means traditional salt-cured and air-dried hams cured within the designated area from pigs grown in that area and fed on cereal and other food grown in that same area- Southwest French Hams. This isn’t a plug for the brand or type of ham, it’s an abashedly effusive love letter to the good people at the Maison de Jambon and Pyregena research station that opens it doors one weekend a year so that the villagers ( and few daring strangers- see photographs) can see for themselves what makes a Jambon de Bayonne. This is transparency at its most neighborly form. How many charcutiers and butchers share all their backstory with the public?