Monday, February 24, 2014

La Pierre St. Martin

The schedule at the abattoir has changed, and instead of taking pigs to slaughter on Thursday and working Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to process them, the pink porcs now head out on Monday, and the red blood and white fat return on Tuesday morning along with the heads and innards for making pâté, with the half-carcasses hanging in the cold room to be cut up as needed over the following days. That means that Sundays, instead of being sausage-and-salami-making days, are days off at the butchery. I always had Sundays off (though I often used them for doing school or freelance work) but Florence always, and Frédéric and Jeanne and Éloi almost always, had to put at least a few hours in on Sundays, and since the on-site store is open all day Saturday (except for the two-hour lunch break, of course) that meant no opportunity for weekend trips, or even day trips. However, the last two Sundays we've all had time off, and have profited from it, and yesterday Florence and I drove up to the ski resort La Pierre St. Martin, along with Aurélie, her childhood friend now living in Paris, and Aurélie's boyfriend Matthieu.

The other three were planning to ski, as one does at a ski resort, but during my first and only time on downhill skis in Japan back in 1984 I tore the ACL in my right knee, and then completely shredded it during a game of tag with Morgan and Leah approximately 20 years later (correction: the game was "hot lava monster" per Morgan), so I'm a bit nervous about strapping long boards on my feet and getting all twisted and tangled. I considered doing some cross-country skiing though, or going for a walk on snowshoes, but the area for those activities is further down the slope, and I wanted to get a good view of the mountains. So while the other three stood in line for ski rentals and lift tickets, I set out to explore the area around the resort, which is mostly chalets and apartment/condo buildings and parking lots where people set up their motor homes for the two-week school vacation we were in the middle of that day. School breaks are staggered around the country, and right now it's the turn of the kids in Aquitaine and Paris, who are currently in their second week, and the non-Parisian northern half of France where the break started on Saturday. The rest of the south of France gets their two weeks starting March 3rd, and that's when I go back to school.

I got into a snowball fight with some kids playing in one of the chalet complexes, admired a snow cat someone had sculpted, watched the chair lift going overhead from the lowest slopes down by the cross-country area back up to the second-highest peak, and squinted my eyes to see the people skiing and snowboarding back down. There are about 25 kilometers of ski runs, and a vast area hors piste that people head out into even against the warnings of the orange signs and roped-off access points. However, I haven't heard of any avalanche problems recently in the Pyrénées, though there were a lot of them in the Alps not too long ago, leading to several deaths. The slopes lead down from the drop-off points at Soum Couy (above) and Arlas, criss-cross down into and past the resort, through a tunnel (if you choose that route), and end up at the Pas de l'Ours by the Nordic ski area. I had seen on the resort's website that there is a service where a person can sit in a sort of ski-chair and take to the slopes, steered by one of the expert skiers on staff, but it turned out that this was only for truly handicapped people, not just ones with wonky knees who wanted to feel the wind in their hair. I could have also signed up for a dogsled trip, but although I enjoyed the sled rides I took in Alaska, I didn't feel like spending a half an hour staring at dog butts.

Instead, I bought a 5-euro lift ticket to go up to the drop-off point at Arlas where I could take pictures and admire the view. I sent a quick text message to Florence to tell her I'd meet them at the top, and joined the queue.

I was the only person in the lift line, other than the lift operators, who didn't have skis or a snowboard, and as such was getting a few sideways looks; I think the pedestrian traffic for the ski lift is a lot higher in the summer. The lift operator slowed the télésiège down after I remarked that the seats were whipping around the bottom of the pole rather quickly (I'm kind of a wuss sometimes), helped me into the middle of my own private four-seater, and punched up the speed again, then radioed up to the drop-off point to tell them to expect a shoe-wearing lift rider in a few minutes.

It was a lovely ride up, and my shoes and I thought it was great fun. For all that I'm scared of heights (in certain circumstances) ski lifts don't bother me much, unless they're swinging from side to side, and in that case it's not the height, it's the stomach-churning back and forth that gets to me. I did have one moment when I thought, "Wow, that's a long way down; I wonder if I'd survive a fall?" but my next thought was "I am so content in this moment, on this sunny day, that I don't think that worries me too much." I don't know how many minutes it took to go up the 300 metres/1,000 feet to the drop-off below the top of the Pic d'Arlas (still another 500 feet up) but I enjoyed every one of them.

The Pic d'Anie is the highest point near the resort, but it's well short of the highest peak in the Pyrénées. At its southwest base it sticks its foot into Spain. The resort is very popular with Spanish tourists/locals, partly because it's so close and partly because the ski resorts in France are in part State-funded (or so I was told) and are cheaper by nearly half when compared to the lift ticket prices at the Spanish resorts. While I was waiting at the top of the slope for Florence and the others to arrive, a group of Spanish snowboarders asked me (in Spanish) to take their picture, and I did, all the while talking to them in French - why I didn't try English I don't know - but mutual comprehension was achieved, as well as the series of fifteen or so photos I took when I accidentally held down the camera button on their iPhone screen. I noticed that at least half the people getting off the lift were speaking in Spanish, the rest in French, and perhaps once there were people from Germany, though I'm not sure. No English spoken within earshot, although all the resort signs are in all four languages. I thought of my visit to Norway, and of my friend and former teacher Bea Rynning-Tønnesen, who spent much of her twenties traveling around to ski resorts in many countries, using her fluency in many languages, and wished she were there, though since her knees are wonky as well, she's not downhill skiing any more either.

The people continued to arrive and descend, peeling away to the right-hand blue-flagged medium-hard slope, or to the left and the red pole marking the difficult route. I was amazed to see so many young children - they looked to be as young as 6 years old, sometimes - confidently settling their goggles on their heads and their ski poles around their wrists before zipping off alone down the red side. An amazingly fit man came walking up the red slope while I was there (no wussy ski lift for him!) then strapped on a set of crampons and took ice picks out of his backpack and headed up to the top of the Pic d'Arlas. A cross-country skier glided off the lift and herringboned his way up the same slope a few minutes later, and I watched them crest the ridge and disappear over the top, shadowed by the chocards à bec jaune, the alpine/yellow-billed choughs that kept swooping by, or hanging still-winged in the breeze blowing up the cliff below.

I stayed up in the fresh air and hot sun and cold wind for a half an hour or so. The view was lovely, although a smoky haze started rising up from several spots down the valley. I learned later that it was from herders burning the pastures where the sheep and cows (and occasionally goats) graze during the summer, to get rid of the old growth and encourage the new green shoots. They wait until the snow line is past the trees so that they don't have to worry as much about starting a forest fire.

Florence and friends having arrived and departed, and pictures having been taken, I signaled the lift operator that I was ready to go back down, and hopped back up onto a swaying seat (which fortunately for the skiers below me, stopped swaying after a minute or two) to enjoy the ride back down. The towlines were busy taking the six-year-olds who hadn't had skis strapped to their feet shortly after birth to the top of the short bunny run, and the kid's sledding area was full of snowsuited toddlers, and parents trying to balance themselves on plate-sized plastic circles.

I thought about walking down to explore the cross-country ski area, but it had been a long time since breakfast, and I was hungry.

I don't know I can really claim to have been enjoying an après-ski moment since I didn't actually do any skiing avant, but the hour or so I spent on the terrace in the sunshine with a small carafe of local red wine and a salade Montagnarde (hold the croutons and sheep's-milk cheese, please) was quite agreeable. And Frédéric and his wife and their son arrived unexpectedly, and I happened to see them from my table, so they joined me for some conversation and coffee while Clément gnawed on the bread the waitress had left for me (because there is always, always bread in France) and we waited for Florence to finish a run down the track called the Boulevard des Pyrénées. I decided to beg a ride back to Agnos with them, and leave Florence and the others to continue skiing. There will, I hope, be other opportunities to play in the snow; Aurélie's mother had gone snowshoeing at another location, and had invited me to join her and her friend that morning, and Florence said that we might go with them another time to one of the other cross-country ski areas nearby. The snow, and the peaks of the Pyrénées!

La neige, eau éclatée, sable de gel, sel non pas de la terre, mais du ciel, sel non salé, au goût de silex, à la texture de gemme pilée, au parfum de froidure, pigment du blanc, seule couleur qui tombe des nuages. - from Le Sabotage amoureux (1993) by Amélie Nothomb, a writer of strange and entrancing fiction

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

True Luxury

There's a chocolate factory in the middle of Oloron-Sainte-Marie, a sort of barometer for the people who live here. If the weather's about to change and the clouds are hanging low, the whole village smells like melting hot chocolate. I wasn't planning on visiting the Lindt facility yesterday, but when I came out of the building at the top of the hill above the town after my massage, the rich scent pulled me down the stone staircase, across the river, and into the store. There were a dozen others in there, wandering around between tall stacks of discounted boxes of Valentine's Day treats.

If I were rich, I wouldn't buy cars or jewelry or fancy clothes or any things, really. The longer I live without things the stranger it seems to live with them. I have fond memories of things that I used to own, but no real desire to have them back, or acquire new ones. No, I wouldn't buy chocolate every day, but if I had the funds I would have a massage every day, or every other day at the least. This morning my shoulders don't hurt, I'm full of energy again because all the places where my chi gets dark and stagnant have been cleared out, and my soul is soothed because I have been touched in loving-kindness by someone. With all the cheek-kissing that goes on in France, people here (in my experience) aren't really into physical touching, and I have missed that. A massage a day, or a hug - that's true luxury.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Que vau mei petar en companhia que morí's sol

It's better to fart in a crowd than to die alone. - Béarnais proverb

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Jeu de Mots

I've always liked playing with words, and now that I've got two languages to play with, it's twice the fun. Even if what I come up with isn't exactly - or in any way similar to - what a French person would say or write. Since the holiday season is over and so fewer people think of buying the premade gift boxes we were selling in December, I decided to try to stimulate sales with a Valentine's Day version. Stand out from the crowd - don't give chocolates, give pork products! And duck and bee products. Florence laughed at what I came up with, and at least fifty percent of the laughter I think was because my plays on words were a little bizarre to her, but as always she's rolling with it, and who knows? Maybe that extra moment a customer takes to look at the setup will inspire them to buy something they hadn't planned on.

I picked the products that could be somehow, in my English-speaking-French-attempting mind, related to love or hearts, so (from top right clockwise) we have the following:

an assortment of duck bits in confit, including hearts, gizzards, and wings, that traditionally make up a farm-style salade composée with potatoes and onions and greens

a jar of local mountain honey

a pot of the fatty meaty spread the Bergeras call chinchous

a section of pork loin (longe) in confit

And here are my plays on words related to those products:

"I give you my heart!" (and my gizzard)

"It's our honeymoon!"

"You're my little cabbage fatty-meat-spread!" Okay, I'll admit that this one is a bit of a stretch; although mon petit chou is a fairly common endearment, translating as "my little cabbage," the ch-sound is (soft) sh in chou and (hard) ch in chinchous, so it doesn't work as a pun so well in spoken form. And maybe not in written form, either ...

"I'll love you a long(e) time!" Also kind of forced, as wordplay goes, but it works for me.

I wasn't able to come up with anything non-phallic for the saucisson in the middle of the box, and after trying and failing to find a family-friendly phrase, I asked Florence what she would say. She thought for a minute.

"The harder it gets, the better it is?"

Happy Valentine's Day!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Jambon de Bayonne

One of our offsite visits last month was to the official home of jambon de Bayonne which is not, in fact, located in Bayonne at all. The center of production and the offices for the society that controls the certification and authentication of these cured hams, plus the museum and "La Maison du Jambon de Bayonne," are all just outside a smallish town called Arzacq Arraziguet, and that's where we went to learn all about the ham, plus other products they make out of pork there, and to see real life application of some of the health and safety regulations we'd been studying. Some of the instructors at Pyragéna (Pyrénées Adour génie alimentaire), which is also part of the whole complex and industry, taught us about HACCP and listeria and how not to stack boxes and things like that, and of course the importance of wearing head to toe gear so that you don't contaminate the products you're working on with stray hairs or blood or whatever. We suited up and headed into the factory.

In order to get their product certified as real jambon de Bayonne the producers need to follow certain rules, both in raising the pigs and in curing the hams. Five different breeds of pigs can be used, including the Large White pig (the generic pink ones you see everywhere, including here at the Ferme Bergeras). The pigs can be raised anywhere in the designated production zones (which I learned for the exam and then promptly forgot) but must be fed on corn that is also grown in the region, in fields fertilized with the pig waste. Although much of the transformation of raw pork legs to finished cured hams happens at the Pyragéna factory, there are many other producers in the southwest, all using the same techniques and, most importantly, the same salt.

According to legend, the discovery of the salt mines and their use in making ham goes back to the 14th century and Gaston Fébus, viscount of Foix-Béarn, who lost track of a wild boar he injured in the hunt; several months later he found the pig perfectly preserved in a salt-rich pond near one of the underground salt mines, nicely cured and ready to eat. All of the salt used by anyone making jambon de Bayonne comes from one of the mines in the Adour watershed (south of the Adour river, specifically), and most famously from the mines of the legend at Salies de Béarn. Once the raw legs are received at the shipping dock and sorted by weight, they're sent through a press to squeeze out any blood remaining in the central vein, then covered in salt and left to sit for a while on dark cool shelves.

The hams are quickly pressure-washed to remove most of the salt crust, then hung on racks for another nine to eighteen months of curing. To prevent too much moisture from evaporating out of the thinner bottom edge relative to the thicker top, a paste of oil and rice flour is smeared over the bottom three-quarters of the open face of the ham, the other essential step that goes into the true jambon de Bayonne fabrication. The Bergeras hams are cured in the same facility using the same steps, but aren't classified with the IGP label.

I doubt that I'll end up working for La Maison du Jambon, though they were in negotiations with US importers to start shipping mass quantities of the cured hams over to the States soon. You can already find jambon de Bayonne and even the more expensive cured hams made under even more stringent regulations using specific breeds of pigs like the Iberico and Basque Noir breeds (these pigs are raised outdoors, eating chestnuts and acorns, for two years), in places like Pastaworks and Dean & Deluca, but not in Safeway. That's the goal of the producers now, to make this regional product into a globally-consumed one. I'm not sure how much luck they'll have with that, because even though it's not the $90 per pound that you'd have to pay for the Spanish jamón ibérico produced just over the border here, even the non-certified version we sell at the store here at Oloron-Sainte-Marie runs nearly $30 per pound. Maybe if they get a big order going the price will go down, but I can't imagine that it would sell for much less than that. Who knows, though - people in France and Spain pay those prices willingly, and in the various pockets of foodie-ism around the US like Portland there are people who will and do spend a lot of money on food products like this ham. I know I was certainly one of them. But I'm glad I work at the source and can snag a packet free of charge when I want. Well, "free" as in "trading 35 hours a week of work for it" in any event. I'm back at the pig farm!

You can learn more about the history and fabrication of jambon de Bayonne here. I'm trying to empty my head out (not a difficult task) so I can fill it up with the next set of classes in microbiology so I don't have all of the details at the top of my brain. It's pretty interesting though, and if you go to the museum you get a free tasting as part of the entry fee.