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.

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