Bayonne Ham: Surprising Facts About This Basque Ham



In Bayonne, ham is something that is taken very seriously. Let's start with some background knowledge. Even though Bayonne is technically in France, its citizens identify as Basques and claim ancestors from 3 French states as well as 4 Spanish states. A nuanced, delicious, silky Bayonne ham is ensured by three different elements: pigs bred for meaty and marbled back quarters, a healthy feed of nuts and grains, and a dry continuous breeze called the foehn that sweeps down from the mountains. In today's Bayonne, the ham sector mixes heritage with local resources. Only inland mountain salt' gathered from the bottom of Pyrenees peaks is used to preserve ham, according to rigorous rules based on historical ways. The resulting Jambon de Bayonne is famous for its flavor and quality after being aged for nine to twelve months.

“Gaston Fébus—Count of Foix—wounded a wild boar while out hunting in the 14th century, according to folklore in the south of France. The wounded boar was able to get away. Its body was discovered months later in salty, hot spring water in the village of Salies-de-Béarn. The fact that the meat had been kept and was still tasty shocked those who discovered it. When the preservation characteristics of salting pork were discovered, it sparked a ham-making industry that has grown since.”


The origins and properties of inland salt

Since the Bronze Age, a harvest of 'mountain salt' from the south-west of France has been made. As of today, the well known as the Reine Jeanne d'Oraas, which is located 650 feet down, generates hot water that is ten times saltier than ocean water that is inland from the Atlantic Ocean's beach and at a distance of 28 straight miles eastward. This is because it has come into contact with salt layers deposited several million years ago when the steep landscape was covered by sea water. Zinc, magnesium, strontium, selenium, lithium, cobalt, and nickel are among the 26 trace elements found in this water. Additionally, this mineral has particular hygroscopic qualities that let the salt enter flesh more effectively.

From the Oraas well to the Salies-de-Béarn saltworks management firm, this water travels five miles through a pipeline. For months, mountains of salt have been heaped in a warehouse to lessen moisture from 5-3 percent. It's not unexpected that the ham consortium purchased the entire salt manufacturing company because a major quantity of this salt is utilized for curing local ham (No other salt can be used to cure Bayonne ham).

Saltwater rushes out of a pipeline into enormous tanks fashioned like swimming pools at a temperature below boiling. The majority of coarse salt is set in the base of tanks and is used to preserve ham. It appears to be both snow-white and pure. However, a small amount of salt floats on the surface of the water. Individuals wielding nets skim this off. Chefs praise this salt, also known as Fleur de Sel, for its lightness, flavor, crunchiness, and ability to retain flavor after cooking. Regional thermal spas, which are noted for their medical properties, are another industry that benefits from the area's hot and salty waters. Aside from the inland salt's flavor influences, the quality of Bayonne ham is governed by traditional manufacturing limits.


Rearing of Pigs in Farms

To create Bayonne ham, the bulk of pigs are kept on hundreds of small farms ranging in size from 100 acres to 40 hectares. These farmers also cultivate soy and corn as feed for their cattle. Pigs can be reared in 22 geographical and administrative departments, spread across three historical areas of southwest France (Poitou-Charentes, Midi-Pyrénées, and Aquitaine). This is because the 'Adour basin' was traditionally quite cold to facilitate the production of sterile meat.

After being raised according to strict regulations of the European Union, Bayonne ham is certified IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée). This is similar to the AOC wine designations used by the French government, which signify that the wine was made, analyzed, and recognized in compliance with quality and origin regulations. Regular quality control inspections are carried out by a range of sources, including farmers, consortium members, and independent agencies. Because there were no freezers back then, traditional ham maturation took place in the Highlands, where the temperature was lower. The pork was salted in the Middle Ages to stiffen the meat and then preserved in barns in November, December, and January to dry out from the wind in the spring.

Before becoming the director of the Bayonne Ham Consortium, Alifat went to Toulouse to study agronomy and has experience working with French financial institutions, the Seychelles military, and Quebec fisheries. He's a varied and affable character who can easily recite numbers, toast aperitifs with politicians in suits and ties, and salt a huge ham inside a machine. There are multiple stamps on each ham. The arrival date, approvals, and provenance are all shown. Only one-fourth of all hams are retained whole, while the rest are cut and packaged.

In a preparation room, we donned aprons, disposable hairnets, and booties before washing and sanitizing our hands. We then entered a brightly illuminated room. A network of ceiling-mounted rails connects vertical racks containing ham legs. This allows them to be transported from one area to another for different processes. Ten-kilogram ham legs are salted for approximately ten minutes. Afterward, salted legs are kept cold for 11 days, after which the salt is removed and the ham is ready to be aged for between nine and twelve months. Salt permeates the ham during this time, changing its flavor profile in the same way that an oak barrel changes the attributes of aging wine. At some point, the ham leg is smeared in a mixture of oil and rice flour to block the holes and heighten flavor, increasing hazelnut and lightly salty overtones.


The Uniqueness of Bayonne Ham

In addition to the flavor supplied by inland salt, Bayonne ham is abundant in essential fatty acids, B vitamins, proteins, and generally low cholesterol levels. Sustainable corn feed production, low-density farming, and nine months of maturing are further factors that contribute to its flavor, quality, and uniqueness. The global marketplace presently includes Germany, the United States, Belgium, Japan, and the United Kingdom. To be certified, ham transported to the United States is submitted to rigorous daily inspections. The endeavor looks to be paying off: since the first shipment three years ago, the number of hams sent to the United States has nearly doubled.

Beyond the salting and aging facilities, we traveled down high slopes and through lovely hills with views of deep valleys in the Béarn and Basque regions. We decided to go to Bayonne. The name stems from the city's historical significance as a marine seaport, even though it is too hot to produce or age ham in this city. More than five centuries have passed since Bayonne has had a thriving ham market. A citadel created by Vauban, a 17th-century military architect, is now part of the city's intriguing architecture. With many canals connecting it to the Adour River, where commodities were then floated to the Atlantic, and the city was formerly a key hub for chocolate production.


Bayonne Ham Traditional French Food UK


Bayonne Festival

In France's Ham Capital, Bayonne's Jambon de Bayonne is a must-try. Fêtes de Bayonne, a massive festival of five days of Basque and regional history that attracts a million visitors dressed in red and white, attracts Bayonne ham producers every year in late July. A bull run, traditional Basque dancing, pétanque (boules), choir, jazz, and violin concerts are among the events held over the festival days. At the fair, the aroma of cured pig fills the air. Farmers from the surrounding area send their joy and pride to be judged.

The summer sky is shiny at 8:30 p.m., when throngs of revelers decked out entirely in red and white pour into this little hamlet in the southwest, which is only 30 miles from Spain. During the annual festival in July, several thousand people cross the Adour and Nive rivers to converge on the medieval town, where tiny cobblestoned alleyways are turned into dancing halls and makeshift open-air dining rooms.

The title jambon de Bayonne appears on every chalkboard menu. This regional delicacy, on the other hand, is the country's most popular dry-cured ham. That's why I'm here: to learn more about what makes jambon de Bayonne so delicious, as well as how it compares to other European hams of a single provenance such as jamon iberico, presunto, and prosciutto, all of which are now available in the US.

As it turns out, the Adour and Nive are particularly important. The confluence is located in Bayonne, at a distance from the Atlantic Ocean, and these rivers connect local agriculture to the coast and beyond. The Adour, which passes through Basque Country, the Landes, and the Béarn on its way to foie gras country, while The Nive, a river that runs through the Pyrenees, represents the southern border. From the southwest, farmers could easily bring their hams here for sale or export, even though the ham was not traditionally manufactured in Bayonne. The ham is from Bayonne, according to its label.

I'm also sporting colors of the festival tonight. Borrowed. The white-and-red color scheme was new to me. The outrageously large ceremonial keys are flung to a throng below at 10 p.m. on the first night, and bandanas aren't tied around necks until then. All of this is accompanied by music that any French may sing along to—the Gypsy Kings, Abba, the Beatles, and Cloclo, were all popular in the 1970s.

I'm eventually dropped off at the Consortium du Jambon de Bayonne's tent, which serves as the ham's protector. The cured haunches are all over town— resting on Berkel slicers, blown up to absurd dimensions on posters, mounted on bar top holders, and stretched upon tent poles. The charcuterie counter is comparable to a Champagne fountain in terms of sophistication.


The proverb goes, "Good pigs make good ham."

When I inquire about what else contributes to the ham's delicious flavor, Béchade says, "Good pigs make good ham." This determines the order of the schedule for tomorrow. The next morning, in the serene green Pyrenees foothills, I meet Damien Baile, a Basque farmer, approximately a half-hour drive from the previous night's partying. To begin, the eight breeds must be native to the larger southwest, which spans multiple administrative districts. His pigs consume his maize, as well as other cereals, grass, foraged chestnuts, and acorns, and they roam freely in forested woods, resting in sheds when it's cold or rainy. Isn't it true that you aren't following the recommended diet? Steroids, medicines, and automobile tires are just a few examples. He continues, they have pleasure with an old tire because they're curious and lively animals. However, they'd eat it.


Fresh ham, salt, air, and time as components

The cutting-edge Maison du Jambon de Bayonne, process mimics the seasonal rhythms of farmhouse curing, which start in November with the butchering of fattened hogs. My ham will be hung to dry after being tagged in a humidity and temperature-controlled setting that mimics a southern winter. It will relocate in the spring to a chamber that resembles a drafty attic in the Pyrenees, where it will be revived by a dry foehn air from Spain. The meaty half of the ham will be sealed in a mixture of flour, lard, and, on rare occasions, pulverized piment d'Espelette, softly spicy chile pepper of France farmed in a few small Basque communities, as the weather gets warmer. This pannage delays the ham's aging process during fall and the summer.

What strikes me the most is how numerous towns in southwestern France united to develop one of the world's most intricate hams, while speaking often separate languages? The Consortium du Jambon de Bayonne is helping to preserve a piece of provincial Frenchness by keeping farmers on the land, preserving an ancient social network, bolstering a small-town saltworks, and providing local jobs—for festival organizers, charcutiers, restaurateurs, salt workers, and corn and pepper growers and marketers,—in a landscape increasingly dominated by large corporations. Although I am not French, I can understand the local pride at the moment.

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