The French Pig (from salt to ham)

The Salines

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Kate and I always take the slow, back road. We don't do short cuts and express ways willingly. For instance it's taken us nearly fifteen years to get here. Fifteen summers since we went up the road to buy that first ham from Brigitte. Fourteen winters since we saw our first three pigs slaughtered and turned into sausages, pâté, roasts, hams, and jarred meat. Fourteen Januaries and one ex-husband each since we turned up that muddy little road towards the Chapolard pig farm. We've both been around the world a couple times since then.

And here we are now, finally, taking the back roads to ham. On the trail of the first little piggy. The French pig. The Jambon de Bayonne.

I wanted to start with the salt. It seemed obvious to me that the salt must come from the sea since Bayonne is a seaport. So I packed my bikini along with my camera. But I was mistaken. The salt for the ham comes from inland salt springs at Salies-de-Baern. So that is our first stop. Nothing real is ever what I think it will be and somehow bikinis are never involved.

The legend goes that in the olden days, hunters shot and wounded a wild boar that ran off to the woods. Several months later the dead boar was found at the mouth of a spring. The salt from the spring water had preserved its meat and so, ham was born. And the salt works, and the town of Salies-de-Bearn grew around the salt springs. The water there is 10 times saltier than sea water. If you go there you can take the tour. Walk through the million tiny alleys that cut through the concentric streets. The bullseye of this target is the salt spring of course. Visit the little museum, a converted house that demonstrates how each family in the town converted salt water bucketful by bucketful into wealth.

Go to the Salines where the salt is made today. The Salines are owned by a consortium of ham makers — the ones who make Jambon de Bayonne. This salt is the only salt they use. By law.

The Salines are a marriage of nature and simple technology. Simply three big swimming pool-like vessels that hold the salty spring water. The first holds it long enough for the iron to settle out, ensuring the whiteness of the final product. This water goes to two beautiful blue pools, alternately the color of sea water and the sky it reflects, that have heaters on one end. The water evaporates by sun power and electric heaters and the salt forms crystals that fall to the bottom. They dredge it out with cranes that fill big cube containers which sun for while and eventually get packed into smaller bags. This is the salt that goes to ham.

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There is also the fleur de sel. The delicate crystals that form on the briney surface. Once thought of a just the crust that kept the water from evaporating, it is now the most precious of table salts. This is harvested by hand. On the two days I visited it was harvested by beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful, young women.

They don't make salt when it's cold. It takes too much power then.

Bayonne is where the hams shipped out to the world. But down below this little inland town, water burbles through deposits of a huge prehistoric sea and finds its way to the surface so the Basques can make French hams.