The French Pig (from salt to ham)

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It was foggy and frozen when we loaded my duffle bag of smelly clothes and memories into the back of the ham mobile. And foggy and cold when I bought my last pain au chocolat and baguette for the road. 

I've left behind the piggy kit in the summer house: a pair of clogs, a pair of rubber farm boots, a good tripod, a couple maps, and an electrical powerstrip. The summer house, aka the studio, aka the office is the cabin I sleep in on the grounds of Camont. It sits part way between the main house and the two camping trailers, and spitting distance from the poultry yard, and oh so conveniently located (perhaps 40-50 paces) from the goat shed. It is a small, white, clapboard, one room cabin with a porch tucked against the tall hedge against the road. Each night at bed time, I take my leave of the sisters Hill with a flashlight and tromp across the drive, beyond the wood pile, through the metal gate and over the little wood bridge, then through the yard past the bols court, and under the giant trees. Tromp, tromp, through the fallen leaves and frozen, muddy grass. The sky is almost nearly clear and dark and the stars sparkle with the kind of clarity one rarely experiences on the eastern seaboard of the US. Tromp, tromp until I reach the porch. Then up the one two three four steps to the porch where I reach for the broom and commence the delicate task of sweeping the pellets of goat poop off the porch (while holding a flashlight) before opening the door to the cabin. I think I will miss this nightly ritual most of all.

We spent our last morning in the Pays Basque visiting the Larre farm. The house is named Belarrea. I'll tell you more about that day in another post. Now two days (and several garbures) later, I'm waiting for an airplane. It seems I'm always leaving things behind. But life as we know it is experienced in a straight line. Tromp, tromp, tromp. One foot after the other. Retrospect is a luxury of memory. And art.

Thanks, Kate and Team Porc. I'll be back soon. 

 

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A Fine Romance

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Some of you know that the first thing I do when I wake up every morning is take a picture out the nearest window. This morning was no different save the fact that I am in France and it is a crispy cold day with frost on the roof tiles and the only cloud in the sky is caressing the top of that mountain over there.

Otherwise, I am the same disaster that I am every morning. Disorganized and confused until well into my second cafe au lait. That's when Josette comes to give us a Cliffs Notes version of what awaits us. This takes a little longer than we expected.

So we rush up the mountain, past the village of Lasse, past the sheep meadow where we saw our solitary pilgrim the first time, past the half constructed feeding shelter, and to where we had conjectured (correctly) that Jean Guenard's farm was.

It was a beautiful, bright mountain day. Jean Guenard had the sunny disposition to match it. After some quick handshakes, Kate and I ran back to the ham mobile (as we are now calling the van) to grab gear and change into boots. Properly geared up, we entered the first building.

I must admit, neither Kate nor I had expected such a big operation. It turns out that this breeding, farrowing, weaning facility (there are much lovelier terms for this in French) maintains about 500 sows at a time. Down from the 800 sows he had before recent regulations mandated group confinement as opposed to single stall confinement. The breeding farms are converting to comply to the new rules at the expense of the farmers. The two farmers we talked to are reducing their herds and repartitioning the buildings they have rather than building larger facilities. There is some debate about whether group confinement is better. It's a big, country-wide experiment in hopes of more humane conditions. The cleverer farmers will find the solutions to keep the balance sheets in their favor. Josette is doing the same with her animals on her smaller farm so we'll see how it works out over the next year, I guess.

Our first stop is the record keeping room, which also looked to be the locker room for the caretakers. The buildings are long structures made of cinder block with clay tile roofs, wooden doors, cement floors. Stepping inside one knows immediately this is no hobby farm. He points out a horizontal scroll stretched out on the wall of this room: a calendar. A fertility-pregnancy-farrowing schedule. I'm going to order one of these so I can try to figure out how they work. I like calendars. 

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The sows are kept in groups of 28 or so that move through their cycles together. Female pigs (sows) go into heat (estrus) approximately every 21 days. When it gets to be about that time, the sows are moved to a pen in the company of a boar (a male pig). This should get her ovulating if she isn't already. That means eggs are moving down Fallopian tubes ready to be fertilized by sperm.

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M. Guenard then points out the metal card catalog thing on another wall. Each card is a record of each individual sow's career. Each pregnancy is recorded: the number of piglets born, the number that survive, how much milk she gave, and anything else remarkable (like loss of weight or appetite, or complications during birth).

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Underneath the scroll calendar is a small dorm-style fridge. He opens it and pulls out these sealed plastic sacks with bar codes on them. These contain boar semen. Josette had explained to us how the semen is collected, tested for viability and um, she used a term like "washed" or "cleaned" (I guess I need to figure out what that means). Then it's put in a nutrient-rich solution that keeps the sperm healthy and viable.

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I must preface this by saying that we didn't witness this next part. Insemination day is always Tuesday. Our appointment was on Wednesday morning. But here's what I know. So you've got a batch of 28 hot-to-trot ovulating pigs. You take a bag of semen hang it from a hook on a stand next to the sow's stall. Attach that to a tube that is inserted in the sow's vagina until it enters her cervix. Then, drip, drip, drip. That is how the sperm is delivered to the waiting eggs.

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No roses, no champagne, no Al Green sound track. 

Breakfast of Champions

I barely remember breakfast, except that I posted it on Instagram. There was the bread pudding, the basket of croissants and baguette, a slice of the jambon blanc, the ceramic pitchers of cafe and lait. But the highlight was the mamia, little glass jars of clotted sheep milk the texture of yogurt but creamier, without the sharp tang of yogurt but instead the delicate complexity of sheep milk.

The next thing I knew, I was fumbling with my sound equipment, sorely under-prepared for the first on-camera session with Basque-American animal biologist, farmer and cheese maker, Josette Arrayet. Luckily, she's is super nice, and a natural teacher. I learned a lot about what I was going to see next (and you will too--I'll transcribe that interview when I have a moment).

Next we raced up the mountain to Lasse where our piglet will be born. I repeat, will be born.

Okay, before I jump into this I should explain how I ended up here.

 Kate Hill with her Birthday Ham. Ste Colombe-en-Brulhois

Kate Hill with her Birthday Ham. Ste Colombe-en-Brulhois

By now you all know who Kate Hill is. She's my friend of many years, an American who has lived in Southwest France for two and a half decades. I sort of barged into her life and we witnessed our first pig slaughter together. That was more than 15 years ago. It change both our lives. She is now my guide to the other players in this story.

Eric Ospital is a charcuterie maker and co-author of the book Tout Est Bon Dans Le Cochon. In addition to producing Jambon de Bayonne, he produces Jambon des Trios Fermes (Three Farms Ham) and Jambon Ibaiama, ham from his premium pigs. We will follow his supply chain from salt to birth to table.

 Eric Ospital with chines of Ibaiama porc. Hasparren

Eric Ospital with chines of Ibaiama porc. Hasparren

Eric's pigs are bred by Jean Guenard just outside St. Jean Pied de Port. Monsieur Guenard's farm and two other farms make up this special brand of pork called Porc Manex. Some of these piglets (all bred on M. Guenard's farm, are chosen for their physical qualities to be raised as Ibaiona Porc. These special pigs live longer, therefore grow bigger and are allowed to forage in the wooded areas of the farms.

 Jean Guenard pig breeder. Lasse. 

Jean Guenard pig breeder. Lasse. 

Josette Arrayet is a Basque-American from Bakersfield CA. After getting gradute degrees in both animal biology and agricultural management, she moved to the Pays Basque to help in the rebuilding of a nearly extinct heritage pig breed called Le Porc Basque. Unlike the majority of pigs raised in France, the Porc Basque are of Iberican stock. But this is a story for another time. Josette has generously agreed to help us understand the technically and culturally opaque parts of this journey. In English. American English. Wow. She now has a farm and dairy with her partner, cheese maker Gerard Bordagaray.

Tomorrow we will meet the farmer, who will raise our piglet on his farm after it is born and weaned on Jean Guenard's farm. 

M. Guenard also made us aware of one more link in the chain of this little piggy's life: the pig geneticist who supplies Guenard with his breeding stock. It is he who chooses the sows who carry and nurse the piglets, and the boars that inseminate the sows. Um, I don't know his name yet. But we'll try to visit him sooner or later in the Gers

 Josette Arrayet, farmer and biologist. Anhaux.

Josette Arrayet, farmer and biologist. Anhaux.

Alright, so like most of you, I know only a little about biology and farming. So if questions arise, we'll try to find the answers together, okay?


 

Pilgrims 2.5

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But the Medieval pilgrims didn't have Siri and google maps or a minivan. We set the GPS but then just followed the signs with scallop shells on them. "Roncevaux"  he signs said. The narrow road followed a river. Each time we crossed a bridge we seemed to be on the other side of  the rather porous border of France and Spain in Basquelandia. Then finally, the outlet mall tastefully tucked along the river (larger than one would think from the road) announced our official entry into Spain.

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We plunked into the van feeling as stuffed as the taxidermy animals in the restaurant. No word yet from any of our local contacts; mischief on our minds. 

Let's go.

Kate pulled out her paper map. "How about Spain? I've never taken this road to Spain." She points to the border of the two countries on the map. There's a part of France that sticks into Spain (or is it the other way?) to form a nipple. Her finger traces a road through the pass in the mountains. The way of the pilgrims to St Jacques de Compostell, an ancient footpath that wends it's way along the river between the mountain peaks and over the border to Spain (and then the sea). Countless seekers have funneled through this pass on foot. And towns like St Jean Pied de Port sprung up to give them refuge and sustenance along the way, each stop being a day's walk from the other.

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And quickly, the switchbacks began. With each turn a spectacular view of this mountain, then that valley, then that mountain. And the streams and brooks and waterfalls. Just when Kate said something about St Jacques again, we passed the pilgrim, the same young man we had seen before lunch. He was making incredible time. But we had also had a rather epic lunch.

A little way further Kate pulled over so I could photograph some sheep on the side of the road. I stepped out just as a car came whipping down the mountain. Two sheep did that thing, where they hesitated in the road wondering what to do then one bolted straight into the path of the small car and the other followed. The first sheep barely crossed the road. The second literally leapt over the hood of the car. Uninjured. Not sure if I screamed. 

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Finally, we reached the top of the mountain and the church. And the view. We picked out the "back view" of Josette's mountain. 

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Kate told me about Charlemagne and puppet reenactments of Orlando Furioso all the way down the mountain. But half way down, we saw our pilgrim again. This time I'm sure I waved and he waved back. 

Pilgrims Deux

I don't know how to say this without sounding ridiculous. It's beautiful everywhere I look. I don't have to hunt out the beautiful moments here. I feel so stupid. I should have just taken a shortcut and moved here after art school. Game over.  Side step the school of hard knocks: stand at the mouth of this mountain pass. Stupid beautiful. 

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Oh, the crooked paths we take! If we're lucky, despite ourselves, one day we end up here at the Pied de Port (the foot of the entrance). The door to stupid beautiful.

Today was about snooping around. The best way we both know of to get to know our way around is to sort of get lost. So after petit dej, we got in the van and went up the hill, then past the edge of we-know-not-where. Pointing and conjecturing about pig breeding locations and the design of animal sheds and stopping once in a while for sheep. And then after passing the same field of sheep twice, we drove by our first pilgrim, a solitary young man with an orange backpack and a walking stick. I don't remember if we waved. But all his walking was making us hungry.  So when we found ourselves back in St Jean PdP, we turned up another hill in the other direction and found ourselves among the vineyards. 

"I bet there's a good place where the vintners eat lunch," Kate said. Kate has survival-skills-luxe. (You want to be with her during the zombie apocalypse. She'll find a nice spa to hunker down at until a proper cure is found.) Sure enough, we drove past the wine making facility, into a small village, more like a T-intersection in the road where some quaint white buildings with red-brown shutters had grown up, oh, about two to three hundred years ago (or maybe yesterday). We pulled over and stepped into a restaurant where most of the men were eating at a common table. We found a table of our own under this:

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Yes, of course the picture is needlepoint.

Our proprietress rattled off the menu and Kate said, "Perfect," or however you say that in French. I was too distracted by the rest of the room. We agreed it would be uncool to take those pictures until the other guests had left. 

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 By the time we were finishing the lomo with lentils, the bevy of Basque men had left. When the lomo was cleared, I bolted to the back of the restaurant and to the piano where this was happening. 

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...and in the far corner this was guarding the table linens.

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But then, as though to change the subject, I was offered flan. Always say, "Oui," to flan. This one was made with a hint of Riccard.

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 See what I mean? Handmade food in an unexpected place. Stupid. Beautiful.

Now our faith in the delicious, honesty of food restored, we opened a map. Yes, a paper map... 

Pilgrims 1

Today reminded of something my friend, Colleen always says:

"Slow down! This isn't a race; it's your life."

Whenever Kate and I take a road trip, I slow down. Ambling at the required highway speeds, we talk in broad strokes and minute detail, marking points on our calendars in no specific time-frame, about everything in the universe. This afternoon's drive with a tank full of gas, our bellies full of poule au pot, and the back of the van stuffed with a beautiful-but-broken couch, sacks full of cold weather gear, cameras and other devices, was no different. A lesson in pacing. Slow down. Pull over here. Take a picture of the sea of dried fern forests. Oh my gosh, look over there. There's a ladder and a platform in the middle of nowhere. Maybe for hunters. Maybe just to enjoy the vast expanse of undergrowth the color of baked potato skins and the spindly pines that stick up like closed beach umbrellas on a December afternoon.

 Photo by Kate Hill

Photo by Kate Hill

The couch goes first to the English couch hospital just before we enter the mountains in earnest. Then a stop for afternoon hot chocolate in Orthez. As we drive some more and the mountains grow up around us and the sun sets. We arrive in St Jean Pied de Port just in time for Monday happy hour: a glass of Basque hard cider. 

 Photo by Elaine Tin Nyo

Photo by Elaine Tin Nyo

After happy hour, a little WiFi refresher before dinner. Dinner. In the only place in town open on Mondays. A very nice place overlooking the river Nives. Kate had the duck confit with pomme frites; I have the Duck Parmentier. If you don't know, Duck Parmentier is what shephard's pie would be like if sheep were ducks. And shepherds were French. The bestest, most magical purée of potatoes (whipped with duck fat, no doubt) covering a layer of shredded duck confit stewed with a touch of silky onions. When I have time, perhaps when you take out for that drink you promised me, I'll tell you the story of Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, the culinary Johnny Appleseed of France (if apples were potatoes and trees were recipes).

 Photo by Elaine Tin Nyo

Photo by Elaine Tin Nyo

 Photo by Elaine Tin Nyo

Photo by Elaine Tin Nyo


Joyeux Anniversaire

It is traditional here in Gascon France that when one turns 32 again, it happens on the second night of Thanksgiving. It is customary that on the night before your anniversaire one eats dinde americaine. Then upon waking on ones big day, one immediately sets off with ones companions (in this case ones sister and yours truly, the narrator) towards the ancient source of cassoulet and to a restaurant one has been meaning to visit for three quarters of ones 32 years. When ones party finally reaches the village of St Felix de Lauragais, we are seated at the window (because it is ones birthday) and we are but one of three parties at the anointed restaurant. 

Once seated, we take in the Lauragais below us. And we drink champagne...of course, we drink champagne.

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And then the cassoulet feasting begins... 

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 When somewhere around the time one starts ones foie gras au torchon, the chef's wife comes by to say something special is going on over there at that table of businessmen -- an ancient hare dish of some sort, one sends your narrator over to shamelessly take photos.  

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And you overhear the chef recite the recipe...

"Take a large hare and marinate it for four days in port, cognac and red wine and something else (your humble narrator has forgotten).  Then stuff it with foie gras and roast it, basting it well with the marinade. When the hare is done make a sauce of the marinade, pan juices, the blood of the hare and chocolate. Serve this with quenelles of truffled potato purée. Use the whitest potatoes available. Drink the most expensive wine in the cellar and follow the meal with cigars. "

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When the Lievre a la Royale hullabaloo is over, we turn our attention to our own task: cassoulet.

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A ravioli of gesiers also found its way to the table. 

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And once our second helpings were consumed and we were full to our eyeballs of the never ending beans, duck confit, pork rib and Saucisse de Toulouse, the desserts arrive...with the chef...and a sparkler. 

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 "Joyeux Anniversaire" says the tuile plaque.

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What happens after lunch is another story. 

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.

 

It Begins

It begins with a ham sandwich, a Jambon de Bayonne and Emmental panini at a shitty little lunch counter at the local supermarche just before the autoroute.  This is not how all our road trips start, but this one started late. We aren't morning people. I think we're just grabbing and going but this is France. You don't eat in the car. Even in the McDonalds drive-thrus you order, you park, they bring it to your car (because even fast food takes long), you drive it to a place and leave the car to eat. So we ate at a little table at the supermarche. And I had a pressed ham and cheese sandwich an entire baguette long.

We drive on the national autoroute (it's a four lane highway with mostly trucks and other people who drive too fast) westward to the mountains and Basque country...until Kate can't stand driving fast anymore. We turn on to the local roads. We can see the Pyrenees in the distance but our first stop is Salies-de-Bearn.

We stopped for a coffee and Paris-Brest at a gas station on the way.