The French Pig (from salt to ham)

It's Complicated

I'm back at Camont after a few days of piggy mayhem in the Basque Country. I know everyone wants to know about the name. But it's complicated.

I think of myself as relatively well organized, a good communicator and "a people person" and Kate is triply so all those things. But even having Kate on my side on this project, my short-comings are laid bare. I realize what a dumbass I am. I really don't know anything. I am a city mouse in pig's clothing. But I am learning so much.

Every turn is a learning moment. If things were going smoothly I wouldn't be learning about the complexity and nuances of the system I am trying to document. So bear with me while I try to explain this.

I arrived on Tuesday and after an overnight at Camont, we set off for the Basque Country. We had cheese sandwiches while we drove, and arrived a little after lunch to the breeding farm in Lasse. There, the younger M. Guenard, Julian Guenard met us. He knew we wanted to see piglets. And this is where our education began.

First we saw the progress they had made in accordance with the new European mandate about sow housing. I have not read these mandates but basically it required breeding farms to change their practice from keeping sows in individual stalls to being kept in groups with room to walk around in each group's pen. That meant the downsizing of the sow population (because each pig needed more room) and the building of corrals. When we had visited in December they were just building the new pens. The senoir M. Guenard had worried at the expense and whether they would be able to support the farm with less sows. So by now, the first group of sows had been rehoused for a few weeks. Julian explained that at first there was conflict within the groups of about eight sows per corral. They establish a hierarchy and each one claimed a space in the pen that was her own. At one side of each corral were individual feeding stalls, each with it's own trough. They were happy, and except for the occasional scuffle, rather calm and perhaps even peaceful. 

 

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The first time I was in a confinement breeding farm (a farm where pigs are kept inside) the barn was filled with stall after stall of one sow each. The stalls were narrow in some cases they had a neck harness that restricted their movement. Friends, it wasn't pretty. When we entered and switched on the lights the under-stimulated pigs would panic and squeal and yell. Stress on the pigs, stress on the caregivers. Stress is not good for anyone's health.

Julian explained how it was hard at first, but now the pigs are happier. They aren't panicky. They are healthier. And calm, happy pigs make a farmer's life less stressful and so he is happy too. 

So then I asked my first stupid question: "What's up with the spray paint on the sows?"

It turns out they keep track of the weigh of each sow and mark the ones that are underweigh and overweigh. Remember these are expectant mothers. And even though there are 500 of them (at various stages of pregnancy) to the six people who staff the farm, the sows are each hand fed. As Julian put it: "This is not a robo-farm." Each pig is fed to it's needs to maintain the best possible health. A properly fed pig is less likely to be sick. She's more likely to have healthy piglets: not too big as to cause difficult delivery; not so small as to endanger the newborns' viability. 80% of the overhead of this kind of operation is pig feed. It's where many farms skimp. Cheap food. But if a pig is well nourished there is no need for medications. And healthy mothers mean healthy piglets.

  "Oh wow," I thought. Oh wow.

Next we went to the birthing sheds. 

Piglets Now!

We met Julian on Wednesday. Julian is the son of Jean Guenard, who breeds the piglets that become Ibaiona hams. He showed us around the improvements to the facility since we had been there in December. I will tell you about those improvements later. They are impressive. When Kate explained why we were there, he asked  the question that I couldn't quite get my head around until that moment. He asked the completely basic question I had been to ignorant to ask. "But how will we know which piglet will go to Eric; at birth is too early to tell."

Then he took us to the birthing rooms where the still pregnant sows were to deliver any time now. Some of the sows had already delivered a day or two early, one of them a week early. We left our phone number and he told us he would call tomorrow when they were giving birth. He would not be there in the morning, but Agnes, the pig mid-wife would be.

We checked into the hotel and hung our piggy clothes to air on the terrace. We took a little "internap" and said hello to our facebook friends. We went for a nice dinner and, encouraged by the Basque cider and jetlag, very quickly we were asleep.

The next morning (this morning) we went down to breakfast ready for action and wearing our piggy clothes. Kate went up to pick up her recharging phone, while I finished my coffee and mamia. Then she sent me the panicked text message:

"Piglets now! Julian just called."

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Many of the sows had given birth overnight. We missed the last delivery by minutes.

We entered a room with 11 sows most with newborn litters of 8 to 20 (yes, 20) piglets. Some were still passing the last of their placentas. And we met Agnés. 

Agnés, the pig midwife... 

What's in a Name?

So, tomorrow I go back to lurk around M. Guenard's breeding farm.  (Yes, the flight over was uneventful. Thank you for asking.)  Let's do a quick recap of what's happened so far.

 Trip 1:

We went to the source of the salt used to cure Jambon de Bayonne. I thought we'd be going to Bayonne — to the sea, for sea salt. But I was wrong. The salt comes by mandate from the ancient salt springs of Salies de Baern, the remains of a now subterranean prehistoric sea. Salt from before human time, harvested to preserve meat for the future. We met the ham maker, Eric Ospital whose supply chain we will follow from salt and piglet to sausage and ham.

Trip 2:

We went to see how piglets are conceived. But while we took lunch at the Taxidermy Cafe and followed the Pilgrims' trail, through some miscommunication, our breeder, M. Guenard was hard at work breeding. The next day, we got the full tour without the Al Green soundtrack. And that is how we met the two likely — now pregnant — mothers of our piglet. Pigs gestate for three months, three weeks and three days. Farmers can practically set their clocks to it. They inseminate on Tuesdays and deliver on Thursdays, or there abouts. When only a handful of people are responsible for 500 pregnant sows, it is handy to have a system and they do — an admirably efficient system.

We also visited the farm of American-born Basque animal scientist, farmer and cheese maker, Josette Arrayet. I will tell you her story later.

Trip 3 (Now) : 

So like I said, I'm back three months, three weeks and three days later. It's two in the morning and I am wide awake sitting in the dark, in bed in the "summer house" at Camont. Jet lagged. And Kate is also jetlagged from her return from Australia. But tomorrow we will drive from Camont to Lasse and see what we will see: the birth of two litters of piglets of which we will pick the biggest, healthiest, most ham-worthy male.

So, what's in a name?

Last week in preparation for the coming of my piglet, I polled you (my friends, my audience) . We compiled more than 60 names of which I added the most popular boy names in France this year (from a baby blog). I asked a smaller group of you to winnow the list down. You can vote for your favorite of these here. But I'm making all this up as I go. So, armed with your list and recommendations, I'll wait to see the pig before I choose a suitable name for him. I think that's what most parents do. And I might come up with a name that is not on our list. Because that is my perogative as an artist.

In our instant messages across several oceans, land masses and time zones, Kate has voiced an opinion that echoes others of you. "I think the name is less about a personality and a people name could be challenging for some at the slaughter and food stages...like eating Bob ham…sounds revolting." Some of you have told me privately that it is kind of disturbing to give the piglet, an animal we will eat, a human name. How can we eat parts of a being with the same name as people we know, members of our tribe? This is reflected in a certain proportion of your name suggestions which made light of the pig's final destiny. Names like Sausage, Hammy, Tasty Cakes and Bacona. But then again we often give names to babies to honor individuals we admire or to recognize our ancestors. Why should the animals we eat be different? 

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?