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. 



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."


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... 

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. 


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:


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. 


 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. 


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


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.


 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... 

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.