The Salt Circle: a fundamental approach to charcuterie & saying yes.
On saying YES.
Recently, I said YES to Elaine Tin Nyo’s request to be mentor, guide and chauffeur to her newly funded, long term art project “This Little Piggy” . This is not the first time I have jumped first and then looked what was before me. You might say it is a recurring theme in my life. A happy, sought after, and welcome life theme. So now that I know what she is up to, I can tell you and you can follow Elaine’s project here at as she creates new media events in five countries. The first TLP pig is French.
Elaine had two basic needs for this first scouting trip- shoot material for two 15-minute videos for further funding presentations for the project. One on the tail of the project- HAM, and one on beginning- SALT. I knew where we needed to go. Basquelandia- that nearly mythic map that drapes across the Pyrenean valleys and peaks connecting a series of village dots called Hasparren, St. Jean Pied de Porc*, Banka, & les Aldudes. These are the little heart-fluttering destinations along the pilgrim’s ham trail for my graduating Butchery & Charcuterie students. Here, in the rain shadow of the Pyrenees, the windward side, the Foehn effect creates a microclimate ideal for making ham. You might know this as Chinook or Santa Ana winds.
We followed a trail of puffy high clouds south talking about René Magritte. Under these high skies lies the Ham-centric region of France that gives birth to the celebrated Jambon de Bayonne. Black-bottomed Basque pigs cavort under chestnut trees and Eric Ospital lords over the salty kingdom of Ibaionaia. But that is the second video. And you must wait. Just like Elaine did.
Sea salt, mineral salt, salt from ancient mines… Salt is at the beginning of all charcuterie. It might have been called Char-salterie. Bits of porc are always salted first before being cured, smoked, dried, cooked, and aged. So salt comes first. We began this little R&D trip at Salies-de-Béarn south and west of Camont.
Two Hundred Million years ago… The Boreal Sea slips across this basin as Pangaea begins to break up. The salty waters evaporate over 150,000,000 years before being buried under the Pyrenees. Rain water from puffy mountain clouds infiltrates into the salt layers now loaded with minerals and protected by clay barriers. Today, this Salt Spring, ten times more salty than the Dead Sea, is the nexus of a ‘turn-of-the-last-century’ spa, the historic medieval crypt source within the old village and the newly renovated gourmet salt works on the edge of town.
This is the blinding white site where a very pure and naturally mineralized salt is harvested by heating the salty spring waters to 83° C /141° F after the red iron has been removed. Little cloud crystals of fleur de sel gather along the edge of the pools to be harvested by sun-glassed mermaids. Then a giant flat perforated dredger dips down to the bottom of the pool to lift out a few hundred kilos of salt filling white bag after white bag that drain into the open salt yard and back to the source.
I love the 14th Century legend that says a wild boar was shot and then chased into the salty mud at the spring where it was discovered some months later and deemed edible. In truth, there have been salt works here since the Bronze age- 500 years B.C.. The Gallo-Romans produced salt loaves in conical clay pots baked in special ovens. A millenium later, the Medieval salt pond served as the town center and afforded citizens their own tax exempt wealth. These salt benefits are still shared today by the Parts-Prenants, 600 descendents of the original landowners. The traces of salt are everywhere in this lovely little Béarnese town.
Salt is the beginning of many adventures. For Elaine Tin Nyo, this is the beginning of a long work documenting 5 little piggies in 5 countries from birth to… ham. For me, I’m glad I said yes first. Salt rules my kitchen adventures at Camont. And for you? Add a little more salt to your life… Say yes more often.
* St. Jean Pied de Port is its real name. And should you be traveling in SW France this month, don’t miss the Fete de Sel at Salies de Béarn the weekend of Sept 12-15 2013. Thanks to David Guilbot and the Tourist Office in the heart of town for their help. Like them here. And should you see me on the road, wave. I’ll be coming through the next week with my own Salt Circle Road Trip: Basquelandia.
Meet Elaine in NYC here: http://www.moma.org/learn/courses/courses#artist-led
Next stop Ham Heaven at Ibaionia…