A cuddle of black and white piglets under a heat lamp in a barn perched on the side of a mountain in the Pyrenees-
Meet the Porc Basque.
And this is where it ends- 3 years later.
A hall of ham in the same Pyrenees Mountains ageing with the help of the dry Foehn wind.
Meet the Kintoa Ham.
The journey our food takes from live animal to edible product is a long and precarious one. Even a simple carrot is a year of careful work and attention to a complex web of details from soil care and weather to weeding, harvesting and preserving. In the four weeks that our students spend here in Southwest France, on the Chapolard farm and in the markets, shops and kitchen at Camont, they also make that journey. From an idea of what pork is to the visceral understanding of making food from seed-to-sausage, I watch as the one by one, each butcher, cook, or want to be farmer takes the steps in his or her own way. On the way to the mountains we stop at Hasparren- home of the Louis Ospital workshop. Here, Ibaiona Pork Master Eric Ospital shares his little gourmet cult cut- lepoa, destined for the finest restaurants in Paris. I met Eric and the World of Ham a year ago here.
On the last trip to the Pyrenees Valley of Les Aldudes, the Spring ’13 gang of four (Kirsty, Adam, John and Analiesa) were joined by guest Welsh Pig Guru Illtud Llyr Dunsford. For a look at his own French Jaunt journey, check out his thoughtful blog here. Reading about his trip, inspired me to think about my own. Each small group I teach is different and although personalities do factor into learning and time spent together, I see a common pattern emerge. In the beginning, we all look for the similarities.
A pig is a pig is a pig until it becomes a PIG. While working at the Chapolard farm- Baradieu- all pigs are big- 400 lbs plus. Although housed in various European pig sheds just outside the meat cutting room door, they keep a rather low profile as our focus is on the final product- farmstead charcuterie. One of the reasons I whisk the group away from the cradle of a single farm focus is to shake our comfortable relationship with the family farm and introduce the idea that there are a hundred ways into the harbor*.
This is a very different harbor indeed. This is where the differences begin to tell. These fern-thatched nursery sheds are located just outside the Pierre Oteiza production facility and boutique in Aldudes. Mother sows and porcelets are kept here under a watchful eye until the piglets are weaned at 6-8 weeks when they are moved to mountain parks for the rest of their adult lives. It’s easy to spend a couple hours just watching the juvenile antics of the young within walking distance of the restaurant where we enjoyed a long and porky lunch- from prized Kinto jambon to stuffed pigs’ ear terrine served with pickled cherries and a good bottle of Irouleguy.
We talked a lot on the road.
About people’s expectations in buying high welfare meat. About how good animal husbandry isn’t always as pretty as consumers would like to see. Producing good quality meat is a lot of work and yes, there is mud and pig shit. Just ask Kiwi Kirsty as she completes a couple weeks of continuing education mucking around with pigs. Her Plog here is an insider’s few of Pig School here in Gascony.
Next, there are a myriad of small differences that begin to make themselves known. Here at the Chapolards, we make small boneless Noix de Jambon, like culatello but smaller cuts. But this high Basque valley area is famous for ham- on my own map of SW France I call it Ham Heaven. From these farms to this table, or in this case from those Basque piglets to this beautiful Kinto ham rubbed red with the Basque panacea Piment d’Espelette, there are a lot of small important steps: the careful tending and feeding of the animals who live most of their adult life outside until the age of 12-15 months; the slaughter and butchering of the carcasses; the salting, drying and ageing of the hams in this specially designed ‘sechoir’ or curing facility for another 12-18 months. A total of three years plus if add in the gestation period of the piglets.
Most often we eat the salty fruit of all these labors with barely a thought of the day-to-day work that goes into making our basic food. But I trust that after 4 weeks of up front and personal contact with the French farmers, butchers and charcutiers that grow, tend, slaughter, butcher and transform, this well-dressed group, including me, will spend an extra little moment of reflection on the people who make the food we eat. Thanks to all our welcoming hosts-charcutiers Eric Ospital, Catherine Oteiza, and farmers Josette Arrayat and Gerard Bordagaray!
at the Sechoir Collective de la Valle des Aldudes
* ‘Cannibal Ed’ Boden (1981-USVI)
The Foire au Jambon in the colorful Basque port of Bayonne.
A memory of a Bayonne surfaces from a long ago road trip looking for marine goods along the Atlantic coast for my barge, the Julia Hoyt. Rope, cord, and lines I was searching. I drove along the river port of the Adour outside of Bayonne in the very southwest of Southwest France looking for some fishermen, a working boat or chandlery. The newly fitted nose of wooden fishing boat peeked out of an over-sized hanger; I braked for a quick look inside. Yes. Men working with wood and fiber glass, paint and canvas. Ocean going small fishing boats. Sturdy, serious and hard-working. The boats and the men. I knew they would know. I have a nose for these things.
I thanked them for the directions to the Co-op Maritime in St. Jean de Luz, I turned to say au revoir and stopped dead in my foodie tracks. Although the Captain in me was looking for cord, the Cook in me spotted a treasure trove of maturing hams hanging from every square foot of rafter space. A boat yard/charcuterie shed? Welcome to Baiona!
I swim in a sea of charcuterie every week as I plow the waves of good food produced by the neighboring farms of the Lot-et-Garonne: salted hams, meaty saucisson, head cheese, terrines, patés, and other cured and confited parts of the fatted pig. As a cook, I began my sea trials in meat here as I discovered the extraordinary flavors of each cured piece of the pig. I started to learn my hind leg for jambon from my forward leg- shoulder for fresh saucisse de Toulouse. Then it was loins and chops, ribs and collar. Next came the innards…
Like all novices, I worked my way up and down the coast of liver, kidneys, brain, lung, and blood. I watched as pigs were slaughtered and butchered on family farms, one at a time, with care and respect for the ‘year of meat’ to come. Then I began to help- trimming meat, carrying ourt orders from the grand-mères as whole pigs were put up in jars- canned, sterilized in a water bath and stored, or salted, peppered, and hung to age in a corner of the barn. But it wasn’t until I barged into the life of a small pig farm that I learned the most important past of this ocean of charcuterie. It’s the pig. Just simply the PIG.
Imagine the first visit to the Chapolard farm in 1997 with my good friend Elaine Tin Nyo. She wanted to do a series of photographs and videos for one of her edibly inspired art exhibits. I had already begun cooking my way through the pig with the market advice of Marc Chapolard, who selling me a piece of pork a week talked me through the process of cooking boudin, salting a tail, or roasting a collar. There is an image of that first visit to Baradieu- Marc holding out his hands full of ground grains- grain that they grew on the farm to feed their pigs.
Oh, Pigs eat too. I want to know what I am eating eats. What? What do pigs eat?
My brain was moving slowly forward. These pigs eat wheat, barley, corn, oats, sunflowers, favabeans, soy… How big are they? Oh, big. Very big as these meat growing pigs are intended for charcuterie as well as fresh meat. Twelve months old, 400 lbs+ of solid red meat and firm flavorful fat. The Chapolards know that their mature pigs’ meat is fully developed in both flavor and structure. Here in Gascony, we believe that the best charcuterie is not just from certain types of breeds finished on fancy diets, but rather from a well balanced diet fed its entire life and a ‘grownup’, fully mature animal. Oh, this pork meat is like beef. Not veal. Can you imagine making corned veal, veal jerky, or veal bresaola? The meat cells must develop sufficiently to be able to cure properly both in flavor and in texture.
There are technical reasons behind all this, but for us amateurs of good meat our best chance to getting good pork is to ken your pork producer or artisan butcher and learn as much as you can, piece by piece. I have the luxury of, after 14 years, knowing the Chapolards well. Baradieu is not a pigshit-free showcase farm; but they raise their Large White/Pietrai/Duroc pigs with the sort of care over 12 months from birth to slaughter that produces delicious and tasty meat. Like this slab of pork belly I used for my ventrèche géante.
“THE PRESENCE OF A BUTCHER IN A DISTRICT SAYS AS MUCH FOR ITS INTELLIGENCE AS FOR ITS WEALTH. THE WORKER FEEDS HIMSELF, AND A MAN WHO FEEDS HIMSELF THINKS.”
H. De Balzac- “The Country Doctor”
The white blackboard read: Project- “dans le cochon tout est bon” . And so it was.
This week, twenty-four French lycée students between 16-20 years old and their professors M. Franck LAPIERRE and M. Jean Marc BOUILLY allowed three American kitchen-crashers to look over their shoulders as Dominique Chapolard, artisan butcher and pork producer, demonstrated in the expansive school kitchen that “in the pig, all is good!”
The attentive white-clad chefs-in-training crowded around as M. Chapolard reconstructed the whole pig carcass, piece by piece, organ by organ. Silence reigned as Dominique, our master butcher mentor here at Camont, explained what goes into making good pork from field to table.
Only when he split the skull to reveal the tiny brain did squeamish teenage yelps erupt. Quickly silenced by Chef Lapierre, he teased them that they see more blood on the horror films they watch. After the initial hour of dissection, as the muscle groups began to resemble familiar meat cuts, this next generation of France’s good cooks began to chop and grind, season and taste, while the scent of Gascony’s prized pork filled the kitchen. A hind leg became a Jambon, a shoulder a Roti de Porc. The large rib cage transformed into ventreche, poitrine and travers. Legs broke down into jarret and pied de porc while the caul fat was washed and leaf lard rendered out before grattons were drained and pressed into a terrine.
This fine piggy day was a part of “Cooking at the Source-Gascony“, a collaboration between Robert Reynold’s Chef’s Studio in Portland, Oregon and my own Kitchen-at-Camont. We spent the morning with our good friend and farmer/butcher Dominique Chapolard as he did a day long demonstration for the students of the Lycee Jacques-de-Romas in neraby Nerac. For upcoming Duck workshops in the U.S. and France consult our program pages.
The Agen market is full of surprises on a perfect fall morning.
Today, shopping for quince, cress, and cilantro I ran into a drove of pigs.
Free-range, pasture-raised French pigs.
Like a stage setting, simplicity itself- one knife, a cleaver, a wooden block,
& a smile.
of Tournon d’Agenais
No one was more surprised than me to meet the new butcher boy on the block
and discover some damn good looking charcuterie and fresh pork.
Merci, Julien for taking over the family farm.
See you next Wednesday for your andouillette-
my secret ingredient for an onctuous cassoulet.
Wednesdays- Agen Central Market