According to a legend in the south of France, Gaston Fébus—Count of Foix—wounded a wild boar while he was out hunting in the 14th century. The injured animal escaped. Months later its carcass was found in hot, salty spring water in the town of Salies-de-Béarn. Those who found it were astonished to find that its meat was preserved and still edible. This discovery of the preservative qualities of salting pork led to a ham production industry that has thrived ever since.
This graphic and royalty-tinged legend may also be apocryphal: centuries earlier, Gauls were sending ham from this region to the emperor in Rome. Regardless, the historical importance of this product is undisputed. In the year 1660, when King Louis XIV married Maria Theresa of Spain in the town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Bayonne ham was supposedly featured on the feast menu.
Today’s Bayonne ham industry marries tradition with local resources. Ham is produced according to regulations founded on ancient practices, and is still preserved exclusively with inland ‘mountain salt’ sourced from the base of Pyrenees peaks. The resulting nine- to twelve-month aged Jambon de Bayonne is renowned both for taste and quality.
The origin and properties of this inland salt are intriguing.
This ‘mountain salt’ from southwest France has been harvested since the Bronze Age. Today, at a distance of 28 direct miles (45 kilometers) eastward and inland from the shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean, a 650-foot (200-meter) deep well named Reine Jeanne d’Oraas produces hot water that is ten times saltier than ocean water. This is because it has been in contact with layers of salt deposited millions of years ago when this hilly terrain was covered by seas. This water bristles with 26 trace elements, including magnesium, zinc, strontium, lithium, selenium, nickel and cobalt. Additionally, this mineral includes unique hydroscopic properties that better allow the salt to penetrate meat.
This water is channeled from the well at Oraas for five miles (eight kilometers) through a pipeline to the saltworks management company at Salies-de-Béarn. Mountains of salt are stacked for months here in a warehouse to reduce moisture content from 5% to 3%. Because four-fifths of this salt is used for curing local ham (and because Bayonne ham can only be preserved with this salt), it is not surprising that the ham consortium purchased this entire salt production operation.
Here, at a temperature below boiling, saltwater flows out of a pipeline into massive tanks shaped liked swimming pools. Most coarse salt sinks to the bottom and is eventually used to cure ham. It is both pure and very white. A fraction of the salt, however, floats on the water surface. This is skimmed off by individuals holding nets—like pool skimmers used to capture leaves. Known as Fleur de Sel, this salt is treasured by gastronomic chefs because of its properties of lightness, taste, crunchiness and the fact that it retains its flavor after cooking.
I took a lick.
(These local hot and salty waters support another industry—regional thermal baths renowned for their therapeutic properties.)
Beside taste influences from this inland salt, the quality of Bayonne ham relates to traditional restrictions under which it is produced.
Most pigs that produce Bayonne ham are bred on hundreds of relatively small family-owned farms, each on average about 100 acres (40 hectares) in size. Many farmers also grow corn and soy to feed their livestock. Although pigs can be raised within 22 administrative and geographical ‘departments’ within three historical regions of southwest France (Aquitaine, Midi-Pyrénées and Poitou-Charentes), their meat can only be salted and aged south of the Adour River. This is because this ‘Adour basin’ was historically cool enough to allow for sterile meat production. Visualize this: the Adour River flows south from the Pyrenees Mountains before making a sharp turn westward toward the Atlantic. This combination of river, peaks and coastline form a geographical rectangle between ocean and mountains that is dried by hot Foehn winds rolling off peaks, and whipped by damp breezes fluffing in from the Atlantic. The resulting climate is optimal for ham production.
Free range (or ‘plein air’) farms also exist here. These include that of Earl Baile and his son Damien. They raise 200 pigs on eight acres (three hectares) of rolling hills located between Salies-de-Béarn and St. Palais. While walking this land in view of distant peaks, Damien explained that depending on the market cycle, their animals can sell (by weight) for 40% more than pigs raised indoors. By strictly enforced regulations, each animal must be 182 days or older before it is taken to the abattoir. By this time most weigh a hefty 270 pounds (120 kilograms).
Raising livestock according to strict European Union standards affords Bayonne ham with IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée) certification. This is analogous to French government AOC denominations for wines: it indicates that the product was prepared, tested and accredited according to standards related to quality and origin. Quality control inspections are constant and legion and come from farmers themselves, members of the consortium as well as from independent agencies.
Within the town of Arzacq, a one-hour drive east and slightly north of Salies-de-Béarn, Pierre-Yves Alifat led me into a processing facility where legs of ham—delivered from nearby abattoirs—are salted and aged. As Director of the Consortium of Bayonne Ham, Alifat put the scenario into context.
Historically, without refrigerators, ham was traditionally aged in mountains where it stays cooler. In the Middle Ages pork was salted in November, December and January to stabilize the meat, then placed in barns in spring where it dried out from wind.
Alifat studied agronomy in Toulouse, and worked with French banks, Quebec fisheries and with the military in the Seychelles before directing the Consortium of Bayonne Ham (which is partially funded by the European Union). He is an adaptable and amenable character who can prattle off statistics with aplomb, toast aperitifs in a suit and tie with politicians, and also skillfully salt a sizable ham by hand inside a curing unit.
In a preparation room we slipped on disposal hairnets, aprons and booties and then washed and sanitized our hands. We next entered a bright lit interior. There, vertical racks holding ham legs are attached to a network of ceiling mounted rails. This allows each to be slid from room to room for differing processes. Each approximately 22-pound (10 kilogram) ham leg is first laid on a table and salted for about ten minutes until the surface begins to ‘shine.’ The entire leg is then coated in salt and stored at a cool temperature for some 11 days, until the salt is dusted off and the ham begins to age for nine to 12 months. During this time salt seeps into the ham and transforms its taste profile—much as an oak barrel modifies characteristics of an aging wine. At some point each leg is coated with a mixture of rice flour and grease to close its pores and improve eventual flavors—enhancing hazelnut and softly saline tastes.
Each ham includes several stamps. These indicate its date of arrival, origin, approvals and a final branded ‘lauburu,’ or Basque Cross seal of certification. A fourth of all hams retain their original shape, while the rest are sliced and packaged.
In summary, what makes Bayonne ham unique?
In addition to taste imparted by inland salt, Bayonne ham includes high sources of B vitamins, proteins, essential fatty acids such as Omega 6, and is relatively low in cholesterol. Additional factors that contribute to its uniqueness, quality and flavor derive from impacts of low-density farming, sustainable raising of corn as feed, and aging for nine months.
Today the international market includes Belgium, Germany, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S. Ham that is shipped to the U.S. must undergo additional daily inspections for certification (as well as factory re-certification every 18 months). The effort appears to be worth it: the number of hams shipped stateside verges on doubling the original quantity first sent to the U.S. three years ago.
Outside the salting and aging facility, we drove down hilly switchbacks and across verdant hills that looked toward deep valleys of the Béarn and Basque countryside. We aimed for Bayonne. Although this city is too warm for producing or aging ham, the name association derives from its historical importance as a shipping port. For more than five centuries, Bayonne city has included a large ham market. Today, the city’s compelling architecture includes a citadel constructed by 17th century military architect Vauban. The city was a historical center for chocolate production and once included multiple canals to transport goods to the Adour River, from where they then floated to the Atlantic.
Every year in late July, Bayonne ham producers gather in the city for Fêtes de Bayonne—a massive five-day festival that draws up to a million visitors dressed in white and red to celebrate Basque and regional history. Dozens of events take place during these festival days, including a running of bulls, pétanque (boules), traditional Basque dancing and jazz, violin and choir concerts.
The festival kicks off on Wednesday evening at 10.00 p.m. in the Place de la Liberté outside the mayor’s office—beside the confluence of the Adour and Nive rivers. There are speeches from the town hall in French and Basque while a packed crowd cheers and sings. Only after the festival begins, according to tradition, can hordes of visitors transform their red scarves into neck kerchiefs. They do this while dispersing back into city plazas and alleyways to enjoy summer evening aperitifs of Bayonne ham together with glasses of Béarn, Jurançon and Irouleguy wines. This celebration of culture and tradition is also a memorable mid-summer feast.