Thursday, 28 May 2009

Bayonne Ham, the Basque and Gascon Pigs and Recipe

Bayonne Ham can only be made from one of the 8 designated breeds of pig and depending on where they are situated the locals will tell you that the best comes from either the traditional Basque pig (Pie Noir du Pays Basque) or the Gascon Black pig.

The Basque Pig

The Basque pig originates in the Basque country, Béarn and the Haut Pyrenees regions of south west France. Nearly extinct in the early 80’s it owes its survival to the perseverance of a handful of local breeders. From 140,000 pigs in 1929, the number of Basque pigs had dropped to just 20 in 1981 when the breed was designated an endangered species. A few years later a group of farmers from the beautiful Aldudes valley, led by Pierre Oteiza, decided to save the pig from oblivion and return to traditional methods of breeding and salting. Oteiza tells of how he discovered his home region's rare breed of pig when he went to the Easter Show in Paris in 1988. Instead of returning with a diamond ring for his fiancée, he turned up with two pigs under his arms.

The pigs live outside all year round, foraging for food on the wooded hillsides of the Aldudes Valley. Their diet of chestnuts, acorns and roots is supplemented by a daily helping of grains and beans to ensure that the pigs don’t roam too far from the farms. Oteiza has built traditional hay-stacked sties with a chestnut tree in each enclosure so that the pigs can graze on the windfalls.

The Basque Pig is easily recognized with its black head and bottom, and its big ears!

The Black Gascon

The Gascon pigs used in ham making are black and the heritage breed is the Noir de Bigorre pig. This is claimed to be the most ancient breed of pig known in France. The geographer Strabo himself, in Roman times, praised the quality of black pigs, claiming "they were the best of the Empire."

Similar to the Spanish Iberico, this breed is deep black in colour and originated in the foothills of the French Pyrenees in the area around Nébouzanne, which stretches between the departments of Haute-Garonne, Haute-Pyrénées and Gers. The Gascon Black Pig has been revived as a species in the French Pyrenees after their numbers dropped to just a few hundred in the late 1970s.

The most important product made from the Noir de Bigorre pig is an air cured whole ham, called Noir de Bigorre. These hams cure from 18 to 24 months and are served thinly hand-sliced at room temperature. The ham is fine-flavoured with a warm, long-lasting scent and flavour. Other specialities made from Noir de Bigorre pig include cured sausage and rolled bacon, both of which can be aged.


Pipérade is a Basque dish, traditionally prepared with Espelette peppers – the colours coincidentally reflect the colours of the Basque flag.

2 onions, finely chopped
6 ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
3 green peppers, cut into strips
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 cup olive oil
Salt, pepper
9 fresh eggs, beaten
6 pieces sliced Bayonne ham

Sauté the onions in the olive oil for about 5 mins. Add the tomatoes, bell peppers, and garlic, and cook gently until almost all the juices have evaporated. Pour the beaten eggs over the vegetables. Over low heat, stir the mixture so that it resembled soft scrambled eggs. Season with salt and pepper and then add the ham before serving.

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