Bayonne Ham (Jambon de Bayonne) takes its name from the ancient port of Bayonne in the far South West of France. Contrary to common belief, the ham was not born in this city, but comes from the surrounding of the valley of the Adour. The hams were transported to Bayonne for shipment in Galupa (flat-bottomed boats) on the Adour. Originally used to supplement farmers provisions over the winter months the Bayonne Ham very quickly became a sought after delicacy. Bayonne Ham is slightly golden, sweet, delicately flavoured, moist and with very little salt to the taste. If cut thinly, is almost translucent.
Bayonne Ham is an air dried, salt cured ham which is similar to Prosciutto. The salt used in the production of Bayonne ham is locally produced, from the 14th century salt pans of the Adour Estuary or from those near Béarn (200 million years ago this area was beneath sea level), and many hams are also rubbed with locally-grown red peppers (Piment d'Esplette) during the air drying process. Most Bayonne hams are also rubbed with a paste of lard and flour to keep them moist through the warmer and drier spring and summer months. When handled and cured well, Bayonne ham is dark red in colour, with a very tender, mild flavour which has only a hint of saltiness.
The modern drying methods mimic those used in the past. Each drying storage chamber has temperature and humidity controls set to match seasonal variations and the changing humidity conditions produced each year by the foehn (southerly wind) and the Atlantic ocean.
The meat itself has to be produced from one of eight clearly defined breeds of pig reared in an area from Deux Sèvres in the north to Aveyron and the Aude. The regulations are very strict and cover the zone of origin of the pork, the regime for feeding the animals (no steroids, no fish oils, no antibiotics), and each animal must be clearly and uniquely identifiable with a brand – the traditional Croix Basque or Lauburu also known as the Basque Cross.
The origins of how Bayonne Ham came about are long lost in the mists of time but legend has it that in the 16th century the Count of Foix and Viscount of Béarn was hunting Wild Boar one winter The hunting party chased the Boar into the saline springs at Salies de Béarn. The following season the Boar was discovered perfectly preserved at the bottom of the stream, dried and salted. Covered with a thin white layer, it seemed in perfect condition. On tasting it they found it excellent and thus Bayonne Ham was born!
Bayonne Ham certainly existed as far back as the 12th century - on the portal of the church of Sainte-Marie Oloron, there is a carving in the stone representing it at the depicted Wedding of Cana. Henry IV enjoyed Bayonne Ham, requesting it at his Court in Paris, Rabelais wrote about it and Louis XI authorized two annual fairs in Bayonne in 1462 for its promotion – the Spring Fair survives to this day.