Ham from Aldudes Valley

Jambon des Aldudes

[Ham from the Aldudes Valley]

In the galaxy of first-class hams, this one most definitely deserves its place. It is made by 60 producers in the beautiful valley of Les Aldudes in the Pays Basque, from a specific breed of pig called le porc basque.

This pig, which sports a pretty pink and black outfit, almost didn’t make it through the twentieth century: from 140,000 individuals in 1929, the headcount had dwindled down to a dramatic twenty by 1981, when the species was officially declared endangered by the French ministry of agriculture.

A few years later, a group of farmers from Les Aldudes, led by Pierre Oteiza, decided to save the basque pig from oblivion and return to traditional methods of breeding and salting. Their action gradually raised the number of pigs and sows, more farmers joined the cause, and in 1995 the porc basque was officially declared out of the woods.

This is just a manner of speaking because the basque pig is in fact destined to spend most of its life up in the mountain forests, where it feeds on grass, roots and the dried fruits that fall from the trees — chestnuts, acorns and beech nuts (faîne in French, which I’m sure you’ll be as happy to learn as I was) — in addition to a mix of non-GMO grains delivered to the herd daily. At 12 to 14 months, the pigs are taken back down to the valley for a somewhat less pleasant episode, which I won’t expand upon.

Their legs and shoulders are then salted with natural salt harvested around Bayonne (200 million years ago this area was beneath sea level), rubbed with pepper, exposed to the mountain winds to dry, and aged for 12 to 16 months.

Maxence and I purchased ours from Pierre Oteiza’s store just outside the village of Les Aldudes. We admired the cute little piglets that were there (they weren’t busy building straw, stick or brick houses, as one might have expected, but rather trying to all graze the exact same spot of grass at the same time, or teaching themselves how to fly), and then went inside to taste and buy (for 40€/kg) a quarter of a leg, probably taken from one of their cousins. Ah well, such is the ecosystem.

A noble dark red, interspersed with little specks and thin layers of flavorsome fat, this ham has a tight and firm texture that melts on the tongue, liberating a powerful and complex taste, brought out (and not at all overpowered) by its saltiness. It is best cut in thin slices with a sharp knife and served at room temperature, at the point where the fat starts to sweat a little.

And of course, like all high-quality hams, you should make sure you get a bit of fat in every bite, an important part of the overall taste experience.

Pierre Oteiza
64430 Les Aldudes
05 59 37 56 11
(Also at 13 rue Vignon, Paris 8ème, but you will miss the whole piglet experience.)

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  • http://www.xanga.com/chef_kayenne kayenne

    reminds me of our old marble floor in the old house. ‘cept this ham’s red. hehhe

  • Harvey

    Would this be the same as what the Sud Ouest folk famously call Bayonne Ham?

  • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

    Harvey – Nope, this is different: the breed of pig is different, and the production method, too. I like Ibaïona ham very much too, but was more impressed by this one, its moist tenderness and its richness of flavor.

  • Fran

    This looks absolutely wonderful. How fortunate you are to have such a beautiful food. We love ham but have never seen anythng like this.

  • http://www.inpraiseofsardines.com Brett

    Clotilde, this summer I had the good fortune to sample delicious ham from the same rare variety of pigs on the Spanish side of the border, at a gastronomic society in San Sebastián. My host referred to the pigs by their Basque name, Euskal Txerria, but mentioned Pierre Oteiza as the one who saved the variety from extinction. There is currently only one Spanish producer, Pello Urdapilleta. Your description of its tenderness and richness is exactly how I remember it as well. I envy you, lucky girl! Enjoy your ham!

  • http://woodwart.blogspot.com travis

    don’t mean to be a thorn, but if society is going to condone eating meat, than society shouldn’t have to speak euphemistically of the slaughtering of animals for food. Meat is not a simple commodity.

    I do find it somewhat hypocritical that we can speak about the tour of a cheese producer (with photos included) but we rush away from any discussion about the process of making pig into pork.

  • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

    Dear Travis: It wasn’t possible to visit the slaughterhouse, but if it were I would have been just as interested to visit it as I was the cheese farm. I like to understand and see for myself where my food comes from, even when it’s not pretty to look at. As for the euphemistic comment about the less pleasant episode, it is something we call “humor.”

  • Alisa

    I LOVE the flying pigs.
    This series of posts is making me want to rush right back there. If you ever go again, I will tip you off to some really hidden wonders there. Food and non-food related.

  • http://woodwart@blogspot.com travis

    I’m not a humourless person. I personally, nor most people I assume, find the loss of life funny; more of a necessary evil. If you would have chosen a humourous statement that reflected it in that way I wouldn’t have had a problem with it.

    Just giving constructive criticism so you can be aware of your audience.

    Look forward to a posting on the french butchering process.

    vegetarianly yours,

    tnw

  • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

    Dear Travis: I don’t think I implied that I thought it funny to kill pigs, I agree that it is a necessary evil, and I certainly didn’t mean to hurt your sensibilities. I was just writing about a very good ham, let’s not read any more than that into my post.

  • Alisa

    Travis, Travis, Travis, why are you trying to pick a fight where there clearly is none to be had?

    Consider yoga.

  • http://www.jamfaced.com Monkey Gland

    Actually Travis killing a pig is fun, we do it every autumn on the farm , the whole family gets together and we kill a pig. A pig we have (ok, ok, my aunt has) raised and we make hams, chorizo, blood sausage and we have a roaring time. We honour that pig by not wasting any one piece of it and by the laughter and joy that rendering that noble and intelligent animal into food brings.

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