This holiday season, indulge in the most famous ham in France.
The holidays call for traditions: movie marathons with hot chocolate, building gingerbread houses with friends, baking your body weight in Christmas cookies, and however else you and yours annually choose to deck the halls. These have always been rituals we look forward to—but lately, they’ve taken on even more significance, functioning as little relief valves from a world increasingly full of chaos, stress and concern.
And, of course, traditions aren’t just practices we indulge in as individuals. At Bayonne Ham, tradition is at the heart of their entire operation and brand.
“Bayonne Ham is a local product that draws on 1,000 years of know-how, history and pleasure,” says Stéphanie Couralet, communication officer for the Bayonne Ham Consortium in France. “As it was done a thousand years ago, Bayonne Ham is produced according to ancestral methods: [first,] the pigs destined for the production of Bayonne Ham are exclusively born and raised in a delimited area corresponding to the South-West of France and fed with a corn-based diet; [then,] the hams are salted with a spring salt from Salies-de-Béarn; [and finally,] the hams are produced in an exclusive salting and maturing area: the Adour Basin, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pyrenean mountains.”
Produced in a time-consuming, 7-step process, Bayonne Ham is a literal labor of love. Each winter, the whole fresh hams are rubbed with salt from Salies-de-Béarn. They are covered with a thick layer of salt and then placed in the salting room. Next, the hams are hung in the cellar to rest. This rest is important, as it recreates the winter conditions from the salting process and allows the hams to dry at a low temperature. Once the hams have rested, they are placed in the drying room where they are hung on beams to dry. This step is extremely significant, as this maturation process optimizes the flavor, aroma and softness of the ham. Next, pork fat and flour are applied to the muscular parts of the ham (this process is called “the pannage,” says Couralet, and it allows for a softer drying during the long maturation period). The final stage of production is the ripening, says Couralet, when the ham acquires all its qualities and reveals its personality. From there, the ham undergoes testing to make sure it meets or exceeds Bayonne’s high standards. Once this testing is complete, and the ham has passed all of the various selection stages, the ham receives the “Bayonne” seal, the Lauburu (coming from the Basque ‘lau,’ meaning ‘four,’ and ‘buru,’ meaning ‘head’), and heads to markets from Manhattan to Marseille.
This level of care and consistency over the past millennium earned Bayonne Ham a PGI certification in 1998. An acronym for “Protected Geographical Indication,” the PGI is a sign of quality and origin established by the European Union in 1992, communicating to consumers that any certified product has a history and tradition in their area.
Bayonne Ham has both in spades.
“According to legend, an extraordinary chain of circumstances is at the origin of Bayonne Ham,” says Couralet. “One day during a hunt, Gaston Fébus, Count of Foix, wounded a wild boar that ran away and was discovered by hunters, a few months later, in a salt water spring in Salies-de-Béarn. The animal was in perfect condition! This is how salting was born in the Adour basin.”
Bayonne Ham is not just an amazing story—one fitting for this time of year when so many of us are celebrating sacred days that grew from stories themselves—but it’s an amazing product, as well. Aged for a minimum of 9 months, Bayonne Ham is rightfully renowned for its mild flavor, balanced salting and delicate aroma. It is the perfect holiday indulgence to enjoy on its own with a glass of wine; as a classic component of a charcuterie board heaping with cheese, fruits and nuts; or even atop a homemade pizza.
“In France, Bayonne Ham is the most famous and most consumed,” says Couralet. “It is synonymous with sharing and conviviality!”
Ham, sharing and conviviality. What more could you want for the holidays?
Not much, according to Greselda Powell, head monger at Murray’s Cheese in Manhattan. We exchanged emails with Powell earlier this month, discussing everything from Bayonne Ham itself, to cheese pairings and more. Below is our conversation.
Edible Manhattan: What’s unique about Bayonne Ham? How would you describe the differences between Bayonne and, say, Jamon Iberico or prosciutto?
Greselda Powell: Jambon de Bayonne is a French cured ham from the Basque region of France. As a PGI ( Protected Geographical Indication) product, this ham must comply with the designated rules and regulations for raising the pigs along with the producing and aging of the ham. The pigs must be from this region of France, forage for food and cannot be fed or treated with steroids or antibiotics. As for the curing process, Bayonne is required to only use the salt from the Pyrennes region, Salies-de-Bearn salt.
The resulting product is a cured ham that is less salter than its Italian cousins. This allows one to really taste and enjoy the meatiness and sweet flavor notes of the pork. From a texture perspective, Bayonne is a bit softer and less chewy compared to di Parma and San Danielle. This allows one the option of enjoying slices that are NOT paper thin. For me, the texture makes it easier to slice and I can continue to slice all the way to the end of the leg.
Compared to Jamon Iberico, it is not as gamy or oily. And it is way less expensive.
EM: What cheeses pair best with Bayonne?
GP: There is the saying that what grows together goes together. Since Bayonne is a from the Pyrenees region of France, a cheese from that area will go very well. I enjoy Ossau Iraty, which is a lovely sheep milk cheese. It is nutty and grassy. I refer to it as Manchego’s French cousin. It is similar to Manchego but has a bit more complexity. I would also pair with Pyrenees Brebis or Petit Basque.
I also enjoy pairing Bayonne with Alpine cheeses such as Comte, Beaufort and Gruyere. The nuttiness of an Alpine plays so well with the sweetness of the meat.
The beautiful thing about Bayonne is that it works well with a variety of cheeses. I enjoy the contrast between the unami notes of the Bayonne against the vegetal notes of a French Camembert. I think it works well with wash rinds such as Jasper Hill’s Willoughby, Oma and Winnimere. Pairing Bayonne with the mild funkiness of these cheeses creates a cool umami flavor bomb on one’s taste buds.
EM: What is your personal favorite presentation of Bayonne Ham?
GP: I learned this from a really cool chef!!! Get a thick slice of Bayonne, wrap it around a stalk of asparagus, drizzle some olive oil and roast in the oven. I may grate a little Piave on top. It is wonderful!
EM: What would a charcuterie board look like, if you built it around Bayonne in particular?
GP: I start with a Jasper Hill Harbison as my centerpiece of the board. This is a soft spreadable cheese from Jasper Hill with a buttery, meaty and spruce flavor notes. A crowd pleaser.
I would add 2 – 3 more cheeses. Most definitely Ossau Iraty and an Alpine (see above) like a young Comte. Then I would finish it off with a hard cheese like an aged Piave. Or go crazy with a Sardinian cheese like Biano Sardo.
Of course, we would have the Bayonne. But I want to add another contrasting meat like a dry salami. A good candidate is Charlito’s Cocina Cerveza Seca, a dried cured beer salami. The fermented brown ale provides a bit of hops flavor notes that contrasts well with the sweetness of the Bayonne.
Then I would finish this up with Marcona Almonds, dried fruit and sea salt crackers. If you want to be crazy I would also include roasted veggies such as broccoli, cauliflower and asparagus. Roasted veggies, Bayonne and Harbison are my go-to meal. Why not place on a board?!!
EM: Do you serve Bayonne during the holidays? If so, how?
GP: You can have Bayonne ANYTIME!!!! I think Bayonne can be included with a pate and cornichon plate. Thinking about it, I am going to try Bayonne and caviar. Bayonne is like the perfect pair of black patent leather shoes…you can dress them up or dress them down…they work with just about anything!!!
EM: Obviously Bayonne carries quite a history. What, if anything, do you wish people knew about Bayonne before enjoying it?
GP: It is a darn good cured ham. I grew up in the south and my grandfather raised pigs as a hobby. Ham is part of my life, history and tradition. Cured ham was a breakfast staple and a fresh ham was an Easter and Christmas tradition. Bayonne gives me the sweetness of a fresh ham but the meatiness of a cured ham (along with being able to last a long time). It is the best of both worlds.
For more information on Bayonne Ham, please visit the Bayonne Ham website.