For the love of the Gascon pig
The plane trees that line the villages of this area are being tossed forcefully in late autumn winds and the leaves, in a patchwork of colours from crimson to gold, lie thickly on the rutted village laneways.
For me, it’s time to think of hibernation and of preparing food for the months ahead. Thus, in every supermarket and in all the markets, the foire du porc has begun. Pyramids of legs of ham, walls of pork belly, chillers of trotters, and more, fill every conceivable space as peoplemake their own sausages, prepare pates and confit, or salt up the ham and bacon.
The bacon of Gascony has its own unique flavour, and that of this particular valley, prepared from the porc noir de Bigorre, is truly sensational. The black pigs of the Bigorre Valley are raised under strict laws that govern the life of this rare breed from the moment of conception to slaughter.
They live a very happy life feasting on local flora in lush meadows. Their diet, which is strictly controlled, is supplemented with non-GMO rye, chestnuts and acorns, before the porkers are turned into prized cuts for cooking and salting to become Gascony’s famed jambon and ventreche — cured ham and bacon.
Ventreche, which is local patois for the bacon of Gascony, is prepared by heavily salting a slab of pork belly that may or may not have its skin on. Ventreche from the smaller framed black pig, with its higher ratio of fat to meat, produces a sweet bacon with a subtle flavour. The belly will be massaged liberally with locally produced salt and left to cure for 3-4 days.
It is then rinsed and left to air-dry, before having finely ground black pepper massaged into the meaty side. The pork is then rolled or left flat, may or may not be smoked, and will be left to age as per the local producer’s requirements. A good compromise is pancetta.
Pork in France is a well-admired meat — after all, only the French have the charcutier, a butcher who is dedicated to working with pork. The preparation of (mainly) pork cuts into pates, ballottines (boned, stuffed and rolled), sausages, ham and bacon is a respected career, his work a culinary art form.
Mass-produced bacon, while available, represents only a small area of sales in my rural French region, with local artisans having the lion’s share of the market. Here, bacon is not just an optional extra for a pizza topping, instead it is prized for its flavour and appreciated for the passion with which it is farmed.
Naturally you pay for this, cook it with care and savour every mouthful. The bacon cooks up dry, no pools of watery salty liquid accumulate in the pan. Under the pressure of the back of a cook’s knife, the slices stretch smoothly, making them supple and easy to wrap around creamy Boursin garlic cheese and feta-stuffed baby sweet red peppers. Baked with olives and almonds, this is a wonderful tapas-like dish to enjoy in the Kiwi sunshine with a chilled wine.
These flavour-packed nibbles can be prepared in advance and cooked just before serving. Baby sweets, available throughout summer in hues of yellow, orange and red, have a natural affinity with garlic, herbs, creamy cheeses and bacon. Boursin, a fresh cheese from Normandy, is sold in many supermarkets. The garlic and fines herb version makes creating this dish easy, so do look for it. That said, both garlic and chive-flavoured cottage cheese or cream cheese would suffice. Get the recipe