"No pigs, no civilization." This slogan, which some might find controversial, rang in the 2016 edition of the Bayonne Ham Fair.For four days every year, the city honors and celebrates its most famous specialty: ham. Anyone who would be tempted to call this gastronomic event nothing more than a mini Fête de Bayonne festival is simply ignoring five centuries of history.
It's Thursday morning on the fairgrounds, and the tension is palpable. The judges, in their berets, scarves, and black jackets, have been deliberating for several minutes. Next to them stand the members of the Bayonne Ham Brotherhood, in their famous red tunics and scapulars that bear the city's official colors, green and red. As the veritable guardians of the protected geographical indication (PGI) of Bayonne ham, they have weighed, probed (with a little boxwood stick), and sniffed dozens of hams since 9 AM this morning, as per tradition. This competition, which identifies the best farmer ham, is now broadcast across the world on Periscope.
Finally, the verdict is in: Marcel Hualde is named the winner, with a nice piece weighing 19.3 kilograms that comes directly from the Aldudes mountains, deep in the Basque Country. But let's get back to history. The fair is 554 years old, while the Fêtes de Bayonne have only existed for 80 years. The event is all about showcasing the terroir of the meat, one that has been mistreated throughout the years by big distribution companies, which have no qualms about using the "Bayonne" label on hams that come from elsewhere.
To make things clear, let's lay out the rules: Real Bayonne ham is made with pigs from Aquitaine, Midi-Pyrénées, or Poitou Charentes, and that's it. Forget the rest. Its lightly colored flesh must be red, and every slice should melt in your mouth. As for the pigs, they need to live semi-freely in the mountains or in the highlands, and must not be slaughtered until they are one year old. They feed on GMO-free grains and other natural products. The jambon—the top part of the legs—is then salted and cured for a minimum of 12 months. Some of the best are cured up to 21 months.
During the course of the fair, Bayonne overflows with ham to the point of overdose. The entire city seems to be under the spell of the pork gods—in restaurants, cafes, even in the talo stands that set up daily on the docks of the Nive river. In the Basque language, one would say that there's enough to tiaper (eat) xingara (ham) at every street corner.
Inside the producers' tent, where I decided to take two Parisian friends, the hams are gleaming, and their scent fills the air. We begin our pilgrimage at the Maison Aubard, which was founded in 1946 and snagged the gold medal at the 2015 Concours Général Agricole, a French competition for agricultural producers. They offer us a ham that's been aged for 12 months. We each receive a paper cone filled with ham, a little saucisson, and a glass of red—the perfect mid-morning snack.
Next stop, Ihidoy, an artisan butcher from the village of Sauveterre-de-Béarn, where a dry andouillette awaits us. While they slice the andouillette, my tour mates admit they've never before tried the specialty. Quickly, I help them rectify this major life error.
Our last stop is at the Maison Montauzer which, in my opinion, has the fair's best ham. Their Ibaïama is a trademark, explains Anaïs, the owner's daughter: "These are white pigs that live up to 11 months, and not more than that. We refrigerate the ham before curing, so it melts in your mouth and tastes less salty." And most of all, so it renders silent anyone who tastes it, to better appreciate its inimitable flavor.
Nearby, we're able to catch the end of the ham omelet competition. Every year, the contestants go head to head, throwing eggs onto the fire as onlookers crowd around the stands, eager to taste their creations. The recipe for a good omelet is essentially the same everywhere (eggs, with a few thick slices of farmer ham), but a smooth and succulent consistency is what the jury looks out for. This year, the Zirtzilak team wins the battle.
By 3 PM, it's time to try and get a table somewhere. A ham fair is much like a bar crawl, and a hearty meal is key to surviving through the night. In the small streets bordering the cathedral, surrounded by the fresh evening air, a giant group of us gets seated at Les Arcades, a restaurant by Tomas Ainciart. It's a friend's birthday—the perfect excuse to order and devour virtually everything on the menu: a terrine of pigs' feet with sauce gribiche, crispy pork ribs and tender pork shanks with a jus of honey and fresh thyme, accompanied by baked potatoes. The arrangement is nothing short of poetry.
For those with more limited time or a stricter budget, nothing can beat the trio of ham, eggs, and , which can be eaten in a hurry at Bodegita, on the Rue d'Espagne, among a band of locals who are always busy discussing yesterday's game. Top it off with a pitcher of fresh beer to offset springtime's budding heat waves.
Naturally, when Sunday rolls around and everyone can feel the end is near, it's a veritable gold rush. After the gastronomic guilds are done with their rituals, Bayonne natives who now live in the capital, like myself, fill their shopping bags with quarter hams, pâté, and other pork products to bring back to the city. This, by the way, will inevitably attract police dogs at the train station, rendering them temporarily insane as the luggage rolls by. And so concludes the weekend's big feast.
For locals, the ham fair holds a special place in the year's calendar. It is like a preview of the summertime gluttony to come. This traditional gastronomic event is the focal point of the region, and summons more and more visitors from all over France each year. It's the perfect way to remind the rest of the country that, when it comes to charcuterie, Bayonne is boss.
This article originally appeared in French on MUNCHIES FR.