Food & Drink: I am hamming it up this week

The urdea, the piebald Basque pig with its characteristic black- and-pink markings, has been saved from extinction: from just five boars and 50 sows, scattered among 27 farmers, there are 30 males and 100 females - thanks to one Pierre Oteiza. Phew] That means we can still eat proper xingaraspia, the notable ham made from its flesh.

This is the sort of news that stirs the breasts of devoted foodies. No doubt you will shortly be able to obtain xingaraspia in whatever stately food-dome you frequent, as long as you and they can pronounce it; you could certainly nip over to Paris and tuck in at the Bascou, at 38 rue Reamur. Since my car has been stolen, I haven't made my way up to Mr Oteiza in the Basque-French Pyrenees, but the news about him prompts me to a brief discourse on ham, and a side note on how the French have somehow managed, despite the continuing decline of their cuisine, to take food with the utmost seriousness.

Few things divide man from man like ham. Of the many Spanish memories I treasure, one is an extended argument between the son of a (republican) Supreme Court judge and a distinguished playwright about which village produced the best jamon serrano. I only tasted one side of the argument: Jorge, the judge's son, fed me his serrano, and it was very good - so good that we had up to three hams a year sent to him in Puerto Rico, where we met, and where it was doled out in parsimonious splinters.

For both men, this was no trifling matter. They invoked the seasons (when is the ham best eaten?), their families for several generations back, obscure gastronomical divinities, the lineages of pigs, the traditions of curing and much else, in a row that nearly came to fisticuffs.

The reason why ham is such a passionate affair is obviously that it is a local and specific matter: the flesh of one pig is not the flesh of another; the curing in one district is not the same as that of another; prosciutto di Parma is not jamon serrano, nor is it the ham of Bayonne (a purely commercial appellation) or of Westphalia, or the Ardennes, or Virginia.

But they do have one thing in common: they all bear no relationship to the jambon de York (ie, English style) that the French sell in horrid plastic packages. Still less are they related to what the Danes and Poles flog as ham. The truth is real ham cannot be mass produced.

Mr Oteiza's hams, I read, spend 18 months in salt and air. If you think those Danes do that, then you indeed believe their hams (at least those available to us) have wings.

All these mass-produced hams, like poultry (and most other meats in America), suffer the further iniquity of having been treated, while still on the noble pig, with hormones; and then, executed, to being injected with various liquid solutions (to prolong life, prevent drying, add 'flavour' add weight). The result is that many of us are actually unfamiliar with a ham that tastes of anything.

We are familiar with the advantages of the mass-produced stuff. It slices easily; it is tender; it is economical (almost no waste), lean, readily packed, and long lasting. Whereas real ham (as anyone knows who has hacked at one without a lot of experience and a very sharp knife) is a cantankerously difficult meat to cut evenly; it is grainy and its bones and fat are in awkward places; and it doesn't look as good as the processed, composite, pressed stuff.

The waste factor is all important. Whole hams are, obviously, the sign of a family or restaurant that uses ham throughout the year. A whole ham can weigh more than 10kg - a lot of eating. It will keep, but not always in summer; it will dry out excessively in air once its skin is removed; and it doesn't fit in most fridges. And how many people these days prize their hambones for making stock and, especially, pea soup?

Still, this mythical xingaraspia summoned up for me a whole range of long-forgotten flavours. The pure smoked Ardennes ham, a very dark pink, served in Belgian country villages with its accompaniment of crusty white bread and fresh sweet butter (the French and Belgians know that butter is a necessary partner to cold ham); the prosciutto that my salumeria in Rieti made on its own premises, less oily and less refined than the Parma type but infinitely satisfying; the glazed and clove-studded hams of Virginia, grainy and opulent, served with mash; the creamed, minced ham offered on toast for pre-war sideboard breakfasts.

This whole sequence of hams reminds us what an aristocratic and bountiful animal is the pig. The ham is but the crown of its accomplishments, and nothing of it need be wasted.

There remains but one mystery. At Blandings Castle, mighty battles were waged for prize porkers, but though the French chefs were equally fought over, one never discovered how the guests ate the pig.

Perhaps they didn't. On this score the French are a harder- headed lot.

News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Sport
sportVan Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Day In a Page

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices