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.

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