The Porc Noir de Bigorre is the story of a race of pig which nearly disappeared.
Yet there is a happy ending, as there are now 60 producers with 1,200 sows and 10,000 males selling their top quality meat and hams – which each have an AOP label.
The pig comes from Bigorre, an historic area which is now mostly in the Hautes-Pyrénées department with a small part in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques.
In 1981, there were just 34 sows and two males left. During the second half of the 20th century their numbers dwindled because they did not meet the required standards for industrial farming.
In the 1980s, a group of producers was determined the race should not die out, and with the support of artisanal charcutiers and help from specialists, they decided to carry on farming the Noir de Bigorres and prove it was worth doing.
They created a consortium to look after all aspects of production, from farm to table, and Alexandre Fonseca from the Noir de Bigorre consortium says it was necessary because they are a very different kind of pig: “They only thrive in extensive rather than intensive farming. They are pigs that eat grass and have a lower rate of growth and are therefore more costly to raise than other races, but they produce a very superior meat. They are a pleasure for farmers to work with as they are very calm and docile.”
It took time, but gradually stocks grew and they were able to convince the public this was a product worth buying.
It is now sold all over France to top restaurants, charcuteries and delicatessens and they have started exporting, as far away as Japan.
Records show that black pigs have always existed in the Pyrénées, and can be traced from the Gallo-Roman period up until the 21st century. In the Middle Ages, they were raised in the Benedictine Abbeys of the region.
Unlike many other races, these pigs love to graze and need large areas of pastureland to consume 1.5kilos of grass every day.
The AOP regulations stipulate that there can be no more than 20 pigs per hectare, and that a farm can have no more than 50 sows giving birth to 450 pigs a year.
In this region where the climate is mild and wet, grass grows all year round, other than a very short period in the winter.
As well as grass the pigs eat nuts and fruits such as chestnuts, acorns and apples and worms, snails and slugs they find in the fields and have a complimentary food made up of grains such as barley, wheat and peas.
They can live in areas where other farming is difficult, and appreciate having woodland included in their grazing area where they can shelter among the oaks and chestnuts.
They are butchered at fifteen months, compared to five to six months for most other pigs.
Alexandre Fonseca says this means it takes nearly three times longer to raise them, which means they eat three times more food with the resulting carcass weighing 30% less than in classic pig production.
This means the cured ham is more expensive than standard supermarket ham. Prices on internet gourmet food sites are from €45 a kilo for a ham cured for 20 months and up to €72 a kilo for one which has been cured for 24 months.
For a whole 6.5kg ham you can pay up to €470.
The consortium says this is a fair price for the work that has gone into the end result which is very special: “The meat is very red and marbled with a very white fat. This is high in oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat also found in olive oil, and linoleic acid which is an essential fatty acid.
“Because of their high grass diet there is a lot of vitamin E too which gives the fat its whiteness and a smell and taste which some say reminds them of almonds and others of hazelnuts.”
Both the meat and the cured hams have an AOP and both are highly prized, but the Noir de Bigorre is perhaps best known for its hams.
The quality of the ham is also linked to the natural surrounding, mild temperatures and the humidity. It is salted with local salt from the Adour Basin and each ham maker has his own recipe with different spices. The hams are left to cure for between 20 and 24 months.
The result is described as delicate, tender, sublime and melt in the mouth, and has its own characteristics.
The different qualities of Noir de Bigorre, together with Jamón de Guijuelo and Presunto de Barrancos from Spain and Porco preto Alentejo from Portugal are now the subject of a research programme by the national agricultural research body, Inra, the institute for pork, IFIP and the Spanish University of Extremadura to find how different climatic and geographic regions affect the tastes of high quality hams from rare breed pigs.
It seems hams can be a result of their different “terroirs” just like wine.
Taste of the terroir
The ham should be eaten very finely sliced at room temperature.
The whole ham is recognised by the slimness of the leg, because it comes from a pig which walks and takes exercise. There are two parts: the petite noix, which comes from the muscle used for walking, and so has less fat than the second part from the back, the grande noix.
An excellent explanatory video on www.noirdebigorre.com shows how first you have to take off the skin of a ham with a sharp solid boning or rinding knife and then cut the slices with a longer pliable ham knife, by moving the knife away from you with the ham held in a vertical position. The resulting small slices should be presented with the fat towards the middle of the plate.
Pata negra from Spain is another reputed ham from a similar race of pig to the Porc Noir de Bigorre, which has become very well known to the general public, but there is an important difference: “We are very small in comparison,” says Mr Fonseca. “They have about one and a half million pigs compared to us with under 12,000. We want to stay at around the size we are now and remain a niche product. This means we can ensure its authenticity. It took us several years to be awarded the two AOPs in 2017, and they come with very strict regulations. I am responsible for helping farmers, butchers and charcutiers meet these standards.
“After thirty years, since we started fighting to save the Porc Noir de Bigorre, people can now make their living by it and it has created employment for 140 people. It has become an emblem of the region that we can be proud of.”