Many years before Slow Food launched the Ark of Taste, there was a development on the French side of the Pyrenees which, in effect, was like a foretaste of its Presidia. As so often happens, the person behind it was both obdurate and endowed with that touch of lunacy that brings one to challenge common good sense and take a stand against the (often short-sighted) spirit of the times.
Indeed obduracy and a touch of lunacy are characteristics that are often found in winners of the Slow Food Award for Biodiversity. The routes they follow may be very different, but they have the same unyielding determination and the same attitude of single-mindedly challenging some aspect of modernity and progress as if there were no choice, as if their path were already traced out and just had to be followed.
In this case our (almost literally) pig-headed man is Armand Touzanne, a consultant to the Upper Pyrenees Chamber of Agriculture. In 1981, benefiting from a program to save plant varieties and animal breeds heading for extinction, which had been launched by France and the European Community to mark Heritage Year, he identified and catalogued the last remaining heads of two pig breeds, the Basque and the Gascon. In the Gascon breed, which later became known as the ‘Noir de Bigorre’, the subject of this article, there were just 30 sows remaining and only two boars.
By planning breeding, by the end of the 1980s Armand Touzanne had managed to save the breed. However, the problem remained of assuring its continued survival. This was linked with guaranteeing fair remuneration to the breeders. Like other specialist breeds the Gascon pig is not suitable for conventional mass rearing methods. It needs space to roam, it grows slowly, so is more expensive to fatten, and its meat has a considerable proportion of fat. The quality of its meat and fat would only be compromised by intensive rearing techniques. But the market demands lean meat at low prices.
The only alternative was to home in on the quality aspect and thereby gain prices high enough to cover the considerable rearing costs. This meant in essence that the pork had to have excellent flavor, which comes from following the natural timing of the fattening cycle, and the cured hams had to be top quality. Their maturation benefits greatly from the climate in the area, which sees an interaction between the waves of humidity coming from the Atlantic and the phon, the dry wind that blows down from the mountains.
But the battle was still not over and uncertainties over the future of the Gascon pig remained because the French regarded ham as no more than an everyday product and were not willing to pay high prices for it. So guaranteeing the quality of the rearing and curing was only part of the solution; the rest, easy to say but so hard to do, was to create a new, ‘gastronomic’ image for the ham: M. Touzanne’s gamble seemed even more pure folly.
Then, in 1995, 14 years after he set out on his mission, came a decisive development. He encountered the Bonomelli family, owners of the “Salaison Pyrénéennes” company. They had decided to market a top class, “Grand Cru” ham and needed genuine quality to work with. This, without exaggeration, was perfect synergy. The Bonomellis had acknowledged ‘savoir-faire’ (at the time they were the only producers of a 12-month matured Bayonne ham called ‘Label Rouge’) and they put this and their sales network to bear on a product that they marketed as ‘Noir de Bigorre’.
Their shared commitment and untrammeled desire to safeguard a local heritage led to a close relationship developing between the two sides and drove them to create a niche market for ‘Noir de Bigorre’ almost from nothing. That market is only now beginning to take off.
In 1997 the breed was officially recognized by the French Ministry of Agriculture, under a particularly strict production discipline. It stipulates that the pigs must be Guascon thoroughbreds, must be raised for at least six months in the open air and must not be butchered earlier 12 months of age. There may be no more than 25 animals per hectare of land; their feed must have a minimum of 70 percent cereals and, naturally, growth stimulants are prohibited. The hams must be matured for at least 12 months using the (particularly soft) rock salt from the Adour basin.
In 2000 the Confraternity of the Friends of the Noir de Bigorre was set up to promote the product, with its members including breeders, curers, cooks and so on. The following year a company was set up specifically for the butchering and sale of the fresh pork through the quality distribution circuits and to important restaurants. That same year procedures were initiated for gaining Appellation Contrôlèe.
Now the whole process is perfectly structured with an annual production of 3,500 animals split over 41 pig farms and 400 sows for reproduction purposes. But the gamble is still not completely won: production, and therefore market openings, need to be doubled in order to make the whole process economically sound and avoid dependence on public subsidies–and that is not going to be easy.
It is here that Slow Food can play an important role: it can actively use every opportunity to heighten the profile of “Noir de Bigorre”, and setting up a Presidium will help the product acquire even greater prominence. This would be no more than due recognition of a 22-year-long journey which has always been completely in tune with the Slow Food philosophy.
Such common philosophy shines through the future projects of this ante litteram Presidium: at the local level the aim is to develop the image of the areas where the pig farms are situated and make them a part of the landscape; on the European front there are plans to help bring about a southern European federation of non-intensively reared native pig breeds. Its purpose would be to act as a center of research and development for breeds of Iberian origin and to promote, through European Institutions, models of non-intensive rearing that are sympathetic to the entire ecosystem.
What better omen for the newborn Slow Food France than to discover that, without any previous contact, someone in the Pyrenees has followed (before it!) the Slow Food route? Surely this demonstrates that its attitudes and strategies derive more from experience and groundwork than simply folly and unyielding fervor.
Eugenio Mailler supervises the Ark of Taste for the Collegium Provinciae, (the association of Slow Food’s five Provencal convivia)
Adapted by Maureen Ashley