Years Of Traditon In The Tarn Achieving Perfection
Jambon de Lacaune (Ham of Lacaune) is cured in Lacaune located in the Gijou valley on the far eastern side of the Tarn department. It is ironically positioned in the knuckle of the “ham bone” shape of the Tarn department. Historically, Lacaune specialises in cured ham because of the specificity of heavy pork breeding, the salt route and the natural advantages of the climate which helps its curing.
The pigs used for Jambon de Lacaune can only be reared and bred in a restricted area in the Tarn, Aveyron and Lot departments. They originate from family run small-scale pig breeding farms. There are 2 ways to rear pigs, on straw or on concrete duckboards. As usual in France, there are numerous debates about what is the best method. The straw method is said to be more environmentally friendly and as the pigs are more comfortable and have more space, the meat is said to taste better. But because of the higher maintenance, it is used by a minority of pig farmers in France.
In the Aveyron, there are large industrial pig farms but many locals are against them because they are frightened to see the mineral resources in the ground devastated as in Brittany where there are many industrial farms. Therefore most of the pig farms are still relatively small and pigs can still be seen running around in wide open spaces.
Pigs, which are destined for Jambon de Lacaune, are fed mainly with locally produced cereals which make up more than two third of their food intake. The pig breeders use a finishing food containing traditional hardy cereals so that the pig reaches a minimum weight of 120 kilograms. More than 240,000 pigs per year are destined to end up as a Jambon de Lacaune and are taken to Lacaune Slaughterhouse for their final trip.
PORK – THE END PRODUCTS
The pig is split into what will be consumed fresh, cured or cooked.
A popular saying affirms that “everything in the pig is good to eat “. In Lacaune this is true to legend, all parts of the pig are used for cooking. On your plate you may find:
- The fresh products such as tenderloins (ask your French butcher for “filet mignon”), roasts, cutlets, sausages and much more…
- The cooked products are bougnette (mixture of bread, egg and pork meat which is cooked in oil and stuffed in stomach casing), boudin blanc or melsat (mixture of bread, eggs and pork meat cooked in water and stuffed in gut casing), pâté and much more…
- Melsat or Bougnette are the Lacaune specialities and can be eaten hot or cold with a green salad.
- The cured product like the saucisson or the Jambon de Lacaune.
THE CURING OF THE HAM
After being cut and let to rest, the ham is salted and then hand massaged to enable the penetration of the salt in the skin, exclusively in the salt meat enterprises in the cantons of Lacaune and Murat-sur-Vébre. The salt does not allow the meat to keep but preserves it and enhances its taste. Then the ham rests for one month and finally it is brushed, washed and suspended in natural drying sheds (le secado).
Then starts a slow period of maturation which last 9 months when it is constantly checked by a master-curer. It must dry evenly, not too slowly, not too quickly. The perfect season to cure ham is during the cold weather, between mid-November and mid-February The drying requires good ventilation, a changing humidity level and a cool temperature, which is exactly the climate found in Lacaune.
THE LACAUNE INDUSTRY NOWADAYS
The Lacaune ham industry started as a family tradition “Masel” and a small craftsmen’s enterprise “Mazellerie”. As the years went by, the pork meat business rapidly evolved into a full scale industry employing many people.
In the canton of Lacaune and the neighbouring canton of Murat-sur-Vèbre, there are:
- More than 30 firms which generate approximately 800 jobs directly.
- An annual slaughtering of 240,000 pigs destined for the pork meat trade.
- 35,000 tons of transformed products per year of which 60% are dried pork meat products.
THE LABEL ROUGE: THE CURRENT GUARANTEE OF QUALITY
Jambon de Lacaune has obtained the Label Rouge. The label Rouge is a certification which certifies that an agricultural product or foodstuff possesses a superior level of quality.
Since 1987, a system of traceability has been in place. Each “Lacaune” worthy of its name has a seal and metal tag with its own identity number, which is like an identity card which:
- identifies the origin of the pig
- identifies the breeder of the pig
- states how the pig was reared and fed
- shows the exact date the pork meat was put into salt
- identifies the meat salter who cured the pork meat
JAMBON DE LACAUNE: AOC ?
In the face of increased competition and the development of large production centres around Europe the producers in this zone (Aveyron, Lot and Tarn) do not have the same assets at their disposal to compete. Therefore, they have chosen another way to have their tradition and quality recognized. In 1993, the different partners who take part in the making of this dry cured ham met to define the production criteria required to make Jambon de Lacaune an A.O.C (Controlled Origin Label). This demand has been under consideration since 1996.
In November 2005, the INAO (French National Institute of Controlled Origin Label) gave a positive response. An expert committee was named to define the production territory. A final decision is expected during 2007.
If you enjoy cured ham, it is hard to beat Jambon de Lacaune. Many famous international chefs have commented on the quality of this cured ham from the Tarn. Rick Stein said during his televised barge trip on the Canal du Midi, Rick Stein’s French Odyssey, that he liked Lacaune ham as much as Spanish Serrano ham. I am sure you will agree with him once you have tasted it.
Ham testing is as serious as wine tasting. The ceremonial involves yours 4 senses as follows:
- Touch it to see if it is soft, supple and not stringy.
- Observe it to check its shape and the colour of the fat and lean.
- Smell it to check its freshness.
- Taste it and let it melt in your mouth.
HOW TO SERVE JAMBON DE LACAUNE
Cut it in the thinnest slice possible and serve it with melon, fig or in a salad. It is also wonderful with raclette cheese. It is best served with Gaillac red wine.
HOW TO STORE JAMBON DE LACAUNE
In the unlikely event, you do not finish it all once you have started it, fully remove the plastic film and place it at the bottom of your fridge in a wet tea towel. You can put it in your vegetable drawer but with no vegetables next to it as it will make it perish quickly.
© FrenchEntrée Tarn & Aveyron