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It has always lived in the central Pyrenees, it has always been unmistakably black, and there is evidence of its existence since Roman times: it’s the Noir de Bigorre pig, a rare, highly prized species of hog that almost disappeared forever some thirty years ago. Too fat, and too slow to grow, and especially incompatible with intensive breeding, after WWII this animal never managed to adapt, and who can blame it?
The rescue plan came about in 1981: at the time, only two boars and around thirty sows were left out of nearly 20,000 indigenous native animals that lived in the mountain foothills in the 1920s. By the late 1980s, the genetic heritage of this cousin to the legendary Iberico hog was safe. Today the male de Bigorre, alive and doing well with almost a thousand animals, has been named “world’s best ham” on multiple occasions. There is strength in numbers: not only has a consortium been established, but the Slow Food workshops also had a hand in it, and the producers have learned the art of getting people to taste things, together with wines like the Rancio de Roussillon, and the dry whites from Languedoc, Pacherenc, Jurançon, Côtes de Gascogne, and with champagne.
And so word of the Noir de Bigorre has spread across the Old Continent, reaching as far as the Land of the Rising Sun. Acorns, chestnuts, barley, rye and wheat, or triticale (an artificial hybrid of rye and durum wheat), and obviously never any GMOs, form the basic 100% vegetarian diet for this prized, ancient and rare breed, growing wild in the forests. This diet gives the meat of these animals the same excellence as Iberico pork, but with a more tender and gentle note, less pungent. And with that “good” fat that people are no longer afraid of. And unlike its Spanish cousin, the supreme Patanegra, Noir de Bigorre ham needs to age fewer months, from 20 to 30 months (whereas the other goes up to 48 months for the Gran Riserva).
All phases of processing take place on the farm: the salting is done meticulously with salt from the Aquitaine basin of the Adour, which contributes to developing the aromas and intense colour typical of this ham, and the ageing process benefits from the “Foehn effect” - the dry, hot wind that blows across the region every third or fourth day. And, last but not least, the Patranegra costs less. Because of its unique characteristics and history, the Noir de Bigorre is currently awaiting its imminent official designation as an A.O.C. (appellation d’origine contrôlée) both for its meat – to be cooked pink – and for the raw prosciutto-style ham. And there are other specialities as well, like sausage and rolled pancetta.
The 56 producers are now super-proud; it is sold in a thousand shops, and its success among the great chefs of France is acclaimed and proclaimed: the chef known for his “bistronomy”, Yves Camdeborde, and Claude Colliot, the self-taught chef who cooked all of the dishes in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, are among its unconditional fans. And Jean-François Piège in Paris, Michel Bras in Laguiole and Anne-Sophie Pic in Valence all feature Noir de Bigorre among their specialities. It matters little that it yields much less meat than that of a standard porker (a 100 kg carcass yields 40 kg of meat, compared to the normal 60 kg): even commercially speaking, today it is worth the effort it takes to produce. Not to mention that it is all worthwhile simply because of the flavour....