The thing about jambon, is that it’s really, really valuable. Some would argue it’s the best tasting part of the pig. People will unflinchingly pay a lot of money for it. Certainly when it’s turned into prosciutto or other salty, cured meats, this is true. So, I was quite ashamed when, on the third day of my butchery apprenticeship with the Chapolards, I misunderstood Bruno, one of the brothers, and thought he told me to remove all the fat from a hunk of meat I thought he was saying came from the shoulder, and to cut it into 1-inch cubes for brochettes (skewers). I did as I thought I was told, with Bruno standing right next to me, though I thought it was a remarkably good looking shoulder to be cutting up for skewer meat.
It wasn’t until I’d finished, that he said anything—perhaps he was purposefully trying to teach me a lesson, or maybe he really wasn’t watching what I was doing. In French, with Dominique and his wife Cristian, Mark and his wife Cecil, surrounding him with stern looks on their faces, Bruno told me (from what little I could understand) that I’d just butchered (in the bad sense of the word) the most important part of the pig. Je suis tres desolee (I am very sorry) I kept repeating.
After a long minute of furrowed brows and fast, miffed-sounding French, they made some joke about Americans not understanding the difference between the front and the rear of a pig and then punched me lightly on the shoulder to signal it was all good. (I’m sure we’ll have a lot of repeat customers at the market next Saturday, all demanding that the skewers we’re selling don’t look at all the same as those succulent brochettes they bought last weekend.)
Even if I am American, I do know the difference between the front and the rear of the pig. And it’s likely the rear of the pig (and the belly, where our bacon comes from) that the majority of Americans can identify most easily. Modern jambon is most often cured in salt and than cooked/boiled. So far as I can tell, the Chapolards prepare it the more traditional way, by setting it in a bucket and covering it with special pig-curing salt.
After it’s cured for about a week (I still need to get the specific time table for their jambon), they hang it in their smokehouse—essentially an old chimney in a crumbled part of their parents maison. They hang the jambon (along with other cured sausages) up high in the chimney, and below, on the ground, they light a pile of wood chips and sawdust (I have yet to confirm what kind of woodchips they are using—my French is just that poor), so that it smokes lightly over the course of about a week.
The result is an elegant dry-cured jambon whose texture is a cross between traditional prosciutto (which is dry-cured for much longer) and the sort of gourmet, smoked ham (like from Niman Ranch, for instance) that is used for lunch meat in America, though the Chapolard’s ham is never cooked. It’s a kind of crude, more raw prosciutto in a way, and it’s perfect, wrapped around a slice of ripe French melon.
The Chapolards also make something called “jambon blanc” (white ham). This is essentially boned, cooked ham, and I believe it is also sometimes called jambon de Paris or jambon glacé. I have yet to learn how they make it, but so far as I can tell, this oblong block of pâté-like ham is made with minced thigh and rump meat that’s salted and peppered, steamed with some amount of pig fat, and then formed into an oblong mold. It’s more spreadable than sliceable, though at the market we carefully slice it into ¼-inch slices for customers when they ask for it. It satisfies the same craving that a smooth liver pate might, but it’s much meatier, and so far as I can tell there is no liver in it.
After the jambon fiasco, Bruno moved me on to my first lesson with a cleaver and pig’s feet, and Dominique topped that by showing me how to make pâté de tête. More on that soon.