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ANIMALS

French ham fans bring Hungarian pigs back from the brink

A breed of hairy Hungarian pig which had nearly disappeared in Europe is once again thriving in the hills of southeast France -- ironically thanks to ham lovers who have high hopes for the animal's famed fat.

French ham fans bring Hungarian pigs back from the brink
Products made from Mangalitza pigs cost nearly twice as much as those made with traditional pork. Photo: JEAN-PIERRE CLATOT / AFP
Bruno Bluntzer, who heads the Sibilia charcuterie company, considered a temple of saucisse and other delicacies in the food-mad city of Lyon, began experimenting with Mangalitza pigs after meeting a couple who were raising dozens of the rare breed.
 
“I was looking for a specific pig variety that I could work with differently, because I wanted a certain taste,” Bluntzer said.
 
After taking over Sibilia in 2011, he met Michel and Sylvie Guidet, who had begun raising Mangalitza pigs on their three hectares of land in the foothills of the Alps in La-Chapelle-du-Bard.
 
Michel Guidet, a biochemist who worked for years in a veterinary laboratory before opening a restaurant, also had taste in mind when he decided he needed his own pigs.
 
“The pork we were serving our clients was dry. It had no juices, no flavour. Industrial products just aren't edible,” he said.
 
In 2007, he tried raising two “Large Whites”, a pig that looks just like the ones in children's books. But they couldn't stand either the severe winters or hot summers on the slopes, 600 metres above sea level. So he turned to the ProSpecieRara Centre in Geneva, whose mission is to save endangered animal and vegetable species, where he discovered the Mangalitza.
 
First bred by Hungarians in the early 19th century, the animal is actually half wild boar, which accounts for the coat of coarse hair that insulates it from both heat and cold.
 
More crucial for gourmets, the animal has two fewer chromosomes than more popular breeds, which Bluntzer says results in much bigger stores of fat rich in Omega 3 and low in cholesterol.
 
'Refresh the image'
 
But it takes 18 months for a Mangalitza to reach maturity at 80 to 100 kilos, compared with just four to six months for most pigs. They also have smaller litters, a factor which contributed to them virtually disappearing in the years after World War 2.
 
Guidet bought two Mangalitzas in 2008, and then a few more, and now has around 80 white, blond or black-and-white pigs eating corn, chestnuts and other foodstuffs while rooting their snouts into the ground.
 
For the past year and a half, Bluntzer has been buying one a week for preparing hams and roasts as well as more elaborate fare like gambette, or rolled pork shoulder.
 
“We're breaking even but not making a profit,” said Guidet. “What motivates me is making the best pig in the area — that's the challenge.”
 
More than 60 percent of the meat consists of succulent fat marbled throughout, deepening its flavour and making additional butter or oil unnecessary when cooking.
 
“This pig, I compare it to Wagyu beef with its marbled flesh: it's going to seep out, but it's the good kind of fat,” Bluntzer said.
 
But the prize comes at a price, with Mangalitza products costing nearly twice as much as those made with traditional pork.  
 
Bluntzer has been organising tastings at the Sibilia stall in Lyon's storied Paul Bocuse market. He plans to start making dried saucissons next year, and possibly a cured ham aged 18 to 24 months, similar to Italy's San Daniele.
 
More broadly, his goal is to revive and spread appreciation for a French culinary heritage which can feel a bit too old-fashioned for younger generations.
 
“It's also good to refresh the image of charcuterie,” he said.
 
By AFP's Nicole Deshayes
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FOOD & DRINK

Regional cuisine: What to eat and drink in central France

When travelling through France ordering local dishes and drinks is always a good bet, so we're taking a virtual roadtrip through France, highlighting some of the must-try regional specialities.

Regional cuisine: What to eat and drink in central France

This section of our roadtrip takes in the central part of France, from the tourist hotspots of the Alps and west coast seaside resorts through the less well know (but wonderful) central regions. 

The following is just our personal recommendation for some of the areas we’re passing through – please leave your suggestions and foodie tips in the comments box below.

Savoie/Haut-Savoie – Extremely popular for winter sports, the French Alps are stunning all year round and a summer trip for hiking, cycling or water sports is also highly recommended. The long, cold winters and the popularity of sporty holidays means that many Savoie specialities tend towards the hearty, filling, cheese-based and calorific – fondue, raclette and tartiflette.

What to order: It has to be fondue – but this is really a winter dish. Although some tourist spots sell it in summer it’s best enjoyed after a hard day hiking or skiing while watching the snow swirl around outside your window. The basics of a fondue are always the same – a big pot of melted cheese and some bread to dip in – but there are many varieties based on cheese type. We prefer a mixed-cheese option to get the full flavour spectrum, in the spirit of going local let’s order the Fondue Savoyard.

To drink: Wine! Old Swiss and French grannies will tell you that drinking water with fondue can be fatal, as it causes the cheese to solidify and stick in your stomach. As far as we know this has never been proven with science, but it’s definitely true that a crisp white wine is perfect to cut through the rich, fatty cheese.

Opt for a local vin jaune for the perfect partner.  

 
 
 
 
 
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Lyon – you might think that the whole of France is a foodie destination, but to French people Lyon is the ‘foodie capital’, and for that reason it’s a highly popular staycation destination with the French. Definitely check out the ‘bouchon’ restaurants which specialise in the best in local cuisine. 

What to order: Brioche de pralines rosé. There are so many delicious Lyon savoury specialities that it’s hard to pick one so we’ve gone for a sweet treat here. Pink pralines (nuts in a sugar coating) are the city’s signature sweet and while they’re great on their own, for an extra indulgent treat you can get brioche (sweet bread) studded with pink pralines. A slice (or two) with a pot of coffee is quite possibly the world’s best breakfast.

And to drink:  Beaujolais. Stick with us here, there’s more to beaujolais than the much-derided beaujolais nouveau (although that is getting better these days). The wine appellation extends almost to Lyon and is home to hundreds of small vineyards all making beautiful wines, many of whom are taking up production of vins bio (organic) or vins naturel.  

 
 
 
 
 
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READ ALSO: Bio, natural or biodynamic: 5 things to know about French organic wines

Auvergne – central France tends to get missed by many tourists, which is a real shame because much of it is stunning, as well as being quieter and cheaper than the coastal areas. The area is dotted with mountains and (extinct) volcanoes which give it a really dramatic character.

What to order: Auvergnat cuisine is quite meat-based, although the region is also known for good cheeses. To combine the two into one meal, we highly recommend aligot – a type of silky, creamy mashed potato with lots of stringy cheese stirred in – topped with a sausage. Have this at a restaurant with a glass or good wine or buy it from a street stall and go watch the town’s famous rugby team. Either way, the experience will be sublime.

And to drink: Volvic. Those volcanoes that we mentioned earlier give the name to one of France’s most famous mineral waters – Volvic. The water is apparently filtered through six layers of rock for five years, so give your liver a rest and sample some.

 
 
 
 
 
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Corrèze – moving west takes us into Corrèze, one of France’s most sparsely populated départements and one that even some French people would struggle to point to on a map. Transport is not all that easy unless you have a car but if it’s well worth the effort to visit this hidden but lovely corner of France.

What to order: Savoury dishes often feature mushrooms (especially ceps) and chestnuts and freshwater fish such as perch are also popular but we’re going to pick a dessert – clafoutis. The baked fruit flan is hugely popular across France but is traditional in Corrèze – in the classic form it’s made with cherries, but lots of different fruit options are available.

And to drink: They grow a lot of nuts in Corrèze and as well as eating them, they’re often made into digéstifs as well. If by this stage of the roadtrip you are feeling a little heavy, try an after-dinner liqueur to help you digest (although, despite the name scientists claim that a digéstif doesn’t actually help digestion).

 
 
 
 
 
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Île d’Oléron – We’ve now reached the west coast, and just off the shore of the Vendée are two beautiful islands. Île de Ré is known as the ‘French Hamptons’ because it’s such a popular holiday destination for rich Parisians, while its smaller brother Île d’Oléron is less high profile but equally lovely.

What to order: This area is the centre of France’s oyster production and if you take a trip around the island (or on the mainland) you will see hundreds of oyster beds. Virtually all local restaurants serve them, but you’ll also see them piled high at markets, where the stallholders will shuck them for you if you’re afraid of losing a finger in the process.

And to drink: The island is known for its white wines which pair perfectly with oysters. Stop off at the market for a quick glass (and an oyster or two) when you’ve finished your shopping or buy a bottle, plus a platter of oysters and have a picnic. 

 
 
 
 
 
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Head to our Food & Drink section to find guides to the regional specialities of southern and northern France.

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