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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

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!

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