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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

FOOD & DRINK

Does Beaujolais Nouveau wine deserve its bad reputation?

Beaujolais Nouveau wine suffers from a number of negative stereotypes - but are these rumours more fiction than fact?

Does Beaujolais Nouveau wine deserve its bad reputation?

Each year – on the third Thursday of November – people across the world celebrate one thing, and it is not Thanksgiving. It is the release of the Beaujolais Nouveau, a French wine coming from the east of France, south of the wine growing region of Burgundy.

The release of the Beaujolais Nouveau vintage brings with it lots of celebration – four days of it in the Beaujolais region itself. The vintage is then shipped far and wide for people to consume, more often than not at a very affordable price of just a few euros. 

READ MORE: Beaujolais Nouveau: 13 things you need to know about France’s famous wine

Unfortunately, however, the light, red wine also has suffered from a negative reputation. Critics (or perhaps just those who have drunk too many glasses) say it gives you a hangover, tastes terrible (apparently similar to bananas to some), and above all that it is low-quality.

But to Rod Phillips, wine expert and author of “French Wine: A History”, Beaujolais Nouveau is “young, fruity, bright, cheerful.” 

Phillips went on to say that it is “not a wine to discuss or contemplate,” but “that doesn’t make it bad wine. It’s different from structured, more subtle and nuanced wines.”

For Caroline Conner, sommelier and head of Lyon Wine Tastings, Beaujolais Nouveau is “really fun” and highly encourages people to give the wine a chance, particularly from local producers. 

You can hear Caroline Conner discuss Beaujolais Nouveau in the new episode of the Talking France podcast. Download here or listen below.

Conner explained the stories of Beaujolais Nouveau wine causing hangovers has nothing to do with the way the wine is made, or even how quickly it is produced –  using grapes that were harvested just a few months before being bottled. 

“It’s not about the technique, it’s because most of it is mass produced. Any mass produced wine is probably going to give you a hangover,” the sommelier explained. 

Of course hangovers also depend on how much you drink – of any wine.

According to Rod Phillips, the stereotype that Beaujolais wine is of poor quality stretches back hundreds of years.

“The region had a setback in the Middle Ages and took a long time to recover,” explained Phillips.

In 1395, the Duke of Burgundy issued an edict – grapes from the Gamay vine were “injurious to the human creature” and wine that came from them had “terrible bitterness.” He is even thought to have said that the vine itself was an “evil and disloyal plant.”

According to Phillips, this decree was in the Duke’s interest: “He was protecting pinot noir, which was used for Burgundy’s already-famous wines.

More and more producers were growing Gamay because it had a higher yield, so made more and cheaper wine. They appealed to the Duke to ban Gamay and he obliged in terms that produced an enduring belief that Gamay was an inferior wine.”

This impacted Beaujolais wine because it is produced from that same “disloyal plant” – the Gamay grape. It was not until after the second World War that Beaujolais red wine grew in popularity outside of eastern France.

In the 1970s and 80s, the wine had a surge in popularity, with the start of the Beaujolais Nouveau phenomenon, and the mass production of the wine to be cheaply sent across the world. 

Conner described Beaujolais Nouveau as a “big party” at that time, with celebrations from London to Japan. While it has decreased in popularity in recent years, the third Thursday of November remains an important date in the French calendar.

What about the other Beaujolais wines?

Both wine experts also pointed to the fact that Beaujolais Nouveau is not the only wine to come out of the region. 

“There are a lots of different tiers of quality,” said Conner, adding that the Nouveau only accounts for about 20 percent of production. “The rest of Beaujolais wine is quite different.”

Phillips echoed these sentiments, noting an improvement in quality for other “Beaujolais Crus.”

“More recently people have discovered the 10 Beaujolais Crus (Morgon, Chénas, Brouilly, etc.) which are a real step up in quality,” he said. “There’s a sense in which Beaujolais Nouveau was a drag on the high quality wines of the region because it was associated with inexpensive, easy-drinking wines.”

And as for Beaujolais Nouveau itself, “it’s not all cheap and mass produced,” according to Conner.

If you really want to enjoy a good Beaujolais Nouveau, the sommelier recommends going “to a good caviste or a good restaurant” and drinking wine that was made by a “small producer.”

How much should you spend to get a really good bottle? Conner suggests 20 euros believing you’ll get far more value for money if you spend that amount on a Beaujolais rather than a Burgundy – which you pay a premium on because of its famous name

“You’ll find some excellent value,” she promised.

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