A culinary trip through the Midi-Pyrénées

When you are thinking about France you are not particularly thinking about ham. So I was kind of surprised when I was, as always, looking for culinary highlight within a region and found typical French ham. In Lacaune, a small town in the department Tarn the geographical circumstances are supposed to be perfect for the curing of ham… Well, that had to be tested!

Lacaune lays between seven hills and has a long tradition in processing meat. It’s about a very special climate as Lacaune is 850m high and combines Mediterranean and Atlantic influences. Dry but humid wind helps for example curing ham in a very soft way. Since 3000 years salt of Mediterranean lagoons was used to cure ham. Today „Oberti“ (http://www.oberti.fr) is the main producer of those dry hams and was founded in 1956 and is managed by the third generation these days. They are just processing pigs from local farms and pay high attention to their quality. For the famous ham the back lobes are covered in salt and cured for 7-15 days. After that they become washed and dried for a few hours to be stored in specific maturation rooms. Those rooms have a constant temperature of about 15 degrees and are filled with air from the outside to make advance of the good climate. There the ham stays for 9-18 month. The older it is the better the taste (of course). After that the famous Lacaune ham is ready to be eaten.

As a visitor you get the chance to have a look into every step of the production – even to walk along the drying rooms which have a fantastic smell! Afterwards you have the pleasure to try different specialities. After that experience I think France should definitely be considered as a country of good ham!

The next day I booked an experience via AirBnB in Saint-Affrique to learn more about beekeeping (www.larcenmiel.fr). So I meet Nadja and her husband Bruno who both worked in good jobs in Montpellier but decided, about 7 years ago, to focus on more primal things closer to nature. So they moved to Saint Affrique and became passionate about beekeeping. Today they are taking care about 300 bees hives each of them producing 120kg of honey per year. Those hives are spread around the area within a radius of about 70 kilometers. Through the variety of the landscape Nadja and her husband can produce 12 different sorts of honey – from thyme over chestnut to heather. 

There are at least five hives directly located at the farm so you are getting a very realistic and lively impression about what it means to be a beekeeper. After introducing themselves Bruno showed us a room where three hives were directly located in the center. They were covered with wooden panels and had a tunnel to the outside for the bees to fly out. After Bruno explained a lot about how a hive is working he removed those covers for us to see directly inside of them. That was truly fascinating as you could see all those bee workers doing their job in taking care about the hive, the next generation of bees and of course the queen. It was possible to see the structure of a hive and to admire the honeycombs. We were also allowed to touch it with our hands to feel a bit of vibration and mainly the high temperature (about 45 degrees). After that we were entering a room with panoramic windows. Behind those was located another bee hive. So Bruno put on his working suit and went outside in order to show us the hive from the inside. We were safely staying inside and admiring the confidence he was working with the bees. He removed the top of the hive and went through the different combs searching for the queen. Doing that he explained even more about bees. We were not just able to follow him through the window but also a flatscreen and a camera directly focussed on his hands and the inner of the hive! 

After that we entered the production room where the combs are emptied and the honey is extracted by a centrifuge. The honey is then running through pipes where it’s filtered and ready to be processed. Of course we had to try it and Nadja had prepared samples in the meantime. She gave us a map showing different tastes a honey might have. So we made our way through 12 different sorts of honey and tried to identify the different aromas… that wasn’t just interesting but fun!

All in all this afternoon was a great experience. The farm was build in such a modern way with videos, information screens and installations to get as close to bees as possible. They have an impressive knowledge and it was great learning more about beekeeping.

About a 15 minutes drive away is Roquefort-sur-Soulzon – the famous origin of the Roquefort cheese which is maturing in special caves. Of course I had to go there! Roquefort itself is a very tiny village with just 7 farms producing that famous cheese. It has to follow strict regulations and is just allowed to be called Roquefort cheese if it’s from that certain area which measures 2km x 300m. Those regulations were already fixed in 1925 which makes the Roquefort the oldest cheese designation in the world. Those requirements do say that the breed of sheep needs to be Lacaune (from that area), that the cheese must be manufactured with raw and unskimmed ewe’s milk which had to be curdled with animal rennet and then enriched with „Penicillium Roqueforti“ (a blue green fungus) and that the maturate process lasts at least 90 days within the caves.

One whole Roquefort cheese is called „loaf“ and is made of 13l of milk and weighs about 3 kilogram. A sheep gives about 200 liters of milk per year and can just be milked between July to November (when they are having their lambs). It takes then 7 days for the milk to transform into cheese. They will be pressed into the typical form and pricked afterwards to inject the fungus and some air for the cheese to „breath“. After that the cheese will stay at the diary for another 14-20 days to be stored in the caves after which lay many meters under the ground of the village. Those caves were formed may millions of years ago during an earthquake. 

The cheese is now wrapped in a thin layer of foil to stop the fungus growing and to avoid the formation of a crust. It will then remain in the caves with a temperature of 0-3 degree and a humidity of 100%. It stays there for at least three up to seven months.

In order to produce the specific bacteria called „Penicillium Roqueforti“ 300 loaves of rye bread were baked every year in September. Those loaves are baked for a very short time in a hot wood fire. By that the crust is burned but the inside is still raw. It will be sown with Penicillium Roqueforti and stored for 40 days within the caves. The inner of the bread rottens and the fungus is growing. After that the Penicillium Roqueforti will be extracted following a specific procedure and tests in a laboratory. After the fungus had been extracted it will safe the production of cheese for the upcoming year (25g of the fungus is enough to manufacture one ton of cheese). Of course we were tasting the different kind of cheeses afterwards and although I am not a big fan of blue cheese this one tasted great (http://www.roquefort-papillon.com)! 

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