Sat, Sep 17, 2005 - Page 16 News List

Basque pigs brought back from brink

A French farmer has safeguarded the future of the once-threatened species of pig

AFP , ALDUDES VALLEY, FRANCE

Basque piglets tuck into mom's milk. The youngsters will eventually become top-grade ham. Basque pigs were nearly extinct 20 years ago.

PHOTO: AFP

They came from the same remote mountains of southwestern France, in the heart of Basque country, but their fateful first encounter took place in Paris.

"It was," recalled Pierre Oteiza, dressed in his region's signature black beret and red neck scarf, "un coup de coeur," or love at first sight.

That Oteiza had never laid eyes on the hairy, lop-eared Basque pigs indigenous to his own backyard was hardly surprising: classified as an endangered species, there were only 25 specimens in all of France when he stumbled across them at an agricultural fair in 1988.

He bought two and brought them home to his wife.

Today -- thanks to Oteiza -- the Basque pig population stands at over 3,000, scattered around this luxuriant valley where Oteiza and neighboring farmers raise the pigs and produce a much prized cured ham, along with other pork products, sold throughout France and abroad.

"It pleased me greatly to have a Basque breed of pig and to be able to use it here," Oteiza said. "It is a species that is completely adapted to the Basque country -- its climate, countryside, recipes."

The pigs, in other words, have thrived. But the relationship is definitely symbiotic. "Thanks to the pig we have been able to keep the valley alive," said Oteiza, who has built a flourishing business including eight stores in southern France and Paris.

Not only have the black-and-white hogs provided a source of livelihood for some 50 small farmers, they also "help preserve the forest by cleaning the undergrowth," he explained.

Hardy and wily, the pigs snuffle out acorns, chestnuts, roots and grass. Rings in their noses prevent damage to pasture land.

The ecological approach to pig farming practiced by Oteiza dovetails with both a growing international appetite for authentic and natural products, and the French notion of "terroir": the indelible link between food -- be it fruits, wine, cheese or cured ham -- and the micro-environment that nourishes it.

Indeed, Oteiza's story is not just about the revival of a dying breed of domesticated pig. It's also about the survival of a way of life and the region's distinctive Basque culture.

To give outsiders a glimpse of his world, Oteiza has created a marked discovery trail near his farm.

First stop is the "nursery," a small grassy enclosure with little teepee-shaped, thatched shelters inhabited by pregnant sows and tiny piglets. A pair of expectant sows amble up to the fence to inspect visitors, while a huddle of piglets squeal gleefully while scrabbling in the mud.

Moving on to wooded lower slopes covered with beech, chestnut trees, and century-old oaks, one sees a drove of about 60 young pigs let out to instill their natural tribal instinct, along with an older troop roaming freely on the deep red soil of the mountainside amidst sheep and pottok ponies. Wild vultures fly overhead.

Oteiza culls about 2,000 pigs per year. The 4,000 hams they produce are cured in a new, state-of-the-art factory he shares on a cooperative basis with other "charcutiers," or pork butchers.

The workplace is stainless-steel spic-n-span, but the savoir faire is strictly old school. Each ham is vigorously rubbed with a secret blend of salt from the Adour basin and Espelette pepper, and then hung to dry from tall wooden racks for at least a year. Temperature and humidity are carefully controlled.

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