Bayonne ham is a type of specialty raw ham produced in and around Bayonne, France, a port town located in the heart of Basque country. This ham is very similar to prosciutto, an Italian cured meat which many people are familiar with. Specialty butchers and stores which carry imported French and Spanish foods are most likely to have Bayonne ham, and it can also be ordered directly through several producers and importers, along with other traditional regional foods.
This ham is first cured in locally produced sea salt, and then carefully air dried for a period of at least seven months. Once the ham has been cured and dried, it can be packaged for sale. As long as it is kept in cool, dry conditions, Bayonne ham can keep for up to a year, and sometimes even longer. In and around Bayonne, butchers often keep a ham hanging and shave off portions by customer request. It is served in thin slices which can be used in a wide variety of dishes, ranging from salads to stews.
Historical evidence suggests that people have been producing ham in Bayonne since at least the 12th century, and the practice may be even older. Like many cured and preserved foods, Bayonne ham was initially developed for purely practical reasons: left uncured, meat would quickly spoil. Over time, cooks turned the creation into an art form, and by the middle of the 14th century, an annual fair and competition celebrating ham was being held in Bayonne.
In the 1990s, Bayonne ham received special protection from the European Union, along with many other regional specialties. Under the law, only hams produced in a certain region, with specific ingredients, and in a very particular way may be designated Bayonne hams. This move was designed to protect the heritage of the Bayonne ham, and to increase consumer confidence by establishing a clear standard which would assure people that they were eating the genuine article.
The salt used in the production of Bayonne ham is locally produced, and many hams are also rubbed with locally-grown red peppers during the air drying process. Most Bayonne hams are also rubbed with a paste of lard and flour to keep them moist through the warmer and drier spring and summer months. When handled and cured well, Bayonne ham is dark red in color, with a very tender, mild flavor which has only a hint of saltiness.