Aging cheese in a pot in an outbuilding is one thing, but making your own smoked ham seems a little more arduous to me. This story will help me gather the dots and maybe I'll feel confident enough one day to go through the whole preparation myself and have these precious things hanging in the corner of the room...
This isn't the kitchen workshop of a sleek restaurant with a chef teaching his culinary skills with hype to a group of urban fooding aficionados. This is about real people making their own artisanal food in the countryside like they've been used to for generations. Our ancestors used to do this sort of thing every year, maybe twice a year : they would kill a pig and prepare tons of things from it which they would eat during the following months. Making smoked ham was not purely for the sake of good taste, smoking the meat was a way to conserve it and stretch its consumption along several months at a time when fridges and freezers were unheard of.
This tradition is still surviving somehow, and if some well-connected people in the countryside still get the pig directly from a farm and have it killed in order to prepare their lot of boudin, patés, rillettes and jambon, many other wait the regular sales of certain supermarkets where large chunks of pork or even half pigs can be got for as low as 1 or 2 € a kilo, and they then prepare their charcuterie the traditional way. For example, the large hams with bones on the refrigerated display case on the left weighed a bit more than 6 kilograms each and were sold at 2,5 € a kilo, and the buyers will certainly prepare them at home. The hams featured in this story aren't these particular ones but they were ordered through the meat department of a local supermarket at discount prices.
Let's rewind before we get to this stage on the picture above : From the initial ham with bones like the one in the refrigerated shelf, Jacky makes three smaller blocks named noix de jambon, which will be easier to process with their smaller size. That's the different meat parts that you will see on the pictures. He will then rub the hams with marc or goutte (fruit or grape alcohol) and leave them ointed in the bowls for three days with the half-centimeter deep of alcohol that fell in the bottom of the bowl when he did this. Then he'll take 25 grams of unbleached sea salt per pound of meat (yes, they count in pounds down here...) and will rub the meat with it so that the salt gets in every part of the hams. All the while, note that he left the alcohol (a very little amount actually) in the bowl. The meat stays so three days also
When time is up, the hams are being taken out of the juice and dried on a towel.
The hams are pressed progressively [pic o left], meaning that after a few hours it's possible to screw a bit tighter, the whole press stage taking a couple of days. The purpose is to get rid of the juice that got into the ham. Jacky has only one such home-made press, so as he makes quite a number of hams, he rotates the stages to process all the meat he wants to smoke.
The hams don't go straight from the press to this string thing. They are left quiet for a couple of days in the fridge where they take back a rounder shape. Here, you see many more hams as Jacky made successive batches of hams that he could handle with his lone press. When they were all ready, he called Gérard.
the tight wrapping of the string is intended to allow an easy slicing of the ham with the knife, when time has come to eat the jambon. Like many things that look simple (see on the right, it looks so obvious), it's not so easy to wrap the strings around tightly and evenly from one end to the other, and that's the sort of details where we spot a well-made rôtis (roast) and paupiettes on the butcher's refrigerated shelves. It must hold the meat firmly and not look messy whith hairy knots here and there. You don't use an ordinary type of string for this job I guess, and I think that Gérard brought his own, a professionnal one, it has to be natural, thin and strong, and stand the heat of the oven. This stage could be the most difficult part of this recipe.
as you know, smoking ham or fish was an ancient way to preserve it and store precious food for the future. Instead of having to eat all their hunted animals on the spot, our ancestors could spare some for later. The smoke, added to the salt impregnating the ham makes it harder for the micro-organisms to damage the meat, and you can really store it in a cool, ventilated place afterwards, if you don't have a refrigerator. The only down thing (which is a good thing for some) is that the meat tends to dry and that after a few months you will be asked to chew more than you might want.
Few smoked ham on the market are made this way, with real juniper kept burning imperfectly so that lots of smoke comes out. the food industry uses wood chips at best but also other techniques that are supposed to replicate the taste and the benefits of real smoking, and we'll not list these techniques, they are probably as exciting as many biotech additives used to "correct" modern wines...
That's something the food industry would have a hard time to replicate : look at my twin pictures above, this precise and concentrated smoke wrapping gently the hams here, just keep it going for the right time and you will have a perfect smoking process. Jacky says that it's the challenge, make sure that the fire keeps going but at the same time prevent the whole thing from flash burning. That's why he keeps this shovel to calm down the spreading fire, and he also has a bucket full of water on the side if the fire gets out of control.