NASSOGNE - Just the name, Ardennes, will set gourmets drooling. They’re getting spontaneous visions of a chunky slice of bread, home-made on the farm, buttered thickly and then covered with a slice of Ardennes ham. We can go one better. We’re having a taste of the real ‘jambon d’Ardenne’.
On the outskirts of the village of Nassogne only 90 minutes away from the busy capital stands a handful of wooden shacks, straight from the movie set of the Three Little Pigs. The rosy-cheeked inhabitants welcome me with a choir of grunts. “We have around 300 pigs here,” farmer-butcher André Magerotte tells me matter-of-factly.
“We have the animals for four months. They arrive when they are two months old and are slaughtered four months later. By that time they will weigh around 110 kilograms.”
The pigs feed themselves on whatever they can find in the field and their diet is supplemented with grains, vitamins and minerals.
As they wander freely, they develop a good set of muscles too. “The meat is marbled with fat,” André explains. “And this gives the characteristically rich taste and tender texture.” When it comes to pork this is some of the finest regional produce to be found around the country.
In common with pâté gaumais and the Hervé cheese, Ardennes ham is protected by an IGP label of origin (Indication Géographique Protégée, a European Union initiative to protect some special regional products). However, this label only confirms that the processing was done in the Ardennes.
André has higher standards. “Our ham comes from Ardennes pigs raised here by ourselves,” he tells us. “They were born and raised in this region and fed with locally grown produce. The meat is processed by our local, artisanal village butchers.”
I follow the butcher’s steps to his workshop. “First of all, salt is rubbed into the hams and when saturated, they will rest for 14 days,” André explains. The next stage is rinsing after which the meat will rest for four months in the cooling cellar.
The hams will then dry out at room temperature for seven to eight months. “It is a natural product,” André continues. “The taste will depend on the weather.”
The dried hams are basted with a mixture of lard, olive oil and pepper. Only when all this is done will the butcher decide whether or not to smoke the ham. “The ham is smoked only at the end of the curing process,” André tells us. “This way, it will develop its taste first. The smoky touch of beech or oak is an additional extra.”
Shelves in the butcher’s shop groan under the weight of sausages and hams. “In this region every farmer used to breed pigs,” explains André.
“Every bit of the pig was used.” How does he like his ham? “In tapas wrapped into a thin slice, or with a slice of oatmeal bread, or in a salad, in a starter with melon…” the butcher lists his favourite options.
“And I like to have a regional beer with it, a Rochefort, Orval or Saint-Monon.” André cuts off a long slice of ham - “So you get more of the taste.” - I try the meat and couldn't agree more.
For lunch, I make my way to Al Pele’s tavern on the edge of Les Fournaux Saint-Michel open air museum. Here they serve some typical dishes and traditional lumberjack fare like The Walloon ‘Al Pele’ (which means ‘in the pot’).
André, always a welcome guest here and a woodcutter in a former life, recommends the omelette, which is as thick as a fist: “After this, you can walk against the wind!”
With it, I enjoy a blonde Saint-Monon from the microbrewery of the same name in the nearby village of Ambly. “Care for a café liégeois on the house to round off the meal?” Who am I to say no?