I wanted to use my summer vacation this year to visit some of maître philippe's most important suppliers. One of them was the company Mayté, from the French Basque Country, from which we purchase Bayonne ham, chorizo and some salami specialties.
So one morning we drove into the Pyrenees. The mountains became ever higher and more powerful, and the fog clung to the densely forested slopes. Directly after Saint-Jean-Pied-De-Port, a town that was unexpectedly overrun with tourists - it is the last stop on French soil on the Way of St. James to Santiago de Compostela - we came to the much more tranquil village of Saint-Jean-Le -Vieux, where Mayté has its production facility and one of its stores.
We entered the store, a very small store of a maximum of 20 m². One side is taken up by a refrigerated counter in which the sausage products are presented in an attractive and appetizing manner; on the other side of the room there are shelves with canned goods and jars.
Éric Mayté quickly came forward to greet us personally. He introduced us to his wife Sylvie, who takes care of the organizational part of the company. Immediately afterwards he proudly presented us with the newest addition to the family, their third child, a little daughter who was born a month ago.
He then told us the history of the Mayté house, which is now run by him and his wife in the fifth generation. The company was founded in 1884, in the same house where it is still based. The first two generations were more butchers, produced a few Basque meat specialties, and otherwise lived off the travelers who stayed overnight in their house and ate in the small in-house restaurant. Éric led us next door, into a large room with a high ceiling and dark wooden beams. The room opens to the side through a huge wooden gate. Horse-drawn carriages used to drive in through this gate so that travelers could get out safely and go straight to the sleeping quarters above. Just a few years ago they carefully renovated this room, laid a beautiful tiled floor and installed some old wooden cabinets to display their products. This space now serves as a reception and tasting room for visitors.
During the Second World War, business stagnated somewhat, but afterward, with the new methods of preservation (canning, etc.), the company opened up completely new opportunities for distributing its products. They closed the guest house and restaurant and from then on concentrated on the production of ham and sausage products.
We enjoyed a VIP tour of the entire production facility. Éric showed us everything, from the delivery of goods to the cold rooms where large pieces of meat hang to the production rooms. The meat for their products comes exclusively from the region, from four small towns directly near Saint-Jean-Le-Vieux. Mayté buys the animals “sur pied”, meaning he goes to the breeder and selects the animals he wants. The meat is slaughtered by a selected butcher 6 km away. They receive many of the animals whole and disassemble them themselves on site; they only buy individual top shells for ham production. Otherwise, they try to utilize the entire animal as much as possible.
At Mayté, handcraft is still very important and is practiced 100%. Mayté proudly showed us his ripening chambers for salamis, in which the raw sausages are stored for several days at relatively high temperatures and high humidity. Within these few days, the white Penicillium mold forms on the salami, which gives it taste but, above all, increases the shelf life of the product as it prevents the formation of other (harmful) types of mold. After this process, the sausages are hung in classic cooling chambers, where they dry and the formation of mold is further promoted.
Now about ham production: The Mayté house produces four different types of ham. The Jambon Ibaïona, the Jambon Terroir, the Jambon Sauveur and the Bayonne ham, which can also be purchased at maître philippe.
The Bayonne ham, like all other hams, is first rubbed by hand with a special reddish salt and spice mixture. It is then stored in cooling chambers, where the salt slowly melts and penetrates the ham to a certain depth. After a while, the ham is freed from salt and hung in a special chamber. A fairly complex maturation process begins, in which moisture is alternately removed or added and the temperature in the chamber is increased or decreased as appropriate. During all this time, the ham always maintains its core temperature of 3.5°C. The ham dries without drying out and the salt penetrates from the outer layers of the ham to the absolute interior. When the salt has completely penetrated the ham, the ham is preserved to the point that nothing more can happen. The ham is then wrapped in fine fabric bags to protect it from insects and dried in the fresh air at room temperature. Depending on the season, this takes 10 to 12 months.
In addition to the ham and salamis, the Maytés also produce chorizo, various pâtés and preserves with typical dishes from the region. Éric is a trained chef and attended a state charcutier school for three years. The recipes they use in the house are all traditional recipes that Éric tastes and adapts where necessary together with three chefs who work for him. There is a lively exchange of ideas within the company.
Éric Mayté took a lot of time for us. There was a friendly and relaxed atmosphere throughout the house. During our visit, the two older children came home and excitedly told their father about school. It was the first day of school after the holidays. Éric listened carefully to his children, while we tasted some of the products, and then he turned back to us and we continued the conversation. At the end of our visit, we jokingly asked which of his three children would take over the company later. Éric laughed and said we'll see. But to run a company like this, you would need a fair amount of passion for your job!
After visiting Mayté, we decided to explore the area a bit further and drove to some of the well-known typical Basque villages. The village of Espelette is known worldwide for its pimento, the Piment d'Espelette, which is grown in the region and is an AOC (Appelation d'Origine Controlé = Protected Designation of Origin) product. In autumn, the facades of the pretty Basque houses turn completely red as long rows of pimento pods are hung to dry on the walls.