When I see a wedge of jambon persille, a mosaic of rose-pink chunks of ham set in a shimmering aspic flecked with parsley, I know I’m back home in Burgundy. I’ve come across parsleyed ham in other parts of France -- in Paris, for instance, where it appears with pate de campagne and rillettes on the appetizer menu of traditional bistros. But only in Burgundy does jambon persille hit the headlines, top choice in a region renowned for good eating.
Charcutiers compete to provide the brightest version of parsleyed ham, piquant with fresh garlic and shallot, the white wine aspic lightly set so it holds the chunks of lean ham in place with no trace of the rubbery bounce that betrays too much gelatin. Locals queue to buy it freshly made, toting home generous wedges, or even a small bowlful for the family lunch on Sunday when grandma and children from the baby on up gather around the table.
The pink ham, green herb and shine of the aspic is absolutely gorgeous. In France, it’s always served as a first course, presented simply with cornichons, olives and plenty of fresh baguette.
At Easter in Burgundy, where the festivities are elaborate, jambon persille plays a prime role. The grand, leisurely Sunday feast starts with jambon de Paques, the Easter version of parsleyed ham that is packed with hard-boiled eggs, adding springtime color. The mold may be served with a little salad of cucumber in vinegar, or thinly sliced baby fennel, and, of course, country bread. It sets the scene for the treats to come -- a whole roast baby lamb, or baby goat cooked outdoors on a spit, or possibly a choice piece of center-cut wild salmon, flanked by spring vegetables.
A starring role
I make it go further than French cooks do, as the centerpiece of a relaxed meal, with the simplest of accompaniments: a vinaigrette of baby potatoes in their skins, a dandelion or arugula salad with walnut oil dressing, and my favorite julienne of root celery in a mustardy remoulade mayonnaise.
Making parsleyed ham is an adventure that takes some time, but it’s well worth the effort. The traditional version occupies two days, though there are many pauses along the way, and your whole house will be aromatic with simmering meat and wine. The recipe proceeds in stages: soaking the ham to remove salt; simmering it with wine, flavorings, and calf’s or pig’s feet and bones for gelatin; shredding the cooked meats and reducing the aspic; and finally layering everything together in one glorious vivid mold.
First, you need a whole country ham on the bone (or a shank half if the ham is very large). It should be uncooked and cured, meaning that it has been salted or brined, and probably lightly smoked. You’ll find many possibilities on the Web, for example at www.padows.com and www.scotthams.com. Most hams on offer are already cooked, so be sure to find one that is raw. I dodge pepper or honey cures, and also Virginia or Smithfield hams, as they tend to be too salty.
When it comes to wine, use a Burgundy-style Chardonnay, which means full-bodied but dry, with a minimum of oak. It can be imported or domestic. The other ingredients are straightforward -- a few vegetables, aromatics and parsley.
All these country ingredients are held together with the natural gelatin that is extracted from calf’s or pig’s feet and veal bones. Long, long simmering is critical, with the surface of the liquid almost motionless in the pot. Just as a precaution, I’ve included a test: If a spoonful of the cooking liquid does not set when chilled, you should play it safe and add powdered gelatin. If you’ve ever made Jell-O, you’ll know that a mold with too little gelatin collapses miserably, and we don’t want that!
Now for the action. The first step, long before any cooking, is to soak the ham for about 24 hours to remove excess salt. Cooking starts by blanching feet and bones to clean them and, for the ham, to extract more salt from the surface. Taste a bit of ham and if necessary blanch it again as this is the last chance to adjust the salt.
Now all the ingredients go in a vast pot -- I’d recommend a very large stock pot, or a ham boiler -- along with the wine and enough water to cover the ingredients. So the cooking liquid does not cloud, simmering is done without the lid and it will probably take six hours or so.
Once the meats are cooked, you can leave them overnight, covered on the back of the stove; they’ll be fine. (If you chill them, the cooking liquid will set and you’ll have to warm the pot in the morning.)
Now comes the real work; plan on a couple of hours. Handling aspic, arranging ingredients and setting them little by little in colorful layers is enormously creative. Take your time, and taste along the way. The basic aspic should be concentrated, mellow with all those meats and wine. Toward the end you’ll be adding parsley, chopped shallot and garlic to highlight the piquant ham.
It is traditional to set parsleyed ham in a deep bowl so it unmolds as a shimmering, green-shrouded hemisphere with intriguing glimpses of pink ham. For serving, the mold is cut in wedges like a cake, revealing the multicolored layers.
Parsleyed ham is so delicious that I’ve been known to experience withdrawal symptoms away from my kitchen in Burgundy. So I’ve developed a version that takes a quarter the time of the traditional one and involves ready-cooked ham -- though I always look for artisan, country ham with plenty of taste. Lavish amounts of fresh parsley and plenty of wine to pick up flavor -- how can it fail? Once molded in its bowl, the ham keeps well for several days and flavor im- proves.
For a wine to serve with either version, it’s back to Burgundy. For a celebration I opt for a fruity, black currant-tinged Pinot Noir, with a lighter, less expensive Macon for a simpler occasion. Both are perfect counterpoint to the tingling, complex flavors of this country tour de force.