Jambon beurre, and prolonging the small, tangible pleasures.
Adapted from: the iconic Parisian sandwich.
At some point this year I started worrying that the depressive fog was not going to lift, that the long-awaited return to the life I was acclimated to before the pandemic was not, in fact, going to hold its value in the exchange. Vaccinations and the reprisal of social activities constituted the first test; traveling was the second. Now, on the other side of a trip to France I’d been looking forward to since 2019, I can say—without discounting the beauty of the trip or my gratitude towards it in any way—that traveling was not the antidote to the spiritual vacancy I so desperately wanted it to be. The loss feels bigger than what we have regained. Disproportionate. Like the good feelings will never catch up.
One of Anne Helen Petersen’s recent newsletters gave me a new way of articulating this feeling—the concept of ambiguous grief:
[It] conceives of a loss that is both unclear yet traumatic: it can be physically absent but psychologically present; alternatively, it can be psychologically absent while physically present. […] And that’s what so many people, even those who were lucky enough to avoid the embodied ravages of COVID, have been feeling. Things have been lost — so many things have been lost. But how the hell do you grieve a loss that you cannot even pinpoint? How can you lose something you never had?
I don’t have the answers, but one of the first places to look, I’d imagine, is in the experiences that feel antithetical to the notion of ambiguity—the tangible and the tactile, the concrete. What small joys can I hold close? Whose presence can I actually feel? As a person who lives primarily in my head, this has never been an easy exercise. These days it feels paramount.
It didn’t take long after the flight back to Canada for me to start questioning whether the trip actually happened. Like the faces in a dream that shapeshift as you try to recall them, the details are starting to drift away. Where did we go? What did we do? Did I feel happy there? It felt easy to dissociate from the whole experience, which also felt like an exceptionally ungrateful thing to do. So I went looking for a tethering experience that would remind me of our time in France, trite as it sounds: eating a jambon beurre.
The iconic French sandwich
A jambon beurre (“ham butter”, also known as a Parisien) gained popularity in France in the 1900s, as a cheap, convenient, and fortifying lunchtime option for the working class. Today it is the quintessential French sandwich, with over 1 billion sold each year—a title only recently usurped by the hamburger.
It is also my definition of a perfect meal: A freshly-baked baguette sliced in half, slathered with a generous amount of butter on both sides, then stuffed with thin shavings of ham. It’s a simple sandwich, the success of which is predicated on the quality of its ingredients. In its best and most traditional iteration, that means semi-salted butter from Normandy, a baguette de tradition, and jambon de Paris (also known as jambon blanc).
When making it for yourself, getting the ham is the important part. It’s hard to articulate what makes jambon de Paris better, except that it just… is: at once more flavourful and more delicate than the classic ham you’d find at the deli, not smoked, wet-cured for optimal moistness. It’s made à l’ancienne—the way it used to be. According to Yves Le Guel, the only producer of jambon de Paris left in Paris, his ham is deboned by hand, injected with a brine made from vegetable broth, spices, and sea salt from Guerande, molded, then steam-cooked low and slow before being left to chill in its cooking liquid for eight days. Salivating just thinking about it.
Last year, feeling sorry for myself after the trip to Paris was canceled, I begged the owners of Pompette to make me a jambon beurre with some jambon de Paris that they’d cooked in-house. They generously obliged, an act of kindness that I won’t soon forget. This year, Pompette opened a sister bar where the former The Walton used to be, and they serve an excellent jambon beurre there. But if you want to make one yourself, I’ve spotted jambon de Paris at Cheese Boutique, Sanagan’s, and the St. Lawrence Market.
Back to cooking next time. Until then!