Saturday, 6 March 2010

The day we killed a pig

I awake as if it were any other morning, to the sound of speckled rain on the caravan roof, and a cloak of mist shrouding the basin of Valle de Castaños. The atmosphere is cold and heavy, thick with subdued energy.

As we drive up the steep track, out of the valley, the sky begins to clear. Clouds part above us, almost as if they're making way for the two accomplices to the events that would unfold, later that morning...

It's the tail end of pig killing 'season', which takes place from late Autumn until Carnival, the week before Lent. In the past, almost all rural families would have kept a house pig, supplementing it's grazing on the land with kitchen scraps and other dregs - a kind of gardener-cum-waste disposal unit. Come 11th November, a feast day in honour of St Martin, the pigs would have been duly fattened, and ready to lay down their lives for the benefit of their owner's sustenance over the long, hard winter. After having been salted, cured, smoked and preserved, the yield from one pig would keep a family going for a whole year.

The traditions of November 11th have given way to a popular saying in Spain, "A cada cerdo le llega su San Martín" – “Every pig has it's St Martin's Day”. Andreas has been given a pig by a friend... And today is that pig's St Martin's Day.

We arrive at our destination. A collection of houses on a bleak patch of land, where the mountains plato, 800 metres above sea level. The remnants of snow lay underfoot, and there's a bitter chill in the air, the kind that makes you shudder like a skeleton's rasping it's knuckles up your spinal chord.

We stand huddled in the shed to one side of the yard, where a pot of water has been set to boil on an open fire. One of the men gathers together buckets and towels, whilst another stirs a tin pan, half-full with a murky liquid that looks like potato scraps boiled in muddy water. I hope to myself that this isn't the pig's last supper, or worse still, our pre-sacrificio snack. The tallest of the men, the matador, who will carry out the killing, flits between the fire and his collection of freshly sharpened knives. As a forth man barks something at me in his thick, Austurian accent, I nod and smile, trying my best to hide the nerves that have taken hold of my stomach. As everyone busies themselves around the yard, I suspect I'm not the only one who is feeling just a little uneasy.

Probably ten minutes pass... I'm not sure if final preparations were being made for the killing, if we were waiting for the frozen rain to pass, or if it was simply to allow time for everyone to drink an extra cupful of wine. An elderly man strolls over from one of the houses across the road. He looks well into his seventies, if not older, but his eyes are bright, and he walks tall and broad. The kind of man I imagine to have taken part in events like these hundreds of times before. He looks over the yard, and says something to the matador in a tone that asks "well, are you going to do it or not?"

The next thing I know, the matador is inside the pig pen, whilst the rest of us are huddling around the gate. I've been handed the end of a rope and instructed to hold on tight. It takes probably 20 seconds for the matador to get hold of one of the pigs, but with the high-pitched squealing and fear-fuelled instinct that makes the animals literally run for their lives, it seem like far longer. After a short struggle, the unfortunate beast is dragged out of the pen by a noose around it's snout - something which in itself must be excruciatingly painful. As the pig is pulled into the centre of the courtyard it lets out a blood-curdlingly expressive screech; less a squeal, more a scream of terror.

Three of us take the strain of the noose at the snout and ropes at the rear, whilst the matador grabs his knife. It's a long, vicious looking tool; tough and rigid, the blade and handle carved from a single piece of metal. As he stands over the pig, the screaming stops. Pigs are intelligent beasts, and it would appear that this one knows it's fate. In a single movement, the matador plunges the knife deep into the throat, going through the gullet and down to the heart. Another shriek This time agony rather than fear. The ropes tighten in our hands as the pig bucks and kicks, eventually flipping itself almost a metre into the air. With one last violent spasm, it drops to it's side, hitting the ground with an audible thud. Blood seeps from it's neck turning the green grass a muddy red. The twitching stops and the pig lies still. Finally, it is dead. The whole process lasted around a minute.

We haul the pig into a long shallow bath, where it will be cleaned and prepared for butchering. We have to work quickly now, as this must be done whilst the body is still warm and rigor mortis has yet to set in. As one man pours boiling water over the body, we each take a knife and begin shaving off the thick hairs that adorn it's skin. At first I'm almost hesitant to touch it. I kneel down and grab it's thigh. It's warm, pink and fleshy, almost disturbingly similar to that of a human. But with each stroke of the knife, turned flat against the contours of it's body, I begin to consider it less as an animal, and more as the piece of meat that it will become.

With blood still dripping from the gaping hole in it's neck, we winch the pig up so it's hanging from the rafters. The knot slips, and the animal falls back to the floor. I feel myself wincing, almost upset by the lapse of dignity that this hulk of flesh has been subjected to. I have heard about this being done using tractors, fork-lifts, or other machinery, but where we've gone is back to basics; rope and man power are all that's to hand. 

Finally, the pig is risen to the height of one of the beams, legs akimbo, ready to be cut open. The matador takes his knife and scores the flesh from the anus to the rib cage. With utmost care, he teases out the intestines and stomach. One slip of the knife, and we would all be covered in whatever the pig had eaten for dinner. Once the delicate work is done, he places an axe on the sternum, and using a hammer, splits the ribcage in two, one blow at a time. With the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys neatly away, he yanks the wind pipe clean out. He turns to Andreas, knife in one bloodied hand, fleshy, pink-grey tube in the other, offering up the innards as a final piece of bounty... "Para los peros" is Andreas' response; We already have more than enough offal to contend with.

The matador slings the wind pipe to the dogs, rubs his hands clean with a towel, and begins walking away from the scene, to house on the other side of the road. His work here is done.

We gather in the small kitchen, leaning against the walls and work surfaces as platers of jamon, fried chorizo and cheese are laid out on the table. There is only one chair in the room and only the matador is sitting. There are no cutlery or plates - the men use their own pocket knives to pick up the food, and pieces of bread to catch any juices. As everyone eats their meat, cheese and bread, drinking wine, and sharing the occasional chuckle, the atmosphere begins to flatten. It's only two o'clock, but it feels like we've packed a lot into our morning. There's a lull in conversation. The matador drains his cup of wine, flips his knife blade back into the handle, and stands. "Bueno," he says, in a tone that implies right, that's enough, as opposed to OK, good, as it's usually used, and walks out of the kitchen. That's the end of that.


So now I've taken part in the killing of a pig. A powerful and at times disturbing experience. Official legislation states that a stun-gun should be used to render the animal unconscious, so it can then be bled to death. But the method used here is one that hasn't changed for centuries... It wasn't sacrificial, or celebratory, but there was a certain sense of ritual. Ritual that has been passed down through generations. Ritual that, for right or wrong, is quickly dying out.

Could the killing have been faster, more dignified, less painful? I suspect so, yes. But at least the suffering was preceded by a decent life. It's diet was varied. It had the company of other animals. A sheltered pen, and a yard to roam in. When you compare it's existence to that of an intensively-reared, industrial pig, which may be slaughtered under conditions that meet the terms of official good practice, but have spent their lives living in a pen so small they can't even turn around, there is a lot to be said for tradition. A minute of fear and pain versus a lifetime of miserable discomfort...


The following day, feeling just a little sore-headed after having spent the entirety of the previous day drinking, we set about butchering the carcass and preserving the meat. Andreas has turned the table in his workshop into a temporary butcher's block, and enlisted the help of two friends from the village. Neither are professionally trained, but they get to work quickly, cleanly and efficiently, showing expertise as they split and joint the carcass. The shoulders, thighs, ribs, belly, bacon, trotters and head are trimmed and prepared for salting, whilst the off-cuts are minced - along with a healthy dose of fat - in order to make chorizo. There's a lot of work, but with four pairs of hands, the task is complete by lunchtime.

Sat in a circle in the kitchen, we tuck into slices of mouth-wateringly tender lomo - the back fillet - marinated in lots of garlic and oil, and cooked over the open fire. The butchers refuse my offer of cutlery and plates, using only their own pocket knives to cut chunks of bread off the loaf, and skewer each piece of meat. Another carnivorous feast, eaten with primal machismo.

After lunch, we salt the meat in an old cast-iron bath, and make the chorizo mix by adding garlic, parsley, salt and lots of both sweet and hot paprika to the mince. Once again, the day has been lubricated with lots of local wine, and by five o'clock, with the work done, I'm glad of a rest in the courtyard. I sit and contemplate the previous day's events, whilst taking in the last of the afternoon sun.

Offal is on the menu for dinner, and while Andreas cooks up a thick, northern Europen-style stew made from the kidneys, liver and lungs, I slice the heart thinly and marinade it in garlic, thyme, and oil, as I had done with the ox heart at St John. This will be our starter, along with the pig's brains, pan-fried and served with lots of bread. By the time it gets to the stew, I'm almost full, but make my way through a bowlful, despite the floppy texture of the lung making me feel slightly queasy. As I mop up the remaining juices, Andreas immediately offers me another ladle full. For the first time during my stay at Valle de Castaños, I don't really fancy seconds. After two days of pig, the whole pig, and nothing but the pig, for now at least, I've finally had enough.

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