NOTE: This entry contains images some will consider nasty, tasteless, gruesome, and horrible. But no cuss words.
When dealing with generous, well-connected, can-do people like our neighbors Esteban and Milagros, you have to be very careful what you ask for. We asked for a lamb.
Lamb meat, specifically. The area where we live is home to thousands of sheep. Most are kept for their milk, which is used to make high-quality and tasty cheese. To keep the ewes lactating, shepherds must be sure their flocks keep producing lambs each year. Ewe lambs are kept for future cheese-production. Ram lambs, well... after about five weeks, they go to dinner.
(Last year, before our next-door neighbors sold off their flock, I was gamboling in their barn one morning with several of their tiny lambs. They nibbled at my sleeves with their little mouths. "Tan preciosa!" I said to Oliva. She smiled craftily. "Tan deliciosa," she said.)
Palencian black-face churra lamb is famous all over Spain. Not long ago we mentioned taking our friend Ted to a lamb place for a platter of chuletillas -- tiny, tender, melt-in-your-mouth ribs -- and our neighbor Esteban took note. When he learned we´d bought a big freezer, and we´d started buying cut-up, cut-price sides of lamb at the superstore butcher department, he decided to show us how the locals get things done.
"Next time I go to the matadero, you come along," he told Patrick. "You pick a good-looking lamb, and pay maybe 50, 60 Euros, and you get the whole thing for the freezer. The best lamb, best price. I´ll show you."
"Sure," Paddy said. And we thought little of it after that. How often does Esteban drive all the way down to the nearest slaughterhouse? How often does his family of four need a whole honkin´ 20-kilo lamb to eat?
We envisioned a happy Guy´s Day Out in Palencia with dear, wise, wily Esteban showing Paddy around the local abattoir, maybe throwing in a trip to the bullring or the farmers´supply store, and perhaps a swing round the lowdown bars in the neighborhood. Valuable things to know if you´re going to live here.
The Lamb Star rose this morning. Paddy and I drove to Leon to buy things, and the trip included a stop at the giant market and three huge packages of lamb -- neatly chopped into cutlets and roasts, laid on styrofoam platters and wrapped in plastic. (They had split sheep´s heads there too. Interesting to examine, but hard to imagine cooking one. Expensive, too, at 3€ each.)
And when we finally got home and put everything away, Esteban called. He´d bought the lambs, he said, local ones, from Villamol. Paddy needed to come to Sahagun and pick up his.
I missed this part, as I was napping at the time. Kim went along instead, and got what seems to be the shock of her life.
In the enclosed patio of Esteban´s Sahagun house two white lambs lay on the concrete. Their feet were bound. One was newly dead, his throat cleanly cut, blood still running into the drain. The other lay there baa-ing, awaiting his fate. Over them, with a knife in his hand, stood our friend Esteban.
He must´ve seen the looks on their faces. He sent them home, told Paddy to come back at 9. He´d be done by then, he said.
And so back we went. I did some growing up in a Muslim country and witnessed lamb and goat butchering during the annual Eid celebration. I kinda knew what to expect. Without his wool and little hooves and ears, a lamb just looks like gruesome anatomy study. You see similar sights in butcher shops all over Spain -- pig, lamb, calf, and bird carcasses hanging upside-down, their bodies opened up like great pink books.
Esteban and Milagros were buzzing around the patio, gathering up the fresh delicacies. We stepped into the cool, clean, semi-light of their summer cellar to meet Our Lamb. It hung from hooks run through its hamstrings. It dripped into a basin below. Along the walls were flat benches and tree stumps, all wearing marks of many years of knives and hatchets. On a shelf above a print of a doe-eyed Virgin Mary watched benevolently over the carnage.
Milagros showed us the white tripe, the stomach-lining so highly prized for stewing and chewing at tapas bars. She spooned coaglulated blood into a Tupperware container, to be served immediately with a salad, for dinner, with paprika and onions. (She also threw in some homemade chicken croquetas, because she "made too many.") And the wobbly rope of gullet, thymus, heart, lungs, kidneys, liver was examined and explained. Esteban stretched it between his hands like a string of holiday lights.
I think we were supposed to take our prize home then. We were supposed to hang it up in the cool despensa all night, and in the morning fling it onto a wooden bench and then expertly hack it open along the spine, quarter it, and slowly disassemble it into chops, cutlets, roasts, and chuletillas. The head we´d cleave into halves for roasting. The fat and tail and bones left over could go to the dogs.
Of course. Any fool knows that´s what you do. I looked at Paddy. "The chainsaw is still in the shop," he murmured. "What the f-- are we gonna do with this thing, Reb?"
My mind raced: Do we have a sharp knife anywhere in our house? Where will Kim would go during this operation? Is there maybe a lamb-carving video on YouTube? Could we take it to Julio or Teri or one of the meat markets in Sahagun and pay them to carve it up? I remembered the charts that hang on the walls at butcher shops, with all those dotted lines... Surgery, I thought. I pictured this leggy sticky object on our kitchen table, its legs akimbo, and me hacking at it with our pathetic collection of kitchen cutlery.
It wasn´t a far step from there to slasher films. For Patrick and me to cut up this lamb would be a terrible waste of top-quality meat, if not an assault with a deadly weapon.
I am not adequate for this job. Paddy, rendered almost speechless by his first lamb encounter of the evening, could offer no advice. Esteban, I think, is feeling like he´s got himself into a load of extra work AGAIN because of these poor city-bred idiots.
And so tomorrow at 11 I will return to their house again. With Milagros as my guide, I will learn how to quarter an entire lamb carcass, then carve it into edible portions. I will take careful notes, and lots of horrifying photos. Meantime, I am putting out an emergency call to Filipe, my friend the Portuguese chef... what DOES a gourmet do with a beautiful, snowy-white blanket of fresh lamb´s tripe, and a jiggly brown pudding of blood, and great long ropes of vital organs?