Sunday, 5 December 2010

Matanza on Saturday

WARNING: This entry is not for the fastidious or the animal-rights activist. If you are revolted by innards and gore and death, turn back now.

When I stepped out of the snow into the hot kitchen of Victoriana´s house, a big enamel dish of fried blood was steaming on the tabletop. Leandra worked alone over a stovetop rattling with pots. This was the first offering in a day of animal sacrifice. The big action was out in the patio.  

Saturday was dark and frosty, the first day of a long weekend. The nephews and grandkids were in from Madrid and Vittoria. The pigs were fat, the knives were sharp. It was a perfect day for sticking pigs.

Here in the Hispanic world it´s called "Matanza," or Pig-Butchering day. People with pigs wait to kill them until the temperature drops below freezing, a practice that dates back to pre-refrigeration days and still keeps the proceedings vermin-free. Killing, cutting-up, and processing such large creatures requires many hands working together, and so was born an annual winter-weather festival. A gory one, for sure. (I begin to see why Halloween never really caught on in Spain -- they already have a big helping of blood and bones on their plates this time of year.)

Out in the snowy courtyard the pig was just coming out of the fire -- I´d opted out of the actual death scene. They´d already singed-off most of her hair, and Estebans senior and junior, and brother José were working over her skin with neolithic-looking curls of steel, shaving off the last of the bristles and hair. It stank with a particular stink I´d never smelled before.

She (for this pig was a sow) was stretched out belly-up on an antique bench, her legs splayed obscenely. Alejandro, a grandson of four or five years, touched the pig carefully with the very tips of his fingers: its teats. Its black nose, dripping red. Its pliant trotters, one by one.

Esteban Senior took an old black-bladed knife and slit open the abdomen in two long strokes, from throat to pelvis. José took hold of the place where the lines met, and peeled it back. The pig opened up like a thick book, a steaming Renaissance folio on anatomy.

Esteban, working with the practiced hands of a surgeon, quickly dismantled the systems so neatly packed inside: bowels large and small, bladders, lungs, liver, kidneys, throat, stomach. He pulled them free and passed them to his sons, who hung them steaming from hooks and rods in the rafters. Milagros did quick work with her little knife and strings, clearing the chitterlings and tripes, readying them for their next incarnation as sausage casings. Carlos, the brother-in-law, fluttered near with a bucket and broom, keeping the stage clear. As the insides emptied and the pig became a carcass, assorted male relations descended, hoisted the 100-kilo carcass onto a block-and-tackle and cranked it up to the porch ceiling.

Esteban switched knives, and seperated the pig´s fatty skin from the meat beneath. He split the pelvis bones with a hatchet, and José spread open the carcass with a bit of board. And there it was left to hang and cool, a great meat butterfly in a pigskin raincoat.  

We crowded inside the house, around the coal stove and the kitchen hearth. The men shucked off their overalls and scrubbed their hands and headed to the bar for a drink. In the kitchen the work was only beginning: they had those tripes to scrub, and a basin of blood to spice and season and transform into morcilla sausage. In due time the carcass will be dismantled and ground and spiced and cooked and stuffed into casings to make chorizos.

Little Alejandro went upstairs for a nap. Through the afternoon, in the patio, the burnt-bristle smell lingered. The emtpy sow dripped in the cold, with her organs dangling from hangers -- a gory doll with her wardrobe arrayed and displayed alongside.

It was beautiful in its symmetry and economy -- the pig´s insides in such pristine working order, every system so perfectly formed, so elegantly arranged to make the whole creature function. And the matanza, too, was almost choreographic in its efficiency. Each worker had a job, each tool was fashioned for just its part of a complicated, highly skilled dance of death and life, food, family, and winter.  

It´s a folk dance, done here in this patio by this family since time out of mind.


Anonymous said...

I've seen "matanzas" when I was a child. It was gory but it was also a "fiesta" and it allowed our ancestors - and yours too - to survive, probably for thousands of years. I remember that in Galicia they make "filloas" - kind like crepes - with the blood. The only thing wasted is the hair.

But the shrilling scream from the poor pig is hard to bare.


emilene said...

My husband was born in Madeira and they used to have a similar ritual there...

Thank goodness it was not a right of passage required for the new daughter-in-law to perform!!

Mujerárbol said...

Nice, Reb: not all "foreigners" brave to show off our bloody winter rituals as you do. Yes, knife and life are together for survival, even now, times of carefully packaged godknowsthekind of highly processed food.
I quote your post on FB ;)

Laura said...

I love reading about day-to-day life in Moratinos. Never a dull moment in that tiny village.

The aroma of singed hair hangs in my senses...and now, with the comment from Tino, the sound of a pig's "shrilling scream" echos in my head, but regardless, this was an interesting post and I admire your on-going ability to jump in and participate in whatever the culture brings.

Anonymous said...

ever read John Berger's "Pig Earth"?....

giving thanks for those that choreograph this dance for our eating pleasure...

Thanks for the descriptions, Reb,


ksam said...

Thanks for such an honest view of where those lovely hams, and chops et al come from!! It took me until I was 20 something to finally try blutwurst...and find out it was delicious! We've gotten so frighteningly removed from where and what all of our food is! Thanks for sharing this.

tio tel said...

I remember pig killing days in my youth! The saying was 'Nothing is wasted except the squeal' and it was true too! i can even remember playing football with the pig's bladder. Life was so much more real back then. Maybe that is why I find the Camino fascinating - takes me back to my young days!

AnnieSantiago said...

Growing up in a close-knit Portuguese community and family, I remember those cold pig-killing days. The women made morcilla and linguica in a huge iron kettle I still have, and each person who helped with the kill called on the others to help when it came time to butcher their animals. I know it sounds weird, but thanks for the memories. We just aren't part of anything like this type of community effort anymore in most of the USA.

The Solitary Walker said...

Great piece of description, Rebekah. Very visceral. My hands felt bloody and I could smell the pungent aroma as I read.