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.