Over the last few months, I got an up-close look at an Abruzzese winter tradition.
I helped slaughter and butcher two pigs I had purchased last fall, salt cure the meat, make salamis and sausages, and finally wrap and hang the hams, loins, capocollo and other parts in the cantina under our villa.
It was at times all too real, and I will spare you those details. Other times it was bizarre. But in the end though, I’m happy to say, the results are delicious.
It started on my way home from work one night in early August last year. The guests had been fed a fantastic Italian meal, and I’d given an update on the tour they were taking the next day. When I left, they were enjoying after-dinner drinks on our terrace. All was good.
There are several options for the path I take home to our apartment, and, it seems, all ways go by the front doors of one of the several cafes in our town of Torre de’Passeri in the heart of the Abruzzo region east of Rome. In the cafes late at night are people my wife Lisa calls the “hardcores” and I call friends. Often, as I just happen to be walking by, one of these people will spot me and insist that I stop for a drink. As it would be rude to refuse such a friendly offer, I usually stop and partake.
On the night in question, my path home took me by the patio of a local called the Zanzibar where my friend Alfredo and some other friends were. They were yelling at each other at the top of their lungs and gesticulating wildly like people were about to get killed, or as Southern Italians call it - talking.
Alfredo called me over for a “bicchiere” (a glass) and soon I had a nice cold bottle of Peroni beer in front of me.
As the yelling continued, I determined the source of the heated talk was a debate over when, exactly, was the right time to purchase your pigs for the traditional winter slaughter. The general idea was you purchased them several months before, fattened them up and timed it all so that they are slaughtered in the coldest part of the winter mid-January to early February.
The consensus was you should buy the pigs small in May and fatten them for eight months. What was making everybody nuts was that one guy insisted it was better to wait until August, and worse to many was that Alfredo was planning to wait until September. He was planning to make up for lost time by buying bigger pigs. He had good reasons for doing this. You would spend less on food, there’s less chance of sickness with older pigs, and you would know you are not getting a runt. Those opposed also had good reasons. You wouldn’t know what the pigs had been eating, the breeders might sell you an old pig, transporting big pigs is difficult. But the main reason to buy the pigs in May came down to tradition.
Southern Italians are big on traditions. Having a cappuccino after 10 a.m. isn’t cool. Everybody has lunch at 1 p.m. and dinner at 8 p.m. Everybody has a picnic Easter Monday and August 15. Everybody drinks bottled water even though the tap water is fine. Winter jackets go on October 1st even if it’s hot. Beach season is June, July and August, no earlier, no later. And, Northern Italians are all assholes.
These are hard rules, and we buy our pigs in May because “That’s what we do!”
Somewhere during the conversation, beer two arrived and the conversation swung to how much our guests would like homemade prosciutto and salamis rather than the stuff we were getting from our food distributor.
Then Alfredo suggested I should buy some pigs with him, and that’s where I lost control of things.
Without really asking me my opinion, it was decided I was getting two pigs, Alfredo would raise them with his two, and, in January or February, a bunch of the guys would help us with the killing and meat preparation. Shots of a local sweet, fortified wine liqueur called Ratafia were ordered all around and we sealed the deal.
On the way home, I had my first pangs of regret over what I had just gotten myself into. I really liked Alfredo. Everybody said he was an excellent farmer, but he tended to spend more time at the café than his farm, which over the years had deteriorated from what was once a first-rate operation into a ramshackle, disorganized mess. I spent the first 13 years of my life on a farm, but that was 37 years ago. I had no idea what I was doing, and I wasn’t sure Alfredo did either.
The plan had the all-to-familiar feel of something that sounds good while sitting on a bar stool but comes across as a stupid when you try to explain it to your wife in the morning.
I wanted to back out, but that would be bad form, so I decided to tough it out.
A few weeks later, it was time to buy the pigs and Alfredo picked me up in his broken-down red Fiat Ducato van. I smelled that Alfredo had been at the café, so I told him we could take my car, but he said we were going to bring the pigs back with us. What? I had assumed the pigs would be delivered in a proper livestock truck, but no, that would cost extra. We were doing it ourselves in what was essentially an old flower delivery van.
When we got out onto the local highway, I realized he wasn’t shifting out of third gear. I asked why? He said fourth and fifth gears didn’t work. For about 20 kilometres, we chugged along at 50 km/h with a trail of impatient Italians honking behind us. Eventually, we turned off the highway and climbed winding roads into the foothills of the Maiella mountain and ended up at a livestock yard.
We met the stockmen and we shown into a barn with five pens of pigs ranging in size from around 40 to roughly 200 kilograms. They all looked good to me, and, considering our plan to transport the pigs in Alfredo’s van, I was thinking some pigs on the small side would be fine. Alfredo wanted to go as big as possible though, and I suspected it was so that by slaughter time, his pigs would be as big as the ones the other guys got all the way back in May. The stockmen didn’t care until Alfredo told them we didn’t need the pigs delivered because we were taking the pigs with us. They said he was crazy, and that the pigs would destroy his van even more than it was already. Who was going to get them into and out of the van, they asked? Him and I, he said pointing to me. One stockman even made the “drinky, drinky” hand motion to me while pointing at Alfredo behind his back.
One last time I tried to convince Alfredo that the 40-euro delivery fee wasn’t that much, and, once again, I failed.
The pigs were weighed and came out at about 220 kilograms each. Then they were put into a holding pen near a loading ramp. Alfredo backed up the van to the ramp, which, being built for a proper stock truck, came up to almost the roof of the flower van. So that plan was aborted. Then, with the stockmen laughing directly at us now, Alfredo backed the van up to the holding pen gate, and for the next 15 minutes, we battled the pigs one by one into the back of the van. Each time we got one in, the springs of the van creaked and groaned lower until they could go no more while the pigs banged off the sides and doors of the van.
Eventually, we got all the pigs in and the back doors of the van were shut. For extra precaution, we tied a rope around the door handles in case the locking mechanism failed under attack by the almost metric ton of hog that was now banging off the walls of the vehicle and shaking it like a shaggin’ wagon in an ‘80s teen flick.
I was convinced the back doors were going to burst open on the highway, spilling the pigs onto the road while a bunch of angry Italians tailgating us had their cars modified in a way they’d never imagined. But I was in this one deep now and besides, how good of a story would that be?
Down the winding mountain roads we went, and on each curve, the poor swine in the back lurched up against the walls of the van. On the tight curves, it felt like the van would tip over. Alfredo found this hilarious and started driving faster. Then lurching stopped, and I was sure the back doors had popped open and the pigs were gone. We stopped and the doors were fine. Peering in the back window, I saw the four pigs had figured out that lying down was the best approach.
The rest of the trip was uneventful aside from aroma of pig shit now emanating from the back of the van and the honking of the long line of cars behind us.
At Alfredo’s farm, we backed the van up to a barn, and unloaded the poor, bewildered pigs into pen. He wanted to go the café for a few glasses to celebrate, but my nerves were shot, and I had to help with dinner over at our villa.
My swine ordeal was over until January or February.
Next Blog: From pigs to prosciutto