When the day arrived in February to start transforming my two very much alive and very big pigs into chops, ribs, prosciutto, salamis and sausages, I was dreading it.
Last summer during an evening of drinks in a local café, I’d been convinced by my buddy Alfredo and a group of acquaintances to take part in the annual winter pig slaughter tradition in my adopted Italian region of Abruzzo, just east of Rome. After the guys pledged to help me, I’d purchased two pigs, and had them fattened up on Alfredo’s farm near our holiday villa.
Now it was the coldest part of the winter. The traditional time to do the deed.
The problem was that after the hair-raising time we had transporting the pigs home from the stockyard in Alfredo’s ancient flower delivery van, I lost confidence in his abilities and judgement. Alfredo once had a thriving first-class operation. But now, his ramshackle farm and the fact that many of his days and nights were spent in the local cafes, had me second guessing this adventure.
I also didn’t think any of my drinking friends would show to help.
I had no idea how this was going to turn out, and I expected the worst. But I’d committed to this thing, and I was going to see it through.
So early on a sunny crisp morning, I put on my oldest clothes, crossed the stream at the end of our road, and started up the path towards Alfredo’s farm. The first thing I noticed was that there were a bunch of cars scattered around the property amongst the rusting farm equipment. Next, I heard laughing coming from the barn. I peered in the door and there they were: Alfredo and five of my drinking buddies.
And true to form, at 7 a.m. … they were drinking.
I was offered a glass of wine from a five-litre jug of red “per forza” (for strength). Now, I like drinking, but I declined as even for me, 7 a.m. is a bit too early.
At that point, I looked around and saw a block and tackle hoist and ropes hanging from a barn beam, a leg noose on the end of the rope, the gleaming butcher knives laid out on a table, and the bucket under the block and tackle.
Shit. We were going to be doing this old school. Pass the jug.
At that point in walked Alessio, whom I was told was a trained butcher, in his white plastic smock and no glass of wine in his hand. He was all business and had that look of competence about him. I breathed a sigh of relief. We were in good hands.
About what happened next, I will say this:
I spent the first 13 years of my life on a farm, so it had been quite a while since I’d been up close with the business end of things. Still, I wasn’t going to sit back like some city-slicker and have these men do my work for me. This is where meat comes from, and I figured that if I couldn’t take part, I should rethink my diet. I like meat. I took part in every aspect.
Nine hours, the jug of red and a case of beer later, it was over. The pigs were hanging.
Three days after that, we reconvened at the farm for the processing in the food prep part of the barn, basically a big kitchen. There were more men this time, and the mood was decidedly lighter. Once again, the wine was flowing early in the morning, but this time it was more of a celebration.
Alessio, though, was all business. He formerly worked at a large slaughterhouse and packaging plant near our town of Torre de’Passeri. Before that, he made his living going from farm to farm slaughtering, butchering, and preparing animals throughout the year. He said it was a way of life he loved, but that since all the young people moved to the bigger cities, you couldn’t make a living at it anymore. These days, his day job is tending a vineyard that produces very good Montepulciano d’Abruzzo red wine. The good part about that job, he said, is that the winter is the slowest period at the winery, so it leaves him plenty of time to participate in the annual pig slaughter with his friends.
Turns out that the tradition I was taking part in doubles as a male bonding experience complete with the good-natured teasing, name-calling and camaraderie found on old-timer sports teams where the need to win has long been replaced with the desire for belonging and friendship.
The woodstove was fired up, and we set to work with Alessio directing traffic. Pieces of the pigs started coming off fast. Parts that were going to be cured were arranged on one table while other parts came to my table where Alfredo and I cut them into bits for sausages and salamis. A couple other guys were on the meat grinder while Romeo mixed up pizza dough on the breadmaking table while the red sauce bubbled away on the wood stove.
Alessio was teased for being so serious all the time, and not drinking. I also heard stories of when he was drinking, which explained why he no longer drank. Alfredo was teased for his all too regular coughing fits caused by years of smoking roll-your-own smokes. Romeo actually called him “Capitano Cancro.” (Captain Cancer). They called Romeo “Bella,” which means pretty because he used to look like a woman. For me, they settled on “Grande Jek” because at almost six-feet tall, I towered over most them, and because they cannot pronounce my name properly.
At noon Romeo started stealing bits of meat and sausages from the various work stations and cooking them up for us to sample. Then he fired the homemade pizzas into Alfredo’s wood oven. People were stopping in all the time, having a glass and a bite and pitching in for a couple of hours.
The wine flowed freely, and the singing started about 3 p.m. Some of the songs were traditional Italian songs, but most were very local songs sung in dialect with subject matter ranging from breasts to legs to buttocks to more breasts with different characteristics. Other songs focused on all the lovely things you could do with people possessing these things.
As the day wore on, the prosciuttos, capocollos and lonzos were salted and coated with wine and stored in buckets for curing; the wet sausages were bagged and transported to the villa; the dry sausages and salamis were hung; and the chops, ribs, and roasts were vacuum packed and brought to our freezer.
None of the guys would accept even a bottle of wine for their help and I had to force Alessio, who had taken two days off work, to accept a token of appreciation. They did allow me to bring the wine for the traditional after slaughter dinner where all the leftover bits, including the ears, tail, feet and snout, are simmered in a spicy tomato sauce with beans and served with bread. I was wary at first, but it was delicious.
All the products are now hanging in the wine cellar of our villa and being used by our chefs for dinners. I have to say, it’s great stuff.
It was a very successful project as far as the meats go, but it was way more successful for my friendship with the guys, especially Alfredo.
He and I are now in business on a garden that will grow most of the seasonal vegetables for our villa. He is supplying some of the flour and eggs for our fresh pasta, and we are going to get more pigs for next season.
Life is good.