The St Martin’s Day Massacre

jamon serranoThe first pig is all right. The second one is much harder to catch. He hears the squeals of the first one and runs in shrieking circles round the uneven stone yard while the men get in each other’s way, trying desperately to pin him down. Hemmed in by the brown stone walls of the barn and the heavy wooden gate, he can’t escape. There is a crescendo of squeals, crashing bodies and strange, oblique oaths which see him held fast on the heavy killing block. By nightfall he will be four hams, miles of sausages, a spicy pate and a tub of lard. He’s had his day.

Winter in the Catalan Pyrenees starts on 11th November, St Martin’s Day, and winter is the time when the villagers butcher the pigs they have been fattening all summer. Isabarre is one of those tumbledown, almost deserted Catalan villages which huddle into the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. It is hidden in the Vall d’Aneu, 1,200 metres above sea level, remote from Spain yet cut off from France.

When my wife was born in the old, slate-roofed farmhouse that forms one side of the tiny village square, there were twenty families to help each other in the unforgiving cycle of subsistence farming. Since then, the easy salaries and bright lights of Barcelona and Lerida have sucked the mountains dry. Most of the houses are used, as ours is, as holiday homes by their original owners. I loved spending my leaves up there in the fresh air and wild mountain scenery. The Three families that still cling to their old life in Isabarre are always glad of an extra pair of hands, and I was always glad to join in. That’s how I got invited to the pig killing.

Pig killing days are long days, and they start early. Winter mornings in the Pyrenees are cold; a sharp, dry, biting cold. That cold dry air is what turns the pork into the tasty raw ham and hard knobbly sausages that the Catalans love so much. I thought about that as long before dawn I shivered and stumbled my way along the dark cobbled alleyways to Miqueo’s house.

Miqueo’s grandfather built this house, which clings precariously to one side of the village. Its dark brown shutters look out onto the vegetable gardens which fall in steep terraces to the river below. By day, you can see that the walls of painstakingly fitted river stone have started to crack and bulge and the roof slates sag dispiritedly away from the square brick chimney which Miqueo’s father added fifty years ago. The dark hides that and inside, on that St Martin’s day morning, a bright fire on the stone hearth slab made the one big downstairs room welcoming.

The fire was already crowned by a huge iron pot, healing the endless supplies of boiling water we would need to shave the pigs. To one side of the fire was a smaller pot from which Lola, Miqueo’s capable wife, ladled steaming hot chocolate into thick white china bowls. I took the bowl gratefully in both hands and sat down on the high-backed wooden bench beside the fire.

The Catalan people have their own rich and ancient language. It is poised, as they are, somewhere between French and Spanish. Catalunya now has its own parliament, the Generalitat, and Catalan is the official language of the autonomous region. Official or not, mountain farmers generally use few words, and use those sparingly. Today, the hot chocolate, chased down with a shot of local brandy or fiery anis, loosened their tongues. This was a special day for the family, and there were rarely so many people together in the house for them to talk to.

Miqueo’s brother Andres had come from a nearby village to help. His wife chattered happily with Lola as they chopped a mountain of onions into small pieces for the sausage. Jep, Isabarre’s communal shepherd, warmed his weather-beaten hands at the fire. Miqueo’s eldest son, Juan, had taken leave from his job as an electrician in Barcelona to help out. He and I made up the company that morning. The cognac bottle passed from hand to hand without ceremony. We used it to rinse the last sweet drops of chocolate from our bowls, finishing the traditional breakfast in fine style.

The first light of morning was just spilling over the mountain peaks across the valley when we left the warmth of the fire and crossed the narrow alleyway into Miqueo’s yard. The equipment was ready, a heavy wooden block for killing and butchering, a wooden trough for washing the pig, some chains that I couldn’t see the point of and a fearsome knife that Andres had honed to a razor’s edge.

The men were laughing and joking; they could see that I was a bit apprehensive. They huddled round the doorway as Miqueo unlatched the heavy wooden door of the barn. Suddenly, he threw back the door, reached in and grabbed the front legs of a surprised pig. Juan and Jep dived for the back legs and with one great heave the pig was stretched on his back across the block. His head hung down, shrieking horribly. ‘Agafat, Johnny,’ said Miqueo, and pushed the wildly jerking legs into my less than willing hands. He stretched the neck and Andres was ready. In went the knife. Lola appeared beside me with an enamel bowl to catch the precious blood which spurted from the severed jugular. Black pudding would never be the same after seeing that.

We held the pig down as his struggles weakened, then lifted him by his legs and dropped him on his back in the wooden trough. I was too busy to feel sick. Hanging onto a large, frightened pig who had spent his summers building his muscles on the mountain slopes is no joke.

Once he was dead, we lifted each end in turn and passed the chains under his back. Juan and Miqueo struggled into the yard with the cauldron from the fire. We used a stick to upend it and flood the tub with scalding water. We worked the chains back and forth along the pig’s back and sides. That’s the traditional way of shaving him. Miqueo told me that some people use blowlamps nowadays, but he didn’t agree with that; it made the meat taste different.

After the chains, the pig was lifted dripping onto the slab where we set to scraping it all over with our knives. I was glad to feel the hot water on my hands. It was still freezing cold, although a few pale rays of sun were now lighting up the yard. Juan took after his father and uncle, and all three of them were big, hulking men who seemed not to notice the cold. They prodded the pig as we worked, congratulating themselves on how fat he was, and laughing at me good naturedly for the look on my face when I had to grab the pig’s legs. Jep said nothing. Forty years of solitude with the sheep and mountains for company had sapped his will to talk.

Shaved clean and washed pink, the pig was carried proudly across to the house. Boiled white sheets had to be spread on the big wooden table which half filled the room, ready to receive him. Andres was acknowledged as the best butcher, so to a chorus of advice, comment and exclamation he began to cut up the beast. The back and front legs were carefully separated at the joints and put aside for hams. The ribs were put to one side to be preserved in oil, the liver went for pate, the fillet to eat tonight.

Every part of the pig has a use. Each part was cut carefully out and piled on enamel plates for the women to work on. After half an hour the beast had been dismembered to the satisfaction of all, and we went back for the next one.

This one knew what was coming, and he led us a merry dance. Five men against one healthy pig are fairly even odds. We collected quite a few bruises before he was finally held down and killed. Juan, Jep and I were left to shave him while Andres and Miqueo got back to butchering the first one. The day settled into its ordered rhythms of work. Everyone, except me, knew what had to be done, and there was plenty to do. In the old days, several families would have co-operated on the pig killing and one woman would have spent all day in the kitchen just preparing a special lunch and tasty supper for all the helpers. There were no spare hands now; there was work for all.

I went with Lola to wash the intestines in the stream. Pigs have miles of smelly intestines that must be washed clean for making sausages. The tumbling mountain stream which cuts a deep gully to one side of the village provides an endless supply of water, but it’s a horrible job. You squat there on the bank, hands totally numb in the icy water, squeezing and working the slippery tubes. Every time I eat a sausage, I remember that cold and messy morning. My wife told me that it’s women’s work, and I’m glad to agree with her.

The meat from the first pig had been sorted and cut up by the time Lola and I got back to the welcome warmth of the house. This traditional way of processing and preserving pork is called mandungo. The old skills are getting lost as young people turn their back on the mountains, so the few women who can still do it are in great demand. These mandungeras, as they are known, travel from village to village, helping cousins and distant relatives with their pigs and taking home baskets of fresh sausage for their trouble.

Andres’ wife, a short, reserved woman who normally had little to say, was our mandungera, and everyone took their orders from her. The two pigs must provide food for a poor family for the whole year. Nothing is wasted; everything must be preserved. Most of the meat is fed through a huge cast iron mincer which I cranked throughout the day. Surgical looking instruments were used to stuff the intestines with different mixtures of meat, spices, onions, eggs, bread and fat. They make a rich variety of sausages which form the staple of Catalan cooking..

The legs are left whole, salted, then hung with the sausages from the rafters in the cellar. There they become hard and dry and will last all through the summer to come. This is pernil, the dark slices of tasty ham ringed with yellow fat, eaten raw just as it comes off the bone.

Cooking in Miqueo’s house was either over the open fire, which burned throughout the year, or on a wood fired range which leaned crookedly against the chimney. Huge, shallow steel pans of thick yellow olive oil sizzled on both all day as Lola cooked the ribs, necks and tails to make confitad. The meaty bones are chopped into short lengths, cooked in good oil, then stored with their cooking liquor in earthenware jars. Pieces come out each day during the year to eat with bread for merienda, the mid-morning second breakfast that keeps the farmers going, or to richen the viande. This is a thick stew of meat, beans and vegetables which is the daily energy filled lunch of the hard working mountain people, untroubled by cholesterol or overweight problems.

There was no rest in the house that day; no heavy lunch or afternoon snooze. Lunch was eaten as we worked: bread, last year’s ham and a shot of sharp wine from the retort shaped poron which passed from hand to hand. Chopping meat, scraping fat, washing, stuffing, cooking – the huge piles of red meat slowly diminished. Outside, the day was clear and cold. The winter sun barely warmed the old stones where it touched, and made no impression at all in the shadows between the close built houses and barns. Inside, the heat from the fire and stove and the sense of working together made the room cosy, although to an outsider peering in through the small windows which let in only a dim light, the figures crouched over the piles of flesh and the strange implements must have seemed a scene from hell.

Piece by piece the pigs were salted down until finally, when it was already dark outside, Lola bundled the bloodstained sheets from the table and set about preparing supper. The day had gone well. The pigs had been fat and healthy and the work was done. Eight hams, two big tubs of paté, miles of sausage and black pudding and rolls of salted fat hung in the cellar. The family could relax.

Lola sliced the first fillet thickly and fried it in the rich olive oil while Andres’ wife cut up one of the huge round loaves of crusty local bread. Juan clumped downstairs to refill the poron which was blocked up on bricks in the corner of the cellar. The supper was simple but good. A salad of tomato and onion, bread to mop up the golden oil round the meat and wine, welcome wine as the poron passed from hand to hand. We sat on the straight backed wooden chairs around the big table, the room lit only by a single unshaded bulb and the flicker of firelight. Lola served Miqueo and Andres first, then Juan and I, then Jep, before she sat down to eat. The talk was rough gossip, old stories of who had done what in the many villages dotted around the valleys.

The meat was rich, the wine was strong, and I was tired. Shouts and backslaps saw me on my way through the unlit alleys. At home, my wife was waiting to hear what I thought of my first pig killing. They have a saying in Spanish: A cada puerco su San Martin. It means, ‘every pig has his St Martin’s day.’ Now I knew what they meant.

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