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Wednesday 13th Mar 2006
The Czechs like meat, pork in particular. But where does it come from? Where does it go and how does it get there? If you really want to know, read on.
In "A Cook's Tour" chef Anthony Bourdain accepts an invitation from his Portuguese sous chef to be a guest at a ceremony in his village in which they kill and consume a pig. Anthony's rationale is that as a chef he deals death remotely, ordering and preparing meat in his kitchen, but he never once 'looks his victim in the eye'. He decides that it's only right and proper that he understands what happens and how it happens.
I like to cook and I get my meat cling-film wrapped from the supermarket. I always feel vaguely guilty about the sanitised little packages of death that I take away to gobble up in private. Surely there's some secret, macabre process involved? Surely it's a beastly, grisly, bloodthirsty ceremony? How would I know? So, when the opportunity came up, how could I possibly refuse to go to the Czech equivalent? A zabijačka, a pig killing.
Suffice it to say that if you're the squeamish type, I wouldn't bother reading any further (and DON'T look at any of the pictures). Similarly if you're a puritanical vegetarian or an animal rights activist looking for ammunition, look elsewhere (and don't write me any emails). The process was humane, reasonably dignified and the result was delicious.
One of our friends comes from a village where her father owns a pub. He was able to organise the zabijačka and arrange for accommodation. We drove up from Prague on Friday night and bedded down after a short snack in the pub and a quick beer. We got up at 4.30 the next morning in order to be ready for the pig, or Eric as I'm going to call him from now on. Eric was arriving a seven o'clock sharp and we needed to chop wood for the fire, to make sure he had plenty of hot water for a bath, and we had to prepare his trimmings. We needed to boil up a couple of kilos of barley and to peel and chop a mountain of česnek (garlic), cibule (onion) and mrkev (carrots). We also had to grate křen (horseradish) and more česnek for garnish and seasoning, cut up bread, cook some onions and... sharpen the knives.
The butcher arrived a little while later and Eric arrived, on time, at 7am. We stood around for a bit and had a good look at Eric before the butcher climbed into the trailer, caught Eric by the leg, and dispatched him with a 9mm bolt-pistol. Eric didn't even flinch and he didn't whimper or squeal, he just went.
We hauled Eric out and laid him out on the ground. The first process was to bleed him by poking him in the jugular with a knife and collecting the blood. The blood would later go into sausages and other things but had to be whipped first to prevent coagulation. That was my job. After twenty minutes the frothy red liquid had cooled and looked rather like raspberry coulis.
Meanwhile the butcher and his assistant set to work giving Eric a bath and a haircut. Some kind of dried sap was spread on his coat, he was dipped in hot water and chains were used to depilate his bikini line. We erected a tripod and strung him up by his heels and the butcher tidied up any loose hairs with a blow torch.
Then we got around to the real work of disassembling him. He was slit open from neck to arse and his organs removed. The stomach and intestines were taken out and reserved for sausages, the liver and kidneys for puddings and the lungs and heart were also used but I didn't see the brain go into anything. Some minor glands or organs were discarded (the spleen?) but even the bladder was drained and would be later used for some meat filled concoction.
With some meat, some extra kidneys donated by another pig and some pre-prepared sausage skin we made a variety of zabijačka specialities. There was tlačenka, a kind of meatloaf similar to German braun (eaten cold), jitrnice (white sausages) and jelito (black or blood sausages). We also made prdelačka (red or blood soup), bilá polévka (white soup), kvarky crackling and ovar (boiled meat). Even Eric's little tail would eventually go to some lucky recipient.
Eric's major portions stayed on the tripod for most of the afternoon so the meat was properly 'hung'. After lunch the butcher divided him in two with a very, very large axe and set about producing identifiable cuts of meat. In the Czech way, most of the fat was saved for use as 'sádlo' or in the cooking. The butcher got his hocks as a tip and someone else snaffled the ears.
A pig, if you eat everything, goes a long way. We received a tiny fraction of the meat but it was still more than enough to feed us for a week. With sausages and soup included, I think Eric could have lasted a single family for months (or a Czech family for about two days). Of course, if you only eat the 'white' meat about 90% of him would have gone to waste - you hypocrite! The only bit I saw the butcher chuck away were some glands, some bones and the eyes (the dog got those).
As with most Czech customs there was a fair amount of alcohol consumed including a keg of local beer. The butcher however wouldn't touch any until he was finished in his work. Lunch we had on-the-fly in the form of boiled pork sandwiches with horseradish, garlic and mustard. Absolutely delicious and, of course, very fresh! Dinner was a gula with pork, liver and kidneys, onions, garlic and the rest.
It took most of the day from sun-up to reduce Eric to his component parts and things were beginning to wind down. Then, at about 4pm, the stove exploded. I know this because I was standing next to it. The stove was run off an LPG gas bottle and, as we later found out, had a defective pilot light. I was happily stuffing sausages when the oven door fell open, there was a very loud whoomf and a jet of flame shot across the room, followed by the distant sound of breaking glass.
The explosion blew the plate glass window in the door across the driveway and scared the crap out of all of us. To give you an idea of just how close I was standing - when we got home I discovered that the inside of my woollen jumper was singed. We were all, thankfully, unharmed (except Eric of course). At this point we decided to take a break and we put down the sausages, went outside and had a couple of large glasses of vodka. Then we went back inside, finished the sausages off and cleaned up.
In the pub that night, my hosts took pains to explain that this didn't happen every time they killed a pig.
Normally, nothing blew up.
Not even the pig.
But I wasn't so sure. I had a strange feeling that the ghost of Eric might have been snuffling round that kitchen and maybe. . . just maybe. . . it was he who blew the pilot light out!
I guess it's better to go with a a bang than a whimper.