By Jeremy Berger
on 3.14.14
Photo by Nathan Rawlinson

[Ed. Note: Any book that introduces “a sharp implement, a capacity to witness death, and a good amount of blood” as self-evident truths in the business of slaughtering pigs has our attention. Jeffrey Weiss’s new book, Charcutería: The Soul of Spain, is much more than spectacle: it’s an authoritative resource on Spanish butchering and meat-curing techniques, complete with recipes for traditional Spanish dishes, handsome photography and anecdotes from the author’s personal experience. In this excerpt, provided to GP by Agate Publishing, Weiss describes taking part in a matanza (“pig slaughter”) in Extremadura, a rugged region in western Spain.]

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Darkness Falls

Our sleepy group
of matanza participants begins the day with a bumpy, motion sickness–inducing, off-road excursion to an ancient farmhouse in the Extremeñan countryside, a place that time has clearly excused from the burdens of change. The sun is slowly rising above the surrounding ridgeline, tracing outlines of a large valley we’d entered under the cover of darkness. The new morning light betrays the shadows of acorn meadows, orange groves, and herds of roaming, mammoth, black pig-monsters on a desperate and noisy search for some breakfast.

Inside the farmhouse, we enter a simple, gigantic room with portents of things to come literally hanging over our heads: Row upon row of morcillas, chorizos, lomos, and other charcutería hang from ceiling racks, drying in the morning breeze. The room includes a small kitchen area with ancient water faucets and a large dining area. In the dining space, giant wood tables are covered in plastic tarps, ready for the messy work to come. An ancient, hand-crank sausage stuffer and grinder dominates the room’s eastern wall. Next to that, open doors lead out to the backyard slaughter area, providing a magnificent view of the valley and the sunrise. On the opposite side of the building — protected from the morning sun — lies a salting room, where jamones and other large slabs of meat from previous matanzas quietly sit and cure.

It’s the smells that get you, though. The essence of pimentón emanates from the very walls, the floors, and the rafters; there’s the faint, sweet funk of drying chorizo; the comforting waft and “pop!” of an oak-wood fire in the small fireplace that serves as a body-warming station and hot line for cooking; and the hunger-inducing smells of a delicious, hearty, high-calorie breakfast meant to sustain us for the day’s grueling work.

Strong coffee percolates in a coffeepot older than most of us, set directly in the fire. On the table, platters contain slices of chorizo and lomo from a prior matanza (inspiration for our work to come, perhaps?); cachuela, a specialty local pâté made from pork blood and other offal, smeared on grilled slices of bread; and migas, a peasant’s dish of crumbled bread, chorizo, peppers, and garlic fried in lard and topped with a fried farm egg. (Of course, the migas varies for those of us needing to sop up a hangover — two eggs, in that case. One portly chef visiting from Barcelona avails himself of four eggs…Spanish cooks really love their fried eggs.)

Against the clatter of fork-on-plate, we can hear them through the open doors leading to the slaughtering area. They are our reason for coming, the reason for all of this. Three little cerdos Ibéricos — and by little, I mean upward of 350 pounds each — were rounded up earlier on this, the morning of their final day on this cosmic plane. They look happy — or at least as happy as pigs can look — as they lounge in their spacious, warm Death Row shelter.

We meet our matanceros, the taskmasters of our day’s work. The three large men in blue coveralls who will handle the slaughter and butchery duties have the serious faces and dark eyes typical of men who dispense death professionally. I mentally give them names, so I can remember them: El Maestro, the oldest one, does the talking; Elvis, so named for his sideburns and comparable good looks to The King in his prime, is the middle- sized one; and Little Joey, the shortest of the group, looks like Joe Pesci from the Goodfellas years and even has the same staccato speech.

We are then introduced to three deceptively diminutive women in floral, plastic-lined aprons — our sabias—who will handle pretty much everything else, including setting up our fortifying morning shots of Chinchón, a potent anise flavored liquor from the town of the same name.

The shots (chupitos) are poured and the matanceros offer a toast to the local saints. A second round honors our soon-to-be-dead piggy friends, and then a third honors the start of the matanza. Three shots in, out come the sharp knives and hatchets — wood-handled, medieval-looking, blood-stained axes for splitting bones — and suddenly I’m glad I didn’t share Elvis’s nickname with the group.

Dead Pig Walking

It’s time.

Piggie Number 1 is encouraged (read: shoved, pushed, and cajoled with food) out of the relative comfort of his shed onto a dirt-filled runway with three sequential gates. As he unknowingly walks past the first gate, a matancero closes it with a “CLANG”. The process continues until Piggie is poised in the slaughter area next to an ominous-looking stainless steel table. At this point, much too late to make a difference, Piggie realizes something is up and the matanceros make their move.

Piggie is quickly corralled to a corner and pushed to the ground. He is hog-tied and then carried—relatively quickly, given his size—to the table by all three huffing, puffing, swearing, and now cigarette-smoking matanceros.

The process is not a silent one, but once Piggie is on the table, he grows a little quieter, perhaps accepting his fate as El Maestro speaks a few words to him (is there such thing as a Pig Whisperer?). As Piggie’s neck dangles over a large bowl (lebrillo) destined to catch blood for making morcilla, Little Joey uses a very sharp knife to quickly sever its carotid and jugular. Piggie immediately bleeds out, and brain death occurs within seconds.

At this point, I want to clarify something for those of you squirming in your seat or wetting these pages with tears of mourning. I witnessed and participated in the slaughter of dozens of Piggies during these matanzas, and each time this part — the act of taking a life — was of the utmost importance to everyone involved. The most serious step in the ritual, it is absolutely intense and almost always occurs in relative silence, save the protesting sounds of Piggie and occasional swear words from the matanceros.

El Maestro explained it all to me over a caña later that day. Not only does the quality of the slaughter rely on the animal’s emotional state in this moment and in the preceding moments of its impending sacrifice, but a quick death is a matter of respect. Anything less would be disrespectful to the ancient custom, to its modern practice, to the sacrifice of these majestic animals, and to the family that raised the animals over the past years. In fact, even the verb that El Maestro used to describe the action — sacrificar — denotes the accepted responsibility and gravity of his work. Using that term acknowledges that the matanza is as much a celebration of life’s basic elements of living, dying, and life going on as it is about acquiring meat, fat, and calories for sustenance.

In other words, these men in blue, these dealers of death, specifically work in the service of ending life quickly and honorably. El Maestro said it best: “That is the most important thing that we do.” It’s something that, on this day, they demonstrate twice more without error.

Death’s Warm Embrace

Dead Pigs are warm pigs. This is a little unsettling to me.

One of the sabias is stirring the blood with her hand — to keep it from coagulating — while the men use a gigantic, propane-powered blowtorch to remove coarse bristles from the skin of our recently departed future meal. The smell of burning hair permeates the air.

After laying the now-hairless Piggie backside down on one of the steel tables, El Maestro slits the belly open and passes to the sabias the intestines (intestinos), the stomach (tripa), and the kidneys (riñones). Next, he carefully inspects the liver (hígado) for any signs of potential disease.

But it’s the steam rising off of the carcass that catches my eye. For most extranjeros working under a clear winter sky in temperatures hovering around 30°F, the sight of steam — of the very essence of warmth — flowing from the body of an animal that was alive just five minutes before is one of the most arresting moments of this experience. This is, very possibly, the first freshly killed anything that most participants may have ever seen, a stark reminder of the disconnect perpetuated by our daily routines in modernity. Seeing evidence of life drain away is a stark contrast to the emotionally safe world we live in, where “meat” is a faceless commodity stashed neatly behind psychological and physical barriers.

El Maestro slices into the hígado, grunts affirmation of the animal’s health, and passes the hígado inside to be taken to the local vet. He then turns to me and motions with a glistening, bloodstained hand. It’s time for me to learn how to turn hundreds of pounds of solid Piggie into the traditional primal and sub-primal pork cuts of Spain.

ADVENTURE IS ONE CLICK AWAY

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