Photo by Aglaia Kremezi
In the dead of winter, when seaside taverns are closed and the cold wind beats mercilessly against the deserted beaches, islanders slaughter their pigs. Pig-slaughtering is still an important annual festival for the locals on Kea, as on all the islands of the Cyclades.
In the old days of necessarily frugal self-sufficiency, it was an essential undertaking; today it is more of an occasion to gather, eat, and drink homemade wine and raki -- the local moonshine -- while helping in the post-slaughtering process: the division of the carcass, and the making of sausages, and as well as other cured meats.
The pig-slaughtering ritual is both old and pervasive. Every kathikia, as the old stone-built Kean farm houses are called, has a sturdy hook cemented between the slates that cover the porch connecting the two rooms of the house. And whatever it might be used for throughout the year, come winter it reclaims its primary function. The hook is for hanging the slaughtered pig. Stegàdi, as the roofed porch is called -- shaded and cool in the summer, and protected from the wind and rain in the winter -- is the center of all activities, as the traditional Greek farmhouses have no spacious kitchens, like the French or Italian ones; just a hearth on the side, often a few inches from the floor, not even at waist level.
Pig slaughtering starts early in the morning, and it may go on until very late in the night. Islanders consider choirosphagia -- pig slaughtering -- a kind of panigyri, the village feast organized by families on their patron saint's name-day in one of the little private chapels that dot the island landscape. Panygiri starts in the morning with a church service and usually ends just before dawn the next day.
Unlike typical panigyri, though, where only the women prepare and serve food and drinks, during pig slaughtering men and women share the labor. The "man's" work -- the killing, hanging, and butchering of the pig -- usually finishes early. The processing work done by the women continues for the next two or three days.
The tedious chopping and boiling of the fat, the grinding and spicing of the bits and pieces for the sausages, the preparation of the meat that will become loza -- the Cycladic equivalent of jamon Iberico -- and the slippery needlework that secures the pieces inside the pig's large intestine, are all considered women's work.
Women also cook and serve mezze and lunch for everybody present at the feast, and do the most time-consuming of all chores: careful washing and preparation of the intestines that will serve as be the casings for both the sausages and loza.
Shaving the Pig
From the first winter we spent on the island, I had spread the word around that I was interested in pig slaughtering; I wanted to witness the age-old rituals, but no invitation came.
Photo by Aglaia Kremezi
Whenever I repeated my wish to various people, it so happened that they had just slaughtered their pig, as they said, or they were planning to do it later, and they would certainly invite me. But nobody did, not for two whole years. Finally, one day Angelos Atzakas, who owns the island's nursery, told my husband Costas that his father was slaughtering his pig and we were invited to the feast. "Don't come too early, because you will probably get bored waiting for the food and drinks," he told Costas. "Just come for lunch and stay on as long as you like." I, of course, wanted to witness the procedure -- minus the actual killing, for which I had no stomach.
The scene before me, when I arrived at the house around 11, was a bit surreal. The huge slain pig was stretched out in the yard between the flowerpots, draining and drowning in its own pools of blood. Mr. Atzakas, Angelo's father, fitted with a pair of galoshes, was meticulously shaving the slain animal with an old-fashioned razor blade. The tedious work took almost an hour, and I still fail to fully understand the importance of this step, but apparently it is not uncommon. In fact, in Slovenia and other Balkan countries, people use a cruder -- if more efficient -- way to get rid of the hair: they cover the pig with hay and set it ablaze, before butchering the blackened carcass.
The next step was the most difficult. Transporting and hanging the massive 200-pound pig upside down took four men lifting and dragging a makeshift pulley and two more men helping out. When I told them that in Romania pigs are butchered flat on a table, they were shocked. "It has to hang. How else can you get rid of the blood?" they said. In the old days, in Crete and in some other parts of Greece, people used some of the blood, mixed with cracked wheat or barley, to make sausages. Keans never did such a thing, they assured me, disgusted with even the idea.
I repeated my wish to see the slaughter to various people. They would certainly invite me, they said. But nobody did, not for two whole years.
It was a cold, sunny February day, and the warm water Mr. Atzakas poured over the carcass steamed excessively. I photographed the severed pig's feet, which, they assured me, they were going to feed to the dogs. When I mentioned the delicious slow-roasted pig's feet I had at Brasserie Balzar, in Paris, they admitted that in the old frugal days pig's trotters were boiled in order to render thick and warming soups.
The real butchering was ready to begin, and Periklis Mouzakis, the island's blacksmith, stepped in. He slashed open the belly and extracted the huge mass of intestines with the rest of the innards. (I have the picture, but even I don't want to look at it again). Mr. Atzakas separated the liver and washed it, before sending it to the women in the kitchen. Cut into bite-sized pieces, dredged in flour and fried in olive oil, the liver would be the first mezze to accompany the home-made red wine. Periklis, helped by Andreas Manolemis, cut off the pig's head and washed his knife. The men volunteered to pose for a picture with the head as a trophy -- like the images of the hunters in Africa, Mr. Atzakas said.
The Pig's Head
Throughout the winter, the island's butchers occasionally hang the pig's heads outside their shops. They want to assure the locals, and the Athenians who visit Kea on weekends, that their meat really comes from local pigs. This is the reason it is considerably more expensive than the low quality stock-pork imported from various European countries.
Few people nowadays make tsiladia (head cheese) following the traditional island recipe: The head simmers for hours in watered wine, until the meat falls from the bones. Then, after it cools a bit, the flesh is separated from the bones, chopped, and mixed with plenty of garlic, lemon juice, capers, and freshly ground pepper. The pieces are stirred back into the broth, and the mixture is poured into various containers. Tsiladia is refrigerated overnight until well set, and it is served as a mezze, with slices of bread. I used to make it at least once every winter, because it keeps well for a week at least, and accompanied with a green salad it can be a wonderful and quick fast lunch. But recently I stopped preparing it, because Costas hates it and only takes a bite or two. It was too much work wasted, as I ended up sharing the head cheese with my spoiled dogs.