In Greece, Slaughtering the Pig

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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.

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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.

As a sign of the changing times, last year a butcher at the port offered me a pig's head for free -- he wasn't expecting anybody to buy it, I guess. He advised me to roast it in a covered clay pot, basted with olive oil mixed with chopped garlic and wild savory. I followed his advice and the result was memorable.

My sister and her husband happened to be with us, and although they seemed a bit skeptical when I put the head in the oven, they loved the bits of meat with the crackling skin, and all of us, Costas included, couldn't stop devouring it, ears, eyes, and all.

The Pig's Hide and Lard

Periklis begun began to break down the carcass by methodically removing the pig's hide in equally-sized ribbons. The philosophical explanation I got when I asked why it was done in this manner was that "this is the right way to do it." Mr. Atzakas said that he had no use for the skin and he was going to throw it to the dogs. He reminded me, though, that in the old days of poverty and island frugality, the pig's skin was used to bind and make a kind of rustic sandals, with the soles cut from pieces of worn-out car tires.

I remember in my childhood, when we visited my paternal grandmother in the port city of Piraeus, we often came across islanders who had just stepped out off of a boat wearing these crude sandals with curved rubber soles. My father called these island antiquarians "Byzantine saints," because they actually looked like the icon of John the Baptist: extremely thin, with dark and wrinkled complexions from the endless hours they spent working the fields or fishing under the sun. Up until recently, although the shoes can only be found in museums, the word gourounotsaroucha (pig-skin shoes), was still used to describe badly made, uncomfortable footwear.

After skinning the pig, the fat had to be removed. Mr. Atzakas beamed with pride at the considerable amount of fat his pig had accumulated. "I was waking up in he middle of the night to feed it once more," he said. Although he was going to use only a small amount, and most of the fat was would be going to be thrown away (not fed to the dogs, I hoped), he was raising his pig in the manner passed down from his ancestors, in times when fat was a precious part of the pig. Most cooking and baking was done with lard all over the Cyclades. Few of the islands have an adequate amount of olive trees to produce enough oil for the island kitchens, and even if some people had olive oil, pork fat was very much appreciated for its taste. In the '60s, when "progress" came to this part of the world, Greeks were convinced that lard was bad for them, while margarine was the 'healthy' fat for modern people. We all know how that story ended, a few years back (see what Corby Kummer wrote in The New York Times).

Still, "traditional" Keans are not entirely convinced that margarine and butter are worse than lard, and most pork fat is still wasted today. Periklis follows the tradition and separates the fat from the inside of the belly -- which people call vassiliko (royal) -- from the outer layer of fat, under the pig's skin. 'Royal fat' is considered the best: silky and almost tasteless, it is reserved for baking. The women chopped some of it and dropped it in a blackened copper cauldron, adding only water. They set it to boil over a wood fire, at the side of the yard. (Later on I will describe in detail my adventures in making lard from pieces of vassiliko fat).

Meat in the Freezer

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Photo by Aglaia Kremezi

Periklis halved the carcass with a heavy cleaver, and proceeded to divide the various parts of the animal, helped by his brother, Yannis. They cut large chunks that they transported to the back of the house and piled them into a brand-new large horizontal freezer. Mr. Atzakas and his wife told us how this recent acquisition had changed their lives. They could now keep as much meat as they wanted, to cook over the next coming months. They didn't have to slave for three days curing the various parts, like in the old days, they said.

It was getting very chilly, as the sun was setting, so we all welcomed the idea of going into the house, to warm by the fireplace. Angelos was grilling pork chops on the hearth, while his mother was frying the chopped liver and other innards, while a couple more pots were cooking on the gas stove.

As we sat at the table to eat the grilled chops, I felt somewhat disappointed that I was not going to see them prepare tsigarides and paspala (Kean pork confit) or the sausages and loza. (A year later I witnessed and recorded Zenovia, Kea's best cook, as she prepared all those foods.)

I felt cold, exhausted, hungry, and a bit dizzy from the wine, and stopped taking photographs. Maria, Angelos' sister, arrived in on the afternoon ferry. It was Friday, and her classes had ended -- she had taught English at a high school in Mesogea, near the port of Lavrion, and often came home on weekends.

The moment she stepped in, she took from her bag a neatly folded tea towel with her knives, eager to help Periklis and Yiannis cut the meat. She seemed upset when she saw that the work was almost over, angry at the perpetually delayed ferry that was late again. More relatives and friends started to arrive as Costas and I were getting ready to leave. We would miss the real feast, they told us, and Angelos' mother protested that we had hardly eaten anything, and she was going to serve many things. Sadly I don't remember what she was cooking since I have no pictures to help me jog my memory. But no matter. We had feasted.