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).