The phone rang… Brett was on the other end of the line telling me it was time. The weather forecast for the weekend was chilly and the pigs had finally reached their finishing weight. Did I want to come down to help with the pig matanza?
As a chef, I like to be as close to the source of my food as possible. I grab every opportunity to visit Brett’s farm to cook with tomatoes that are still warm from the sun, eggs that are only hours old, and chickens that actually have taste and texture. When Brett invited me to join the matanza (Spanish for slaughter, perhaps a euphemism for the rest of us) I knew I had to attend. Having experienced the hard physical labor, along with blood, guts and stench of a turkey matanza the previous autumn, I was a bit squeamish about pigs: Larger animals, larger gore-factor. Because I had not purchased a share in the animals, I had no obligation to attend. But with the hope of taking home some nonpareil pork, I eagerly accepted the invitation.
The pigs arrived on the farm in July when they were just 3 weeks old, and no more than 50 pounds, about the size of a basset hound. They lived in an old chicken coup. By mid-August, they were quickly outgrowing their home. Brett and his friend Bob built their new home: a pen the size of a football field that would house the pigs until the matanza, scheduled for the end of January, 5 months later. I helped drive stakes into the ground that would brace the fencing and electric wire. The pen was completed with a shaded area to escape the summer sun and a mud pit to cool off in.
By late January, the pigs reached their desired “slaughter weight” of about 500 pounds. And the outside air temperature was cool enough so that no additional refrigeration was needed to preserve the more than 1000 pounds of meat and sausage that would be generated.
Twelve of us arrive for the weekend. Most are shareholders, owners in a portion of the pigs, and all are Brett’s friends. Bob, Brett’s closest friend, who runs a pet store in southern Maryland, owns 2 pigs. Bob has been helping to care for the pigs: building the larger pen in August, feeding them and regularly hosing the mudpit, to ensure the drought did not dry it up. Ron, another local, owns one pig. Rusty and Karen who had been Brett and Chris’s neighbors in Arlington, are kindred spirits. Despite their urban home, they often come to the bay to hunt, fish and garden. Jeff is a chef in Bethesda, MD, and like me has become addicted to the quality of Brett’s product. Even though he cannot sell the Pig at his restaurant, he could not resist buying a share of one, and participating in the experience. His girlfriend, vegetarian and pastry chef, Drea, joins him. And finally, Tal arrives, a wine merchant to the DC area restaurants.
My Friday responsibility is to provide the evening meal. Brett suggests I cook chickens: he has too many. Of course, when I arrive on the farm at 1pm, they are still in their freshest state – squawking around the farm. By 6 o’clock, the chickens have been slaughtered, plucked and cleaned, and are happily braising in the oven.
North African Spiced Stewed Chicken with Chick Peas
Cous Cous with Dried Apricots
Red Pepper – Pinenut Relish
Mesclun Green Salad with Aged Goat Cheese and Roasted Beet Vinaigrette
At 5 a.m. Saturday morning, Brett heads out to the field next to the barn to set up the scalding pot. A large black cauldron sits atop a wood pit-fire . It will take about two hours for the water to reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit, the ideal temperature for soaking the slaughtered pigs so that the hair can be removed. About ten feet from the scalder, tables are set up for the initial cleaning of the animal. The pig will then be carried into the barn for further “processing”.
By 7a.m. the rest of us begin to stir. We feast on a true farm breakfast -- fresh cream biscuits and fried farm eggs, washed down with coffee.
Then to work: The first pig to be slaughtered is always a challenge. The systems have not yet been tested and standardized. Several shareholders go down to the pig pen to lure the pigs to the edge of the fencing with donuts (really!). When the pig approaches, he’s shot in the head with a handgun rifle. It is swift, and he dies quickly (and happy that his last meal was a Krispy Kreme). The remaining pigs are knee deep in their insouciance and mud, and follow the same lure of donuts when it is their turn.
The first pig’s hooves are tied together with rope and then hoisted onto the tractor. Brett drives the tractor to the scalder, with the pig dangling by its hooves. After a quick hosing to rinse off excess dirt, it is rigged onto an A-frame pulley, then lowered into the scalding water for one and a half minutes, and moved over to the work table. The hair easily shaves off with a metal scraper.
Only the gutting is truly smelly. The pig must be cut carefully with a sharp knife down the underside of the belly, taking care not to rupture the bladder or intestines, which would taint the meat. Once cut, Brett reaches into the belly and pulls out the innards, tying off the bladder and intestines before dumping them into a wheelbarrow from which they are discarded into the fields, mulching the ground and providing a meal for the vultures overhead. The liver, kidneys and heart are saved.
Several work-hands then move the pig into a wheelbarrow, and precariously push their load into the barn. The animal is hung on several hooks, rinsed again with a hose, and the butchery begins.
Then the whole process is repeated with the other five pigs.....
To be continued..................................