My brother, who lived for a long time in Portugal, sent me this account of his experience many years ago of how he experienced a formal pig killing one day.
By the way, he also worked for some years as a Flying Dentist, based in Cairns.
“Do you like living in the country?” asked my companion.
“Yes, I do.” Looking around as I drove down the rough track I could see soft green hills, stone walls, white puffs of almond trees in blossom, and occasional low white-washed Algarve farm houses. “It’s very pretty.”
My poor command of Portuguese did not allow me to express what I felt. In the summer it is too hot for the landscape to appeal to me but now, in January, this could almost be the South Downs.
“And do you like to kill pigs?” she asked.
“It’s my first time.”
She gave me a curious glance: he says he likes to live in the country but he has never killed a pig? I felt like a yuppie, a townie, a virgin.
Three of us, Silvia’s aunt, her teenage son and I were on our way to a small farm where we were going to kill a pig. It’s a family thing and I was lucky to be invited. It is done in the first waxing half moon of the New Year, and girls during their monthly period are not allowed to go. It spoils the meat. Silvia’s aunt is probably about my age, 42, but we are a generation apart. She has a serious position: she is a wife and mother. Her bearing reflects this. I still feel about 25 and am closer to her teenage son. Also he speaks some English.
We arrive at the farm. It is a long low building with cows at one end and people at the other. It is sans electricity, sans water, sans drains but avec cows, pigs, chickens, figs and almonds. Water is from the well at the bottom of the hill and the bog is out the back, in the bushes. There live Silvia’s aunt, her husband, the boy and their little girl. It is rather scruffy, we are all in old clothes, odd rusty things are lying around, there are abandoned buckets here and there. But the little girl is dressed for school and is incongruously neat and tidy. She is also astonishingly blond among all these small dark people. From the way she continues to stare at me as she is driven away to school on the back of a moped, I must look out of place too. I am not wearing a hat and I am six feet tall.
The teenage son beckons me, he wants to show me the pig. Taking a deep breath I follow and find myself looking down on a large black matron. Her small eyes weigh up the situation and she bolts back into her sty. I am shown the piglet who will be next year’s star, and the cows. There is obvious affection for the animals. The farmer joins us looking at his cattle and he pats and scratches them in turn. One bull, two cows and a calf. A big solid calf; beef. The boy describes the techniques and joys of catching small birds with a thing like a mouse trap. You have to use live winged ants for bait.
At this point the farmer’s wife comes over and asks if I like Cabidela. It’s a wonderfully strong chicken stew with the chicken’s blood in the gravy. I nod enthusiastically and try not to feel uncomfortable about the chicken as it is picked out from the crowd. We all feel its weight appreciatively. She lays it down on its side and stands on both wings to hold it still. Then she pulls its feet together and stands on them too. She holds its head, cuts an artery and the bird, without a sound, bleeds to death into a small plastic bowl. It is like picking an apple from a tree.
The women go inside and now it is time for us menfolk to do our stuff. Knives are sharpened on a stone, sleeves are rolled up, we approach the pig sty. The pig won’t budge so finally it is dragged out with a rope on a fore leg. It screams and struggles. It is kicked and beaten and dragged towards the appointed place. I am reminded sharply of a similar scene in the film “The Devils”. The slow procession stops by a ring in the barn wall and a hind leg rope is tied to this. The man with the knife, the local expert, takes some baling wire, doubles it and puts like a bit into the pig’s mouth. He bends it down under the lower jaw then up over the snout. He twists it as tight as he can and it bites into the skin. The screaming is no quieter but we all feel much safer.
We go on to the proper place, fling the pig on its side, tie its feet and the expert plunges in his long knife. The skin seems to be pushed in impossibly far before the blade penetrates. Curiously, the screaming has not changed in quality or loudness right from the start. The blood gushes out into a large saucepan. It splashes on the stones, it keeps on pumping. On and on. Finally it gets quieter, the pig convulses again and again. It is over. The family and helpers pose for a photo. The teenage boy, who tells me he loves killing pigs, reaches out a tentative hand and touches the carcass. He snatches it away in case it might have moved. It didn’t.
Now the work starts. A fire is lit and pitch forks with burning gorse are played over the pig. We scrape and burn, scrape and burn until it is hairless and the outer layer of skin removed. We lift it onto a beautiful old wooded chest and continue the washing and scraping until it is very clean indeed. The red wheals where it was beaten show clearly on the white skin and I notice that its gums are surprisingly pale. The expert carefully and skillfully opens the pig and removes the clean, bloodless, intestines. The smell is awful. Lunchtime is announced but I make my excuses and leave. I no longer feel like Cabidela.
It was a curious experience, a glimpse of life that no longer exists in Surrey or Hampshire. On the way home I stopped for a cup of coffee and realised that I too smelt awful.
Walking back to the car, and reeking of pig slaughter, I was deep in thought about how country living here is quite different from country living there. It was not until I sat down that I realised my fly was wide open. I hoped none of my patients had seen me, “Oh look, it’s the dentist!”