The cold hand of regulation is destroying the traditional winter pig slaughter across Europe. Still, at a Slow Food event in Edinburgh, I get to see a pig being dismemberedby Alex Renton / January 20, 2008 / Leave a comment
We were gathered in a cold upstairs room, 20 of us, making a respectful circle around the corpse as it lay on a steel table. The Italian butchers were sharpening their knives—cleavers, choppers, long thin blades with upward curves for separating fat from skin, flesh from bone. What we were about to watch was an ancient winter rite, once universal, now half-forgotten and barely legal. As the knife was raised over the hairless flesh, I found myself looking over my shoulder, half-expecting some breathless enforcers of decency to burst through the door—the inquisition, the police, the Edinburgh health and safety inspectorate.
Europeans have always slaughtered pigs in early winter. Saints days, from St Andrew’s to St Stephen’s, are marked for the job; the tradition of combining religion, the winter solstice and a feast of freshly killed pork goes back to the Roman Saturnalia, and probably beyond. Pigs have been domesticated for 9,000 years. It’s a wholly practical ritual: by December, forage has run out, but the nine or ten-month-old pigs of the year’s farrowing are fat on the nuts, berries, mushrooms and other debris of autumn. As the temperatures drop, the best time to preserve their meat arrives. The new wine pressing should be ready for sampling—in any case, it’s a good moment for a party.
The Europeans who do still slaughter their own pigs are mainly in the east, where subsistence agriculture is still alive. But the embrace of the EU brings with it the cold hand of regulation. In Romania, some 1.5m pigs are usually slaughtered in backyards in the week before Christmas. They are drained of their blood and then rolled into a bonfire, to singe and clean the skin. But Brussels rules don’t permit amateurs to slaughter pigs: a vet must be present and a stunning device used. According to the Economist, the Romanians asked for a derogation to kill animals according to their traditions, just as Muslims and Jews can. It is Christmas, after all. The commission said no, but, as I write, the Romanian smallholders’s pig slaughter will go ahead as planned.
In Edinburgh, EU law is iron. Home-butchered animals can only be eaten by a farmer and his immediate family. So, to all our disappointment, the pig we’d come to see dealt with in the northeastern Italian style had been killed and bled a day before in an abattoir, its offal removed…