March2010.

We dined with the builders. Mário barbecued two big spicy chouriço sausages, made by one of his in-laws. The strong savoury smell wafted throughout the gutted half of our granite house which was covered with rubble and dust. We all drank deep fruity dry red wine provided by Américo the plumber /electrician. This was our breakfast on Friday before we went to Castelo Branco to buy a depósito (water tank) for the new house. We were soon hungry again so we ate at a café in a supermarket. Our meal of the day was really delicious, grelos soup (resprouted cabbage) followed by arroz de polvo (a wet octopus risotto).  On the way home we met up with JJ to pay him for digging the trenches at our quinta two days previously. He was receiving half a dozen banqueting tables made for D by our carpenter. After a warm greeting and a chat we made to leave but he said “Do you have to go? Stay for dinner – we’ve killed a pig.” We had to talk with our builders but returned to D’s quinta an hour later as darkness fell.

In a barn were a group of local ladies, friends and relatives, arm-deep in thick pancake batter and stuffing it into sausage skins.

I asked what they were making and was told they are farinheiras. Pig fat is cut into small pieces and mixed with flour and a little water. This is squeezed into cows’ intestines which were tied off into eighteen-inch lengths and the strings left long so they can be hung up. After washing the sausages, they are dried with flour and smoked for a week. These sausages provide meals from the fat and smoking preserves and flavours them. They made two olive-crates of these meatless sausages, about forty kilos.

More sausages (alheiras) are similarly made from chopped fat mixed with a stuffing made from breadcrumbs, herbs, clean meat and boiled chickens with their stock. The ladies’ team made twenty kilos of these. Alheiras originated with the Jews during pogroms. In order to appear to eat pork they made these sausages without pork products but they look the same when made from poultry.

Narcisa (wearing a green pullover in the pictures) is acknowledged and valued as Queen of Cookery by all in our village. She and her husband João worked in France for thirty years. She wanted to run restaurant but he didn’t. She is D’s cook and is magnificent in leading the cooks of the community meals (for 150 or so people) which are held three times a year. She explained that when a pig is killed almost nothing is wasted. The pig’s blood has to be drained and it is kept in buckets. The prime cuts of meat (chops, legs, ribs) are just frozen but in the past they were stored in salt. The fat is carefully trimmed off because it is important for sausage-making. Then the “clean meat” is trimmed from the bones, cut into small pieces, mixed with some fat and stuffed into cows’ intestines. These are smoked and hung in a cool shed to make chouriço.

Meat which has been in contact with blood, eg heart and kidneys, is used to make morcela (black pudding) in which the blood is mixed with dried wheat or other grain to make the filling. The tail and ears are a delicacy either fried or for a stew like oxtail stew. The head is used in a stew; all three of these can be bought in a supermarket, as the Portuguese like them.

We ate a late dinner because the ladies were hard at work on the pig. A fifteen month old pig provides enough meat and fat to give six women three days’ work to preserve it and a butcher half a day’s chopping. The meat is the easy bit! Our starter was crispy fried pig’s stomach, surprisingly good to eat, similar to pork scratching but more tasty. The main course was pork cutlets and chips with delicious grelos washed down with wine from the quinta which is served by the mugful.

He was a happy pig, chestnut brown and handsome as pigs go, with bright eyes and a solid build. He’d had a good life fed on farm slops and pumpkins with occasional days out eating acorns in the shade of cork oaks. He lived in a comfy big sty with a donkey for company and frequent visits from the regulars at the farm. It is a sad thing to die nameless but most of the animals in this country have no name. We always ask and the answer is the same, “donkey” or “dog”, not “Swee’ pea” (Sue’s donkey) or “Lucky”; it’s the foreigners or city dwellers who name animals. He was killed humanely at home, not stressed or even aware that his end had come. He would be enough meat and fat for a family of four for a year if pork was on the menu twice a week.

The whole experience feels somewhat mediaeval. This event, the matança or killing (of the pig) is lost as smallholdings and hamlets disappear and in England had virtually vanished by the early 20th century. It is a happy ceremony, a special small-community experience. In a hamlet each family would keep a pig for a year and share in the preparation of all these comestibles every three months as in turn their pigs were killed. Then the fruit of their labour was shared out so all had fresh meat. After this experience I have more respect and compassion for the pig, but less tolerance of supermarkets and battery pork.