Losing my appetite at the pork festival
Since my return to Romania in January 2009, I longed to cover the pig festival.
My colleague Bogdan Cristel had covered it in past years. But I could not as I was assigned to edit and process the World Ski Championship, which takes place during the same period. Last year, I again edited skiing and thought that this year would be the same: me editing and Bogdan covering it. In January however, I was surprised when the organizers changed the date, providing me with the possibility to go and cover this story.
I remember as a child I once saw a pig being slaughtered, but my memory is blurred. As a city boy, living with my mother on the third floor and my grandparents on the first floor of an apartment block, I never experienced what was normal for village folk. For villagers, pigs, cows, chicken, ducks and geese were slaughtered in the backyard to provide food for the entire family. For me, all livestock came from butchers or supermarkets, frozen or fresh, nicely labeled and packaged.
What was of interest to me was how they slaughter the pigs. I wondered if they were using electricity according to European Union regulations or following a traditional method and using a knife? I discovered that traditional method is allowed during the festival, so people can see how it was done in the past.
As this was the sixth edition of the festival, the organizers and participants knew what to do. A few pigs with numbers painted on their backs were drawn by the teams and the slaughter began. The first two were killed using electricity, in keeping with the European Union standards. To drain the blood, knives were used to stab the pig in the heart. The splashing blood was quickly collected into buckets.
I have seen blood during various armed conflict assignments, but somehow the stench of warm blood, the pig’s sharp and brief squealing made me a bit sick. I went out from the enclosure where the slaughtering took place to breathe cold, fresh air and followed the contestants dragging the carcasses to their preparation tables.
I returned just in time to witness a traditional knife slaughtering. The EU was right; it is a bit too much for a city person to see. The pigs squealed loudly, somehow sensing something bad would happen to them. They ran around the enclosure but the group of men caught and immobilized one of them. Everything was unexpectedly fast; the pig was slaughtered in seconds and the blood was collected to be used later for a special type of sausage. The men shared a few strong drinks, then they carried out the carcass to burn the skin and remove the hair.
After washing the carcass to remove the burned skin, some chopped it with axes on the ground. Others cut it with a saw and some hung the pig and cut it along the backbone. There were others who cut it along the belly. Each participant used their own style, depending on what they wanted to prepare, as teams were sharing half a carcass each.
More bad smells oozed in to the air as smoke billowed from the many open fires where pieces of pork were boiled or grilled. All teams were busy chopping, mashing, grinding and mixing various spices with the meat with their hands and preparing various specialties, including all kind of sausages.
A few pieces were quickly grilled or fried in pork fat instead of oil and were offered to the spectators to down together with small glasses of palinca; a strong triple distilled plum or grape brandy. This is called “pomana porcului,” or the “pig’s alms,” a tradition in which the pig owner thanks everybody for helping in the preparations.
There is a lot of work required to prepare pork specialties. You have to deal with about 50-70 kilograms (110-150 pounds) of raw meat and it is not easy. Some teams finished at around four in the afternoon, after a full eight hours of work.
I had rushed out in the morning without breakfast, thinking that I would have a bite at the festival. Strangely, I was not hungry the whole day. The roaming around during various stages of the preparation and the smell and sight of so much meat had killed my appetite.
In the end, I left with red eyes from the smoke and without eating anything. In this fairly remote village, the 3G wireless network was not working well so I spent about two hours sending the pictures. During that time, I got hungry.
I went to the local restaurant and ordered a portion of goulash, a traditional Transylvanian beef dish.