Something crunched underfoot as I crossed the courtyard and I was pleased that it was dark and that I couldn’t see the offending object. They had killed the pig here a few hours earlier and I was under no illusion as to what I had probably just stepped on.
I live on one of the few remaining farms in the area where the cochon is raised and slaughtered according to ancient custom. My family-in-law transform it into chops and charcuterie which will keep us going for a whole year, and the day that it is killed is traditional to the point of being ritualistic.
The slaughter had taken place that afternoon when I’d been at work, a fact for which I had been grateful. I have never taken part, always lacking the courage to even step outside, knowing that I would never be able to hold the bucket and collect the blood for black pudding like my mother-in-law. I tried not to think about it as I climbed the steps to the farmhouse.
The table at my parents-in-law was laid for 18. There would be those who had helped during the afternoon and a couple of family members lucky enough to have been invited. Everyone was standing as though waiting for some invisible sign, the men hovering at one end of the table, each with their eye on a seat as though about to partake in a game of musical chairs. When the signal was given, I quickly went and sat down next to my husband, deliberately ignoring the traditional hierarchy that dictates that men sit on one end of the table and the women at the other (usually the end closest to the kitchen).
Over a glass of pastis, the conversation at the men’s end revolved around pigs (what else?) Who had the biggest, the fattest or the heaviest? Which was the best way to raise them? Or to kill them? The meal progressed and we ate our way through pasta soup, l’os du cou, les jailles and lard*, and the talk finally turned to pigs of the undomesticated variety: wild boar.
As the bottles of homebrewed wine lined up in the corridor vanished one after the other, the hunting stories became more and more outrageous and the wild boars got bigger. By the time the desert, une galette des rois was served, the hunters around the table would have you believe that they were shooting down rhinoceros on a daily basis.
At 11 pm an assortment of homemade firewater was displayed and tasted and the evening was officially over. The next morning the pig would be transformed into sausages, saucissons, ham, pâté, chops and the like. Lunch would be at our house and the meal…..well that’s another story.
Coming soon: Lambing for beginners Part II
*L’os du cou, les jailles, le lard – meat taken from the neck of the pig
Galette des rois – a traditional cake eaten in France in January