“La Matanza”, Spain: is killing our own food the only way to eat ethically?

A pig is killed and skinned at a traditional Matanza in Southern Spain
A pig is killed and skinned at a traditional Matanza in Southern Spain

Just 40 kilometres inland from the hotels and souvenir shops of the Costa del Sol lies the Genal Valley, where tiny white villages forgotten by the march of time cling to pine-fringed mountains. These picturesque pueblos blancos, their crumbling houses brightened by red geraniums, are a quaint reminder of a rustic bygone age.

Here, self-sufficiency is not an alternative buzzword but rather the default way of life. Men in battered flat caps use mules to plough the earth, firewood is collected from the surrounding forest to heat homes in winter, and the majority of people in these villages- some with populations of under 200- have smallholdings, growing organic produce and rearing animals for meat all year round.

Sheep, goats, chickens and pigs are kept by most families, and the latter are killed at the end of the long winter in an event known as La Matanza – literally ´the slaughter´. Relatives and friends lend a hand, preparing meat products to be stored for the coming year. Perishable meat is eaten immediately and washed down with copious amounts of alcohol. Like everything else in Andalusia, La Matanza is as good a reason as any for a fiesta.

Two years ago I made this valley my home, and although I have grown used to the sound of screaming pigs echoing around the valley, as a vegetarian and animal lover I doubt it will ever become bearable. So it was with much trepidation- won over by my curiosity to witness a slice of cultural history- that I accepted an invitation from my friend Antonio to attend his family´s annual kill.

I met Antonio, his father Cristobal, cousin Carlos and four family friends at his small farm at five pm on a sunny but cold Friday evening, as they prepared to move three fattened pigs from the pens to a makeshift abbatoir at Antonio´s nearby home. Capturing the creatures is no easy feat: these adult pigs weigh as much as 22 stones and are extremely powerful.

Iberian pigs provide world famous Jamón
Iberian pigs provide world famous Jamón

Three men enter the first pen and, sensing what´s coming next, the pig begins to shriek hysterically. But the men are skilled and move quickly to minimize distress. Backing the creature into a corner, Antonio leaps astride it, holding its ears while Carlos grips its tail. The squeals become louder and more high-pitched as the frightened pig thrashes around wildly, but within a few minutes the third man, Pepe, manages to attach a rope to its hind leg and the job is done.

The creature, finally silent, bolts from the pen and charges off into the vegetable patch to help himself to a well-deserved last supper of rotting pumpkins from the compost heap. “Leave him,” says Cristobal with a wave of the hand, as the men turn to the second pen.

Within twenty minutes, all three pigs are ready for the ten-minute walk to their final destination. They are free and amble ahead of us down the winding country lane, their ropes dragging behind.

The pigs walk freely to their final destination
The pigs walk freely to their final destination

Many farmhouse kitchens in this region were designed with the annual matanza in mind: boasting tiled floors, indoor hoses and drainage points to clean up blood, ceiling beams with iron hooks to hang the meat, and large hearths to heat water and cook food.

Here, we are warmly welcomed by Antonio´s mother Paca, along with his sister, grandmother and family friends. The women sit peeling a small mountain of garlic around the roaring fire, upon which has been set an enormous cauldron of boiling water.

A cauldron of boiling water is used to skin the animal
A cauldron of boiling water is used to skin the animal

During the matanza, traditional gender roles are very clearly defined. Men are responsible for the slaughter and carvery while women are charged with cooking, cleaning, serving drinks and snacks, and- on the second and third days- the making of morcilla (black pudding), chorizo (salami) salchicha (sausage), tocino (bacon) and chicharrones (crackling), as well as lard, local delicacies such as callos (stomach and chickpeas in a tomato sauce) and various offal-based stews.

The first pig is dragged into the room. Seven strong men are needed to hoist the animal on to the table and pin it down, as Paca places a large plastic bowl beneath its head to collect the blood.

The pig is tied and held before being bled
The pig is tied and held before being bled

A man named Andres is the matarife, he who carries out the grim deed. As the men struggle to contain the thrashing, squealing animal, Andres produces a knife and makes a quick, small incision in the tough skin of the pig´s throat. The pig makes one last effort to struggle free, snorting and shrieking, its eyes wide with terror. Andres then stabs the knife deep inside the wound several times, jabbing a little to the right to sever the pig´s main artery.

After thirty seconds, the squealing stops and is replaced by a series of low grunts. The pig loses consciousness rapidly as a cascade of thick blood gushes into the bowl, and within two minutes he is dead.

The remaining two pigs are tied to a post outside and seem oblivious to the fate of their companion. One is munching away at a patch of grass while the other looks pleased by his discovery of a bowl of cat biscuits and polishes these off quickly before moving on to a neighbour´s gladioli bush.

Meanwhile, their companion is carried from the tabletop and placed in a deep metal trough. Women ladle water from the bubbling cauldron into saucepans and pass these to the men, who pour them over the pig´s tough hide ready for skinning with penknives. The coarse black hair is hacked off with skill, then the pig´s head is removed and it is hoisted up to the rafters on a makeshift pulley system and sliced open from neck to groin.

The pig is then hoisted up before the meat is cut
The pig is then hoisted up before the meat is cut

Three pigs can feed one family for the whole year. Nothing is wasted; even the testicles are put to one side to be fried with salt and spices and eaten with bread. Not everyone is a fan of this particular delicacy, though.
“Don´t give me the balls, I can´t stand the bloody balls,” Paca complains as two brown wobbly lumps are thrust towards her.

When all three pigs have been quartered and the meat hung to dry, pork loins are cooked on the fire, salad and buffet food is brought out, and local wines and spirits- aguardiente and mosto, plus beer and various homemade fruit liquors- are passed around generously. More friends, neighbours and family arrive, and by ten pm the fiesta is in full swing.

Lung and liver stew is prepared on Saturday morning to give energy for the hard work ahead: a typical Matanza lasts for 3 days
Lung and liver stew is prepared on Saturday morning to give energy for the hard work ahead: a typical Matanza lasts for 3 days

La Matanza itself is not illegal, but Spain´s 2007 animal rights act made it unlawful to kill any animal without first using a stun gun (which causes massive convulsions as a result of electric shock) or a captive bolt pistol, (which strikes into the animal´s forehead to cause immediate unconsciousness through brain trauma). Despite risking a fine of 600€, local people are largely unwilling to comply: they speak passionately of preserving tradition and are cynical about whether these approved methods are actually more humane.

Short of having names, the pigs killed during a family matanza are loved and well-cared for. They are free to laze around in the sun and are fed on organic bellota acorns and cereals. There is no supply chain, no stressful transportation, and no chance of contamination.

Ian Bell (not his real name) has worked as a British meat inspector for over 40 years. He admits that long journeys can cause animals extreme fear and distress for hours (or even days) before the actual slaughter.

“In the past there would be several abbatoirs in each town, meaning animals never had to travel far. Now, because the law says you need a vet and meat inspectors present at the kill, local slaughterhouses have closed down and animals can now have very long journeys.”

Pigs are then penned together and gassed, or electrocuted separately, before being hoisted and bled. Cattle are usually killed using captive bolt pistols while chickens are hung upside down on conveyors and then dunked into electrical water before bleeding.

In the mass-produced meat industry animals invariably have a poor quality of life, and as this year´s horse meat scandal has shown us, we cannot even be sure of what we are eating.

According to a Guardian investigation into the scale of the deception, animal charities have documented the movement of thousands of horses for human consumption from Romania, Belgium, France, Ireland, and even North and South America, and consulting firm KPMG estimates that there are a staggering 450 points in the chain of supply from farm to plate.

Bute, a horse drug which can cause bone marrow failure in humans, has since been found in Asda corned beef. The investigation also pointed to an established horse transport corridor from Ireland to Europe which is linked to drug smuggling and human trafficking rings.

Bell says that anyone who assumes that bad publicity will force supermarkets to be more transparent is “naive.” Speaking of illicit horse meat contamination, he claims: “This has been going on for at least 20 years since supermarkets have looked for more ways to cut costs. Everyone knows about it, but there´s a culture of silence. At the moment there are thousands of tonnes of horse meat sitting in cold stores around Britain. It´s been paid for, so you can bet it will be used.”

These shocking revelations show that what is missing from the meat production industry is respect, for both the animal and the consumer. And while we may not be willing to end our love affair with bacon butties, roast dinners and full English fry-ups, we should certainly think about boycotting supermarkets and buying only from organic, locally sourced butchers and farmers´markets. In the absence of trust in the industry, rearing our own meat- as they have done in rural Spain for centuries- may be the only way to avoid any more nasty surprises.

This article was originally published in The Big Issue in the North, June 2013, and can be read online here

If this kind of thing interests you, why not check out my other blog about seasonal life in rural Spain?


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