It was a little after 7 a.m. on a crisp December morning. The sun was just starting to peek over the horizon and the Tramuntana mountains blushed with the first notes of dawn. Butterflies of nervous anticipation and excitement danced in my belly as I crunched up the gravel drive. I had been invited to attend my first matanza and I had no idea what to expect.
Matanzas are one of the oldest and most special gastronomic and social traditions in Mallorca. Historically, this was a village-wide celebration complete with traditional foods, singing, and dancing, where everyone would gather together for the slaughter and butcher of the pigs that had been raised throughout the year. These days, matanzas are usually held between friends and families, and while the tradition is still very much alive, as years go by it is something that less and less of the younger generations participate in, and sadly some of the traditional aspects are at risk of being forgotten.
Matanzas are mainly held during November and December, when the weather is cool enough to work safely with the meat during the whole day. Another key reason for holding them at this time of the year is that it allows just enough time for the resulting embutidos (cured sausage-type products such as sobrasada and butifarrón) to be perfectly cured and ready to eat in time for some of the most important Mallorquin celebrations – such as San Sebastian, when countless barbecues (or torradas) are held island-wide, cooking a number of choice meats and embutidos.
The Arrival of the Main Protagonist #
Mallorcans tend to be quite reserved, and as a foreigner, it can be difficult to really get to know the locals. On an island filled with the comings and goings of tourists, students, and short- to medium-term travelers, this is completely understandable. For this reason, when I received a much-coveted invitation to attend a matanza, I couldn’t believe my luck, and was incredibly grateful for the opportunity.
However, as I arrived at the finca at dawn, to see a big group of strangers huddled around a fire, I started to have second thoughts…with only a year of Spanish under my belt, not knowing anyone there, and having turned up all alone, I began to doubt myself. What if my Spanish was terrible? What if they didn’t want me there? What if, what if…? But all doubts flew from my mind the minute I was greeted with a warm hug and customary kiss on both cheeks from the reigning matriarch, quickly introduced to everybody with warm smiles and enthusiasm, and without further ado had a steaming cup of coffee and biscuits pushed into my cold hands. A small, but very thoughtful gesture; everyone spoke almost entirely in Castellano throughout the day – foregoing their native (and certainly more comfortable) Mallorquín in order to make me feel more comfortable. I could not have felt more welcome.
It was just after 7am and it appeared I had arrived just in the nick of time. After barely a few minutes, just time to throw down the cup of coffee, there was a rumbling on the road and a murmur of excitement started to bubble up around me – it was the trailer, and inside, the pig! (I should mention here that, for my first matanza, I had opted not to be present for the actual slaughter, draining of the blood, and cleaning of the skin of the animal. At times, this process is done on site, however in this instance the pig was killed and prepared at the slaughterhouse and then transported to the finca directly afterwards.)
Suddenly, all hands were on deck ready to work. After years – and generations – of matanzas, everyone instinctively knew where to be, and what to do. I was left on the sidelines, happy to play the part of the excited guiri and hover around taking photos as the star of the show was heaved out of the trailer and onto the awaiting table. According to tradition, one person takes charge of butchering the animal, each piece carefully and deliberately cut away with what could only be described as surgical precision, or even a work of art. I couldn’t believe how quickly an entire 200kg worth of meat was cut up – almost faster than the pieces could be carried to their respective tables.
And So It Begins… #
It felt like daylight had only just broken, but already the pig had arrived; bled and cleaned, and had been butchered with all of the parts distributed to the waiting tables ready for the real work to begin!
To set the scene; there were a number of workstations set up along the paved patio, ready for countless hands to divide up the work. Furthest away from everything was the station for cleaning the intestines (one of the least palatable, but most important jobs of the day). Next were two tables for separating meat, skin, fat, gristle and bone and determining whether each part was destined to make the sobrasada/longaniza, butifarrón, manteca (rendered fat product for cooking purposes, also known as saïm in Catalan and the key ingredient in ensaïmada), or, in the case of the bones and pancetta, simply divided amongst the six families for soups and barbecues. At the end of the terrace were three fires; the first for providing hot water throughout the day, the second for boiling water in an enormous terracotta pot used for preparing the parts of the butifarrón, and third was a barbecue for keeping the workers fed and happy throughout the day!
The next couple of hours were spent busily preparing all the meat parts for their respective destinations. A row of big terracotta bowls were steadily being filled with meat and fat for the sobrasadas, which was then all minced together to await the seasoning. The air was filled with the smoke from the fires and the delicious hearty smell of the boiling bones and organs being prepared for the butifarrón, underscored by the occasional nostril-tingling whiff of excrement from the intestine-cleaning station. A steady stream of friends and family continued to arrive, some of them bringing their children, and the atmosphere was filled with laughter, jokes, and a general feeling of celebration and conviviality. The children were running around having a brilliant time, especially when they thought up the great joke of hanging the end of the pig’s tail from the back of my apron – to everyone’s great delight! The conversation never stopped, and neither did the work. Everybody continued with their allocated tasks without needing to say a word; always knowing where to be, what to do, and how to do it – leaving all of the speaking time free for relaxing chit-chat and banter.
The Art of Seasoning the Sobrasada #
Before we downed tools for a much-needed break, it was time for the most important, controversial, and most intensely-discussed task of the day; the seasoning of the sobrasada! The sobrasada, mix is divided into two parts – sweet (dulce), and spicy (picante) – and both are simply seasoned with a mix of paprika, salt, and pepper. Every bowl was crowded with hands diving into the mixture – children’s included! – kneading, mixing, squeezing and massaging to ensure everything was well-incorporated. Once this was done, now came the most important discussion of the day; the hotly debated topic of “how spicy is too spicy?”. The atmosphere was electric, opinions were flying, I witnessed clandestine operators secretly adding hot paprika when no one was looking! The atmosphere was brimming with anticipation when the matriarch of the family walked around with a pan of fried sobrasada and solemnly spooned a morsel into the first few eagerly awaiting mouths. It was the moment of judgment. Suddenly, the moment was broken and tension lifted. Smiles and nods everywhere; comments such as “bueno!” “riquisimo!” “bien hecho!”. The results were in – success!
After about four hours or so of working tirelessly, a delicious smell of sizzling meat on the barbecue came wafting through the terrace and I realized I was starving! Looking up from my bowl of sobrasada mix I saw a table laden with a mouth-watering array of breads, olives, oils, wine, and of course, meat that had been set up in the corner ready for us to rest our legs and arms for a short while and refuel. The warm barbecued bread paired with succulent meat, home-preserved olives and washed down with a cup of red wine was absolute food for the soul.
Making the Embutidos (The Goodies!) #
While the sobrasada mixtures sat happily in the corner, the herbs and spices mingling and making friends, it was time to make the butifarrón. Often overlooked as the second-favourite child, it is made from all the less-palatable bits of meat, fat, bone and offal that would otherwise go to waste. Despite this, it is unquestionably my favourite embutido. The mix of tender, fatty meat paired with the fresh herby flavors is for me a match made in heaven; especially when it’s been fried in a pan for a minute or two and enjoyed with a piece of freshly toasted bread – perfect!
The butifarrón ‘bits’ had been merrily boiling away on the fire for hours, and had been reduced to a tender, gelatinous mix of slow-cooked meat. Once the meat was removed from the water, drained, and transferred to a table to clean out any congealed blood or tough inedible gristle, it was a simple matter of mincing, adding spices, and voila! ready.
With the chopping, sorting, mincing and mixing all over and done with, now it was finally time for the stuffing and sewing of the embutidos. The physical and labour-intensive jobs of the morning now gave way to the more delicate task of filling the cleaned intestines with the prepared mixtures, and sealing the ends ready for hanging. In the blink of an eye several sausage-making stations magically appeared, each manned by two people, and the women took centre-stage at the main table where they were tasked with sealing, sewing, and sorting the sausages ready to be hung on the waiting racks. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised at how many sobrasadas, longanizas and butifarróns you can make from 200kg of meat, but I really was. After hours and hours of cutting, mixing and preparing the meat throughout the day, it was immensely satisfying to see the final result; and every time I thought there couldn’t possibly be any more meat left, yet another hanging row or plump, red, delicacies would appear! By the time all of the mix was used up, the bowls were empty and the bones and fat products ready to divide amongst the families I was struck by what an incredible amount of food we had managed to obtain from just one animal.
The End of the Day #
The sun was almost gone and the chill was starting to creep into the air as the last bits of meat were tied and hung, the tables and floors washed and cleaned, and everything packed down after a long day of work. As we had been making the embutidos an enormous pot of arroz brut had been simmering away, full of the promise of a warm belly and a good feed. We all gathered around the long communal dining table and sat down to revel in the good company, warm hearty food, and a general feeling of pride and satisfaction in the accomplishments of the day.
As I said my farewells and made my way back to Palma on the train – gratefully clutching the longaniza and butifarrón I was gifted to take home – I had time to reflect on my experience and my thoughts around the matanza. The overwhelming sentiment I have is one of deep respect and appreciation for the practice and tradition. Some of the things that I found most impressive is the lack of waste; virtually every single part of the pig was used in some way, and in the end, the only remaining waste was a small bucket with some cooked and cleaned bones and a small tub with the unusable organs. Furthermore, in an age where it feels like we are becoming ever more disconnected from where our food really comes from, and children are spending more and more time in front of screens instead of outdoors, it gave me such a warm fuzzy feeling to see everybody, both old and young alike, taking part and really being involved in the whole process. Having this annual celebration to connect with each other and create such special memories as well as come away with a practical food source for months to come is something that I hope never changes. Being invited to attend the matanza was such a privilege and honour, and is a special memory that I will never forget. I just hope that the younger generations will continue to appreciate the importance of this cultural tradition and keep the matanzasalive.
By Jessica Tatam
1 December, 2020