25. 1. 2022

Waiting for the Frost: Slaughtering Day in Transcarpathia

Author: Laura Kuen

It is foggy in Baba Maria’s orchard. There are only a few weeks left of the year and January’s holiday season will be here soon. We are just waiting for the frost. Only then can Maria slaughter her pig. When the outside temperature drops below zero, the meat can be processed under refrigerated conditions.

Maria is in her sixties and lives remotely in the Ukrainian Carpathians. As every year, she has raised a pig – mostly to provide her children and their families in faraway Kiev with home-made lard, pâté, pastry, and sausages. The region of Transcarpathia is located in the very west of Ukraine and directly borders four EU countries. The cities of Budapest, Prague, Krakow, or Vienna are closer than Kiev.

I have come to join Maria as part of my doctoral research on small-scale pig farming. Smallholders like her are keeping nearly half of Ukraine’s domestic pig population and are repeatedly discussed as potential vectors of African Swine Fever (ASF). The viral disease, that is currently causing concern in several countries across Eurasia, has been rampant in Ukraine for almost a decade and also spread to Transcarpathia. Today, however, the situation has calmed down in the region and people who lost their animals to ASF are keeping pigs again as they form a crucial element in their households’ food circle.

Maria, for example, conscientiously feeds her pig with home-grown apples, potatoes, beans and maize, but also kitchen waste that she meticulously separates according to edibility for the pig. Unlike in industrial farming where pigs are usually slaughtered after about six months, pigs here are kept for one, sometimes even two whole years before they are slaughtered. Only then does the salo (lard), which is very popular in Ukraine, get its rich taste.

In the feed kitchen (next to a pot with one of the last meals for the pig) a huge vodka distiller is simmering on the stove. Drop by drop, the distillate runs into a jar. The vodka will be served to the men who will conduct the slaughtering. Maria doesn’t want to offer cheap liquor from the shop and can’t afford the expensive one, so she has decided to distil herself for the occasion. After all, this is the way to show gratitude for the help provided – prepare a big lunch and offer plenty of drinks. However, in recent years it has also become common to pay for the butchering service. The village is ceasing to be a community of solidarity, I keep hearing from the elderly. More and more services are being monetarized and replace the former rule of mutual help whenever it is needed.

Maria’s home-brewed vodka is ready for bottling.

A few days later, the time has come. It is minus 3 degrees. After many insistent telephone calls, two men have agreed to do the slaughtering. At dawn, neighbour Ivan, an old friend, comes up the grassy path to the house. While we wait for the second butcher to arrive, Ivan tells me about a pig he owned many years ago. Like most people, he and his family rear a pig every year. But this one was different from the others. The sow was very smart and kept following him everywhere on his heels. He had such a close bond with the pig that he couldn’t do the slaughtering himself and asked someone else to do it. Our conversation ends here. Misha, the second man has arrived.

The pig squeals agitated at first, runs in circles as Ivan comes into the box. “Na, na, na” Ivan calls and pats the pig on the back, cuddles it until it becomes quiet, stops running and smacks. He strokes the pig’s legs and casually puts a noose around one of its front feet. The men pull the squealing boar into the yard. An iron bar has already been driven into the ground, to which the men tie the animal with some difficulty. Again, Ivan calms the pig, who eventually becomes quieter, sniffing the cold earth with interest. Ivan taps and strokes his knife along the animal’s neck, he does not flinch. Then Ivan stabs purposefully, cutting the boar’s carotid artery. Blood spurts. The pig screams in horror. He staggers and pulls on the rope, buckles. An unpleasantly long time seems to pass before the pig finally takes its last breath. The blood quickly flows in large quantities into the earthy ground. Catching it for blood sausage is too much work for everyone present.

 Cutting up the pig is a strenuous task and requires teamwork.

The men lift the dead animal on a wooden door and burn off its bristles with a flame torch. They scorch the pig’s skin black, then wash it with warm water and brushes until it is pale white again. The cutting begins. Another neighbour has come to help clean the intestines for the sausages, which, as it turns out, is the most tedious task.

The meat and sausages are smoked in the smokehouse with cherry wood.

I spend the next three days with Maria salting lard, boiling grease, cooking pâté and canned meat, smoking ham and making sausage all of which will be consumed the entire next year. Parcel by parcel, most of it will go to the children and grandchild in Kiev. Soon Maria will buy a new piglet. She will feed it with maize, beans, apples and her kitchen scraps until it too will be slaughtered when the frost comes.

Maria on her way to the post office. The 20kg parcel is filled with eggs, cake, apples and sausages and will reach her children in Kyiv by tomorrow.