December 05, 2012
It seemed like a good pig, as far as dead pigs go, though it was difficult to be certain since it had been sawed in half from top to bottom. It had also been disemboweled, cleaned, and put through an extensive hair removal process. But those details are beyond the scope of this article. The point is that there was a dead pig stretched out in the backseat of my car, and I was trying to begin this narrative on a positive angle.
Every so often, as I was making the forty-five minute drive from Rijeka to the mountain village named, Ravna Gora, in Gorski Kotar, I caught myself glancing back to see if the carcass had changed positions. I wondered about how I might explain this situation, using my adequate, though far from perfect Croatian language skills to any police officer who might stop my car. I also thought about how I might describe this event to my friends back in the States, or if they’d even believe me if I told them about it. Even though I am originally from Iowa, a state where pigs and hog farms are abundant, the fact is that I am basically a ‘city boy’ who doesn’t ever recall anyone back home telling about how they drove almost an hour with a dead pig in the backseat of their car. But that is exactly what I did, and it wasn’t the first time I’ve done it. In fact, this time was the eighth consecutive year I’ve been involved in such a project. “What project is that,” I’ve been asked. “Butchering the winter pig, or Kolinja, in rural Croatia,” I answer.
With the abundance of modern grocery stores that have appeared in Croatia over the last fifteen years, I suspect butchering a pig at home is now done more out of tradition rather than necessity. There is definitely a substantial cost savings in home-butchering, especially if one lives in a village and raises his own pig from the onset. Yet the tradition remains so strong because Croatians appreciate the homegrown quality of their meat, and the security of knowing exactly what and how the pig was fed. They also like the flexibility of preparing and flavoring the sausages to their individual tastes, and the firsthand knowledge of what was put into those sausages, as opposed to the sausages bought in a grocery store or butcher shop. Moreover, they like the freedom of cutting the portions of the pig to their liking. But perhaps more than anything, I think they enjoy the amount of quality time spent with family and friends during the butchering process. This can last two or three days, or maybe longer, depending on the number of pigs that get butchered.
In Croatia, butchering the Kolinja is performed within a four week period in late autumn, depending on the location, climate and temperatures of the specific regions in the country. As a result of colder temperatures in the Lika and Gorski Kotar regions, the first butchering usually occurs in those areas sometime in the latter part of November. Soon after, Slavonia, Medjumorje and Zagorije follow with their butchering traditions. People in Dalmatia and Istria usually butcher their pigs in mid-December, but there is no fixed schedule for this.
This year, my wife’s family and I butchered our pigs on the 23rd and 24th of November. The entire process began by preparing the barn for the hectic job that would follow. Now that my wife’s family stopped raising their own pigs several years ago, a common way of acquiring a pig is to buy it prepped from someone who raises them, which is paid for by the kilogram. This year, that duty was given to me. While I was picking the pig up in Grobnik (near Rijeka), and delivering it to Ravna Gora, the family members were preparing the work benches, sharpening the knives, and firing up the wood-burning stove. After my arrival, things erupted in a frenzy of activity that lasted well into the night.
All in all, we butchered three pig halves this year, a little more than half of the customary five halves we had been butchering annually till now. Hard at work inside the barn, no fewer than ten relatives were helping out at any one time, four men and six ladies, ranging in age from my wife’s ninety-year-old grandmother to her sixteen-year-old nephew. Two of my wife’s aunts, four of her cousins, my mother-in-law, two close friends of the family and I completed the butchering team. Each assumed different roles in the process, and everyone chipped in when the others needed a break.
The first tools used were hammers, hatchets, and sharp knives. The pigs get cut into smaller portions, which are quickly sorted and stacked into separate piles. Highly-coveted cuts, such as pork chops (kotleti) and tender loins (ombolo) are quickly set aside, packed, and frozen, while other pieces like rib cages are hung to be dried (sušeno meso). Almost nothing gets wasted during the process. Excess fat is removed and placed in a tub for future use; some of it to be used for cooking tallow, and some of it to be used to make čvarsi, a type of deep fried, pork rind. Other tubs were filled with scrap meat, which was ground, spiced, and made into sausages (kobasice). Even vital organs and blood were used to make the delicious ‘blood sausages,’ or ‘black pudding,’ known here as krvavice, a delicacy my parents savor whenever they come to visit. Both can recall eating this dish as children on their respective Iowa farms, and they enjoy it immensely. The blood sausage recipe is a complicated process that is strictly supervised by my wife’s ninety-year-old grandmother, Baka Antonija. Baka Antonija eagerly comes prepared for this yearly event dressed in traditional black garments and matching head scarf, and directs the show after first tying aprons on all of the participants.
After all the sharp knives have been put aside, a bottle of Grappa (rakija) gets opened and several full shot glasses are distributed before the meat grinder is put to use. After grinding the meat, it is spiced to taste using varying amounts of salt, black pepper, garlic juice, and finely ground, spicy red pepper. The final mix is then inserted into a press and forced through a piece of intestine that will serve to hold the sausage’s shape as it hangs to dry.
After the final sausage has been hung, more spirits are opened, this time white wine and mineral water (gassed). Then, the final cleanup operation is undertaken. As soon as the heaviest lifting has been completed, the men retreat to the kitchen table, wine glasses in hand, to sample the tastiest cuts of pork, fresh sauerkraut (kiselo kupus), boiled potatoes, and other delights from the recent garden harvest while the women finish the lighter cleaning. Before long, the women join the party and after some good conversation, several more glasses of wine, and a lot of laughter at the dinner table, a short rest follows before everybody goes their separate ways. Is it any wonder why I love this time of year in Croatia?
Douglas Cavanaugh has lived in Croatia for sixteen years. He is a hobbyist writer and the author of the spy novel, Into Hell’s Fire, which is set in war-time Bosnia and Croatia in 1992. More about him and his book can be seen at: www.into-hells-fire.com . Included on the web site is a bookstore containing recommended books related to Croatia and written in English. There is also a music shop where wonderful music related to Croatia can be found.