I recently spent a weekend on Pico Island, in the Azores, unlike any weekend I have had before. It involved waking up early to cut up a recently (humanely) killed pig.
Faial Island, just across the Atlantic from Pico, is where I’ve been calling home for the past two years. It’s also the homeland of my father, and Pico is where my mother, paternal grandmother, and around 500 of my cousins are from (it would seem so, as I meet a new one every time I visit). As a child of Portuguese immigrants who went to Canada for a better life for their family more than 40 years ago, my new address has been puzzling to many, especially Manuel and Maria (my parents, and the names of many other parents in Portugal, incidentally).
Much as they chose to pursue a different life back in 1975, although their circumstances were different – it was post-Salazar Portugal, with few economic opportunities – I too have chosen a particular path. Perhaps it’s in my blood; the Portuguese were among the first to explore the world after all. Or maybe there was something drawing me to my roots, to learn more about my family’s background and traditions. Which leads me to that whole business with cutting up a pig.
Some friends of mine, a lovely couple from the Netherlands who quit it all and moved to Pico more than nine years ago, were taking part in a matança do porco (“killing of the pig”). They have settled in quite nicely, running their own business, and tending to their large, gorgeous garden, complete with a variety of local flowers, succulents and two goats. My friends have participated in the local matança with their neighbours every year since they arrived on the island. When they first moved to their small village, the town folk were obviously curious about these two tall foreigners. And true to Azorean form, they were greeted with homemade bread and cheese on their doorstep, and quickly got to know the residents, joining in local events, one of them being the matança.
When I made plans to spend the weekend with my friends, it happened to coincide with the matança. As I’ve always been curious about this tradition, I asked if I could come along – the more people to cut up a pig the better, right? Of course It was fine with the friendly villagers, so that’s what I did. At 8am on a Sunday, after a breakfast of incredibly sweet coffee and carbohydrates generously served by the village locals, I finally experienced one of our oldest traditions.
I remember my mom talking about doing a matança every year when she grew up in Pico. Back then, they couldn’t afford a fridge or freezer, so in the winter, they would cut up the pig they reared year-long (you were lucky if you had more than one pig) and used every last bit of it to feed the family – melting the fatty bits into lard, making linguiça (Portuguese sausage) and bacon (they call it bacon here too). The sausages are hung up to cure in a dark, cool space, the lard is kept in large clay pots in the kitchen, and the bits of bone with fat, the ears, trotters – everything – are used for soup and feijoada, bean stew, my favourite.
Other cultures did, and still do, an annual pig kill. It’s slowing down a bit here, and I don’t know if the next generation will keep it alive. It’s a lot of work and people don’t need to rely on a pig to feed their family all year, as families are smaller and people aren’t as poor, and you can easily buy pork at the grocery store. But it’s nice to see the tradition still going strong, as it fosters a wonderful sense of community. Around 20 people came out on that Sunday morning to help a local woman, who raises two pigs a year. She doesn’t need two pigs – her children are fully grown and married with their own families – but I can see why she likes to practise the tradition.
It’s not just about walking away with a ton of meat, it’s as much about conviviality: the women prepare breakfast, which around here is a variety of bread, cheese, homemade jams and cake, while the men get the pig ready, which was killed the night before (traditionally, the pig is killed in the morning and the work done immediately afterward on the same day), keeping warm with swigs of homemade aguardente (literally, “firewater”, a strong distilled booze) and cracking jokes. Some of the women also had some of the sweet and potent honey-flavoured alcohol, myself included, to keep with tradition of course.
After breakfast, the women, dressed in the ubiquitous shirt aprons they rarely take off, gathered around a long wooden table covered in a thick plastic sheet for easy washing later (Portuguese women are masters of clean-up), each paired with a cutting board, which in this case was a slab of discarded wood, and a very sharp knife. Then the cutting begins, accompanied by plenty of local gossip. The men take turns slicing meat off the pig, plopping it down on the table for the women to chop up into chunks for torresmos, pieces of pork that are fried into crunchy oblivion for snacking, or cooked in a spicy sauce until tender for a main course. Smaller bits of cut-up pork are used for sausage, and when the enormous ears arrive on the table (this was one well-fed pig), they’re also diced up, to flavour the feijoada.
Needless to say, mother was impressed when I told her about my weekend in Pico. My dad grew up in the city of Horta in Faial and never partook in such things, so he didn’t understand why I was messing about with a pig on a Sunday when I could have been sleeping in, but I genuinely enjoyed it. I realise this tale of tradition will not sit well with some readers, but It wasn’t just about the pig, it was about discovering a part of my culture, and meeting a new group of people. But most of all, for me, it was a chance to learn about a local custom first-hand, one practised by my grandparents and mother, right there in their homeland.
I hope I get the opportunity to do it again next year, perhaps in a different village, with new acquaintances. I must say, however, that after hours of being around all that pork, I’m not craving bacon at the moment.