The old tradition of pig-slaughter feasts still observed around the country
If you visit the Czech countryside at the start of the year you are likely to receive an invitation to attend a "zabijačka"– in other words a pig-slaughter feast; a centuries old tradition that is still observed in many parts of the country. While for some it is a barbaric practice that has no place in the present-day, for others it is an important part of village folklore that brings people together.
A pig-slaughter feast is precisely what the name suggests – the slaughter of a pig out in the open by a master butcher, the processing of the meat and intestines in front of those invited and subsequently a boisterous pork feast accompanied by drinking, music and dancing which generally leaves everyone much the worse for wear.
Václav Stejskal, one of a dwindling number of master butchers who are called to pig slaughter events around the country, explains what such a “meat eating” festival looks like.
“In the old days the butcher would arrive at 6am and the host would offer everyone a shot of plum brandy to start the day. Then the master butcher would get to work, the pig would be put down, hung up and butchered; separating the pork shoulder, belly, loin, butt and the head. By this time family and friends would start arriving and the housewife and female helpers would roll up their sleeves and get to work, producing specialties from the different pork cuts, mixing the products in huge vats and basins out in the yard or in the kitchen, hands elbow-deep in the still-warm mixture of pork intestines and blood. In the course of the morning they would produce blood pudding, sausages, cracklings and headcheese which would be served warm to the guests.”
“Most of the meat that would be eaten later was smoked which enabled better conservation, but housewives used other ways as well, they would put chunks of pork into glass jars and cook them or else they would place the meat in lard which also kept it fresh. They would put the vat down in the cellar, cover it and take out chunks of meat as they needed them. “
The sights and smells at a traditional "zabijačka" can be overpowering even for people with a strong stomach and few foreign visitors are willing to attend one. However Václav Stejskal says that under the new EU regulations much of the gory procedure remains hidden from people’s and particularly children’s sight. And everything takes place in line with strict veterinary and hygiene norms.
Although home pig-slaughters are no longer an economic necessity, you can still come across these feasts in some parts of Europe – Croatia, Serbia, Hungary, Italy, Greece, Portugal and Spain to name just a few countries. Although in the Czech Republic the number of pig slaughter feasts has decreased in recent years there are still around a 100,000 of them taking place annually. And sometimes farmers organize them or take the end products to the big cities for people to sample. Jan is very much a city person, but he remembers these feasts from his childhood in the country and takes always finds the time to attend one with his family.
“We come here regularly, and bring the children, there is lots of good food, plum brandy and mulled wine and the atmosphere is great. We are quite busy, but we make time for this every year –we haven’t missed one yet.”
“I think the zabijacka is still popular with many, although for the young generation it seems to lack significance. But I would like to see it preserved, I would like people, even young people, to know about this tradition, and to taste the delicious meat products that come from it.”
And as these pig slaughter feasts become rarer, they have also become commercialized. While in the past the traditional "zabijačka" was a feast attended by friends and neighbours, today there are firms offering them as an experience gift and, in neighbouring Hungary, some companies select them as popular team-building activities.