Pig slaughtering feasts on their way out

Photo: ISIFA/ VLP/ Atilla Racek

A centuries old tradition –the pig-slaughtering feast – will soon be a thing of the past. Those who consider the gory ritual an act of barbarism are cheering, others for whom it is an important part of village folklore are determined to maintain it at any price.

Photo: ISIFA/ VLP/ Atilla Racek
A pig-slaughtering 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.

Ham, liver, blood pudding, sausages, cracklings and headcheese – those are some of the mouth-watering dishes that you will be invited to taste at a traditional pig slaughter – i.e. if you are not squeamish about the fact that the housewife and her helpers mixed the products in huge vats and basins out in the yard or in the kitchen, their sleeves rolled up and hands elbow-deep in the still-warm mixture of pork intestines and blood.

The sights and smells at a traditional zabijačka can be overpowering even for people with a strong stomach and the fainthearted should keep well away from it. Until the pig is slaughtered and the food is prepared there is really not much to do except stand around, drink plum brandy and socialize.

In the olden days the home breeding and slaughtering of pigs several times a year was an economic necessity. People would stock up on meat for the harsh winter months or slaughter a pig to provide for a big celebration such a wedding or a christening. A pig slaughtering feast was a big event to which the whole village was invited and no-one came away empty handed. The way it worked in most villages is that people slaughtered their animals at different times and shared - so that there was always good pork in the larder.

Illustrator Josef Lada put the pig slaughtering feast on many of his post-cards and, among others, it was described in detail in Bohumil Hrabal’s famous novel Postřižiny later filmed by Oscar-winning director Jiří Menzel.

Although home pig-slaughtering is 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 a few.

Now a new set of strict hygiene norms approved by the European Commission is about to change all that. The new legislation means that while a farmer can still slaughter a pig and consume the meat at home he will no longer be able to organize a pig slaughtering feast for his friends and neighbours. Anyone who violates the new law could face a fine of up to 300,000 crowns. Farmer Vladimir Řehounek says this is a pity.

“Pig-slaughtering feasts were not just about stocking up on meat –it was always a social occasion as well and if this new law is strictly enforced then we will have to forget about them and our children will know nothing of this old tradition.”

Josef Boháč from the regional veterinary office confirms that this is indeed the case.

“The food products made from a pig slaughter –which are served to the public - must be made under state veterinary supervision.“

This would inevitably mean an end to pig-slaughtering festivals organized by individual farmers or even local associations of hunters, firemen or gardeners. Most people are ready to accept this, but some are refusing to bow to instructions from Brussels. Miroslav Nosek, the mayor of Miletín, is incensed by the idea.

“Someone in Brussels approves a law banning public pig-slaughtering feasts and ends a centuries-long tradition just like that. Every country nurtures its traditions and traditional products and shows them off to foreign visitors – why should we do the opposite?”

The mayor is determined to organize the town’s annual pig slaughtering feast on the Miletín main square regardless of the EU ban.

“If anyone has any objections I will say it is a private party and all the guests are my relatives. I will by-pass the law because I consider it to be utterly nonsensical. That’s where it will lead – to people by-passing the law.“

Although the new hygiene laws approved by the EU have raised the hackles of some villagers, the problem may not be as serious as it looks. With or without the EU pig-slaughtering feasts are slowly on their way out. Few people still breed pigs at home and pig-slaughtering feasts have grown rare. Josef Jelínek is a master butcher authorized to perform home slaughters.

“The home pig-slaughters are few and far between. When I took up the trade twenty-three years ago I would perform around 90 home slaughters for people in the course of a single year. Now I am called to about fifteen at the most.”

According to the Czech Agrarian Chamber the number of home slaughters has fallen sharply in the last decade, reflecting the significantly lower number of pigs bred by large breeders. While in 2003 the chamber registered over 3 million 300 thousand pigs in 2011 there were just 1 million 750 thousand. The head of the Agrarian Chamber Jan Veleba says this explains the drop in home slaughters.

“People who would otherwise be interested in buying a piglet and fattening it up simply lack the opportunity to do so. Getting them from the big breeders is no longer so easy.”

And, given the dwindling number of home slaughters, there is gradually also a dearth of the master butchers authorized to perform such slaughters in line with veterinary and hygiene norms.

The home slaughter of pigs followed by a public feast should soon be a thing of the past. While some occasionally still take place the State Veterinary Office has warned private breeders and various hobby groups and associations that they could soon get into big trouble for breaking the law. Anyone who wishes to organize a pork feast for their village, or friends and neighbours would have to buy certified meat products that have been approved by the state veterinary authority. Public feasts could still be as boisterous – but they would be a lot less bloody, which many see as a good thing.