Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Transformation Room

Last weekend the eight of us interns went to Elba Island for a night. Our education director Katie was kind enough to cover the weekend animal chores so that the entire group could go together this one time. We left first thing Saturday morning to drive to the port town and catch the ferry, and had a great 36 hours on the island. Elba becomes quite a destination in the summer, and over a million people go there in August when all of Europe is on holiday. Fortunately the crowds hadn't arrive yet. We had heard that Elba is quite the German destination--the first time I asked how much something cost in Italian, the Italian replied in German, and when I cocked my head to the side and replied "che cosa?" he tried English. He seemed determined to not speak Italian with me, which is pretty rare here. For the night we stayed in a couple "bungalows," which didn't turn about to be the picturesque cottage by the sea I had in mind when I made the reservation, but rather a small plastic box in a trailer park. To complement our lovely trailerpark, we had a great weekend of swimming, relaxing and feasting on seafood, which we never have on the farm.

I'll get back to the farm now. A little before our trip to Elba, I was able to accompany Riccio, the farm manager and butcher, to a pig slaughter. We slaughter up to four pigs at a time, but this time we only did two. The pigs were loaded into a trailer Sunday evening and we left Monday morning around six to go to the slaughterhouse. Halfway there Riccio realized he had forget the documentation papers, so we unhitched the trailer and left the pigs on the side of the road while we raced back to the farm. Once Riccio found the papers, we raced back to the pigs and took them the rest of the way to the slaughterhouse. I won't go into too much detail about the slaughter process, but there are plenty of details and pictures to be shared for those interested. It was certainly an experience that would be difficult if not impossible to find in the US, as most slaughterhouses are very secretive about the whole process, and the only way to get pictures is with a secret camera. I helped lead the pigs up the ramp into the kill room, was right next to the guy who stunned and killed the pigs, and followed the processing of the pigs, camera in hand. Once everything was done, I helped Riccio load the pig halves into the refrigerated rear of the van, we grabbed some breakfast and made our way back to the farm.

Once we were back at the farm, I was expecting to go feed some pigs or cows, but when we pulled up, Riccio tossed me an apron and it was decided that I was working with him. For the next three and a half days, we cleaned the transformation room (I'll let you figure out why we call it the transformation room), butchered the pigs, ground a lot of meat and fat, and made sausage, mortadella, salami, soppressata, lardo and started the prosciutti, among other things. On our first day of butchering, we had pork chops fresh off the carcass cooked in olive oil and garlic and seasoned with salt, and it was perhaps my most positive experience with pork (certainly rivaled the ribs we had earlier in the spring).

The following day, we made soppressata, which is made from the pig leftovers- heads, skin, bones, cartilage, etc. All the bits and pieces are boiled in a huge caldron for four hours before draining and removing the bones, and everything that is left is then mixed with a whole blend of spices and stuffed into cloth sleeves to hang for at least a few days as fat drips off. For lunch that day, one of the guys helping us (he's the head butcher who trained Riccio) pulled out half a pig head, a couple pieces of cartilage and tails, put it on a plate and called it lunch. Keep in mind that just about all the good meat (cheek, tongue, etc.) has been used for other things like sausage, so it was just a few meat and fat scraps, and lots of skin and cartilage- it probably goes down as my most negative experience with pork. Rather than wiping the frying pan clean with bread and thirsting for more (like I did with the pork chops), I ate what I could and wasn't hungry for a good 24 hours.

Having eaten "pig face" and worked in the transformation room, I was impressed by how little of a pig goes to waste. Italians have traditionally used just about all of the pig, and they would think it a crime to do otherwise. And the best part of it is that they love every part of the pig. I've asked a few people around here whether they prefer pig face or pork chops, and everyone likes them the same. They see them as two different products of a pig with their own special characteristics, and it's part of their upbringing to respect the pig for all that it offers. I find this reasoning very noble, but pork chops are pork chops.

I appreciated the chance to work in the transformation room and see how pigs are transformed into many of the pork products I'm familiar with. Going to the slaughter and butchering the pigs also completed the process of seeing where meat comes from, however I realized I prefer to work outside with the animals when they are alive rather than once they are inside.

I’ll stop there. Tomorrow’s my last day, and I’m flying back to the states on June 1st. I’ll post some pictures when I’m back home with more time and better access to internet.

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