If you are not a vegetarian, and you are curious how meat ends up on your table, it might be a bizarre experience to take part in an actual Hungarian Pig Slaughter, a one day feast of killing the pig, cleaning it, and making pork dishes from it for the whole family and with the whole family. There are fewer and fewer Hungarian pig slaughters due to the major changes of lifestyle all over the world (including globalization and health conscious – vegetarian movements).
While most Hungarian teens do not ever see a pig killing feast these days, it still has a big and rich tradition, but is not widespread any more. One has to travel to grandparents in the countryside to experience ‘Disznovagas’ as it is called in Hungarian. Or pay for some rural tourism in Hungary to spend a day at a traditional hog slaughter. These days, you do not even have to travel far from Budapest to gain first hand experience about pig killing feasts in Hungary.
If you visit Budapest in winter time, you can watch a live pig slaughter at the January Buda Butcher Festival in Budapest.
Of course, just watching the killing of the pig will not be the same, as most of the pig killing feast in Hungary is about making pig dishes together in the open air.
Pig slaughter is not simply killing the pig in Hungary. The pig killing is a day long feast, a ritual, a communal, or a family event. Of course, there is blood, so it is not for the faint hearted (when I was a kid, I used to duck my head under many pillows during the minutes of unforgettable squeals, when the pig was just being killed – at that time, in a hunter style with a knife, which meant that it may have taken several minutes for the pig to give up his fight…. But within half an hour or so, I had to go down, and help the family.)
If you are a responsible meat eater with lots of curiosity, you are welcome to take part in a pig slaughter. But what is a traditional Hungarian pig slaughter like?
First of all, pig slaughter has been part of the traditional Hungarian lifestyle for many centuries. But during the Communism, there was no such thing as a pig slaughter officially. Not because the Communists would not eat pork, they would. But officially all pigs belonged to the community, no private pigs were allowed. Then in 1989, when Hungary turned into a democratic country, home based pig killing feasts came back.
Hungarian Pig Killing Day
The day of a Hungarian pig slaughter is usually set on a cold day, any time during the winter season in Hungary, usually between November and February. Pig killing is usually done once a year, maybe twice.
The hog killing takes place outside the house, in the backyard, where the yard has been arranged for pig killing.
During the winter time, it is still dark early dawn in Hungary, so picture the scene at dusk, or in darker conditions (not necessarily, just typically). Pigs are often slaughtered for the Christmas and New Year festivities and for Carnival season.
Cold helps to minimize the risk of bacteria spreading in the meats, so cold is a very essential part of Magyar pig killing feasts.
The Butcher of the Hungarian Pig Slaughter
The old butchers in Hungary were often invited to help a family kill a pig. These butchers had the special slaughtering equipment (e.g. the sausage filler), but were not necessarily trained butchers, only experienced in killing a pig (now things are becoming more and more institutionalized). Each Hungarian village had the few butchers to carry out the killing, and more (see below).
The butcher is supposed to arrive at early dawn, at about 5 am – 6 am. It may take only a few minutes to kill a pig, but as we have mentioned pig slaughter is much more than just killing it. As it is a whole day event, the traditional Hungarian pig slaughter starts at 5am, 6am or so.
Palinka at Pig Killing in Hungary
Then the butcher and the people (especially the men) who will do the killing of the slaughter drink shots of Palinka, the strong Hungarian spirit. Yes, as early as 5 am or 6 am, the shots of manly palinkas go down. Palinka is a distilled fruit brandy, which is as clear as water. Palinkas at pig slaughter are usually drank from no fancy little spirit glasses. The shot is usually not tried and tasted, just drank in one sip. Quick, burning feeling on the tongue and in the stomach, which quickly goes away.
As pig slaughters take place in the winter season in Hungary, the Palinka is giving some quick start for bearing the winter minuses (about -2 or even -10 degrees Celsius in the mornings of winter days), and may also add some spirit to kill the animal for its meat. When knocking back the Palinka shots, a short blessing is told, usually God-God (Isten – Isten) or a similar
If you take part in a Hungarian style pig slaughter, you can expect to be offered a shot of Palinka too. You can refuse it, but then will lose being part of the whole.
Hunting for the Pig
First of all, the pigs are picked for the slaughter. Typically, mature big pigs are slaughtered (of about 250-300kg), but for the New Year festivities, sucklings, baby pigs are also killed for their tender meat. In an average family farm in Hungary – before the ages of supermarket chains, and expensive pig forage – there used to be about 3-5 pigs on a farm, where the pigs were not kept for selling but for personal use.
When the pig is picked, the pig could easily become upset, and try to escape. Now here comes the chasing part, the black humour of Hungarian pig slaughters.
Killing the Pig in Hungary
Killing the pig was traditionally done with a sharp knife: the pig was first sedated, then stabbed to death in and old hunting style (in the medieval ages pigs were often clubbed to death). There were 3-4 strong men keeping down the pig, a bigger child or teen keeping the tail of the pig, while the butcher (boller – böllér – in Hungarian) would stab the pig chosen for slaughter.
The knives were soon replaced by guns, which made the process of killing a pig more humane, less suffering, fewer unbearable squeals. Then the guns were replaced by shockers (often home made shockers, which still cause accidents), followed by stabbing the knife in the pig.
After killing the pig, the pig is let to bleed. After paralyzing the pig with the shocker, the pig’s neck is slit by the butcher, and the blood starts to spurt out.
But the blood is not just flowing on the ground, it is collected in a bowl, and used for the first feat of the day on the traditional Hungarian pig slaughter.
The morning breakfast is made from blood and sauteed onions (this is the point where I would join the family as a kid, and I can tell you, as barbaric it may sound, fried blood with onions (Sült vér, say ‘shult vhay-r), and fresh bread is yummy, delicious! As I am writing this I all the time envision angry vegetarian readers. Sorry. I am carnivorous, and I am glad that I do not have to do the killing part.).
Not all the blood is eaten right away. Much of the blood is just salted and put away, as it will be used in the Hungarian black pudding, the Veres Hurka (vay-resh hoohr-kah), which is also amazing.
So the blood is collected in a bowl, and the housewife, the women start to prepare the morning blood breakfast, while the men… Well the man stay outside and start to clean the pig.
Cleaning the Pig
In most places, cleaning the pig starts with getting rid of the hairs on the pigskin by using a blowtorch. This has a special smell, like any burning hair, which may put off many people, but the hair must be removed somehow.
As disgusting it is, it is also spectacular and fascinating, and must be done quite thoroughly to make sure no hair remains on the skin, which is also to be re-used.
The skin of the hog is thoroughly blazed, and makes it ready to eat (are you saying ‘Yuck’? We understand).
In the old days, a few decades ago, the scorched skin of the pig was one of the main delicacies of the slaughtering feast.
Kids would be looking forward to gnaw the scorched and cleaned ears of the pig as a meat snack (somewhat like a beef jerky today).
Once the pig skin has been burnt with the blowtorch, the pig is placed on a big plank, then it is cleaned thoroughly with hot water. The hot water makes the skin softer, and with a knife the black skin can easily be cleaned away. These days it is done with a hose, and water pressure, but in the old days, the pig was often put in a tub to be cleaned with hot water (really hot water).
Cutting up the Pig
The clean pig is placed on an A shaped structure by its hind legs hooked to the frame (rémfa in Hungarian). And now comes the cutting. Each country has its traditions of cutting up an animal, even butchers or families may have preferences. But one thing is sure, the bowels are removed first, along with the internal organs, making sure they do not fall to the ground, as they will be reused. The innards are followed by dissecting the head and the fatty skin.
In some places, the pig is cut into pieces along the spine, without cutting the spine itself, in other places the spine is cut into two parts with a sharp hatchet or saw.
Parts of the Pig in Hungary
When the pig has been cut up into bigger chunks, its parts are placed on a clean wooden table for further processing to make ham (sonka), pork chops (karaj is the leaner version from the back, and tarja is the fatty version from the parts of the neck of the pig), ribs (oldalas), bacon (szalonna), shoulder blade i.e. the upper part of the front leg (lapocka) pork knuckle (csülök), hoof (köröm), leg of pork (comb), pig tail (farok), stomach (gyomor – used for something like the Scottish haggis, but in a Hungarian way, called Dagado), etc.
The head of the pig is cleaned (the eyes and the inner ears are not used, but the rest is), and cooked (often used in a cabbage dish called Toros Kaposzta), its meaty parts are used in making the freshly processed pork meats, i.e. the blood and liver puddings and the sausages.
The bacons are made with more fat than in other countries, and the loads of fatty skin is partly fried to make crackling (teperto or toportyu: say te-per-ter).
Some parts of the fat may just be quickly put away for freezing, and used in Hungarian pastries and cakes (rarely done today, as most cakes and pastries are simply made with vegetable oils or butter rather than lard or fat).
Eating Up the Pig: Nose and All
It may come to you as a surprise that hardly anything is thrown away from the pig, almost every little part of it is found fit for consumption in one way or another. Needless to say each part (yes, even the anus, often put into Frankfurters and cold cuts you get cleanly wrapped at grocery stores) is absolutely cleaned and prepared for eating, frying, cooking etc. In other words, as appalling as it may sound to see Hungarians eat all sorts of crap, we all eat all sorts of crap in ready made foods, right?
Now I think one of the most disgusting things I have ever experienced is that I have had to blow the cleaned intestines. I still remember how I hated doing this. I still think this is the worst, most tedious part of the job. Now I feel I deserved this experience as a meat eater.
Yes, again, you heard me well. The bowels of the pig is also reused (for sausages and puddings). The bowels are cleaned – lots of times, with hot water, and also with knife). But the bowels may get holes in them, so somebody has to blow them to make sure the new pork sausages will be perfect. These natural bowels are now often replaced with the ready to be used artificial bowels for filling.
The bones of the pig are also used, cut up and cooked in traditional Hungarian meals like the meat soup, kocsonya, etc.
The sausages and hurka (the Hungarian black pudding and ‘white pudding’ made with rice rather than oatmeal) are also the highlights of the Hungarian Disznooles, when the meats and livers are ground, mixed with lots of spices, from garlic, salt to marjoram and pepper. And lots and lots of Hungarian paprika.
All the ingredients are mixed in a big wooden tub, then filled into the intestines (natural or artificial) with a long nosed filler device. Before filling, the mix is tried, tasted to make sure it is perfect. In some years there are perfect makes, in others excellent, but less perfect.
The sausages, cut up meats, fats, ground meat, hurkas, etc. could fill up a freezer for a family, lasting many months. Real home made flavours. No additional preservatives, colourings, antibiotics and who knows what.
According to Britannica, “The feast is held that night. During the day, bacon, ham, and sausages are prepared for smoking, and guests are invited to the ensuing feast, which is often followed by music and dancing.” Well, all I can say is that I have never heard about dances and partying at the end of a traditional Hungarian Disznotor (Pig killing feast), as everyone was just dead tired by the end of the day, working in unison to pack away the annual pork portions. But there might be some families who throw a party for the sake of guests, who knows?
If you love meat, you will easily get the best freshly made meat dishes of your life at a Hungarian pig killing feast. Apart from the early morning shrieks and the skin burning smell, all in all it is a pleasant communal experience, which is warmly recommended for all meat eaters.