Ibiza History & Culture

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Anthropological View

An Anthropological View
by Kirk W Huffman

Ric com un Verga
Of Pigs and Men on Eivissa/Ibiza
Part Three


Now is the time of the year on Eivissa when pagès eivissenc (Ibicenco peasant) conversation turns to pigs, as readers of my last two articles will have realized. Pigs in general and pigs in particular can be discussed, and the annual matançes (pig-killings) begin to be planned. If one happens to be a tourist at this time of the year, when most tourists have left the island, then don't necessarily assume that the three old men standing on the street corner nearby are talking about the situation in Afghanistan or the possibility of world economic recession, the topic may be much closer to home. One of the most interesting discussions I had here about pigs was at the height of the Gulf War, standing outside the Banco de Credito Balear in San Antonio only a hundred yards or so from the entrance to Es Paradis Terrenal (one of the biggest discotheques on the island) talking with three old pagesos from the hills. The discussion ranged from comparisons of the real island pig (long and low with long snout and black hair) with the relatively recently-introduced large white pig (which has now almost completely displaced the former on the island) to quality of new animal feed ('piensos' in Spanish) available in the local Agricultural Cooperatives to bemoaning the lack of young traditional matançers (pig killers). Sometimes pig debts might come up in such conversations: this would be the time when the traditional Ibicenco men's walking stick, un garrot (also sometimes called un gayatu, a term slightly closer to the Castillano 'una gajata') could come into its ritual use. It is very rare now to see an Ibicenco with a garrot, although one still occasionally sees one being held by very elderly men inland, and most traditional houses inland have one or two 'hidden' somewhere.

A garrot is made from a young thin type of 'sabina' pine tree, cut to about one metre in length. The thin tapering branches are mostly cut off, each leaving a slightly pointed base. These points, called ses punches in Eivissenc language (an early and rare sub-dialect of eastern Catalan, but with other linguistic influences in it) are an important part of garrot decoration. One or two of the thin tapering branches are left nearly untouched and are gently twistingly trained around the walking stick along its length. The bark is carefully scraped from stem and branches and the new garrot is left gleamingly white. After years of carrying, the garrot takes on a beautiful yellowish-brown shiny patina, much admired by 'garrot- connoisseurs'. The thin tapering branches that gently twine around the walking stick are particularly important. During discussions such as the one mentioned above one might see an old man quickly 'untie' one of the small branches (its base still attached to the walking stick's stem) and almost playfully and gently 'whip' one of the other men with it. This action would indicate that the 'whippee' owed the 'whipper' some form of debt, probably to do with pigs if that was the topic of the discussion, although such 'whipping' could indicate the owing of any kind of debt. Although almost any pagès male could make a garrot, some specialized in making them, but very few are made today. One of the last of the specialized garrot-makers in the western coastal area of the island died a few years ago aged in his mid-1990s.

Other topics of discussion could be the quality of the/sa matançera (also known as sa cutxilla matançera), the pig-killing knife. The traditional island-made (by hand) matançera, with beautiful traditional designs stamped along the blade, is, of course, much preferred to modern imported varieties, although the hand-made ones are now quite rare.

There is quite a long build-up to the actual pig killing. Everything must be perfectly pre-prepared and ready. Traditionally the male pagès head of the household and his eldest son would make a special trip to Vila (Ibiza town) to purchase the required peppers, salt, spices and nyinyol (particular thread for tying up the sobressades, botifarres and botifarrons) necessary for the making of the preserved food from the pig(s). Up until the 1950s, and later in some areas, this trip could be a major undertaking for some families: roads were few and far between and transport was usually by horse and cart. Going from isolated Sa Coruna (Sant Agnès) in the Northwest of the island to Vila in the Southeast was like crossing the whole world. Sometimes these trips would take several days, the family at home eagerly awaiting the voyagers' return with adventurous stories from their trip. Some 'adventures', of course, could not be told: up until the late 1950s there were at least two traditional brothels (neither containing Ibicencan women, that would cause too many local problems) in Ibiza town, one famous one being in the Calle de La Virgen. One was in a building owned by the Catholic Church (annual rent paid for the building produced the delightful 'Money received for charcoal delivered' receipt). Of course I am not saying these were regularly visited by pagesos on their annual visits to Vila to purchase the pre-requisites for matançes, I am just saying they existed. Interestingly enough, these two brothels were closed down by the authorities in 1959 around the time of the opening of the first airfield on the island. With tourism in its early stages, it seems the authorities felt the existence of these two 'cultural institutions' might give the island a bad name: in retrospect this is slightly comical as, according to some people who know the island well, much of the whole island has been turned into a vast 'bordello' during the summer season over the last few decades!

Red peppers were or are used in the preparation of the famous sobrassades, giving them their renowned colour. Traditionally the red peppers are toasted or split and dried in the sun (I saw a large batch drying in the sun outside a casa pagesa (peasant house) near Sa Coruna (Sant Agnès) just last Sunday) and are then crushed into powder. For many years though, packets of pre-dried and powdered red peppers have been available in Eivissa. Pagèsos are slightly more wary about what packet brand they buy now as there was a major disaster in 1997. Pre-packed packets from Mallorca of a special 'pimiento rojo' and 'pimiento molido' mix have sold for years, Mallorcan peppers supposedly being preferred over local ones by Ibicencos for this purpose. However, there was something definitely wrong with the late 1997 mix: Sobrassades made with this mix lost their reddish colour after a few months. Nobody here wants to eat a non-reddish, slightly whitish sobrassada (even though it might taste the same), and people here were furious. Sardonic joking stories circulated regarding another attempted plot by Mallorca to destroy Ibicenco culture (as such alleged plots have been going on for centuries this was not considered unusual) and certain tempers became hot. Such a disaster might be hard for the British to understand, but put it this way, if you were from the north of England and found out that the French had secretly found out a way to turn steak and kidney pie green, or to turn chips pink, how would you feel? In the old days people often went to war for less. The fact that numerous mallorquins (Mallorcans) got caught in the same way did nothing to lessen the anger.

Nowadays one can also buy the pre-packed spices that are to be mixed with the powdered peppers, making life a lot easier, but traditionally each family might have had (and some still have) their own secret herb and spice mix which would make their sobrassades the best on the island (and, by connotation, the world).

Whilst the household head and eldest son were in Vila purchasing necessities, the women would be making other preparations. Bundles of brushwood/kindling of sweet-smelling ginebre or argelaga would have been gathered from the forest (often by men): bundles of this would be/are used to singe the pig once killed. On the neighbouring small island of Formentera, where such bushes are rarer, frigoles and aubada were/are gathered. Bundles of the white estepa ('jarra blanca' in Castillano) plant were gathered in preparation for scrubbing the pig-killing board and the various tables and benches to be used. Estepa is a very useful plant, and most old houses have quite a plentiful supply growing nearby. It is a natural antiseptic and cleanser and one can work up soapy foam with it when mixed with water and used as a scrubber - ideal for daily cleaning of kitchenware and the annual matança requisites. In many households this has now sadly been replaced by Fairy liquid or similar detergents, which may unfortunately not be so biodegradable. Estepa is also the traditional local toilet paper, hygienic to use (and completely biodegradable), but one has to remember to wipe with it the correct way, otherwise it can be slightly scratchy (!). On Formentera barrombi or sàlvia plants could also be used for the cleaning and scrubbing. Other bundles of firewood are prepared, as on the day of the matançe a large cauldron must be kept on the boil all day to prepare the botifarres and botifarrons.

The great day approaches. Many of those invited to the matança - and each will have their own work to do - arrive the day beforehand to stay overnight as it is an early start the next morning. If the day happens to be a school day, the children are allowed to stay away from school (although not all children in rural areas went to school much until circa the 1950s). The pig is not given any food from at least the day beforehand so that its 'lower interior extremities' will be easier to clean. The banc de matar (pig-killing board or bench) is cleaned and scrubbed ready. I had promised last week to speak more about pigs in Europe, etc, in general, but as our Editor, Gary Hardy, has prepared some preliminary matança photographs to go with this week's article, I thought it best to at least get the banc de matar cleaned and ready *!

With thanks to many Ibicenco friends and especially Doña Rita and also Bartolomé Ribas Ribas and also acknowledgements to the work of Marià Torres Torres.

* If any of you reading this happens to be one of those English 'suppliers' that annually swamp the discotheques of this island with Ecstasy (or whatever) and you have been confronted by an old Ibicenco peasant whom you thought was telling you that your 'bank was ready', don't assume that means that your bank is waiting for a large deposit. What he was trying to tell you was that your 'banc de matar' was ready, i.e. a relatively polite way to say that it was probably about time that you rather rapidly left the island.


All pictures © Gary Hardy (December 1992)

Kirk W Huffman