In our modern world full of iPods, automatic washing machines, and factories where a cow walks in one end and hamburgers — complete with mustard and pickles — comes out the other, it’s a rare treat to witness something crafted entirely by hand. Whether it’s a perfectly tuned C.F. Martin guitar or a delicately spiced and succulently fatty smoked sausage, the type of care and love that goes into hand-crafted goods is chiefly a dying art. Which is precisely why when I had the chance to document the still-common practice called koline at my girlfriend Alenka’s aunt’s farmhouse in rural Slovenia, close to the Austrian border, I jumped at the opportunity.
note: the photos in this story are, of course, of a large animal being carved up for food. There’s nothing here you wouldn’t see in any butcher shop, but if animal parts and blood makes you squeamish, you may want to pass on this story!
In America, we don’t even have a word for this. Or maybe we do, but this city-boy has certainly never heard it. In Slovene, koline is the day-long activity, once considered a family holiday, starting in the early morning when the animal’s breath is still visible on the cool air, of slaughtering the pig, skinning it, slicing away the layers of fat and disassembling the animal with the precision of a skilled watchmaker, laying out each component in perfect symmetry to later be evolved into an eventual meal, ultimately crafting the tasty morsels that most of us simply walk into the local grocery store and plunk down our hard-earned dollars for the privilege of eating.
My morning started mercifully with “accidentally” missing the actual slaughter. I’m told the sounds heard on those early mornings are best experienced with earplugs firmly in place, and since posting photos of that would be a guaranteed way to lose half my readership, we took our time arriving to the farmhouse and pulled in just as the already guillotined swine was laying prone on the hundred-year old hand-made koza, (koza actually translates to “goat”, but is essentially a wooden autopsy table), leather skin spread back to form a tarp for the day’s proceedings, and the first layer of fat about to be pierced by the delicate scalpel of a skilled surgeon—in this case, said instrument being an 8” blade and the surgeon, a hired butcher from the next house over who would single-handedly deconstruct this 500 pound animal over the course of the day. The butcher, it’s worth noting, is the same butcher who has always carved for this family. A Slovenian family, on the day of koline, will always use the same artisan, and wouldn’t dream of hiring another if theirs wasn’t available.
It’s remarkable just how much fat is on a pig of this size. The outer layer of blubber seemed more suited to an animal who spends its days in the freezing arctic — that dynamited beached whale video on YouTube comes to mind — than one who lounges in the mud and hay talking to spiders all day long. But I suppose that should be a lesson to us all—if you want to know what happens when you spend your days on the couch eating slop, here’s your evidence! As the first layer was cut away, in massive, War and Peace tome-size bricks, they were transported in buckets to a cauldron of fiercely boiling water; a child-sized metal barrel sitting over an enclosed wood fire pit, designed for maximum heat conduction and easy cleaning. In this vat, the hunks of fat are boiled for various uses. From the boiled fat they can separate the pure lard, a rendered and clarified fat that will be used for cooking (like oil). Once drained, what remains are brown, pea-sized granules called ocvirki that will be used in dishes like potatoes and eggs, or even spread on bread. Some fat is simply boiled to purify it, then cooled, ground and salted, becoming something called zaseka, and used to store some of the sausages in, in large metal containers called kibla, and also may be spread on bread, usually topped with onions or garlic. Finally some of the fat goes straight from the pig to the freezer to chill it, making it easier to chop into tiny cubes to mix into the sausage later.
The fat is an incredibly important part of this process and as you can see, has many, many uses. And if you think that’s not healthy, go ahead and ask any gramma from the Midwest who lived through the depression—they all cooked with lard and wiped bacon fat off the iron pan with their fingers, lapping it up. This fat is pure and clean — no preservatives, just lard and salt — and amazingly delicious.
Once past this shiny white layer, the pure pink meat of the animal is revealed. The surgeon deftly slices away, removing piece after piece, layer after layer, splaying the components on the table in mirrored pairs.
Internal organs are removed, some saved, some discarded—with particular care taken to removing the bitter gall bladder from the liver without puncturing it before the liver is inspected to judge the general health of the pig, then hung to drain and often cooked up for a snack during koline. The intestines from this actual animal aren’t used to make the sausages; apparently it’s quite tedious to clean and ready them, so it’s easier to just buy a handful of already-prepared intestines from the market and use those.
I should mention that during the course of the day, we stopped three times for meals. The first was simply a late breakfast of sausage, no doubt created several months before during the last koline. Lunch was massive (the midday meal is typically the largest in Slovenian culture), and included, along with the soup, salad, potatoes and chicken, a pile of salty, freshly roasted dark cut from today’s exercise. The meat was thick and gamey, with a freshness to it unlike any pork I’ve had before. Not everyone is a fan of fresh swine, as it definitely has a stronger flavor than ham that’s been cured, but I’m a quite fond of game meat so thoroughly enjoyed it. The third meal came at the end of the day, and still barely able to walk after lunch, we were fortunately able to make our exit before gaining another pound or two.
Once the beast’s skin had been liberated completely from its innards, it was folded up like a wet blanket and unceremoniously discarded. Apparently back in the day, the skin could be sold to a tanner who’d turn it into leather, but now its value isn’t worth the time or effort required.
The next task at hand was to make the sausages. Two types would be made today; the primary would be with the good meat and fat, formed into dozens of links, some to be hung to dry, smoked and cured, or boiled and preserved. The second would use the head meat and offal from the animal, mixed with a gelatin and squeezed into plastic tubes to set—head cheese. Something revered by the older generation, but suffice it to say I saw a lot of sour faces among the under-50’s as this was being prepared!
A variety of cuts of pork were fed into the grinder, even this processed manually by the muscles of tens of thousands of revolutions turned over the years. To the pork was added some already-ground beef that the butcher had brought along, undoubtedly from the previous days work. A huge metal bowl held the mixed meat, waiting for the fat and spice.
Meanwhile, Alenka and her aunt Marjetka prepared the fat for the sausage. The slabs that had earlier been set in the freezer to harden were removed, and they set to dicing stacks and stacks of the pure white stuff into tiny cubes. Eventually bowls of cubed fat were dumped into the huge mixing bowl full of meat, where it was aggressively mixed by the bare-handed, blood-splattered butcher. Once the meat and fat were well blended, the matriarch of the house brought in the spice.
I should pause here to talk a bit about grandma, her place in the household, and her overseeing eye on the day’s proceedings. In rural Slovenia, the family traditions of where family members live is quite simple. If you have a son, he will live with you forever, eventually taking over and inheriting the family business — a business that would likely be pigs or cattle, apple orchards, or vineyards and the winery — and as is the case with many farms, they’ve been more than one of these over the generations. And when he marries, the wife will move in with you. If you have a daughter, she’s expected to marry and move in with her husband and his family. This process repeats itself, and so most houses will have three or even four generations living in them at any given time. If a family outgrows their space, and can afford to do it, they will build another house for the younger generation to live in. That house will likely be on the same land, a stone’s throw from the first. Most of these farms and orchards are on land that has been in the same family for many, many generations, having been handed down over the years from the original settlers. These are families and lands throughout Slovenia that have stood the test of time through occupation and war with Italy and German-led Austria, became communist Yugoslavia after the second world war and until 1991, when the Slovenian people waged war with their own government and gained their independence and finally their own country. In 2004, Slovenia joined the European Union, and in 2008 were awarded the Schengen status, at which point the guarded border posts along the Slovenian border to Austria and Italy were emptied. Today you can walk freely between countries, as we often did wandering the back roads behind these farms; just 18 months ago you needed a passport to do that, and 18 years ago you’d likely have been shot for trying. How times have changed.
Which brings us back to grandma, the matriarch who has lived through it all. She calls the shots in this home. All of them. Is the test-pork ready to come out of the oven? Ask grandma. Is the fat done rendering? Yes—but better ask grandma. And when the butcher added a tiny handful more pepper to the ground mass of meat and fat than grandma had prescribed, 70-year old hands were thrown in the air in the way only a 70-year old matriarch can, and curses of “if the sausage is ruined, it’s your fault” trailed in the air behind her as she stomped back into the house. But far be it from me to question the wisdom of 70 years of sausage making!
So the spices went in—salt, pepper, cumin, nutmeg, and garlic water. Again, the butcher churned the mixture with his bare hands, ensuring even distribution of all the flavors. As a final test before the sausages could be stuffed, a dollop of meat was put on the stove and cooked up for tasting. And it was sublime. An exquisite blend of fresh pork and beef and spices, salty and fatty and completely delicious. Actually the family determined it needed a little more of this, and a bit more of that, and finally the meat was ready to get stuffed.
The intestine that is used is deceptively long; an incredibly thin and strong membrane that at one point held, well, we all know what our innards are for. And if you don’t, I don’t recommend choosing now to look it up. This barely-a-handful of skin is carefully slipped over the ejector tube of the sausage grinder, and in a blatantly phallic gesture, is stretched and twisted onto the rounded steel shaft by the butchers gruff hands. I was probably the only one in the room holding back a snicker. Americans. Sheesh.
Alenka took on the task of rotating the grinder, something my shoulders would’ve surely cried uncle on long before hers did. Cranking and cranking and cranking away, while the butcher expertly filled the engorged intestine, never letting it split and perfectly coiling it into the most lusciously long sausage you’ll never see in a store. Once full, he pushed a sharp stake through the open end and twisted it closed, measured a link, twisted it over folding it back on itself, finally closing the loop with another twisted puncture on the opposite end. Like James Bond deftly and emotionlessly doing away with a tired villain, the butcher rendered sausage after sausage, dropping them into a bin where they awaited their fate.
The head cheese sausage, called tlačenka, was assembled even more quickly. Bits of meat from the head and offal were cooked and then ground in the same hand-crank grinder, but deposited into a bowl where it was mixed with a liquid gelatin, then pumped with a massive syringe into plastic tubular bags. Once the gelatin has set, the plastic skin will be removed for serving, and the gelatinous cylinder sliced and served—to the few who will partake!
Very little of the animal went to waste today, and the delicious results of koline will be immensely enjoyed by the three generations in this household, and any of their friends or family fortunate enough to find a place at their dinner table—yours truly included.