Pálinka, Paprika and a Pig in Bácsalmás, Hungary

October 17, 2011 1 Comment

“Can you change your flight to stay a day later?” my friend Gabi emails me from Seattle, “My mom is planning a pig slaughter at her farmhouse in Bácsalmás for the whole family and you’re invited, but it’s on the 2nd.”

travel in hungary

Watercolor Art by Kate Rose Johnson

A pig slaughter? In Hungary? This is why you travel right? Without a second thought, I jumped onto the reservation system and pushed our flight back.  It is only a month later, with our bus rumbling from Budapest deep into the Hungarian countryside almost to Serbia, that I wonder why you would set a date for a pig slaughter, and more importantly, do I want to participate?  I can’t afford to get lost in my thoughts though, or I will end up in Serbia.  None of the bus stops have signs and I can’t understand the bus driver.  After peering nervously out at three previous stops, I think I see  the one she described in an email and get off.  Sure enough, Gabi pulls up a few minutes later in a cold war era contraption and we’re off to her farmhouse.

I have to say, this story should be about goats and not pigs.  I love goats.  It’s a dream of mine to herd goats through Provence like Manon.  I’d read books and eat picnics in the sun, while the goats pranced around.  Gabi’s mom Teri has goats and actually walks them through the Hungarian countryside, milks, and breeds them.  Somehow the French make this seem so romantic, in Hungary it’s really hard work!  Alas, I’m off track.  This story doesn’t end with our fabled walk in the woods bleating and catching up with Gabi and her kids, but with a pig.

The night before the pig’s last day came cold and crisp.  Gabi made sure to put extra wood in the cast iron stove of our bedroom so that we wouldn’t be cold.  Before going to bed she pokes her head in to say, “By the way, wear clothes tomorrow that you don’t mind getting sprayed in blood. Good night!”  I jumped under the thick covers exhausted from the travelling and excitement.  I had put off the decision of whether I’d actually be there or not.  I struggled, as I wanted to experience every bit of life while travelling, but honestly it wasn’t being there that bothered me but having the event recorded in my memory.

I’m a hardcore travel chick and I eat pork, right? Wrong, at 6:30 the alarm goes off.  The fire is out and it’s cooold outside the thick covers.  I start wondering if the pig and I could disguise ourselves and escape to the Serbian border in time.  The pig is wearing Jackie O sunglasses and a handkerchief.  G springs out of bed, hardwired for the “hunt” and sensing internal debate, sweetly tells me not to worry, I was hardcore enough, and to come over a little bit later to help out.

I wake up an hour later feeling fresh and ashamed.  I’m such a wimp!  Quickly throwing on old clothes and splashing water on my face, I step out into the sunlight and take the giant dahlia path to the other farmhouse.  I’m greeted in the garden by the Grandma who beckons me into the kitchen.  ”Oh, how nice!” I think, “I could really use a cup of hot tea.” She grabs a glass bottle and pours me what looks like a shot of clear liquid.  I’m confused for a moment and then remember Gabi telling me stories of her Grandma the bootlegger.  Her grandma distills her own pálinka, an alcohol made from fruit and fabled to be 70 proof.  My heart sinks a little and I feel like I’m a Freshman in college being given a handle to chug.  I tip my head back and the alcohol roars down the back of my throat like a blue flame and I think for a minute that I know what it takes for a rocket to blast off into space.  She smiles wordlessly at me and I smile back and say köszönöm (thank-you), waving off another shot.  We go out to the back of the barn where they’ve got a flame thrower with which they are lightly toasting the pig.  ”It was quick” my G whispers nicely in my ear after saying hello,  before jumping back into the fray  - lunging at the pig and vigorously scrubbing its behind with a brush.  They have finished torching it and are now washing it like a car.  It’s a huge pig, but I’m told it is smaller than usual.

Tavi, Gabi’s mom’s boyfriend is in change.  He’s affable and direct with wood-choppingly broad shoulders and a barrel of an upper-body.  He’s the kind of guy you want on your side, especially if an apocalypse happened and all the modern conventions of life disappeared.  He’d brought his jolly and hardworking adult kids with him and together with Gabi’s family there was quite a crew assembled of serious, blond pig workers.  G was in his element, working, joking and learning something new.

I was shy but the sausage making, ingredients, and cooking implements piqued my interest and drew me out of inaction.  I began to trot back and forth around Tavi taking note of the spices; especially the rich volcanic paprika he was throwing by the fistful into bowls here and there and looking into the various pots as things boiled and hissed.

Tavi is now lording over a large table with the pig medieval style.  He’s got the pig stretched out and is making powerfully deft cutting movements and tossing the pieces here and there.   ”No!” I hear a shriek and yelp and a little scraggly looking dog steals away with a giant pig ear. I giggle to myself, but see it isn’t that funny.  I’m reminded that although this is a fun harvesting event, every bit of that animal will be eaten (except one part I’m to find out).

I look back and see G and Gabi have moved from butchering to getting the intestines ready for sausage making.  They’re blowing from either side of the intestinal lining to check for holes.  Yes, this entails touching your lips to the raw intestines and inflating like a balloon, then again we eat this all the time…

Blood boils, sausages fly and more jet fuel – Pálinka – flows.  I can’t walk straight but I don’t feel drunk, I’ve simply lost my motor skills.  The Hungarians have a word for this called, kerítésszaggató, which means “fence-ripper”.  I could definitely wreck some fences.  It’s 4pm by the time we sit down around a table to eat.  The freezer is full of meat and there are sausages hanging everywhere.  I try the paprika and blood sausage as well as the pork thinking: this is the freshest and most “organic” meat that I’ll ever eat.  True to form, G’s jeans are no longer worn-blue but some awful cave-man color.  This day is why I travel.  To experience life wholly as someone else does, to be challenged, to acquire new skills and knowledge and to be with friends.

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One Comments to “Pálinka, Paprika and a Pig in Bácsalmás, Hungary”
  1. Gabriella Kertesz says:

    Hi Sarah,

    Paul just emailed me your story about Hungary. It’s written so well! I was reliving that day again and laughing about it. We are actually in Hungary again for six weeks, and it seems certain that there will be another pig slaughtering event very soon. We’ll miss you guys!

    This year’s story will be about Oliver’s adventures in the Hungarian school system. It might be very short story. We’ll see.

    Take care,

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