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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 One



Certain readers overseas (in fact the majority of them) who may have come to Eivissa before as tourists or are planning a trip here might be slightly surprised about this week's topic, the first of another series. Suffice it to say, though, that even if you have visited the island many times in the past but have never heard of the importance of pigs in traditional pagès Eivissenc (Ibicenco peasant) culture then it is safe to say than you have not yet touched the real Eivissa. The fact that a tourist driving his or her rentacar along some of the more rural unpaved roads near inhabited peasant areas of the island may commonly see herds of sheep, less commonly herds of goats, but never any pigs, does not mean that pigs do not exist here nor that pigs are not a part of the traditional culture. Exactly the opposite - pigs are of great culinary and cultural importance here, but form a part of the ancient island culture that tends to hide itself from outsiders, and it still does so today. Pigs tend to be kept hidden, a normal situation for objects of great value: the local population has learnt, after over 2000 years of the island being raided from outside for its wealth - including pigs, gold and women - that a 'low profile' is best kept with these items.

The Eivissenc language saying in the title, "Ric com un verga", refers back to wealth based upon pigs. It could be translated, I suppose, as meaning, "As rich as a Rockefeller", or as Croesus or as Bill Gates or whoever. In Eivissa the term 'verga' refers to a small whip, usually a 60cm or so long twig from an olive tree, used to gently whip along one's pigs or one's horse as a prompter or a guide. The original Joan March, from Palma in Mallorca, the founder of the wealthy dynasty that founded the Banco March (March Bank) that for several generations has had branches on the island of Mallorca and on Eivissa (originally only in Vila/Ciutat Eivissa/Ibiza Town), amassed his first fortune through the judicious manipulation of the local pig market. As a Mallorcan peasant youth he was regularly seen bringing pigs to the market in Palma, and controlling them adroitly with his 'verga'. As his wealth grew, so did his fame, spreading across the waters to Eivissa where pigs played a greater cultural role in an island with fewer resources than Mallorca.

The typical porc eivissenc (Ibicenco pig) was a beautiful creature, with fine black hair and a long 'furga' (snout). This long 'furga' was particularly useful for 'snuffling' or 'truffling' out the delicious bulbs of the plant of the same name. These bulbs, growing a few inches underground from the plant's base, were the pig's favourite food. Unfortunately these fine black-haired pigs are almost non-existent on Eivissa today, although some are still kept and bred on the neighbouring small island of Formentera. The reason for their relatively recent disappearance on Eivissa is due to a slight misunderstanding over the exaggerated value of different types of pigs available from the Spanish mainland. The black-haired pigs were widespread on Eivissa until the 1950s but by that time the island's isolation was beginning to break down, slightly more money was beginning to circulate, and it was then possible (or more easy) to import different types of pigs from the Spanish mainland. The island began avidly importing large white pigs, a commoner variety and one, which fattens up more easily. This breed - and others - rapidly replaced the traditional variety and a smaller red-haired variety. Islanders thought this would produce a 'pig boom', but older pagès now recognize that this change may not necessarily have been for the better. It was a change of 'quantity over quality' - common throughout the world. For those old enough to remember eating the local variety, the former meat and products were tastier than those from imported pigs and their new descendants. The long black-haired pig's meat was firmer and sweeter. Some were bred specifically on Formentera for selling to Eivissa. In the typical Eivissa way, this led to a certain amount of 'pig smuggling' between Formentera and Eivissa, either to avoid 'pig taxes' that might be imposed by the 'Senyors de Vila' ('the masters from the Town') as the rural pagesos rather disparagingly called those Ibicencos traditionally from Ciutat Eivissa, or to avoid a ban on pig transport if swine fever had been confirmed in the islands. The pigs were smuggled by fast boat at night from Formentera to Eivissa (it is said sometimes the boats hid on L'illa des Porcs - 'Pig island' - one of the numerous small islands in between Formentera and Eivissa until there was an easy moonlit night-time run to the southern Eivissa coast. Once reaching the coast some of the pigs would be hidden in special caves where they would be well fed until sold. This would all be considered illegal by the 'Senyors de Vila' but it was a time-honoured tradition that inspired songs and brave deeds - and lasted well into living memory. I was very pleased to meet, in 1991, the last of the 'Contrabandistas des porcs' (pig smugglers), a man proud of coming from a lineage of such dashing 'businessmen-adventurers'.

On Eivissa, pigs are not just pigs; they have a cultural value above and beyond their nutritional value, although the preponderance of nutrition from pigs far outweighed meat from other sources on the island until very recently. In 1995, Josep Antoni Tur Marí published his important study on the evolution of local cooking in the 20th century: around 1900 he estimates that 68% of meat consumed on Eivissa was from pigs, that figure rising to 75% on Formentera. The rest would have been from sheep, goats, chickens, hunted birds and hares. There were, of course, no cattle on either island. These figures would have remained relatively stable until the 1950s. He notes that 23-25% of this was fresh pig meat. This percentage would be considered normal by any Ibicenco but might be thought slightly unusual by readers from, say, England, where more 'fresh' meat from pigs might be eaten. But the traditions on Eivissa are different. Here, pigs are only killed at a certain time of the year and the majority of products from the pig are traditionally processed in such a way that they will then provide the main protein source for an extended family for a whole year. This is not to say that 'bacon' (which, combined with beans, sausages, fried eggs and white toast provide the mainstay 'Full English Breakfast served all day' for daring English culinary explorers to San Antonio) or 'ham' form a traditional part of the diet - no, that is from the mainland. Most of the pig was used to produce the traditional Eivissenc forms of the sausage-like preserves so beloved of pagès eivissenc in former times and today: sobrassada, botifarro and botifarra. We will savour these delicacies in a later article. Here I want to concentrate more on the pigs themselves.

Most pigs on Eivissa today are still raised in a relatively traditional matter - and that is why tourists driving around the island hardly ever see them. The pigs raised to eventually provide pagès with the preserved protein source for the year are raised within special stone huts (often now constructed of concrete blocks) and normally no-one outside the members of the owner's extended family will see them. Each family guards well the secrecy of the type and size of the pig(s) which it is fattening up for the annual matança (pig-killing) due to take place during February or March each year, the cool season. Ses matançes are the most important traditional annual rituals for the pagès population of the island, the only annual event that groups together each whole extended family, in the family house, re-establishing family ties with those who may now be living on the coast or in Vila/Ciutat Eivissa. 'Richer' pagès families might have two cycles of matançes per year, the first taking place during a two-week period in November, when a pig would be killed to provide fresh meat over the winter season - and also to make preserves. The second matança cycle in February or March provide more preserved proteins and the collection of the animal fats, etc, so necessary for cooking purposes. These traditional in-house matançes, although not as common as before, still occur regularly, and still serve their ancient function of promoting extended family solidarity and identity as well as providing culturally important food. Such rituals are still such an integral part of peasant life here in the islands that the official announcement of the beginning of the annual matançes season was even broadcast on the local Baleares islands TV news on 14th November 1999.

The preferred pig for a matança to take place in a pagès house is a male pig, although female pigs can sometimes be killed. There are culinary and cultural difficulties with female pigs, however, as the fact that they have monthly periods ("Se va de lluna"), like women, poses certain problems. Ibicenco peasant women do not work in the fields, nor cook, nor paint houses (another traditional female activity) during the time they have their periods. This type of prohibition is almost universal in traditionally oriented societies around the world and it is not to be seen as a form of 'backwardness'. Most societies around the world have - or had (our Euro-American societies have 'lost it') - such a series of prohibitions to do with female periods. Although certain 'modern' academics or writers or scientists might say there is no reason for such a type of prohibition, they often do so on purely theoretical grounds, possibly never having thought to look seriously into the topic. Producers of computers have, though, which is why women working manually on aspects of computer chip etching production in the computer factories are either not allowed to do their work whilst they have their periods or have to wear special gloves. In Eivissa, if a female pig ('sa truja') is killed for a matança, she is not killed during the time of her period - pagèsos know only too well that meat or products from a female pig killed during her period can have a bad smell and an acrid taste, that it is difficult to drain the blood from the pig's corpse and that the resulting meat is itself too bloody. Therefore the killing of a truja is only done anywhere from two to nine days after the period has finished - different areas of Eivissa have slightly different time scales, some areas waiting two to three days, some a week and some nine days. Moreover, during the matança itself, no Eivissenc woman who has her menstruation, 'sa mala setmana', will touch the pig or anything to do with it.

Pigs raised for a matança are daily given special food: types of traditional flour, fava beans, dried figs, cactus figs, etc., to make their meat sweet and to help them put on as much weight as possible. Other pigs, usually females reserved solely for breeding purposes, are just fed scraps. Nowadays Ibicencos can buy 'piensos', animal food from their local Agricultural Co-operative stores, to feed their precious pigs - and most now do so - but they acknowledge that although this is easier than providing the traditional diet for their matança pigs, the culinary results are not as good. They say 'piensos' make the meat and pig products blander and softer. Some of the matança pigs grow to an enormous size. Next week we will approach their stone/cement bloc hut and try and bring one out. You will be surprised.

With thanks to numerous Eivissenc friends - and pigs - and to the work of Marià Torres i Torres.

Copyright© Gary Hardy (December 1991)

Kirk W Huffman