Conversations about Pigs

One year when my brother and I were teenagers my father sent us to Greece in December. The trade-off for going to spend 3 weeks in the village was a few days skiing in Seefeld, Austria. Two years before that my father had taken my brother alone on a winter trip. All I remember from that is the fact that it was so cold in the old stone house with no central heating or fireplace that my father covered my brother with newspapers to keep him warm.

So we arrived in Kakouri for December and as tradition has it we went to visit all the family and friends we knew. At each stop we were given a liqueur to drink accompanied by a rich sweet. Being so cold, the alcohol helped warm me up. It also helped that my brother did not drink, so I had to finish his drinks as well. So by the time we returned home from our rounds I was completely drunk and warm. It also helped that everyone we visited had a wood burning stove in a room they lived in for winter, which was usually held at 40 degrees Celsius. It was terrible coming in from the cold to the hot steamy rooms, shedding layers of clothes and reapplying them before we left.

That year we were invited to a pig slaughter. It had something to do with Old Man Vlachos, but I do not remember as the gory details of the killing blotted out any memories. Being from Africa everyone thought we were the Great White Hunters. So did we, I suppose. This huge pig let out a squeal like a human baby being tortured as its feet were tied together. It knew what was about to happen. A quick slit of the throat and the squeal became blood curdling before it stopped. The village men celebrated with the equivalent of high fives and cut out the larynx and thyroid and started grilling these on a fire on which a huge blackened cauldron was boiling. This was a delicacy, offered first to the visitors. Then they took burning logs and singed the hair, after which they rubbed the blackened white skin down with boiling water to remove the hair. The smell was horrific.

After that they hung the pig by its hind legs from the ubiquitous hook that lived in the rafters of all the buildings on the plots of farmland. They systematically butchered the animal with old wooden handled knives that had been sharpened on a block of stone that looked like it had been taken from the nearby Ancient City of Mantinea’s walls. The liver and kidneys were extracted and the liver was cut into little squares and deep fried. The day was wearing on and this butchery was becoming a full miniature panigiri, or festival. Wine was being passed around. The strong retsina helped wash away all these flavours that were so new to my palate. All I had eaten from a pig before was bacon wrapped in a neat plastic package at the supermarket.

Now I would be happy to spend a few days in the village, without the trade-off of time in an Austrian ski resort.

Sweet offerings at the village

Conversations on Blessings

My father would always say we should count our blessings.

We always had to go to church on St. John’s day, 6 January, when the priest blesses everyone in church with Holy Water from the Epiphany sprinkled with a sprig of Sweet Basil. The heady mix of a summer day in South Africa, incense, candle wax and the Basil mades one feel blessed without any further ado. But kissing the big gold Crucifix in the priest’s left hand while he sprinkled the Holy Water on you head, cooling the day and your thoughts, was the ultimate blessing.

Until he occasionally got confused and made you kiss the wet Sweet basil and sprinkled your head with a heavy gold Crucifix!

Blessings are important in most cultures, but doubly so in Greece and for the Greeks. Any new building or venture needs to be blessed, and the priest is engaged for the engenia. Obviously babies need to be blessed, and important farm animals and vineyards also need blessing. Domestic pets do not feature, but I am sure if the Orthodox had a St Francis he would gladly bless the arrival of a new precious pet.

The first engenia I remember, a sort of roof wetting, was the blessing of the cellar at 45 Kakouri. After the squatters had been moved out and a house built for them in the village at my father’s expense, Number 45 was quite run down. The cellar was a mess of storage and animal waste and was not desirable.

The cellar was cleaned out, the floor was dusted with sawdust and barrels of wine were installed. The grey double doors which were low and forced you to stoop when entering were painted with a fresh coat. The inside walls of rock were painted with whitewash that left a sweet moist aroma, like bread still to be baked. The six cement steps leading down to the cellar had their edges trimmed in the same whitewash. I remember whitewashing the walls once, with a great big wooden brush that allowed you to slosh the limestone mix happily over the dirtied wall. It was quite therapeutic.

Our whole family was present, with both grandmothers, Big and Small Giagia. All the village friends were invited but the main players were the two men who were to become my father’s greatest friends. Old Man Vlachos and Old Man Simbonis. They were both almost twenty years older than my father, but embraced his desire to be part of the village and sprinkled his life with simple wisdom and love.

The evening of the engenia of the cellar arrived and sheep on the pit were brought from Tripolis. Feta and olives were laid out and the newly pressed Retsina barrel was drilled so that a spigot could be inserted after the sudden rush of pink fluid.

The village priest blessed the proceedings, there were speeches and then people ate and danced. They danced and laughed into the early hours of the morning. Old Man Vlachos drank so much he passed out, and they remaining men carried him home in a funeral procession. They laid him in his wife’s outdoor oven, lit candles around him and closed the door.

I am not sure who was more shocked: Dina when she opened the door to bake and found her husband lying there, or the Old Man who woke dry throated surrounded by heavenly candles in the dark?

My Father's First Trip to No 45 Kakouri 1968