Thursday, 30 December 2010

Finish a crate on Christmas Day? Well, if I have to...

Christmas day arrived and I must confess I woke up a bit misty headed. This probably had something to do with the amount of beer drank on Christmas Eve, and the fact we were playing cards until 2am on Christmas morn.

Unfortunately my 2 and a half year old son Daniel did not wake up misty headed. Instead he woke up with his usual exubrance despite not really knowing what Christmas was. He laughed and shouted for about 10 minutes before he noticed his carefully wrapped new skateboard lying on the floor.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Is Christmas still Christmas without decorations?

I'm always aware when typing these blog posts that there's a good possibility I pass inappropriate sweeping statements on the whole of Brazil based on my experience in one relatively small city. This may be true, but I like to think that at least my experiences here give some indication as to what the rest of Brazil is doing at any one given point in time.

With that disclaimer of sorts now out of the way, lets talk about Christmas!

I will be honest and say that to me without cold weather it just doesn't seem like the season to be jolly. Here it is hot and clammy and not very Christmassy at all. The missus rained scorn on me when I told her this  as for her it doesn't seem like Christmas when it is cold.

But it's not just the weather here that makes the season less festive. If I look down the street we live on, or even go down to the lake, there is not one house with decorations on. In fact the only place there are decorations is on the high street where all the shops are. In an effort to try and show these to you I went on a late night photo spree (despite the very unfestive man standing outside a shoe shop with a big 'hitting' stick attached to his wrist). Unfortunately the battery was dead before I started though. Nevertheless I had my trusty Vado on me and managed to video these somewhat meager decorations despite looking like a complete prat.

Very jolly indeed eh? The only house that I have seen with decorations was someone who was relatively wealthy. They had a fake Christmas tree and some angels about. Still it was at least a start. I assumed from this that decorations were solely for people with a bit of money and possibly more of a prestige thing.

Even on TV (although I am by no means fluent in Portuguese) there doesn't seem to be much acknowledgement of Christmas. There are no carols, no one seems to mention it, and it is only today that I have noticed that the kids programs have some decorations on it. There wasn't any build up, they've only just arrived now. Where's the excitement in that?

Maybe it's because Christmas day seems less important here. Christmas Eve is the major festive day in most Catholic countries as far as I'm aware. This is because the actual coming of the 'Lord' is deemed more important than him actually arriving. I guess it is somewhat similar to an excited kid at Christmas - the excitement of getting a toy is far better than recieving it as after a while you just get bored of it anyway. The three kings, the shepherds, Mary and Joseph must have thought when there wasn't an angelic choir singing, or an incandescent light flowing forth from Mary's nether regions as the baby Jebus popped out 'oh... that was a bit of a let down... it's just a baby... let's not forever remember this in the annals of history'.

That little diversion aside in which I blasphemed about the nativity, Christmas Eve is a time when all the family gets together and has a party. They stay up late drinking beer and cachaca, listening to music, and generally having a good time. It's nice. Tonight we're having among other things the delectable Chica Doida which is mostly sweetcorn, mozzarella, and calabreza sausage. We will be staying up until 12am when we can welcome in Christmas Day.

I guess that there are reasons for all of these things. Namely because there are probably better things to spend money on then decorations and festivity. Although Brazil is in no way similar to their poverty stricken, military ruled days in the 80's, the culture of saving the money for something else does not seem to have changed. I know that in some other cities here they do make a big thing of the decorations (Sao Paolo and Rio), but they're cities with money. Here in Quirinopolis I can perfectly understand that they may want to be a bit more spendthrift about things and fix a road instead. Without sounding too cheesy, people here love the company of other people. There is rarely a moment when you don't see people talking to their neighbours, and indeed you rarely see anyone listening to personal stereos in the street (I suspect this is because Brazilians would much rather share their music and not exclude anyone). In this sense, to Brazilians Christmas is probably more about the people you have around you and just having a good time regardless of the presents and the decorations.

That said however, for me it is still less magical and more like a normal day, but I guess each to their own. Who knows, maybe in time Brazil will start to lose their culture towards spending money on decorations as the gap between the rich and the poor decreases and the economy continues to boom. But until that time Christmas here will continue in the spirit of the people.

Merry Christmas to all and to all those in Europe with snow, you lucky, lucky bastards.

Bah Humbug.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Things you shouldn't do on a farm...

Don't trust this man on your tractor... Seriously...
In general working on the farm is pretty much the same day in and day out. You wake up, milk cows, feed cows, have breakfast, feed the rest of the animals, fill the troths in all the fields with salt, come back for lunch, sleep, and then go and milk cows again. Obviously there are one or two cacha├ža breaks in there too. However there have been one or two memorable moments for me, and by this I mean one or two hiccups. Surely not? I hear you ask, but as Cristina has recently told me, I am a 'destructive' person (I'm sure she missed out the preceeding 'self-' by accident) and therefore it was bound to happen.

Of course we all know of my disappointing misdemeanour’s on my first day at the farm, but that pretty much turned out to be the tip of the iceberg.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Milking cows - an expose...

I like milking cows.

Despite the 3:30am starts and my fingers being so swollen now that I can no longer wear my wedding ring there's something enjoyable about it. It's not the fact I'm groping cow's teets all day that does it, I think it is because it is like squeezing a stress ball for 5 hours a day.

I may wake up barely able to move my fingers in the morning, but when the first cow comes mooing to me and the milk starts flowing I soon forget the pain. I've managed to beat my four a day habit and am now managing to milk 14 a day without any problems. The most I've managed in two hours was nine and a half (for some reason they didn't want me to finish the last one all by myself - it was probably because I was starting to look like Ozzy Osbourne with my DT) - they seemed impressed with that.

Contrary to what I believed before I had ever milked a cow, it is not simply moving your hand up and down which produces a torrent of white liquid, it is more of a clenching motion. Imagine rolling your fingers down at each joint and then pressing into the palm of your hand as hard as possible whilst moving up and down. It is something like this. You can feel your triceps tense with each squeeze, and the tendons in your wrists start to ache as the morning or afternoon goes on.

Mind you not all cows are equal. There are a wide variety of different teets, some are long and thin (usually very easy), some are small and thin (ridiculously difficult especially if you have big hands), some are thick and long (a little bit tough, but not too bad - the downside is you usually end up with blisters on your index fingers), and those that are thick and small (once again extremely difficult). The amount of cows with superfluous nipples when compared to humans is quite astonishing. It is not unusual for them to have more five or six teets sometimes. Obviously these teets don't work and are generally just there to throw you off your stroke (so to speak you filthy minded individuals). Some of the teets produce a constant flow of frothy milk that comes up and splashes you in the face when it hits the bucket while others produce a fine stream of the white stuff which leaves you straining over the bucket for a good half an hour. Some are tough to milk and others aren't - you can rarely tell before you get a grip on them.

But in general cows are nice creatures anyway (not their ugly male counterparts however). It always reminds me a little of hometime at a boarding school when I head down to the milking pen as the Bezerros (baby cows - amended spelling to be correct now...) are kept separately all day and this is the only time they get to see their mums. The mums enter the pen (with a bit of coercion and Michael Jackson) and after they have chilled out a bit start to moo to their children. I've realised that they've got several different kind of moos. There is the more commonly known 'moo' which just seems to be something they do in their own time, there is the grunting 'moo' which seems to be when they are calling for their children, and of course the more sultry 'moo' to try and coax the bull into only having eyes for her. Once we decide to milk a cow we let the bezerro out of its pen and watch it try to find its mother - it generally knows who it is (apart from one cow which tries to feed from every cow much to their annoyance). Once found, we let it suckle a small amount of milk (there's obviously a fine line between feeding the children and letting them drink your profits) before tying a rope around its neck and tying it to its mothers front legs. We then tie up the mother's back legs so she can no longer move. Once this is done she is powerless to stop us having our wicked way with her. The bezerros always call to their mum's. It's quite sweet in a way.

My ability to tie up these hefty heffers is getting better and better. I can tie a slipknot round their ankles and the babies' mouths faster than they can run away from me (just the way I like it). Once I have done the deed and let them run away from me the filthy creatures.

Whilst my opinion of cows has gone up highly through waking up to them every morning, my opinion of chickens has gone down rapidly. I see them every day scrabbling through cow shit and urine eating it and gobbing it down. They're horrible animals.

On the subject of bovine excretions, I am slowly getting used to being covered in cow poo. The worst moments come however when you are tying up their hind legs and you suddenly see their tail lift up in the air. Then you know you're in trouble - you're either going to be on the receiving end of some fecal matter or a golden shower. Not sure which is better. There have been times when I've run away like a girl I must be honest. Every day when I come home Cristina quickly orders me to have a shower and leave my clothes outside. It's odd I can't smell any difference, I'm probably used to being surrounded by it all day.

On average we fill about 500 litres a day by hand three of us milking together day in and day out. Every day I try to beat the amount of cows I did the day before and love to milk those dirty cows more and more. We fill up 50 litre urns through a filter which skins off the cream from the top which we then put in a bowl and give to the cats and dogs - possibly where the phrase 'the cat that got the cream' came from. Maybe not, but it's a nice thought.

At the end of the day to some up my opinions of milking cows:

If there's no shake in your milk you're doing it wrong.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Mata vaca

It was a lazy Sunday afternoon when we all made the short walk down to the farm. There were seven of us in total – Carlinho (father-in-law), Cristina, Daniel, Ed Carlos (brother-in-law), Euda (mother-in-law), Shinayda (sister-in-law), and me. Carlinho was holding his rifle and Euda was carrying seven knives as we met Mauricio the farmhand (also an in-law) outside the farm. He saddled up his horse whilst Ed Carlos saddled up the stubborn pony and they both set off to bring back the bull we were to kill. It was an odd sight as Ed is just over six feet tall, and Mauricio is about five foot seven – it looked like they had gotten their steeds mixed up.

As they trotted off to the farthest field we hung around the milking pen and started to sharpen the knives. We tested their edge by hacking into a nearby tree and seeing whether they stuck. It wasn't long until we saw Ed and Mauricio trotting back with four cows and a yellowy brown bull in front of them. I could tell the bull wasn't fully matured, but it was of a good size – it look like a young adult to my untrained eye. Carlinho and I opened the milking pen to let them all inside. With a bit of coaxing and smacking of rumps they were there and Carlinho grabbed his lasso and entered the pen with them. This was where we would separate the bull from the herd. He swung the lasso and let it loose towards the bull two to three times each missing the head before he finally got a good grip and the noose tightened around its neck. With this done Carlinho, Ed, Mauricio and I started to pull on the rope as hard as we could. I was pulling at the front and Ed quickly warned me that the bull might charge me – its main defence mechanism. We pulled and pulled until it was back out of the pen and we shut the doors behind it. Now we had to reel it in so it couldn't move as freely. Mauricio went behind the fence and looped the rope around a post whilst the rest of us circled the bull scaring it backwards. Each time we pushed the cow towards the post Mauricio pulled the rope tighter leaving it less and less space to move in. We carried on until the bull's head was pressed against the wood and Mauricio had tied a knot in the rope so it could no longer pull away.

Now it's easy to think that because an animal is scared it 'knows' that you are going to kill it. Of course it doesn't really. Cows live in herds, and once they are separated from the herd they realise they're in danger – it would react in exactly the same way if we had singled it out because we wanted to give it some medicine. It's just acting on instinct and we as humans are watching it and transferring our own feelings onto it. I say this as I felt at that moment it thought it was going to die, but with sound reasoning afterwards I don't think it did.

The bull's head thrashed and moved as it was pinned to the post. Carlinho eased himself two rungs up on the fence further down and levelled his rifle at the head. He waited for the bull to be still for a moment then squeezed the trigger and shot the bull square in the forehead with a metal pellet. As intended the shot stunned the bull making it fall to its knees. Carlinho quickly pulled his knife out of his belt and ran towards the animal slicing into it and thrusting the point up into its neck. The blade went as deep as Carlinho's wrist and blood poured out onto the muddy ground. There really wasn't all that much – I had expected more. We waited for all the blood to stop flowing out before releasing the rope.

Whilst this had been happening Euda had cut some palm tree leaves to lay under the body to make sure that the meat didn't get dirty. We laid these on the grass and then heaved at the bull pulling it across the ground and rolling it onto the leaves.

From here this is how I remember us cutting it more or less.

Carlinho had the first slice and cut round the neck using the hole he had stabbed inside to make the kill. He then cut down the sternum just deep enough so that only the skin was sliced in two. Whilst he was doing this Mauricio began to cut down to the two front legs to the knee joint which he then cut around. He then did the same for the hind legs too. Carlinho was handed an axe and chopped the feet off of each leg tossing away the ankle and the hoof over to the side as we weren't going to use them for food. Now that the experts had made the first incisions they handed over the body to the rest of us so that we could cut the skin from the body. With the help of Daniel (who was waterboy for the day) we all cleaned our hands, grabbed a knife, and started cutting and pulling at the skin.

Separating the skin from the body turned out to be a very easy and blood free task. All you need to do is pull at the skin with one hand, and with the other cut down where you see the skin touch the meat. It comes away very quickly and the main thing you need to make sure you do is keep your hands clean at all times – if the meat gets dirty it means more work later as you have to cut out the dirty pieces. If you look at the picture of the meat you can tell which is the quarter I was working on from the deep incisions into the meat itself. It's the first piece. An expert I am not.

Once we had carefully removed all the skin (which involved rolling the bull from side to side – a heavy beast) we cracked open the rib cage and carefully slit what I can only describe as a pouch (it must have been inner skin or something) which was holding the stomach and all the other innards inside. We rolled out everything including the oesophagus (which by the way looks very much like a hoover's hose) and we were left with the bones and the meat we ultimately wanted. Carlinho lifted his axe up into the air and cracked down each side of the spine breaking the animal in two. Cutting away at the top of each leg joint left us with four slabs of meat which we had to carry back to the house. Each was ridiculously heavy, but in order to make the journey easier we cut at the furthest away rib, and just behind the leg between the bone and tendon. This left us with two handles on each piece of meat (one of which is used to hang the meat in the picture above). Ed Carlos grabbed one and I grabbed the other as we transported them to the house. There were a few more transportable pieces such as the spine, tail, and tongue which others helped to carry. All that was left on the grass now were the innards, the head of the bull, and the intact skin.

Now that the killing was done we each started to cut away the meat from the bone. Those pieces of the meat which we could see had dirt on we had to shallowly cut away and chuck as the dirt was now almost impossible to remove. During the cutting stage I managed to slice my fingers many times. Nice. The worst piece of bone to cut the meat from was the spine as this involved lots of intricate in and out cuts. But all in all you'd be surprised at how much meat in the picture there actually is. I'd estimate that cut in the same fashion as they would in say Sainsbury's you could probably fill up one side of an aisle with it. The cutting took a good couple of hours to complete as no piece of meat was left on the bone.

It tasted great by the way, and now every time Daniel sees some beef he says 'cow, cow'. Cristina finds that depressing...

Originally I had been meant to shoot the animal to stun it, but after Carlinho saw my expert shooting in action he decided that the bull would more than likely be infuriated by a shot to the nose than the intended shot to the forehead.