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.


  1. Another literary genius piece Mr Trinder :)

  2. Why thank you Mr Tanner - I'm not sure the vegetarians would agree with you though...