Bill Buford’s Heat, published in 2006, chronicled the writer’s efforts to master Italian cooking, a journey that necessitated complete immersion in Italian restaurant kitchens and culinary traditions. In Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking, out May 5, he sets his sights on French tradition.
It’s a quest that takes Buford and his family — his wife and twin sons — to Lyon, the impenetrable capital of French gastronomy. To learn the secrets of French cooking therein, Buford once again opts for full immersion into the various pillars of French cuisine, from tailing a boulanger, to attending French culinary school, to staging in a Michelin-starred restaurant. In this excerpt from Dirt, he attends an exclusive French culinary tradition: la tuaille — in other words, a pig killing. — Monica Burton
I got myself invited to a pig killing. Actually, I worked for it: I begged, I promised faithfulness to the cause, I declared my carnivore integrity, until, finally, I was rewarded with a nervously proffered invitation.
Boudin noir, blood in a piece of pig’s intestine, was ubiquitous in Lyon — few foods went better with a pot of Beaujolais — but it was sold already cooked, even from your local butcher: Go home, reheat, and serve. The boudin noir we planned to make after killing our pig (along with other, principally tubular porcine expressions) would be steamingly fresh. It was said to be nothing like the commercial stuff.
I had some crude logistical curiosities, like how you got the blood out of the pig and into an intestine: which was cleaned — how exactly? Or was there a lingering stink that the Lyonnais regarded, characteristically, as a flavor enhancer? I was also attracted to the visceral reality of killing an animal (how — with our hands?) that you would then eat (the sanctity of the act). Mère Brazier used to make her own boudin noir. So, famously, did Fernand Point.
As it happened, the farm that hosted the boudin-noir making was not far from where a certain Menon had raised the orchard-fed pigs whose blood Point coveted. It was a gravelly hilltop on the other side of the Rhône River from La Pyramide, among what could well have been orchard fruit trees — hard to tell in midwinter, stark trunks, every- thing dirt brown, under a silver-white sky that was huge and very cold. As in Italy, the French slaughter and cure their pigs only in the winter. Refrigeration is a modern contrivance, and pig curing is not modern.
I was taken to the farm by Ludovic Curabet, the only member of the team prepared to share his last name.
Ludovic was in his thirties — dark hair, fit, youthful — and committed to continuing the old ways. He was, in effect, a pig intellectual. He knew how pigs were cured in Spain, the Po Valley in Italy, the Alps, and especially here, the Rhône. He was also among the few people who still practiced (and admitted that they were practicing) a local rite called la tuaille. La tuaille translates as “the killing,” but, in the Rhône and the south of France, it refers to the ritualized seasonal slaughter of a family pig, and includes some early-morning drinking, the eating of abundant freshly made boudin noir, followed by some midday drinking, some early-afternoon drinking, and then some late-afternoon drinking. Around Lyon, you see black-and-white photographs of tuailles — pictures pinned to the wall of a bouchon — featuring tired and bespattered people, often cross-eyed, but very happy.
What we were doing was legal, although there was a belief that it wouldn’t be for long. The European Union tolerates old-fashioned pig killings, provided they are for farmers’ private consumption. But such is their fear of the European Union, many farmers believe that they are the last generation. In fact, Ludovic asked if we could film the killing. He wanted to record it for his children.
The other two members of our team were both named Claude. One was the farmer. One was a butcher.
“Farmer Claude” was in his early seventies, tall, lean, slightly stooped, a long face, busily expressive white eyebrows, which, in effect, “talked” much more than he did, since he said almost nothing. He seemed bemused by our endeavor, ideologically committed to it but nervous about the possible fallout. Ludovic had persuaded him that I could be trusted.
Farmer Claude escorted me into a dirt courtyard adjoining the house, where Butcher Claude was waiting for us. He talked even less than Farmer Claude. Five words. Maybe less. He was about fifty-five, a little hefty, and in a white coat, as though he had just driven up from the shop in town. He was standing over a rectangular wooden pallet, pulling apart a bale of hay, and piling it on top. This was for a bonfire. After the animal was killed, Ludovic told me, she would be set alight to burn off the hair. (The pigs we eat are either sows or castrated males. The meat of a fully testicular male? Disgusting.) You burn off the hair to get to the skin. Pigs are the only farm animals not normally skinned, because their fat isn’t integrated into the muscle, but resides between the muscle and the skin. If you skin a pig, you risk losing the fat, and the fat underneath translates into both belly cuts and the creamy white fat that goes into sausages.
Pig fat, Ludovic said, is good.
Boudin noir has its modest literature — in the Odyssey, Homer describes a stomach filled with blood and fat being roasted over a fire, and Apicius, the first-century Roman epicurean, has a preparation enriched by eggs, pine nuts, onions, and leeks. The origins of the word itself are obscure but probably hark back to a now lost colloquial usage during the Roman settlement of Gaul. (The boud- of boudin may be derived from the Roman bod-, which is “to inflate or bulge,” just as the intestines fill up.) The preparation is among the oldest on the planet, older than the Romans or the Greeks, and probably dates to the earliest days of animal domestication (circa 10,000 B.C. if not before — i.e., circa the discovery of fire — if only because it satisfies the universal philosophical imperative understood by every premodern farmer and hunter lucky enough to have an animal to eat: Waste nothing.
Butcher Claude continued building up the bonfire. Ludovic chopped onions and cooked them in a sauté pan over a Bunsen burner while Farmer Claude assembled an antique-seeming cast-iron kettle. It was like a very large teapot that he half-filled with water and set upon a three-legged stand like a barbecue. He stacked kindling underneath and lit it. The fire crackled, a lazy morning smoke, smelling of pine. This was where the boudin, once made, would be cooked, here in the cold, open air.
In the obvious absence of small talk, I wandered around the courtyard and came upon an animal pen — a low wooden door, a window with iron bars. How curious that I hadn’t noticed it before. I stooped to peer inside. I saw our pig. The pig saw me. It was a startling moment. The animal was suddenly so there, and much larger than I expected. Two hundred kilos, about 450 pounds. It was furry, not pink, with white hair and brown spots.
I dropped down to look inside again. This, I couldn’t help myself from observing, was a beautiful animal.
Pigs are the most intelligent of domesticated livestock and interpret their surroundings more efficiently than other animals. They also panic easily, and the panic often expresses itself in the taste of the meat.
In an instant, I realized why everyone had been so quiet. They were trying to be invisible.
The pig began to squeal.
Did I just do that?
The others hadn’t looked. For them, there was no pig: We’re just farmers going about our business, ho hum, a normal morning, big animal in a dinky stone pen, no big deal.
But I had looked and, like that, I had hit the squeal button.
Wow. It wasn’t a squeal. It was a wide-open, high-volume, high-pitched cry. It didn’t enter the brain; it pierced it, or at least it seemed to, my brain anyway, and with such an intensity that I wanted to do something about it. Urgently.
The squeal said: I am in danger! It said: Run!
It said: Find me, help me, save me. On and on and on.
Pigs had figured in Daniel Boulud’s childhood. They were like storybook companions, more like dogs and people than cows and sheep. (The observation is not mine, but of the animal anthropologist Juliet Clutton-Brock.) Boulud loved his pet pigs. But every year, when he was in the house eating breakfast, he’d hear the squeal. This kind of squeal. By then, as he was irrationally sprinting toward the sound without entirely understanding why (since he knew he was already too late), the pig was dead.
Was my pig so smart that she could see my thinking about her being dead? (Had I been?) Because, no question, the pig now knew she was going to die.
Fifteen minutes later, the farmer opened the pen door. The butcher put a rope around the animal’s neck and snout. The pig wouldn’t come out.
Butcher Claude and Farmer Claude pulled her from the front. Ludovic and I got in from behind, pushing her butt. She resisted with all the strength and adrenaline of her considerable 450 pounds. The ground was half frozen, and her hooves plowed shallow rows in the hard dirt. When she was next to the pallet, she was toppled over.
The back legs needed to be secured at the ankles. I was surprised by her strength, four of us on top of her, trying to get her limbs to cooperate. The squealing never stopped, until finally the ankles were secured, and I relaxed my grip, and the pig went quiet. She turned her head — she had to twist it round — and looked at me. Her gaze was intense, and it wasn’t easy to turn away from. It said: Don’t kill me.
“Get the bucket,” Ludovic told me. He pointed. It was nearby. “Now kneel, there.” Là.
I got down, just in front of the animal. She lurched and bucked, but the movements were small.
“As the bucket fills, stir,” Ludovic said. “Steady and quickly. To keep it from coagulating.”
Butcher Claude relaxed the rope. I glimpsed the knife briefly. He had kept it hidden — I hadn’t known it was there — and had come up to the throat from below, just out of the pig’s vision, and slit the artery below the Adam’s apple.
I thought: I could never do that.
There was no reaction. The pig didn’t seem to feel the slice. The deed was done.
Ludovic began working a front leg, up and down, like a pump — the pig continued to squeal but the squeal was diminishing. Blood streamed into my bucket from the gash, bright red. It steamed. I stirred. To stop the coagulation? Then I understood. Yes! To stop it! The blood was forming into strings, quickly and densely.
“Stir,” Ludovic said. “Remuez. Vite.”
I thought: I’m going to ruin it. The whole day has been structured around boudin noir, which we now won’t be able to make because I didn’t understand coagulation.
The threads were now wrapping themselves up and down my fingers. The surface of the blood looked normal, a little frothy, but underneath a plastic spiderweb was forming.
Faster. Faster. Faster. And then, finally, the threads began to dissolve, and then, once they started, they finished dissolving, and in seconds — some threshold having been crossed —they were gone.
The pig sighed. It was deep, like a yawn. It was the sound of a big person about to go to sleep.
She sighed again.
I looked down. The blood came about halfway up the bucket. Shouldn’t there be more? Such a big animal. There was more than a gallon, but not much more.
She sighed again, a smaller sound.
I looked at her. Her face had gone pale. I thought: Pigs, too, lose their color. Her eyes went milky. She was dead. We were done.
Butcher Claude gave me a ladle. “Goûtez,” he said. Taste.
I was confused. He keeps a ladle in his back pocket?
Ludovic said, “Non. Il faut l’assaisonner.” It needed seasoning. He fetched salt and pepper.
I got up off my knees. The hairs on my arm were matted red. My shirt and jeans were splattered.
I dipped the ladle into the bucket and tasted. It was warm. Rich. It was thick and weighty on my palate. The seasoning was almost obtrusive, but also welcome: It was intensifying.
I dipped my ladle back into the bucket. The men laughed. “More?”
I was trying to identify the taste. Frankly, I was also getting a serious buzz. Was that the blood? Or the overwhelming fact of everything, this animal, the intimacy, the killing, the coagulation, the courtyard, this morning. I dipped the ladle back into the blood. I was flying.
The men were laughing hard.
“I like,” I said. I liked it a lot. The blood tasted pure. Can something taste red? This was red. It was invigorating, in every obvious sense.
The bucket was put in a shady corner. The bonfire was lit. The pig burned until it was charred and black. We scrubbed the skin. The hair came off. The head was removed, the body cavity opened up, the stomach expanding as though having been buckled into too-tight pants. The entrails were removed. And then everything began to slow down, the particular business of honoring every organ and muscle and joint of a just-killed animal.
I was given the lungs.
“Blow them up,” Ludovic said.
And I did, a pair of pretty pink balloons (a remarkable hue, unused to air or light), and I tied them (like a balloon), and Ludovic nailed them to a wooden post to dry out.
We yanked out intestines, the upper ones, a long hose, fifty feet, maybe more, and squeezed out their brown contents by pulling a segment between a thumb and forefinger and moving the solids toward an opening. Ludovic had the hose. He gave me an intestine and asked me to blow into it to open — it was warm against my lips — and he rinsed it out. He then rolled it up in a ring on the ground.
(I thought: Really? Is that it?)
He removed the bladder, and squeezed out the liquid, like water in a balloon, a steamy stream.
“Here, this is for you to blow up, too.” He held it out in two hands, very reverential. “This, too, is an honor,” he said.
The others stopped and watched.
An honor, eh?
I took a deep breath. The wet mouth of the entry (salty), my wet lips.
I blew hard. Nothing.
The men laughed.
I took a deeper breath. I blew harder.
Nothing. More laughter.
I took a really deep breath, my face changing color — probably to something between red-pink and purple — and the bladder yielded.
I closed the passage with my thumb and forefinger, Ludovic looped it into a knot, and nailed it, too, to the post to dry out.
“For the poulet en vessie,” he said.
Ludovic mixed his sautéed aromatics into the blood, tasted, added salt and pepper, tasted again (like a chef finishing his sauce), added more pep- per. I inserted a funnel into the mouth of an intestine, and Ludovic poured. We twisted the intestine sausage-style at six-inch intervals, tied it closed, and looped the rope into a straw basket. When the basket was full we walked it over to the kettle — a hot vapor cloud when we opened the lid, not boiling, not even simmering — and eased a length of boudin inside.
A poem about preparing boudin noir was written by Achille Ozanne, a nineteenth-century chef and poet (he wrote bouncy poems about dishes he cooked for the king of Greece), and finds a loose rhyme between “frémissante” and “vingt minutes d’attente.” Frémissante is “trembling.” It describes the water: hot but not quite boiling. Vingt minutes d’attente — twenty minutes — is the approximate time that you keep the boudin submerged. It is akin to cooking a custard. It is done once it is only just done. You boil a custard, it curdles. You boil blood, it curdles. Ludovic pricked a casing with a needle. It was dry when it came out. The blood had solidified. He removed the boudin. I cooked the next one.
We carried our basket into a kitchen, and found a dozen people already there, preparing the accompaniments: roasted apples, potatoes, salad, bread, bottles of the local Côtes du Rhône, made by someone down the road, no labels. The room was warm, the windows were fogged up, and we ate, the boudin like a rich red pudding, spoilingly fresh, complexly fragrant of our morning pig, and we drank, and afterward went back out into the courtyard, feeling stiff and sleepy, to make sausages and other preparations that needed aging.
It doesn’t take long to kill a pig. But reassembling it into edible forms would take until nightfall. We had killed a beautiful animal. The food from it would last for months.
From Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking. Copyright © 2020 by Bill Buford. Used by permission of Penguin Random House.