We got to work bright and early in the morning
In many countries now-a-days it is illegal to slaughter animals on your own farm, they must be sent to a slaughterhouse to be processed. Thankfully, this is not yet the case in Argentina. I say thankfully because slaughterhouses are some of the most repugnant, abusive, and dangerous environments for both the animals and workers. Animals are slaughtered at an ever quickening pace, making it nearly impossible for workers on the assembly line to keep up without hurting themselves. Slaughterhouses have a complete monopoly on the role they play in the meat industry, and that power has corrupted them.
Argentina is known for its beef production, the gauchos who raise the cattle and our famous Argentine asados. Now, you are hard pressed to find a gaucho raising cattle on fresh pasture in the Argentine countryside. Soy has replaced pasture and feedlots have replaced farms. Like I said in previous posts, Las Ondinas is surrounded by soy monocultures and chicken CAFOs, operated by one person at most. We are losing the art of beef production in this beautiful country to corporations who consolidate and monetize our traditions.
While in Argentina, I wanted to WWOOF on a farm with cattle in order to learn, from the last few gauchos left in this country, how cows can be raised and consumed respectfully. While milking the cows at Las Ondinas, I ask Juan tons of questions about raising cows. Every time a little bull is born I know that it must eventually be sold or consumed because they do not provide milk. I bugged Juan for weeks, asking him if he might be slaughtering a steer during my stay. A steer is a castrated, adolescent calf, not yet a bull and not still a baby. They are large, at least 200 kilos, and have horns, but because they are castrated their meat is more tender and they aren’t as aggressive with the other calves and cows. Almost every time we have been served meat on the farm it has been from steers.
A few days before I was due to leave Las Ondinas Juan let me know that we would be slaughtering a steer. In Spanish the word is carnear; literally it translates to beefing, which I think is more appropriate than slaughtering because it explains what the purpose of killing the animal is for.
The night before the carneo, I was so nervous and excited that I couldn’t sleep. I kept dreaming that the steer would look me in the eyes and realize his fate. I couldn’t get his innocent, brown eyes out of my mind. I woke up at 2:30am and waited until 4 to milk the cows with Juan. When we finished, we started to clear the area and prepare our instruments.
The image from my dream...
I am going to explain the process of slaughtering and quartering a steer here because it was a valuable experience for me. I think it is important for people, especially meat eaters, to understand the effort required to raise and process meat. Every part of the animal is used, nothing is wasted. The way in which animals are raised and slaughtered on this farm is admirable. It is soon to become a lost art if it is not shared. I hope my documentation does it some justice.
Slaughtering a Steer
- It is important that the animal does not eat during its last 12 hours of life, to empty the intestines, as they will be consumed. Every knife that will be used must be sharpened and instruments to hoist the meat up must be acquired (un balancín y un aparejo).
- We brought the steer in to the milking area, tied a rope around its horns and gave it a little bit of grain to eat. The moment it stood still, Juan took a deep breath and with the blunt end of an axe, hit it right in the middle of the head (in between the horns and the eyes). This immobilized the animal and allowed Juan to safely stick a long knife deep in to the steer’s throat, towards the heart. The animal instantly started bleeding, but did not fight very much since it was practically knocked out. The worst part about slaughtering an animal is waiting for it to die. It is important to let it bleed to remove as much blood as possible from the meat.
- Once the animal ceased to move, we immediately started skinning it. This is best done carefully and while the animal is warm, so as not to puncture the valuable leather. Four of us worked on the animal at once and got the job done quickly.
- Then we tied the hind legs to an instrument used to hoist the animal up and began to open it up. We had to cut the pelvis and chest with a saw and remove the head. Then Juan carefully cut open the animal, and while we raised it up a little, he gutted it.
- All the viscera was collected and separated. The small intestines, kidneys, liver, heart, thyroid gland, some parts of the stomach and tongue were all saved for our consumption on the farm. What remained was kept but fed to the dogs and cats.
- Then we cut the meat into 8 pieces and placed them in a large freezer: 2 hind quarters, 2 front quarters, 2 rib cuts, the spine and the neck. The cold from the freezer made it easier to work the meat the next day.
- We cleaned the area extremely well with scalding hot water and sat down to drink some mates.
- The next day we cut those large chunks of meat into smaller cuts of beef to cook individually, and placed them in the freezer again. The bones were all kept to make broth and the fat kept to fry and some to make soap (a new experiment for them).
Juan shows us how to carefully remove the skin for leather
With the animals hoisted up it is easier to make large, clean cuts
The innards we kept to eat, soaking in water. What looks like coral reef if the stomach used to make mondongo, a traditional stew.
Juan taught me all the Argentine beef cuts. Here he is cutting bife de lomo.
Cut, labeled and ready to be cooked
The next day we were hungry for meat. Yes, it was very difficult to watch the steer die before my eyes, but I have never, ever, respected an animal more than at that moment. I know that steer lived a calm, happy life on the farm. From the moment it was born it got to drink milk from its mother and run around and graze on fresh pasture. What more could a calf hope for? I know that the manner in which it was slaughtered is also the quickest and the most respectful. I don’t regret having participated in the slaughter for one moment. In fact, I’m thrilled that during my time here at Las Ondinas I watched a cow give birth, I milked the cows, I played with the calves, I helped slaughter a steer and I cooked the meat. How many people get to know their food that well?
After all our work was done, we prepared an asado with the ribs. Comimos ese costillar con ganas, as we say in Spanish, we ate those ribs with desire. While we were picking up the bones and biting off pieces of meat, two new WWOOF volunteers arrived. A French couple. We introduced ourselves, with greasy cheeks and hands, and finished off our bones. Juan explained, to the wide-eyed Frenchies, that we had just slaughtered a steer and prepared this asado. After lunch we drank some mates and chatted. We all laughed at how stereotypically Argentine we must seem to the French couple. I have never felt more like a gauchita!
If you are interested in seeing more, I made a video of this whole process.
Click here to check it out: Carneo de un Novillo