Morovic is a Serbian village located about 100km west of Belgrade; almost on the Croatian border. If every visiting power which once held the region was represented on its coat of arms, it would require a shield as large as a house. But one thing has never changed over the millenniums and that’s the region’s fame for bacon, ham, and sausage – especially kulen. Miloš Bičanski reports and photographs
Change comes slowly in this part of the Balkans and pig production is no exception. Around 80 percent of the population is still working the land and many have their own cows, pigs, and chickens.
One of the few changes that have taken place over the past 15-20 years is back then, every family raised a pig in their backyard which allowed them to be self-sufficient in pork. Now, only about 50 percent of the villagers in the region still raise their own pigs, with many of these selling on a pig or two to neighbors without. What is still very rare is to find anyone who raises a quantity of pigs with a more commercial bent, selling pork products to neighboring villages and towns.
The slaughter traditionally takes place in late autumn or early winter and can start as soon as it gets cold. The cold is required as a natural method of preserving the relatively large quantities of meat during the butchering. While with most families having refrigerators and air conditioners, in theory the slaughter could take place at any time of the year, the vast majority of pigs are still slaughtered in either late October or November. This allows for plenty of time to prepare pork products for the festive cuisines of Christmas, New Years, and beyond.
The slaughter requires numerous preparations, including troughs, large quantities of boiling water, large wooden barrels for storing meat, pots, and very sharp knives.
The pig is quickly slaughtered with a knife, bled, and then put in a wooden or a metal trough and bathed with hot water to remove the hair. Once most of the hair is off, the pig is taken from the trough and any remaining hair is removed with a knife. Then it is again washed with hot water.
First, the pig’s intestines are removed. Very sharp knives and a cleaver are required for butchering. The carcass is cut into, hams, shoulders, bacon sides, loins, pork chops, and other cuts of lesser importance. Little mechanization is used, with meat being cut manually. Any grinding is done with relatively small manually operated, mechanical grinding machines. The traditionally produced ham (šunka), bacon (slanina), the sausages (kobasica) such as blood sausage (krvavica) and kulen are well known as delicacies.
Kulen is a sausage, famous in the region, and hog casings are stuffed with chopped, high-quality pork meat, mixed with salt, pepper, and spices. One of the main characteristics of the sausage is its deep red color, which comes from the substantial amount of paprika that is added, giving it a hot, spicy taste. There are still plenty of small villages in the region that produce kulen in the original way with all natural ingredients.
The most important thing to pay attention to while making kulen is to make sure not to leave any air in the colon (or other casing); the mixture must be stuffed firmly and carefully. After filling, the sausages are tied with heavy string which enables them to be hung. This is traditionally done from tall ceilings in order to allow the sausage to dry. Kulen matures during the winter; it can be eaten during this time, although it’s not fully dried and cured yet. It will develop its full taste by the following summer. To produce a dryer, firmer kulen, it is sometimes kept buried under ashes, which help dry it. Kulen is a shelf-stable meat product, with a shelf life of up to two years when stored properly.
The wood selection for smoking kulen plays a very important role, because not all of wood types provide a good taste; the best smoke comes from beech and sometimes cherry wood. After the smoking, the sausages are air-dried for another several months. This process can last up to a year. Although similar to other air-dried procedures, the meat is fermented in addition to the air-drying. High-grade kulen is sometimes even covered with a thin layer of mold, giving it a distinct aroma.
The pig I photographed is one which my brother bought, weighing 230kg (505lbs). The butchered who slaughtered and cut-up the pig is a friend who will also smoke your sausage, ham, or bacon for you. My brother doesn’t know how to make kulen, yet, and he takes the pig meat to another butcher who is famous for his kulen.