Like leading lambs to the slaughter. Meek as a lamb. Sheeple.
All cliches, but true.
I suppose it takes a strange kind of a person who would actually like to watch a lamb being slaughtered.
I am that strange kind of person.
When you are on a working ranch like Nibepo Aike in the Parque de Glacieres, Patagonia, you have a unique chance to see the whole process for yourself. I though it was the least I could do, considering the amount of meat we consumed on a daily basis in Argentina. Cordero is the word for lamb, and my goodness there was a lot of it. Chops. Mollejas (sweetbreads). Shoulder. Rack. Leg. Kidneys. Estofado. (stew). Matambre (meat rolled and stuffed with eggs).
So why not. What the hey? It was all there for the taking, even if the people at the estancia didn't exactly advertise it. I asked if I could watch the sheep being slaughtered. Yes if you wish. This would be done in conjunction with the other morning chores, the milking (ordeñe) of the cows in the morning.
Performing all the acts would be Moncho (short for Ramon) one of the gauchos, whom we had seen several days earlier shearing sheep.
MONCHO, A MAN OF MANY TALENTS
In the evening, we had watched him ride and herd the sheep into their pen, a pen surrounded by an inner and outer fence. The inner one had barbed wire on top to keep the sheep from jumping (a highly unlikely event, it seemed to me). The outer one an electrified fence, as demonstrated by my son Toby who got a slight jolt when he touched it. This one was to keep the pumas out. Apparently a single puma can kill up to a 100 sheep a night. They don't eat the meat, but just suck the blood.
Egged on by Moncho on his horse, the sheep meandered into the pen. I guess if I had to use a word to describe their behaviour in general, it would be acquiescent. I am pretty sure they don't have a sheep language, but if they did, the first word that you would have to translate from English would be whatever..... such is their shrug-their-shoulders attitude towards pretty much everything.
ROUNDUP THE NIGHT BEFORE
The morning of the event, we assembled before breakfast. Moncho sauntered out eventually, jaunty in one of his many gaucho caps. He was a little late, but then it was Argentina. He marched over to the pen, and with the aid of three or four dogs, began to assemble the mass of sheep out of their holding pen into the main area next to the shearing shed. The sheep seemed none the wiser. We of course, knew what was coming.
Once they were all milling around, with the dogs making half-hearted nips at their legs to keep them corralled, with occasional yips and whistles from Moncho, he began to approach them as a cat approaches his prey. The horses and the cows, who had also been summoned from their grazing, looked on unperturbed.
All of a sudden Moncho, who had snuck into the shed and emerged with a leather apron and a knife tucked behind him in his belt, quickened his movements, looking for a likely candidate.
Let's be clear about one thing. When you think of a lamb being slaughtered, you think about some sweet spring lamb, a baby, being led down a dark road to the abattoir. If the lamb in your mind were a person, it would be the equivalent of a cherub, a curly haired three year old. Am I right?
Well, the process is altogether more pedestrian. Don't think cherub, think chav. We are talking about a young adolescent. A pre-teen or even older. A sullen teenager, perhaps, though perhaps inaccurate to say that lambs are sullen. At the very least they are not demonstrative. Five months in lamb life is about right to hit teenhood, and when Moncho started chasing them (they did scatter a bit it must be said), the first thing he did when he grabbed one was to reach down and feel their balls. Apparently this is the best way to ascertain their age and whether or not they are suitable for the chop (it is not a chop, by the way, but more about that later).
He caught a few, and then let them go, kind of like a fisherman tossing away a catch.
And the sheep, or at least the herd, reacted a lot like a school of fish escaping a predator, moving as one every time he approached one of them.
Eventually he caught one he liked and lifted it up. One of his dogs stood sentinel. The young sheep (already 30 kilos) struggled for a bit (and only a bit) and then Moncho bent over, and with a piece of plastic twine, bound its two back legs first, and then one of it front legs. It was immobilised, and lay there. Supine. And silent.
The other sheep milled around, watching, or really if truth be known, pretending not to watch. I have to say the sensation as an onlooker was one of fascination that this process, which must go on every day during the tourist season (as there are 300 sheep on the estancia as mandated by law since it is in a national park, and two get culled every day), is so subdued.
The reaction of the sheep is surprising. They seem to ignore their fallen comrade. And not a peep. Not a baa baa. At first they leave the chosen one apart, but by and by they seem to surround him, but not look at him. Was this their brother, cousin? Who knows? Moncho said later that not even the lamb's mother recognises him after three or four months. Can that be possible?
And all the while, the chosen one, a few minutes away from his untimely demise, just lies there. No bleating. No complaining. No reaction. Nothing. We left him and his other unfortunate comrade (or fortunate, considering that life mainly consists of wandering about chewing on grass, shitting, and being sheared or stalked) and went to milk the cows. After briefly showing interest, the rest of the sheep wandered off.
Meanwhile, we milked a cow, an interlude from the main event. The milk was lovely and warm. Moncho said he couldn't drink much milk. It was too rich, and bad for his heart he said. A skinny latte Pampas man, it appears. I took some anyway, and it left a milk moustache. It tasted delicious, and if it takes a few days off my life, so be it.
We all had a go at milking, not very successfully in my case. If left to us gringos, the farm's milk quota would never be reached. Oh well. Practice makes perfect. Then it was back to the lamb hut.
The hut was purpose built, with a cast concrete floor with a channel to sluice away the blood into a stream, and a small V-shaped bench to lay the victim (candidate, chosen one..etc.) on such that his neck hung over the side, stretching over the channel.
Monche had carried him by the hooves, a task I performed on the second one. The sheep had absolutely no reaction one way or another, as if Moncho was carrying him off to his cot.
Surely, I thought, they must know something. First of all, Moncho's apron had last been cleaned...well...never. And the whole place smelled of lamb. Health and Safety would have had a field day, but it seemed ....uh...organic. But Candidate No. 1 just lay there.
Moncho sharpened his knife, and long sharply pointed instrument which looked like nothing I had imagined. I thought, I guess that he would slash the throat, and that he would have to sneak up on the unsuspecting victim like a solider attacking a sentinel.
Nothing of the kind.
THE QUICK AND THE....
Moncho leaned over and whispered something to the sheep. Its neck, stretched by gravity, presented a perfect still target, There was no angst, no movement really. Moncho felt for a pulse, and then ever so suddenly and with a practiced thrust like a matador, he plunged the knife to the hilt, turned it, and pulled it out. Boom. Two seconds, max.
He was smack on target, and the blood gushed out into the channel, draining completely in a matter of seconds. The sheep, I am sure, never knew what hit him.
Moncho stepped away, and I asked him if that was it. He smiled and said, with him, I cut the throat and the heart, with you I would cut off your gonads. Then you wouldn't have any heirs.
Moncho was a skilled as any surgeon. He later showed us the heart, and he had sliced it cleanly in two. When the job is done like this, there is no gore. A red river, yes. But no gore.
FROM THE TOP
We then chatted a bit. I asked Moncho if he liked to eat lamb. Me, he said? I'm a vegetarian......pause......cue laughter. Another gringo had.
Of course, he said, shrugging his shoulders at the lamb behind him. It's natural.
While he was talking, the sheep's legs twitched, a last involuntary response to giving up the ghost. With that, Moncho got down to work.
The first thing he did was cut off the hooves at the first joint, placing them up on the ledge of the hut along with some desiccated hooves of previous victims. Apparently nothing is wasted. He then peeled off the skin on the back legs, and along with me, slipped in a board between the tibula and the fibula of the lamb. He then motioned me to use the rope to haul up the carcass to the ceiling.
He then got down to the precise work of skinning and gutting the lamb.
And precise work it was.
Working quickly and efficiently, he removed the entire coat (pelt, skin....don't know what you call it). He then cut vertically down the middle, starting from the top, leaving the gonads (the lamb version of prairie oysters). He cut through the pelvis. When he slit the belly, the entire inner workings of the lamb, everything from lungs, stomach, intestines and the various and sundry glands that make up all living creatures slid out in a single connected mass. There was no blood whatsoever....everything having be drained out in the first rush.
The most surprising thing about the whole process was.....how clean it was. There was no mess. You could easily trace how the entire body was a closed system. What colour there was was in three places: a green where you could see the esophogus and the last meal the sheep had had...grass (oh yes, I forgot...somewhere along the line he beheaded the sheep.); the yellow of the bladder, still full of urine, and when he held it up for us to see; a darkish green bile duct. He said that if this had burst, the entire lamb would have been spoiled.
A CLOSED SYSTEM
The entire insides came out in one fell swoop, and he put them in a wheelbarrow. He then cut off the mollejas (sweetbreads, or pancreas and thymus glands....one of the two) and gave them to us to hold.
The were still warm and slightly bloody.
That was the closest we came to active participation, but we had blood on our hands.
And that was it. Job done.
Maybe ten minutes long from start to finish. Moncho was a true professional.
Now then, what to make of all this?
I went along to see this process, not out of a morbid curiosity, but just plain curiosity. Blood and guts don't really bother me (I once asked to look inside my own body when I had surgery under local anesthetic...human fat looks a lot like chicken fat, by the way), but I thought that it makes sense that if we are going to eat meat, we should at some point see what is involved.
There was the chance that this would put me off meat forever, or at least lamb. I had memories of once seeing a pig slaughtered in North Carolina when I was about seven, and what a noisy, smelly, bloody mess that had been. That had made me swear off bacon for a while.
This seemed the natural order of things, and I gained a measure of respect not only for Moncho, who approached his task with professionalism, talent, concentration, and no small measure of humour, but for the sheep as well.
Who knows what they know, but they certainly didn't seem to be anywhere near a revolt, either collectively or individually. You can smell fear, and there was none of that. Just the morning sun and a ritual that they must carry out every day where like the grass they chew on or the fields they roam, one or two of them disappear inside the hut, never to return in another facet of the existence they have been allotted.
Unbeknownst to the sheep, los desaparecidos reappear the following day (the meat hangs for 24 hours) on a parilla in the restaurant in a variety of guises, and for each day to follow as the entire circle of dishes are prepared to use everything that Moncho has skilfully supplied.
And this is done calmly...quietly...without any fuss and an absolute minimum of commotion.
There is such a thing, apparently, as the silence of the lambs.