The blizzard of conceptual marketing, ‘quirky’ logos and bizarre brand identities that sweeps endlessly from the offices of advertising agencies has left many of us yearning for a simpler age.
Credit, then, to the good people of Manlleu, a small town an hour north of Barcelona. Tasked with naming their local fair, they put their collective heads together and came up with the splendidly bullshit-free title of ‘La Festa del Porc i la Cervesa’ – the Pork and Beer Festival.
How could anyone argue with, or indeed resist, such an appetising appellation?
The only danger was perhaps over-anticipation. Pork AND beer. Two of my favourite things in the world… together. The handle promised hog heaven in my mind: a Catalan interpretation of a mythological Norse gods’ feast, with ambrosial streams of craft beer tinkling past a feasting hall filled with never-ending ribs of lardy goodness.
I tried to keep my expectations earthbound and just hoped that the event would have the promised children’s play area. The Viking gods never had to deal with the wrath of a bored toddler.
We parked near the town centre and were immediately hit with the unmistakeable smell of roasting pork and wood smoke: a perfectly promising introduction.
A short walk took us to Plaça Fra Bernadí, a handsome, porticoed town square that was buzzing with activity under a clear blue sky.
We’d arrived in Sunday, the last of the festival’s three days of activities. The centrepiece of the programmed activities was a live matança i rostida del porc — a slaughter and hog roast.
It’s not unheard of in some villages in Catalunya and Spain for pigs to be slaughtered in a public and bloody manner at matanças. I didn’t know what to expect but, as a meat eater, I don’t want to shield my kids from the realities of the process so we took our places at the front of the gathering crowd.
On this occasion, the pig was presented minus its squeak: the actual slaughter had taken place off-stage but the rest of the process was presented in full-colour wonder.
Two of the pigs from the previous day rotated slowly and tantalisingly on spits over smoking embers while Sunday’s animal was placed on a table and blasted with torches to singe the hairs while it was shaved completely clean.
While the slow process took place, entertainers in porcine costumes played out various traditional piggy stories for the crowd.
The pig, according to them, was a Berskshire-Duroc cross variety, from Ral D’Avinyo. This meat is available in Barcelona in Bonpreu supermarkets and is in fact the kind of I usually buy, as well as the excellent organic Eco-Roma pork from the same supplier.
The rind was plunged into a bubbling cauldron to make llardons (aka chicharrones in Spanish) — which I can confirm were utterly delicious. Bones and other offcuts went into yet another vat to make a stock.
As the pig was stripped down to its component parts, the methods behind traditional Catalan embutits (charcuterie) were demonstrated, with a well-fed and supremely happy butcher making different kinds of sausages and puddings with impressive speed and finesse.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t stick around for the full show. I was prepared to endure the blazing sun, smoke and raging heat from the blowtorches, ember pits and stockpot fires but my kids lost interest by the time we reached the third or fourth demo.
This event was run by the town’s food market, and its representatives were doing a roaring trade in selling traditional cured meats and sausages and tickets for a plate of the slow-roasted pork. While we waited for lunch, the children were able to entertain themselves in a farm-themed play area.
I took the chance to visit the rest of the stalls in the square where Catalonia’s microbrewers were well represented. I love the recent surge in popularity of craft beer here and I’d have loved to have got stuck in but as I was driving I had to content myself with some small sips and a stack of bottles to take home. I’ll look at Catalan craft beer in more detail in a future post. If anyone wants to send me free samples to review, please feel free!
The festival wasn’t limited to beer and pork, although they took pride of place. A portable wood-fired oven was turning out loaves kneaded at a frantic pace by two bakers while cheese-makers and other purveyors of local food sold their wares. It was a great opportunity to track down the good stuff; like Antony Bourdain says, foodies are like junkies: always in search of the best suppliers…
When it was time to eat, we took our piled paper plates to the marquee tent in the centre of the square where ample seating and picnic tables could be found under welcome shade from the hot sun.
The bread we were given was bland and tasteless. The crisps were under-salted. But the pork…. oh God, the pork. Melting and tender, the meat was delicious, but the fat, infused with wood smoke and rosemary, was the stairway to hog heaven I’d hoped for. I was reduced to wiping my chin and making groaning noises as primal instincts flooded my brain in a cocktail of neurotransmitter bliss.
I didn’t get any crackling. It’s probably for the best: I might not have survived.
We spend the rest of the afternoon walking it off. Manlleu is an attractive and prosperous-looking place with a lovely riverside park. It’s well worth a visit, pork festival or not. Sadly, we couldn’t stick around for the guided beer tasting, pork cookery demonstrations, film shows or other activities as we needed to head home to Barcelona.
But we’ll be back next year. We might even book a hotel room and enjoy the festival properly. The best-named event in Catalonia’s calendar is already one of my favourites.