Pigs Galore


"Domestic meat" advertised the blackboard outside the taverna. "Domestic meat?" I wondered what domestic meat could be. One of the ubiquitous tribe of Greek cats trotted past. "Not me," said the expression on the cat's face as he glanced up at me. You see plenty of sheep and goats on the Greek islands. Perhaps "domestic meat" was a euphemism for goat. Even more common on menus is pork, yet you hardly ever see pigs on the islands. I have seen a few porkers snuffling around yards on the edge of villages. Pigs are not a prominent feature of the Greek islands today. The bacon in your omelette is most likely pre-packed. The herbal aromas you detect wafting up from your grilled pork chop (frozen) are not from the surrounding hills, but from a tub of dried oregano. Electricity, reliable electricity, has reached most if not all the Greek islands, and taverna owners, like everyone else, are taking advantage of the convenience of frozen meats.

In the past, in pre-electric times, the Greek islands seem to have been a porcine heaven. Looking at old writers on the islands, one cannot help noticing the frequent references to pigs. The pigs lived in the towns and villages, on intimate terms with their owners

Writing about Milos in the early eighteenth century, Tournefort described the town as:

prettily built, but abominable nasty; for when they make an Erection of a House, they begin with the Hogsty, beneath an Arch even with the ground, or a little lower, and always fronting the Street; in a word, it is the Jakes of the whole House.

About a hundred years later on Syros Edward Daniel Clarke saw an:

abundance of poultry, and a very fine breed of pigs; but the streets of the town are as dirty and as narrow as they probably were in Homer's day.

Towards the end of the last nineteenth century J. T. Bent visited most of the islands in the Cyclades. On many of the islands he met pigs:

Of all the towns in the Greek Islands, Seriphos will remain fixed in my mind as the most filthy. The main street is a sewer into which all the offal is thrown; and it is tenanted by countless pigs - for each householder has liberty to keep three. What the nuisance must have been when the number was unlimited I cannot think. Furthermore this street is like a ladder of rocks, and the pigs in their movements are as nimble as goats, most dangerous to the peace of mind of the pedestrian. Sometimes the street is not two feet wide, sometimes it is expanded to six feet, but always an inch deep in mire, often more.

The pigs on Siphnos sound particularly unappealing:

the villages of Siphnos, if it were not for the quantity of coarse-looking pigs with short bristles which swarm in them, would be bright and pleasant enough. But these pigs are abominable creatures; they saunter in and out of houses at will. The Siphniotes cut their bristles for sewing shoes and making brushes with; hence a pig with a strong crop of these ready to be shorn presents a particularly forbidding appearance.

Bent met the pigs of Siphnos both day and night:

That night Captain Prokos had a large party of Siphniotes to meet us; we laughed and talked, and it was quite a late hour before they dispersed. He and his wife slept in the den next to ours; there was a large hole in the wall, so we could hear him talk and hear him snore. Suddenly in the night the greatest commotion arose: an inquisitive pig had entered the house, and pushed its adventurous course right into the sty where the Prokoi slept. They are hospitable enough to their pigs by day, but they draw the line at the bedroom door. The captain and his wife yelled and screamed at the impudent intruder with all their might, but he simply grunted until they both arose and with dire imprecations pursued him out of the house.

On Ios each householder was allowed to keep just one pig. Even so "pigs and churches confronted us at every turn." At Komiake on Naxos Bent found:

a miserable village of mountain shepherds: the houses are perfect hovels where the families live with their pigs, their cocks and hens, and their store of wood, whilst the baby's only cradle is the pig-trough.

On Sikinos, Bent sank ankle-deep in slush which in other countries would only have been found in a pigsty.

On Kea the streets were so deep in mire that the inhabitants walked along the house roofs, and left the streets to the pigs. Kea was:

the queerest place imaginable: the flat roof of the house beneath us fitted close up to ours, and this seemed to be almost the universal custom, so that most of the houses are entered by the roof of the house in front. Everybody walks on the roofs as being preferable to the dirty, dark alleys, arched over for the most part, which are given up to pigs.

T. Fitz-Patrick who travelled around the same time as Bent had similar problems with pigs. On Syros:

In our ascents we had frequently to dispute the passage with huge unwieldy pigs which lay sprawling in our path and only faintly responded to the admonitions of their owners to get out of the way.

Next time you visit a Greek island and tuck into a bacon omelette or pork chop, spare a thought for the piggy hazards endured by earlier visitors.