The Astronomer’s Pig
a short story by Rosanne Dingli

‘Only artists and men of leisure can live in high airy rooms,’ said Salvinu the cook. He wiped the palms of both hands on the greasy front of an apron that was once white—one could still see at the edges where it had been starched and ironed.

Salvinu was a large man. And he cooked large dishes—whole lambs roasted with rosemary, legs of beef smothered in a marinade whose recipe was so secret he let no one smell or look at it. He was also surly, dull, and lacked vivacity and humour. His practicality was such that he preferred to do almost everything in his kitchen himself. That was why it seemed almost an affront when Kalanc asked for an apprenticeship.

‘Kalanc—is that what you say your name is?’

‘Yes,’ muttered the young man. He was slim and clean. No match for the robust cook. He was almost going to say his name was a shortened version of Michelangelo, but held his silence.

It was hot in the kitchen. It was not a kitchen at all, of course, but a cellar-bakery whose massive stone ovens were caverns hollowed out of the rock face of the village hill itself. No one remembered who had dug them out; they had always been there; communal ovens whose communal baker had no choice at all about how he made his livelihood. It was a matter of taking over from his father, who in turn had inherited the dubious honour from his own.

‘Bakers ... er, cooks, live on the ground. Or below it, preferably. They cannot ascend or suffer delusions of rising in station. Do you understand? One cannot have ovens on top stories, young man. You may have a spirit stove, or a small fuklar, but never an oven. Hear me? You must know your place!’

‘Yes,’ answered Kalanc meekly.

‘And whose idea was it, to send you here begging for work?’

‘My mother thought ... um—you have no sons, Sal ...’ Kalanc did not know how to address this stout dirty man, this robust mountain that growled and seized implements roughly, only to release them as quickly, letting them jangle onto an already cluttered table.

‘You shall call me Sur Furnar—Mister Baker—and forget about your mother from now on. It is true—I have no sons. But things change, and the world will change. In any case, your first lesson will be Majjal Fgat.’

‘Majjal! But sir—I mean, Sur Furnar—that is pork.’

‘I know it’s pork.’ The baker’s expression was one of disdain. His voice was low and toneless. What did this boy think, that he could not distinguish meats? That he did not know his own trade? His own art?

‘But there is no pork. There are no pigs on the island. They have all been slaughtered by order of ...’

The look in the baker’s eye stopped Kalanc immediately. He started sweating, not only because of the intense heat in that cellar kitchen, nor because of the sharp smell of yeast that suddenly burst forth from a pan the baker uncovered, but from real fear and trepidation.

Salvinu turned away from the boy, who could not have been older than fourteen, and sniffed at the pan of bubbling yeast. ‘This is sourdough yeast,’ he said absentmindedly.

‘Yes,’ answered Kalanc in a level voice. A decision formed in his mind. He was not going to counter or contradict anything the cook said from now on. From what he had seen in the kitchen, it would not be a bad place to work, despite the smells, the clutter and intense heat. He had just seen a dwarfed bent woman pull a tray of sesame and aniseed rings from the mouth of one of the ovens. They scented up the place and put him in a calmed determined state. Food always did that to him. It reminded him of his mother, of sated peace.

‘Now—to the pork dish,’ said the old man, after dismissing the woman gruffly. ‘Majjal fgat is a very old recipe. Er—you needn’t know the exact details.’ Salvinu looked into the boy’s eyes and saw the foolishness of his words. Then he continued, with another rough swipe of palms against apron. ‘Exactly how trustworthy are you, anyway? Are the secrets of the parish priest’s table—for which this dish is destined—to be spread about the entire island?’

‘You can trust me implicitly,’ said Kalanc, impressed with the fact that this was the cook who fed the parish priest. ‘Nothing will persuade me to say anything to anyone.’

Especially not your mother,’ said Salvinu knowingly. ‘Women have the habit—and the ability—to spread things around more easily than the wind can scatter the contents of a torn feather pillow.’

‘Yessir.’

‘You mean no sir, Sur Furnar, you dolt.’

Kalanc lowered his eyes.

The baker assembled the ingredients. Sure enough, there was a large joint of fresh pork; rind, bone and all, lying underneath a checked cloth on a slab of marble. It was a cross section taken from the rump of a large carcass—it had been no mean animal.

‘We also need some white breadcrumbs—now you must know that you cannot make breadcrumbs from Maltese bread. Therefore we use...?’

‘French bread,’ uttered Kalanc. Everyone knew that.

‘The only good thing the French left when we kicked them out was their baking secrets,’ muttered the cook.  ‘And then ... half a head of garlic, two good pinches of salt—sea salt, mind. You must be able to see large crystals. Never cook with any salt that has not known the stench of algae, the detritus of rotting crustaceans, the crunch of a human heel, as it is swept up from the salt pans.’

Kalanc swallowed at the graphic description but he was not about to demur. This was the least he expected from one such as Salvinu the cook.

‘Come on—are you going to peel that garlic or not? And are you still wondering where I got the pork?’ There was a twinkle in the old man’s eye.

‘Um—no ... I mean, yes.’ Was he to be truthful or not? Confusion overwhelmed the boy.

‘Of course you are. Listen—it has a lot to do with whether you live close to the ground—or under it!—or whether you are the elevated kind, of the ilk that climbs stairs, that fancies themselves closer to the stars than the rest of us.’

Could the baker be talking about the parish priest? He lived in a house with three stories. Kalanc could just imagine himself being sent on the run from the communal ovens, bearing a metal dish of steaming baked potatoes and onions, hurrying to keep it hot, and climbing to the elevated dining room of the parish priest’s house, just as the soft slow cleric was about to sit down to his midday meal.

‘People like that are not afraid of passing judgment upon the likes of us, yet look down upon anyone who would judge them.’

Judge. Could it be the lawyer, then, who lived on the edge of the village? That stick of a man—one of the few in the district who could read and write—whose power was such that everyone either avoided him assiduously or fawned, bowed, and scraped until he was out of sight? But the lawyer was fortunate enough to have a large basement kitchen, complete with oven, stove and female cook.

Then Kalanc remembered the tower.

At the edge of the village was the beginning of a rough dusty track that wound past terraced fields to a kind of tabletop overlooking the valley. Believed universally to have been the mouth of an extinct volcano, it was topped by massive boulders moved to the spot in the dim distant past by donkey carts, men with whips and the sheer persistence of fear-filled villagers. They stopped the crater with limestone rubble and boulders upon which, the myth went on, a tower was erected by a local nobleman. The tower survived to this day, occupied by a descendent of that very nobleman, who had—demonstrating a lack of faith in God and a fearlessness of His wrath as unshakeable as that of his forebears—installed in it, of all things, a telescope.

‘To gaze at the stars and moon, rather than at the humbling earth, rather than at the mystical representations in church, rather than at the ground as one kneels to pray, is blasphemy,’ said the cook. They were not his own words, of course. He could not have thought up such a perfect sentence. He was merely repeating, parrot fashion, the words heard over and over again in the village, on the forecourt of its church and in its church; the words the parish priest said every time he looked upward towards the pinnacle where that pagan tower reached higher into the clouds than the very steeple of his village church.

To add insult to injury, the astronomer had taken to wife one of the daughters of a village hunter, and few saw her face again except at market where she hastily put vegetables into a basket and hurried them away.

‘The astronomer not only lives in a high place with many windows, looking down upon us in the village and up into the starry sky. Not only that. No—he is a vegetarian,’ whispered Salvinu, making the word itself seem sinful. ‘He eats no meat, and yet would keep domestic animals around him, as if they were ... as if they were-’ But the man could not continue. The notion of treating animals like people was so alien to him it made his skin redden, his eyes bulge.

And besides, there was an interruption, which finished the conversation—one sided as it was—for good. Shrill voices rose outside, ignored by the cook, who waggled a peremptory finger at Kalanc. ‘We need fat for frying, and we need a ponn of chopped parsley.’

Kalanc understood the term. Ponn—it meant handful. It also meant fist. The cook’s own podgy fist was raised to his face; almost touched his nose.

‘Yes, Sur Furnar.’

It was while he was chopping parsley and peeling garlic that Kalanc realized where the pork came from. He saw the large carcass hanging in the lower cooler part of the large space. True, the head was gone, but it was undeniably a pig. He looked at it hard and long. It was huge, and if Maltese frugality had any sway in that bakery, every scrap of it would be used for some purpose. The head was probably already pickling, and the trotters would no doubt come up in a thick vegetable soup.

As if reading his thoughts, the cook’s voice wafted from where he was stooping over a tray of formed loaves ready for the oven. ‘Tomorrow, you will make Pulpettun, zalzett and Ilsien. Meatloaf, sausages and pressed tongue. We’ll waste nothing—for who knows when we’ll see such meat again? And the brains we shall make into fritters and enjoy outside in the cool evening.’ He included Kalanc in his plans. The old man seemed persuaded the boy was going to stay, which meant in those days it would be more like an adoption than an apprenticeship.

But Kalanc was not so sure. He was certain now of the provenance of that pork. He looked at the huge slab of it on the marble. He was about to learn how one must cook Majjal Fgat. He would tomorrow stuff minced pork into a case made of caul fat. He would himself be made to eat the animal’s brains. He was not a vegetarian, but suddenly, because he knew where the pig belonged, he wanted no part of its eating.

‘What are you staring at? Go on—look for a large pan with a tight-fitting lid. No—not that one. It must be cast iron, and be able to hold two rotolos of meat. Yes! There you are.’

Kalanc smeared drippings onto the base of the pan, and placed it on a hot grid. It spattered almost immediately. Those fires were eternal—nothing in that intensely hot cellar was ever turned off. The fires had burnt since time immemorial, fuelled with wood, coal, rubbish—anything combustible the village could provide. The meat and garlic sizzled on contact with the fat, and the breadcrumbs, salt, pepper and parsley followed in quick succession.

‘Quick—you must be quick,’ breathed Salvinu, coming up behind the boy and slamming on the heavy lid. ‘Timing is everything in cooking. Do everything on time, in its time. Now—set it on the right flame and let it cook for...?’

Kalanc did not know the answer this time. He looked directly into the cook’s eyes and saw wide dilated pupils that fully reflected his face. The black eyes were wide, avidly awaiting the answer. Salvinu was genuinely engrossed in his cooking, and it seemed he was anxious, after all, to pass on his skill.

‘... For an hour?’

‘Ha! You dolt! What will happen in one hour? Nothing! Three hours, three and a half... that will give us really tender meat—hardly requiring a knife! Remember this—we will not get this opportunity again. No more pork! Remember...’

Kalanc wiped his hands on a cloth. He smelled of garlic, of sweat, of kitchens. He seemed to hear the shrill voices of children and women somewhere above his head. ‘It’s the astronomer’s pig,’ he said, at last, amazed at his own daring. ‘You are cooking the astronomer’s pig!’ His voice was full of disbelief tinged with disgust.

The cook burst into a sudden peal of laughter. He bent double, then stood erect, arching backwards, letting his belly distend fully. He wiped tears from his eyes with the back of a greasy hand. ‘Ooh. Oh—it’s not often one succeeds in ridding someone who lives in a high place of some ingombru—some obstacle. That pig was getting too fat—the astronomer must be glad it’s gone. God knows where he thinks it went. Ha ha ha!’

‘You stole the astronomer’s pig,’ breathed Kalanc. He untied the apron he had wound round his waist earlier, flung it onto a table and half ran, half stumbled toward the worn steps leading to the street.

He ran into a crowd of women, most wearing aprons just like the one he had thrown off. They held small tin plaques in callused fingers; waggled them as they gossiped. They were numbered tags to be matched to their dishes of baked potatoes in the communal oven. Salvinu would draw the dishes one by one on a long wooden paddle, shouting the number in his hoarse guttural way, and the women would pay him his tuppences and take their meals away.

The cook had not wasted any time brooding over the lad’s departure. ‘Wiehed!’ came the shout. ‘Number one!’ And a woman moved forward to claim her food.

At the foot of the winding track that led to the tower, Kalanc paused for breath. What was he doing? It would be crazy to arrive at the tower to babble like a fool that he knew where the astronomer’s pig was. What could anyone do? The animal was dead. Its head was floating in brine. Its intestines were being rinsed and doused with salt. A large slab of its rump was lying in a cast iron pot, to simmer for three hours. Or three and a half. Kalanc remembered his care with the sharp knife as he chopped the parsley. A ponn of parsley, the cook had said. Ponn—a handful, a fist. Kalanc formed fists in his pockets where he stood, looking up at the many windows of the tower. In the turret, he had heard, was a huge telescope through which you could see the face of the man in the moon. You could see the tail of the lost star of Bethlehem. You could see the Kewkba ta’ fil-ghodu, the Morning Star, which someone told him was really the planet Venus.

Only the wealthy and the idle could live in lofty places, Salvinu the cook told him. And the astronomer was a nobleman; one who hardly spoke a word to anyone in the village; whose life was a mystery; whose wife was stolen in the night; whose animals were treated better than people; whose infertility was a curse from God.

The boy did not climb the track. He stood in the same spot and wondered where one might keep a pig in such a tall building that appeared to have no courtyard. He wondered if it was true that there was a host of animals up there, as was rumoured in the village.

‘Hey, you—come up! Come on, don’t stare. Yes, you—come here!’ The voice was loud, hailing him from a parapet on the turret, but it was kind.

Kalanc was not sure what to do.

‘Come up, I tell you.’ The man beckoned furiously. He would not be refused.

Kalanc climbed the steep track and was soon at the door of the tower. The nobleman appeared and led him up a series of steps let into the exterior wall.

‘Don’t look down, don’t look at your feet,’ the nobleman bade him.

They climbed and came to a parapet leading to a small bright room. In the middle of the red and white tiled floor of the room, which was bare except for a high stool and a small cupboard, stood a brass telescope on a brass tripod.

‘When it gets dark,’ said the nobleman, looking wistfully at the boy’s unusually fine features, ruing the fact he could never have a son of his own, ‘I will show you the oceans of the moon.’

‘Oceans?’ Kalanc stood wide-eyed close to the instrument, not knowing whether he was sinning if he stayed there, or whether it was also a sin merely to wish he could stay and see those oceans.

‘But first, I want you to look through this... close one eye, yes, that’s it. What do you see?’

‘Sir, I cannot see anything.’

The man adjusted something and suddenly Kalanc was confronted by the flattened view of a large space full of animals. They milled and crowded together, shuffling on the hardened earth of an enclosed courtyard ringed by innumerable pots of geraniums hanging on chains, spilling glossy star shaped leaves and flowers of all colours over the heads of the creatures, most of which were pigs.

‘Pigs!’ he exclaimed, despite himself. The surprise was so sharp, so genuine, that Kalanc lost his balance and fell into a sitting position on the red and white floor. He rose clumsily.

‘Yes, I have many pigs,’ smiled the nobleman. ‘Here, they can be free of the diseases that necessitated the slaughter of the island’s swine population. Do you like pigs?’

‘I don’t know, sir,’ was all Kalanc could say.

‘Of course, how could you? You must have been a child when they were all killed.’

‘But how ...  And ...’ Kalanc had a host of questions he could not put into words. ‘The baker has a pig,’ he said suddenly. He lowered his head, ashamed he had betrayed the man who accepted him as an apprentice only that morning.

The astronomer laughed. He threw back his head and guffawed loudly. His eyes were shining when he looked at Kalanc again. ‘I thought the yard looked a bit less crowded yesterday,’ he said. ‘I suppose he plans to cook some splendid meals, some excellent pork dinners!’ He laughed again.

‘Yes,’ said Kalanc.

‘Do you know how he does it?’

‘I can make Majjal Fgat,’ said the boy.

‘Tell me, and I shall write it down for my wife to make.’

‘But in the village, they say you don’t eat meat.’

‘They say a lot of strange things about us in the village. Go on—tell me how to make Majjal fgat.’

‘You need a ponn of parsley.’ It was the first thing Kalanc remembered of the recipe. He was fascinated that anyone would need to write a recipe. As far as he knew recipes were memorized and passed by word of mouth, or kept as secrets. It was only after he told the man every single detail that he remembered he promised Salvinu the cook never to divulge to anyone anything he learnt in that kitchen.

‘I forgot. I promised Salvinu the Furnar I would not tell anyone his cooking secrets.’ Kalanc’s face was red with shame.

Once more, the astronomer threw back his head and laughed. ‘Don’t worry. No one knows what happens in my kitchen, my son. It’s only fair, after all. One recipe for one pig. Perhaps it’s not such a bad exchange. Look—I have written what you said in a book. How do you like that?’

Kalanc looked. He could not read, but it was the only time anyone recorded anything he said, and he would never forget it.

Majjal fgat

Two rotolos of pork leg, cut cross section about 3" thick
A handful of white breadcrumbs
A handful of freshly chopped parsley
Half a head of garlic, peeled and chopped
Rock sea salt
Black pepper
Lard for frying

Choose a cast iron pan with a close fitting lid and heat the fat.
Place the meat in the pan and fry lightly.
Place all the other ingredients on top of the meat, cover and simmer very gently.
Baste the meat with pan juices once or twice during cooking.
A few drops of lemon juice may be added.
Lift the meat and drain slightly before serving hot or cold.

Note: 1 rotolo = 795g
3" = 6cm approx

  

©2000 Rosanne Dingli

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