12 November 2010
The meal after the bullfight: Bull meat remains a delicacy in Spain
SPAIN -- If you think bullfighting is a brutal, incomprehensible blood-sport, then you should really stay away from the novillada, which is where aspiring matadors get to practice on young bulls in front of a crowd. This is where the future talent is spotted. It’s for serious fans, aficionados.
Inevitably, it’s not pleasant. The main reason for this is that novilleros, as trainee bullfighters are known,often aren’t very good.
They have occasional flashes of inspiration, like the spectacular pair of banderillas in the photos I snapped for this article. But they’re learning -- and it shows. They fumble with the cape and stand too far from the bull as it charges on each pass. They hold the cape too low, or too high, drawing criticism from the old men in the stands. They don’t stand right, they take too long, or they move too quick.
Nowhere is this lack of skill more evident than when it comes to killing the animal. Where a seasoned matador will drive his sword deep into the bull, piercing its heart to bring about the death of the animal (relatively) quickly, these guys often need three, four, five or more attempts. The novice will lunge forward like a real professional, only for the sword to hit bone and bounce off, leaving the bull bellowing furiously in pain. On other occasions, the sword goes in skewered left or right, slicing through the bull’s internal organs but missing the vital ones. The bull is left drowning in its own blood, a gruesome spectacle. It also poses a tricky dilemma for the hapless novillero, who now has to retrieve his sword from an angry, foaming mass of raging muscle with horns, before starting again.
These bulls are called novillos and are meant to be small. But they usually weigh in at 450 kilos, give or take a few, so it’s all relative. To the untrained eye, they are anything but small.
One evening in Algeciras, I watched Miguel Ángel Sánchez, a novice fighter in his debut event, get tossed up by a mean-looking novillo, pick himself up and dust himself off only to be trounced by the bull again. And again. At one point he tumbled and came narrowly close to being spiked against the wooden barrier surrounding the arena. To his rescue came David Galván, another trainee fighter, who bravely – or perhaps foolishly – vaulted over the barrier, placed himself between the horns and Sánchez, and kicked the bull in the head. I was down at ground-level in the press enclosure, right up close. It was a dramatic moment. We all thought that Galván had pushed it too far, that he’d end up gored in a poorly-attended fight in Algeciras, his promising career dashed in a crazy moment of blind bravado. For a bullfighter, to be skewered against the wooden barrier is the worst of all possible outcomes. There is no room for manoeuvre in that position, no hope that you can twist away from the horns at the list minute. But both Sánchez and Galván were lucky this time. The bull backed off and they all lived to fight another day.
Well, almost all of them. The bull wasn’t so fortunate. Sánchez has balls of steel -- that much I can say about him. He recovered quickly from the fright and trooped out into the ring once again, sparkling skin-tight pants splashed with blood, cape in hand for a few more nervous passes at the bull before setting up for the kill. But it wasn’t his night. I stopped counting after the fifth attempt.
The animal was on its knees, vomiting blood as it snorted its last breaths in short, visceral grunts. With each failed attempt it would pick itself up and charge the bumbling novillero, one last lunge before flopping back onto its knees again. It was excruciating to watch and even the veteran taurinos, the old men who don’t miss a fight, were turning away or staring into their glasses of dry sherry.
‘What the hell am I doing here?’ I thought. But I forced myself to keep on watching. This was research, after all, and that bull was my dinner.
Editor's note: This is the first part of a three part series on bullfighting in Spain in which Gibraltar-based journalist and foodie Brian Reyes asks the question: "Can I bring myself to eat a delicacy, the meat of the bull, after watching the slaughter during the bullfight?"
Read more from Brian Reyes at www.mymediterraneandiet.net