Kulen, also known as Kulin, is a traditional cured meat from Slavonia, a region of forests and wide cultivated plains in eastern Croatia.
The traditional production technique has remained more or less unchanged to the present day. It involves the use of several cuts of pork: the thigh, the lumbar and dorsal muscles, the shoulders, the neck and the rind (up to a maximum of 10%). The meat is ground with the belly fat and seasoned with salt, spices, paprika and garlic, then packed into the cecum.
The sausages are tied closed with hemp string and hung in a smoking room, where they remain for several weeks, to be smoked at fairly low temperatures over hornbeam, ash and beech wood. Slavonian Kulen reach the right level of maturity after at least five months, but depending on the size some can age for as long as nine months. Like all traditional cured meats, production coincides with the winter pig slaughtering period, between early November and March.
In the past, Kulen was a very valuable sausage and rarely destined for everyday consumption. As only one Kulen could be made per pig, and the number of pigs slaughtered by every family was small, it was only eaten on special occasions, like family celebrations, or given to important people like doctors and lawyers. The first mentions of this product date back to 1768, when it was named in a poem by Vid Došen, but the importance of Kulen is also clear from its appearance in popular folk tales like those in “Batalija and Other Stories.”
The ideal pork for making Kulen comes from the Black Slavonian pig, a large native breed with a black coat and dark, pigmented trotters, a medium-long body and a fairly long and narrow head with a concave profile. These pigs are still raised wild in the forests of Slavonia, feeding on acorns and finished with a corn-based diet. Their flavorful pork has a good balance between fat and lean meat. The Black Slavonian pig used to be widespread, found in Hungary and Vojvodina as well as Croatia. After the Second World War, it was the most common breed in Slavonia, and in 1952 represented 8% of the 300,000 pigs in Yugoslavia.
These days, due to the introduction of new, more productive crossbreeds, suitable for industrial farming, their numbers have fallen dramatically, and only 200 animals remain. The traditional method of farming them in oak forests has also become difficult. Most of the remaining pigs are raised in the area between Slavonski Brod and Dakovo, in Slavonia. To safeguard this endangered breed, the Black Slavonian Pig Farmers’ Association has been started in the Vukovar-Sirmium region, currently uniting 28 producers. For many years, a fair dedicated to the Black Slavonian pig has been held, along with a traditional Kulenijada, an event which includes a competition among producers to see who can make the best Kulen.
Photos — Slow Food Slavonica