Why Matadors Won't Eat Before a Bullfight

Like bee stings to their keepers, incidental gorings come with the job of being a matador. But even though they are fond of Spanish ham and Manzanilla sherry, they keep their stomachs empty before a fight.

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Jun 18 2015, 8:00pm

Foto von nathaninsandiego via Flickr

As someone who practices kirtan, I know the cow is a powerful religious symbol, representing righteousness to those who revere it. The animal is sacred and subject to compassion. This is what flashes through my mind as I sit on the stone pews of Seville's Plaza de toros and watch as a bull is stabbed vigorously in the brain, thanks to the failed sword-thrust of a cut-rate matador.

To anyone who's seen a corrida (Spaniards don't say bullfight), what matadors do for a crust is … chancy. Aglitter in their cropped jackets and cape in hand, they strut into an arena with a five-year-old beast that is bred for ferocity, plant their feet in the sand, and call to the animal.

"Toro! Toro!"

If the wind behaves, the cape commits to the matador's will and the bull passes clean through it. For his artistry, the crowd will cheer. In the finale of this three-act spectacle (not sport), the man has 15 minutes to slay the bull. Depending on his skill, this last scene can be powerfully moving or amateurish butchery.

'

My friend and teacher Juan José Padilla took a horn through his neck—literally, completely through—and it caused hairline fractures in his spinal column en route. He was back in the ring two weeks later.'

Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez, 38, hails from a well-known family of bullfighters; his father famously died in the ring in 1984. On the day of a corrida, the matador is solemn, well-rested, and afraid—of the wind, the bull's temperament, the crowd's expectation. In the hours leading up to the fight, he will fast.

"You keep your intestines empty in case they end up being opened, either by the bull's horn or the surgeon's knife," says Alexander Fiske-Harrison, author of Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona, and friend of Ordóñez. Like bee stings to their keepers, incidental gorings come with the job, and injuries to the extremities, groin, and abdomen are most common. "Matadors have to deal with those little matters," offers Ordóñez, who admits to a serious injury every season.

Attend a corrida and you will likely see these men flung into the air and pinned to the dust. Unless he is dead, the matador will get back up. "My friend and teacher Juan José Padilla took a horn through his neck—literally, completely through—and it caused hairline fractures in his spinal column en route. He was back in the ring two weeks later," says Fiske-Harrison.

Just as the ballerina is lean and lithe, the torero has an ideal shape, too. "When I eat with matadors, I notice a tendency towards carnivory, and then a sudden pang of vitamin-conscience kicks in, so salads and fruits are ordered," says Fiske-Harrison. "Mind you, one of the best and most artistic matadors—Morante de la Puebla—is on the chubby side, but maybe that's why he doesn't always perform so well."

If the torero has pleased his audience—marked by trophies of a bull's ear, two ears, or tail—post-fight celebrations can be baller. Of course, this will depend on the salary of the matador, who can bring in seven figures if he's got chops. "El Juli earned 5 million euros a year at his peak," reveals Fiske-Harrison. "Though most do not make a living."

To take the edge off any lingering adrenaline from the ring, he will reach for hard liquor and sherry (Manzanilla, specifically). In this country, drinking is more a skill than a pastime. It is said that if a man cannot hold his liquor, you know he is a tourist. As such, a Spaniard would decline a hangover cure, but Englishman Fiske-Harrison has no such pride. His next-day miracle—the hair of the bull that gored you—"is two fingers of vodka added to an iced gazpacho, after a run. I call it Madonna on the Rocks, due to the similarity to the Bloody Mary."

For dinner, the star is the Iberian pig. Nearing the end of its life, the animal forages for acorns (bellota), herbs, and grasses. The resulting jamon is complex, exquisitely marbled, and hot-damn expensive. The feast continues with pluma ibérica, the shoulder part of the loin that's big on fat, cooked simply with sea salt. "It's incredible," boasts Fiske-Harrison, "and a cut you don't find outside Spain."

What's missing from the menu, of course, is the slain bull. After the fight, the carcasses—all six of them—are taken apart for sale at farmers' markets the following morning. Outside the ring, refrigerated butchers' vans await the bodies, in some cases, with axes at the ready.

While the fighting bull ends up in the food chain, it rarely reaches the torero's fork. "I've never eaten carne del toro de lidia with a matador," says Fiske-Harrison in our interview. "Top matadors kill 200 or so bulls in Spain a year alone, not counting what they do over in Latin America in the winter. [If they did eat it] they'd never eat anything else!"

Chefs who don't support bullfighting, however, are quick to make tapas of the by-product—liver, steaks, chops, and tail. Because the animals are reared for fighting, not food—as in, the bull is killed whether it's eaten or not—the meat is relatively cheap, up to 10 euros less per kilo than regulation cow.

Outside the ring, refrigerated butchers' vans await the bodies, in some cases, with axes at the ready.

In Seville, I am urged by my friend, Felipe, whose family breeds the prominent Núñez del Cuvillo fighting bulls, to taste rabo de toro (bull's tail). I order a plate from a nondescript restaurant a short walk from the Plaza. It arrives as a glistening mess, served with roast potatoes similarly slick and greasy. The flesh has ditched the bone but its stubborn sinew needs a knife to free it completely. It's sticky in the mouth, not offensively gamey, and rich like dessert. I am all for it.

As it turns out, I am one who appreciates the Spanish bullfight (despite all its uglies) and practices an Indian devotional meditation that honours the bovine. Weirdly, both render me undeniably present and in the moment. During each, the mind's inane chatter is silenced and profound feelings flow.

To whit, being moved by a matador's prelude to ritual killing is probably bad and speaks of my black heart and inner contradiction. I'm sorry. I'm out. And I'd like a cigarette, please.