There is a truly wonderful cookbook called ‘Nose to Tail Eating’ by a chap called Fergus Henderson who is the chef/owner of the famed St. John restaurant in London. His philosophy runs as follows ‘Nose to tail eating means it would be disingenuous to the animal not to make the most of the whole beast; there is a set of delights, textural and flavoursome, which lie beyond the fillet’ (Henderson, F. 1999). And he is right. Within the pages of this delightful monochrome tome are such gastronomic adventures as Duck’s Neck Terrine, Pot Roast Brisket and Pheasant and Pig’s Trotter Pie with Suet Crust all of which will grace our table at some point. By the time I finally bought it I felt as if I’d already read it several times over due to the number of times I’d flicked through it in bookshops and so when I learned that there was a follow up on the way I was overjoyed, and with chapter titles as gloriously simple and intriguing as ‘Pig’s Head’ how could a budding foodie adventurer fail to get excited?
The first step was to procure some of the more interesting ingredients that you won’t find behind the butcher’s counter at Waitrose and so a trip to somewhere with slightly less squeamish and sanitised attitudes to food was in order. Cambridge’s Mill Road is a multicultural melee of shops, cafés, bars and restaurants with Middle Eastern eateries squeezed next to Chinese supermarkets, sheesha bars and independent bookshops. Consequently, it is one of my favourite places. At the far end of the road is an Asian supermarket where, towards the rear of the shop tucked behind the brightly packaged noodles, fresh vegetables, Thai curry sauces and frozen seafood, is a freezer section for bold gastronome. Hand written signs, predominantly in Cantonese, offer tantalising clues as to the contents of each section. A block of what looked like locusts turned out to be a hefty chunk of about a hundred duck tongues, next to those a lurid red mass was labelled simply as ‘lung’ and there was no mistaking the bag of chicken feet or the, now standard, trotters. It wasn’t all like Dr. Frankenstein’s deep freeze – liver and oxtail were also sat happily alongside the more exotic cuts – but it was the pig’s ears that I was most interested in. So with a degree of what could be termed, in hindsight, foolhardy hubris I bought four, each the size of a large hand. The small Asian man at the till looked at me with a mixture of surprise and delight that this farang was willing to explore the gastronomic delights that, in the words of Fergus ‘lie beyond the fillet’. Granted, I wasn’t jumping straight into pig’s uterus or cow tendon, but it is still quite a step to go from juicy, tender sirloin to the slightly less juicy and more cartilaginous ear.
On returning home I proudly showed my purchases to my girlfriend who was strangely excited by them, although less sure as to why I bought four. I struggled to find an answer that sounded reasonably coherent and sensible so I shrugged and muttered something about how they ‘might be really nice’. She looked less than convinced but left me to carry on regardless.
Step one was to wash them. Thoroughly. Why? Because, and I wish I was joking when I say this, because pigs get earwax too and no-one, not even the Chinese, eats earwax. Once they’d been completely cleaned they went into a pot, complete with a healthy selection of stock vegetables, onion, garlic and a bay leaf, to cook for three or four hours over a low heat. The smell was good, not unlike trotters – distinctly porky with a homely warmth added by the veggies and as they cooked I was feeling more confident about the prospect of giving them a go and perhaps even getting through all four. Eventually.
After four hours cooking they become well and truly floppy so they were left to cool whilst we decided what to do with them next. Our new bible, the River Cottage Cookbook, suggests barbecuing an entire ear and eating it with tartare sauce but after careful consideration we felt that this might be little too adventurous for first timers so we went for the ‘slice, smother in butter, mustard and breadcrumbs and bake’ option. After half an hour they’d taken on a tempting golden brown colour and occasionally jumping off the tray so the consensus was that they were ready. And they were good. Not so good that I felt the need to eulogise about them, taking a plate of them into the street with a megaphone and attempting to convince innocent passers by that the crunch of porcine ear is a treat to behold, but good in a way that they were akin to slightly tougher pork scratchings – crunchy, salty and with a definite piggy taste. Of course the generous helping of pungent aioli helped and we didn’t manage to chow down all four but they remain in the freezer, ready to be roasted and passed off onto unsuspecting guests as a gourmet treat. You might not be able to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear but you can certainly make a tasty snack.