[Scroll down for recipes]
Carnivorous detachment is something many of us are guilty of.
By that I mean there is a deliberate and tangible epistemic distance between product and animal. It’s one that we gloss over. Choose to ignore, and prefer to exist in a state of happy ignorance about where meat comes from.
Of course, when it really comes down to it we know that something, some thing, died so that we can consume the animal protein on our plate but there is a vast chasm between the casual awareness of this and the genuine hands on reality.
A few weeks back I went to a slaughterhouse. It was clean and quiet and had been shut down for the day. But the pervading atmosphere was one of death.
It was discernable not only in the smell, but in the walls, the floors, the shape of the pens and the grim actuality of the chains, hooks and instruments required to turn a cow (or in this case a water buffalo) into something the consumer is happy to eat.
There was no slaughter that day. But it wasn’t necessary to see it in order to have beliefs affirmed: that, for me, eating meat comes with a responsibility to appreciate the reality of husbandry, slaughter and butchery.
I’m not here to proselytise. Merely explain the position I’ve chosen to take and hopefully use that as a springboard for what follows.
Naturally there was a culinary dimension to cooking a pig’s head. It’s a challenge. A gastronomic gauntlet. A badge of honour, almost. But it also represents the face-to-face dimension of being a carnivore. Literally.
Where one can cook a steak with little thought to animal from which it came, a head doesn’t offer this luxury. It is clearly an animal, and one that we are familiar with. Looking at the apparent smile that seems to spread across the face of a dead pig one can’t help but think it is in a state of blissful ignorance as to its fate: the dinner plate.
I’d set myself the task of cooking a rather ambitious menu and then serving it up to brave diners who had kindly volunteered to accompany me on this little culinary journey. As a perfectionist, though, this wasn’t going to happen without a practice run.
The brain dish wasn’t a winner and certainly not worth the effort of cleaving open the head – a task which took close to three quarters of an hour. But the rest had potential.
So, here it is. A first draft anyway. Complete with recipes
Trio of Pig’s Head
[NB – The only element of this I had help with was asking the butcher to remove the eyes. I have a funny thing with eyes. I was 21 before I could consider the possibility of getting contact lenses.]
For this you will need one pig’s head. Remove the eyes and discard. Remove the ears close to the head and wash well. Use a boning knife to remove as much of the cheek meat as possible, cut into inch long pieces and set aside.
Cut off about an inch and a half to two inches of the snout and discard (a large saw is probably the best piece of equipment for this).
Place the head and ears into a large stockpot with a crude mirepoix of carrots, onion, celery, leeks and garlic. Cover the whole lot with water and bring it to a gentle boil. Let it simmer for half an hour, skimming off any scum that rises to the surface. After thirty minutes reduce the heat and let it bubble away very gently for three hours.
To confit the cheeks, finely chop some rosemary and bay leaf. Salt the cheeks and sprinkle over the herbs. Put the whole lot into a roasting tray and add enough duck or goose fat to come halfway up the cheek pieces. Cook in a cool oven – about 125 degrees C – for three hours. Turn the pieces every half hour or so. Once cooked leave to cool.
Remove the ears and head from the stock pot and let them cool. Strain the stock through a sieve and then a muslin cloth, bring it back to the boil and reduce it by about half. Remove about 250ml from the pot and add it to another saucepan. Reduce that by half. This will make the setting jelly for the brawn pâté. The rest of the stock can be used to make soup.
Once the head is cool enough to handle strip it of its meat, of which there should be plenty – about 300-400g. Set to one side and discard the bones.
Take a deep breath. You’re almost there.
Confit of pig’s cheek
Remove the meat from the duck or goose fat and slice off the skin (which can be used to make pork scratchings – bake ina moderate oven for about 20 minutes). Use two forks to shred it roughly, a little like making rillettes. Heat the leftover fat and strain through a sieve.
Season the meat with salt and black pepper then stuff it tightly into a sterilised jar. Pour over the liquid fat, screw on the lid and let it cool. This should keep for weeks and is great served with cornichons and fresh, crusty bread.
Brawn is a rough and ready item of charcuterie usually made with the entire head with chunks of meat set into jelly. This is a more delicate, refined version, much more similar to a pâté or rough sausage. The jelly is almost indiscernible and is used predominantly as a binding agent.
Finely chop the meat. Season it with salt and pepper then add some chopped sage, about six or seven leaves. In a mixing bowl add about 50ml of the reduced stock to the meat until it starts to come together then turn out onto a square of cling film or tin foil.
Roll the meat into a tight sausage and leave in the fridge overnight. Once set, slice the meat into circles, fry in a little olive oil for thirty seconds each side and serve with salad leaves.
Crispy fried pig’s ears
These are delicious. Not just passable or ‘OK. For an ear’, but really tasty. A little like calamari but slightly tougher.
Thinly slice the ear and coat in seasoned flour. Make up a batter (I used the ginger beer batter again – it works really well) and deep fry the battered ears for about two minutes. Drain on kitchen paper and serve with sea salt, a little lemon juice and some mayonnaise or sweet chilli sauce.