It’s quite common to see pig heads hanging in London butcher’s shops in early January. Traditionally pigs are fattened up through the warmer months (where crops are plentiful) and then slaughtered in late autumn or early winter. There are very good reasons for this, dating back to times before refrigeration existed. If the temperature is cold the meat will keep longer and the curing of hams, charcuterie, etc. can commence slowly without fear of the meat going bad before the process has properly begun.
These days pig slaughter takes place throughout the year, but it makes sense for farmers to graze their pigs off the land, rather than having the expense of buying in food during the coldest winter months. I’ve wanted to make brawn, with a whole head, for quite a long time, but lacking a huge saucepan, occasionally settle on slow cooked half pig’s head, as inspired by Fergus Henderson.
These pig’s heads are generally quite cheap and the butcher will obligingly cut one down the middle with a cleaver, where you’d probably cut your own hand off trying to do this at home with a kitchen knife! Give the other half to a friend or get the butcher to chop it up for stock or brawn.
I used pig’s head stock, made from the chopped up other half, one large onion, 6 pieces of garlic, two sticks of celery, two carrots, salt, pepper, a bouquet garni and two bay leaves with 3 pints of water – cooked for 30 minutes in a pressure cooker. Allow to cool and strain the stock with a sieve before using. Other stock, such as chicken or vegetable would also work well.
Before cooking the head, it needs a shave. Cut off any stubbly hair and the eyelashes with a disposable razor. Clean out the ears and nose – I recommend a cleansing salt bath in the sink for half an hour or so. You could brine the head properly if you wish, but a handful of salt in cold water will do a reasonable cleaning job. Rinse the head in cold clean water and pat dry before cooking.
Wrap up the ear in aluminium foil to stop it burning. Lay the head in a large oven tray and pour over enough stock, so that it looks like an “alligator in the swamp“. Cover the head with some greaseproof baking paper – this stops it burning and allows the moisture to escape, whereas foil would keep the moisture in. Place in a preheated oven at about 200ºC, for twenty minutes and then turn the heat down to 150 – 180ºC.
After 2 or so hours, remove the baking paper and allow the head to cook uncovered. Cooking time is approximately 4 hours, or until all the skin has turned to crackling. Remove the foil from the ear, after about 3 hours, but keep an eye on it and make sure it doesn’t burn – you can always put the foil back on.
Tap the skin to check it is crispy and cover it with foil to let it rest for 30 minutes, while you make a gravy with the juices in the pan.
You can see above, that the meat is very tender and the skin has turned to crackling.
There’s a surprising amount of meat on the head – the cheeks and jowl are particularly good as is the tongue. Pig cheeks have had a popular resurgence in recent years and can even be be found on supermarket shelves – they are one of those old fashioned cuts that become incredibly tender when cooked slowly in the oven.
IMHO the very best part is the pig’s brain, which is even more delicious than calf’s brain.
Serve the pig’s head with mashed potato, seasonal vegetables and lots of gravy. A hearty red wine, such as Heredad del Rey, Selección Reservada Monastrell-Syrah, makes for a great accompaniment.
Merciful heavens – I have a chef who always buys the heads of my pigs – now I know why. I have another theory about slaughtering in the late autumn. I think the animals feel the approaching cold and put on a layer of delicious fat. This after grazing on the last of the pasture and roots so the meat has begun to lean up and gain flavour. Then that winter layer. I think the autumn meat is just tastier. I personally don’t like summer pork. c
It’s definitely not natural to butcher pigs in summer as the meat would have gone bad quickly before refrigeration. In countries like Spain, where some villages still help each other with a home matanza (pig killing) the butchering always takes place at the end of October. All the old ladies sit round and make chorizo and other sausages while hams get cured in salt. Brawn made with the heads is quite fantastic and is somewhat like a chunky pig head pâté. Do have a look at the Fergus Henderson link – it shows him cooking in the St. John, where we had coffee and brandy last year.
Don’t show this to Sheila!
Oh no. Sheila would be appalled that you would be discussing such goings on- or – she would herd Molly over to you!!
Ha ha, Molly’s safe from me too, along with Poppy!
Fabulous! Have just finished my huge Christmas lot of brawn – now there would not be an Estonian or Estonian-born who does not make this as a main part of the meal at Christmas, Easter or any other festive occasion. Veal shoulder and knuckles are added to the pig’s head and it is all boiled using allspice as the main spice! I have never cooked a pig’s head like you but find it fascinating . . . worth asking a houseful of friends to come and try as soon as we stop having 117 F on our temperature gauge!!! *smile* the sides will be a little different as I rarely use potatoes, but ‘thank you’ for the nudge . . . . [as the cook, I’ll ‘bags’ the tongue . . . ]
Thanks Eha – I’ll have the brain! No butchering pigs in Australia right now, I guess, it’s far too hot – I suppose traditionally, pig butchery down under would have been done around June or July. Though they will (of course) have abattoirs with fantastic AC these days.
Mad, ‘new pork’ is being advertised here non-stop as being the healthiest meat on the table – it is also somewhat more affordable than beef or lamb: so am certain that pig butchery goes on all year . . . . and Aussies being as ‘health-fussy’ as they are, methinks that AC makes matters quite safe. Of course some miss the fattier versions of yesteryear but a balance has to be struck somewhere . . . .
Cleaning out the ears and the nose is more than I want to do, but the recipe sounds delicious.
Thanks Rosemary! There wasn’t much too it really – the salt water bath took care of everything.
Yikes! Now that I know Sheila, Molly & Poppy, Wai, Tima & Tane….. But I do remember when I was a little girl, Mama & Daddy used to tell of fond memories of childhoods’ farm hog killing time in November & heavenly cracklings. I only know “store-boughten” pork, have never seen a hog’s head displayed except golden ones over charcuterie shops in France, & have not ever tried these delicacies. Still, I know people do & with relish. Bon appétit, mes amis. Excusez-moi.
Thanks Judith – ha ha, no eating pigs with names. I follow Fergus Henderson’s lead in eating all the pig, as people used to do before supermarkets erased their memories. They seem to have done a good job since, as you say, one very rarely sees the heads or even trotters these days. I have eaten pig face in a Spanish bar, where they bring you a plate of the face crackling chopped into bite sized pieces.
Wow, MD. There is nothing culinary that scared you to attempt. It’s very visceral and honestly, even though I’m mostly plant-based now, the culinary, “I’d try anything once,” lover of ancient culinary traditions, in me wants to give it a go. It forces you to know where your food comes from. This is probably so so good. Interesting history too Re summer vs winter. I hope you’re well!
Thanks Amanda – I’ll do a brawn post sooner or later. I felt a duty to cook the head since I enjoy all the usual pork products. I like the idea of cooking it as a main dish, rather than it being a cast off for pet food or glue.
I would not mind trying it but would not like to cook it though. I am afraid I do not like to have my food looking at me.
I can see your point – I got the impression it was smiling at me in the shop, but it looked more ferocious the longer it was cooked!
While I’ve yet to see a pig’s head anywhere here in the U.S., I’ve seen them in the meat markets in Germany. As a matter of fact, I’ve got a photo on one of my older posts. 🙂 Just ate pig’s ears for the first time during our stay in Berlin but that is the only part of the head I’ve tried.
It is astonishing, that meat has become hidden and sanitised in plastic and styrofoam – particularly in the US and UK. If supermarkets had their way, I’m sure we’d all be eating astronaut food from microwavable packages. Pigs ears are a very good start – they are so wonderfully crunchy!
It looks fabulous, but like Karen I have never ever seen a pig’s head for sale in the states.
Thanks Katherine! It is quite amazing, as there must be hundreds of thousands of pigs killed in America each year. No doubt they were far more visible just 50 or 60 years ago. They are not that common in Britain either and only show up for a couple of weeks in January, more as a novelty item than anything else.
Fabulous…love the idea of giving your soon to be meal a shave before cooking 😀 So pleased for you that you got to do this, I know it was something you wanted to try. Some folk are squeamish about the whole thing, not us, as you know. The brains must have been delicious, sweet and creamy. In our local villages you can always buy the goat ones as we eat so much of the meat. That crackling must have been delicious.
Thanks Tanya – the crackling and brains were fantastic and the meat was really tender. I often buy pig cheeks from the butcher and I’ve noticed recently that cod cheeks are available, in more than one local fishmonger. I didn’t think I’d see those outside of Spain.
How funny, I cooked cod cheeks last night! Recipe coming up soon 😀 It was the first ti e I had seen them here and they weren’t that expensive.
I was going to do one too – the way my Basque friend Amaia cooks them. I think they are about £14 a kilo here.
Can’t remember exactly what I paid but a lot less..I think no one wanted to buy them so I got a bargain!
Excellent – I’m sure they are more expensive in the Boqueria! Anyway, I’m looking forward to seeing what you do with them.
MD, that’s one fine looking pig half head! Must say, I now feel deprived as I’ve never had such a version. I’ve had Posole and tamales from Mexico, Hog’s head cheese in Texas, pigs ears in China and in US hot dogs I’m sure. But never this way. A must try in my book… Also thanks for the nose hair tip.
Thanks Ron. Aside for the shaving, it’s very easy to prepare and quite low maintenance in the oven. I hope you do give the recipe a go.
It would be rare, indeed, to see a pig’s head in a grocery in the US, but we’ve gotten a couple when we’ve bought directly from farmers. I must admit that I get a little squeamish, but Steve has enjoyed making headcheese and will probably try again one day.
Let Steve deal with the squeamish bits and then enjoy the brawn, which is really just like a course pâté.
I really don’t know if I would eat that or not. But I know Hungarians that have this kind of meal in winter.
The crackling is amazing and often served as a bar snack in Spain. The cheeks are quite fantastic too and you’d think they were regular, tender pork after a few hours slow cooking in a casserole.