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.