In pre-war England, rural communities often relied on a single, itinerant pig-killer and butcher. It was a messy business, one which required a good deal of skill if none of the animal was to be wasted. Often paid in kind, the pig butcher would traditionally be given the head.
Today chefs are rekindling an interest in using pigs’ heads. However, in view of the delicate sensibilities of the dining public you are much more likely to see the dish described as pig’s cheek on a menu.
At Restaurant 33, a relative newcomer in St James’s, London, head chef Sean Davis admits that when he listed all the ingredients of his braise of pig’s face meat, brain and tongue on the menu, it was not a runaway success. Reinvented as “braised pig’s cheek with potato pie and spinach” it has become a firm favourite.
Bruno Loubet of L’Odéon serves a mean braised pig’s cheek. He buys in just the cheeks rather than the whole head; this way no elements have to be hidden to “protect” diners, he says.
The third dish featured here is a recipe for the classic Bath Chap – tongue and cheek cooked together. It is a staple breakfast dish that was served on toast in Victorian times. Today it is available only from a few master pork butchers and ham curers – it is the UK’s riposte to the charcutier’s “jambonneau”.
The chap featured here comes from the Hicksgate Farm Shop, Keynsham, near Bristol.
The Butcher’s tale
At a price of between 75p and 80p, a whole pig’s head is something of a bargain. Dis-assembled it represents two ears and a nose, two chaps, face meat, a tongue and the brain. It is also somewhat intimidating.
Davis buys pigs’ heads from butcher Allens of Mount Street in London’s Mayfair. His first request is that the butcher cuts through the head bone to split the head and reveal the brain. It is important the head is not cut too far – otherwise the brain itself will be damaged.
Preparing a pig’s head
Assuming that the pig’s head arrives split through the head bone as described, the first step is to wedge the head open and take out the brain, taking care to keep it intact. Then remove the tongue. The head will then need to be soaked in constantly running water for at least 36 hours.