Friday, 19 June 2009

In Over My Head?

As the old adage goes, you learn something new everyday.

Yesterday I learnt three things. Did you know, for instance, that the greyhound accelerates to 45 miles per hour in a single second from a standing start? Zero to forty five in a second? Amazing. It is the second fastest land mammal on earth.

The other two factoids I gleaned through empirical, hands-on research and part of me wishes I was still in a happy cloud of blissful ignorance. Here we go: the brain of a pig is surprisingly small. Tiny, in fact. About the size of a duck’s egg.

['Two squeaks, or not two squeaks? That is the question']

The second? There is a wonderful nugget of meat that sits just below the eye socket behind the cheek bone, only accessible with an adventurous finger after the head of a pig has been simmered long and slow. It falls away in a rather satisfactory fashion, a neat little piece of tasty pork.

I know this because of Project Napoleon.

Project Napoleon, named after the Stalin-esque character in Animal Farm, began quite by accident.

I’d had a request to cook (and eat) brain for the Nose to Tail Tuesday feature (thanks for that). With calves’ and lambs’ brain still illegal, it was up to the reliable old porker to provide the means by which this terrifying prospect could be realised.

I put in a reluctant request with my butcher and received a phone call on Wednesday: ‘I’ve got a pig’s head here for you? Do you want the whole thing or just the brain?’

The question was a no-brainer (ha ha ha – sorry). The head is a culinary challenge I’ve been keen to take on for quite some time: a real test that separates those who merely profess a predilection for the holistic approach and those with genuine gastronomic fortitude.

Why does the head divide the cooking fraternity so? It’s about emoting. As humans we have evolved to read faces, to try and glean as much information as possible from them. The slightest movement can give away a secret, a feeling or an emotion.

Presented with the head of an animal, there is a near certainty that we will lean towards anthropomorphosis. And pigs, even deceased and decapitated ones, look like they are smiling. They look content. Happy even. So turning it into food is difficult.

Once this hurdle has been leapt over, the rest is easy.

One option for turning this insanely cheap meat (this one cost just under three pounds) into a viable foodstuff is to make a tête de fromage, not a uniquely male medical condition but a rustic pâté also known as brawn.

Here the entire head is simmered gently for three hours in water and stock vegetables. Once cooled, the meat, fat and skin is stripped from the skull, the stock strained, reduced and turned into a jelly into which the meat is set.


Or not.

I wanted something more refined. I’ve always believed that true culinary skill lies in turning the ridiculous into the sublime. The drab into the delicious. Here was a challenge.

Driving home from the butcher’s I started putting a menu together, one that would showcase this unusual ingredient to its full potential.

Head Over Heels

So, here is the plan – to be served to adventurous dinner guests, just as soon as we find some. Any takers?

Pre dinner drinks with pork scratchings and ears Ste Menehould

Deep fried brain on toast with champagne

Sour Apple amuse

Pea & Bacon Soup made with ‘head stock’ with homemade bread

Refined brawn pâté with sage

Confit cheek with apple jelly, candied bacon and summer leaves


Cheese and port

Let’s see just what this head can do…


Anonymous said...

I'm scared but can we come??

Ollie said...

Your 'no-brainer' joke made me laugh out loud!

I didn't know veal brains were illegal - when did that rule come in? I've only had them once, I think, at Racine in what must have been 2003.

Your menu sounds completely stunning, Alex. I'd love to come.

Katie said...

The menu sounds brilliant. You said your pigs head was cheap... they actually give them away on Leeds market, they are sat on the counter in carrier bags of one butcher just to pick up for free.

Also did you know Florence Nightingale invented the pie chart and Keith Richards sang for the Queen as a choir boy? The things you learn listening to Radio 4!

The Nose Knows said...

I'm game for the Head menu. A little scared of it but game. Just tell me when & where.

Just Cook It said...

Saladclub - How exciting! Expect an email.

Ollie - Shamefully I got some satisfaction from the joke myself too. Glad it didn't go 'over your head' (again, apologies). I was under the impression that calf and lamb's brains were still banned thanks to the BSE saga. Maybe not. I'll look into this

Katie - Even better. That's really fantastic. I was hoping that I might get mine for nowt as well but it was a special order. I was only charged cost so I can't really complain.

Ultimatewines - Thank you! Glad to know. I will start looking into the possibilities of this

Alicia Foodycat said...

It sounds good - although I fear after the scratchings it'll all be a similar texture.

Andrew said...

Seems interesting-pig's head isn't as cheap here in the US (20-30 dollars). I've got one from a whole hog I bought, and waiting with anticipation to see how this turns out.

Anonymous said...

Your menu sounds great, am looking forward to seeing the results.

I read yesterday that most butchers throw the heads away, such a shame when there's so much that can be done with the meat available.

Nick Weston said...

Sounds fantastic- a true nose to tail dining extravaganza! I had pig brain in the cook islands- kindly donated by our resident porker named chops- it had been steamed in the skull in an underground oven-wasn't great!

With a whole storecupboard- which we lacked at the time- I'm sure you can make it sooper dooper!

Laura in Paris said...

What is all this about????

Hopie said...

Wow, you're a genius. You almost make buying a pig's head and eating it sound appealing... ;-)

Just Cook It said...

Foodycat - Are you thinking of mushy? Not so much, I'm trying to get as much crispy edges in there as possible plus the sides will provide a nice textural contrast

Andrew - Jeez, that is expensive. Good luck with yours. Any ideas?

Thanks Ginger - It's amazing how much usuable meat gets thrown away by butchers. it means the price of the 'prime cuts' stays high because they have to meet their margins

Nick - Yup. Brain=bad.

World in a Pan - a true gastronomic adventure! Simple as that

Thanks Hopie. You're too kind