A cold slice of crispy, fresh garden lettuce, a chilled chalet of grassy, spicy IPA, a few miniature pickles thrown on the plate — all an accompaniment to the main event: meat and skin from pigs feet set in its own jelly.
It has many names – Brawn, Head Cheese, Farmhouse Brawn, or Fromage de Tête. I prefer the latter.
There are a number of reasons why I titled this post the way I did. For one thing, Fromage de Tête sounds – I don’t know . . . much classier than “Head Cheese.” Everything sounds nicer in French to begin with. Add to that, the words “Head” and “Cheese” seem downright loutish when put together.
The real reason, however, is that I failed a little in collecting all of my ingredients. The one key ingredient to the dish, the one thing that gives the dish its name (that would be the head) never made it home.
When I decided to make this dish, the first thing that I knew would present a challenge was acquiring the head of a pig. This isn’t something you just walk into a grocery store and buy. You have to go to the right place, and they’re rarely that easy to find. Add to that my preference to sourcing ingredients like this from someone I know, and it gets a little harder. I didn’t really know too many butchers who did the whole hog. That problem was solved by a simple phone call. My wife called her friend, whose uncle René owned a Carnicaria (Spanish for ‘meat market’), who had fresh pigs delivered each day that he butchers in the morning.
Problem solved, right? Yeah, not so much.
A call to her uncle René presented one unexpected problem – the heads on the pigs he’d received the previous day were (as he put it) humongous. Now, this guy butchers pigs on a daily basis. If he says the heads are humongous, they must be pretty big. But, having read a few recipes for Brawn, including the one that gave me this idea in the first place – Fergus Henderson’s “The Whole Beast” I noticed most called for the addition of pig’s feet. Why not try making this with the feet, and nothing but the feet?
When I arrived at René’s Carnicaria, I was swept into the butcher room in the back of the restaurant where he and his staff were butchering whole hogs. Nice operation, lots of split open whole pigs on stainless steel tables — these guys were butchering pigs back here. And yes those heads were massive. It was a good idea skipping on something I literally had no cooking vessel to prepare it in. René had cleaned and prepped four really nicely sized feet for me that I knew would be perfect.
So to start — 4 whole pigs feet. René was so thorough at what he does, he even split them for me. This would make it easier for the disassembly that came later.
Place the feet in a large pot, then cover with the following:
1 large Leek, chunked
couple sprigs of fresh parsley
sprig of fresh rosemary
sprig of fresh thyme
10 Black peppercorns
2 Cloves fresh garlic
4 whole Cloves
1 tablespoon Salt
1 large Onion, chunked
2 Bay leaves
2 Carrots, chunked
Well, that was difficult. Here’s where it got tricky. I had to fill the pot with water, just to cover everything.
OK, maybe that wasn’t that hard after all. I turned on the heat, brought the whole thing to a boil, then reduced the heat to low and simmered for close to three hours until the skin and meat were literally falling off the bones. Every 15 minutes, I’d lift the cover off the pot and skim the protein scum off the top with a hand strainer. This step is important as it helps keep the stock as clear as possible.
I turned off the heat and allowed the pot to cool for a bit. This one lone pig’s foot floated to the surface. I took it as a sign that he was ready to leave the hot tub.
Now it was time to do some surgery. I removed the feet from the broth, being careful to leave any peppercorns and herbs behind.
Delicious. Am I right?
I removed the meat, skin and fat from the bones, separating as I went. I minced the meat and skin into very small pieces and placed them in a large bowl.
The bones ended up in another pile. They say a human foot has anywhere from 26 to 28 bones. I was hoping the pig’s foot wouldn’t be anywhere near this, but I wasn’t so lucky.
Now that’s a pile of bones.
Next, I strained the vegetables and herbs from the broth with a strainer.
Here’s a critical step. Taste your broth. Seriously, taste it. It should still be warm, so grab a spoon and give it a taste. How is it? It had better be seasoned well enough, because this is how the “head cheese” is going to taste. If you feel you need more salt at this point, it’s best to add it now.
Next, I lined the pan I was using for the mold with plastic wrap. I made sure to be liberal with the wrap, so there was plenty hanging over the edges. I wanted to ensure that the finished mold would be easy to remove from the pan after it had set.
Then, in went some of the broth, followed by a couple scoopfuls of the meat and skin, followed by more broth, followed by more meat and skin.
When the mold was full, I covered it with the over-lapping plastic wrap, slammed it against the counter a few times to knock loose any air bubbles, and slid it into the refrigerator.
I allowed it to set for a full 24 hours before pulling it out and slicing it. I was amazed at how gelatinized this was. These ingredients made their own aspic, their own gelatin. And it set up as firm as a meat loaf, making slicing it a breeze.
I served it on a lettuce leaf with a few cornichons on the side. Cornichons are mini French pickles, and they go well with sandwiches or on their own.
The “foot cheese” was just what I’d hoped it would be. The texture – fun, firm, easy to bite into. The flavor was that of pork, rich with the aromatics from the broth, and a slight hint of the cloves. In fact, had I not added them myself, I would have had to guess what that flavor was. It had a great balance of flavors, and I was really happy this turned out as well as it did. Very filling, however. So take note.
How much better would this taste had I actually picked up a pig’s head I could fit into a pot? Probably a lot porkier, richer in flavor, and perhaps even more gelatinized than it was. Some day, I’ll do it again and let you know how it turns out. For now, I’m content having made something this cool, this easy, and this fun.
I continue to be inspired by the magic and science behind cooking, and I’m happy to close another chapter in my life as a foodie.