This recipe…no, this experiment…caused more trouble than any other I’ve ever made.
The bother started in the butcher’s shop.
I asked for a pig’s head.
The butcher, seemingly used to such requests, went and got a pig head, slapping it down on the block.
It was spotted by the woman behind me in the queue, who screamed.
I asked her what was wrong and she told me that she didn’t like to think of pigs having heads. I asked her what she thought they had where their heads should be and she mumbled something about not wanting to think about it. All the while, the butcher stood there rolling her eyes and giving me a knowing look.
So, I went home with a pig head in a bag.
At home, Ethan displayed the sense of morbid curiosity that befits an eight year old, but others wouldn’t entertain the idea of even having the head in the house.
It. Had. To. GO.
This all shows a huge disconnect between the neat plastic wrapped trays of meat from the supermarket and the real world of butchery. In one world, a pig doesn’t have a head or trotters, in the other – the real world – it does.
I must admit to some uneasiness about this. I was unsure how I’d react to cooking something with such a distinctive, well, face, but I found that once things got underway, it all became very matter of fact and practical. The pig itself was long dead, anyway, and it would be even more insensitive not to use everything it had to offer, I argued, head included.
Nose to tail eating, nose to tail eating, Fergus Henderson would be proud, I kept repeating to myself.
The real truth is that anybody who eats sausages also eats pig’s head, because the head has plenty of meat on it, particularly in the cheeks. No butcher worth his salt lets this go to waste. It just gets repackaged into a more palatable, less controversial form.
For this recipe, the head is gently simmered and stripped of meat and fat, which is then rolled up into a torchon. Disks of piggy goodness are then sliced off, breadcrumbed and deep-fried. It’s from David Chang’s fantastic Momofukucookbook, and has its roots in Korean cuisine.
Cook the head
The first practical problem is the pan.
You need a big pan to simmer the head in.
You might be surprised just how big a pan you actually need – a pig head is an awkward shape. Mine ended up submerged with the snout poking out skywards. This image obviously did nothing to calm the general sense of freaking out in the house.
The head needs to be simmered for three and a half hours, covered in water, or as near covered as you can manage. Add a couple of sliced carrots, a halved onion and some bay leaves to the water for extra flavour.
Depending on the size of the head or pan, you might need to move things around or turn it all over half way through.
Good luck with that.
Strip the meat
When the head is cooked, carefully lift it out of the pan and stand it in a big bowl to drain and cool for a few minutes.
The remaining poaching liquid might be useful for an impromptu soup of some sort, but only if you like your soup to be ultra-piggy…this is the pure, distilled essence of pig, and, really, it’s too much. Don’t feel bad about throwing it out.
When the head has cooled enough for you to be able to handle it easily, start to pull the meat away.
There’s no easy way to talk about this.
It’s gruesome, but fascinating in a slightly macabre sort of way.
Just get stuck in.
You’ll need three bowls – one for meat, one for fat and one for rubbish.
Most of the meat is in the cheeks, but there are big pockets in the neck and elsewhere. There’s a fair amount of meat on an average head, and it’s very good pork. The cheeks in particular are a fine cut.
The fat, and by this I mean the fat and skin, needs to be reserved.
Anything that looks dubious, unappealing or just plain wrong goes in the rubbish bowl. If you’re in any doubt, it goes in the rubbish bowl.
It’s best to wear a pair of rubber gloves for this – it’s a messy job.
Roll your torchon
This is the difficult part. You need to get the meat and fat rolled up into a nice tight cylinder.
First, though, check the seasoning of the meat. It’ll need more salt.
It’ll also need garlic – quickly fry a couple of tablespoons of finely chopped garlic in groundnut oil and mix it in.
Next, cover a large stretch of work surface with cling film, about a metre by sixty centimetres, and lay the reserved fat out to form a wide bed across the middle. Make sure that the fat is chopped up into bite-sized pieces.
Lay the meat on top of the fat, evenly. Again, make sure that the meat is chopped up properly.
To roll the torchon, lift the front edge of the cling film and fold it across the meat, lifting and rolling the contents over. Tuck the cling film in on the far side and start to tightly roll it all together.
There will be some trial and error involved.
The end result should be about six or seven centimetres in diameter.
Tie one end of the roll and work the meat down so that it’s tightly packed and then tie the other end. Wrap the torchon in more cling film to keep it all nice and sealed, and put it in the fridge for a good few hours or overnight.
The torchon will sit quite happily in the fridge for a few days, and it’ll freeze very well at this point.
When you’re ready to go, unwrap the torchon and cut it into two centimetre thick slices.
Dredge each disc in flour, dip in egg and then coat in fine breadcrumbs (panko is best) and deep fry for three minutes.
Drain on kitchen paper.
Plate and serve
Some sort of mustard vinaigrette would go very well with this. The torchons are crisp and brittle on the outside, soft and tender on the inside. The pork is meltingly soft, and something acidic helps to balance the essential fattiness of it all.
You don’t need much more. Some simple salad leaves or a few slices of tomato just about do the trick.
Whatever you serve, think ‘clean’ – you need to counter-act that fat.