Mrs Beeton gives a recipe for leek soup that requires a sheep’s head and also describes how to “dress a sheep’s head” with a very similar recipe to Jane’s, though the barley is replaced with oats (as it is in the Scottish fashion). And if lamb’s head with brain sauce makes your stomach turn, I found a recipe in Elizabeth Raffald’s 1769 book The Experienced English Housekeeper for lamb’s head and purtenances, which, to you and I, are the innards. Calf’s head was also very popular; it was the main ingredient in mock turtle soup, for example. So the heads of sheep, calf and, of course, wild boar have been enjoyed for centuries in pretty well-to-do houses, so they can’t be that bad, can they..?
At Christmas time, be careful of your fame,
See the old tenant’s table did the same;
Then if you would send up the brawner head,
Sweet rosemary and bays around it spread.
William King, Art of Cookery 1709
Brawn, which is also known as headcheese or pork cheese, is essentially a terrine made from the head meat of a pig. All European countries have their recipes for it and appeared sometime during the Middle Ages as a peasant food where the head would be boiled to make a soup. Not that many people seem to eat brawn anymore in Britain, but it seems pretty popular still in America, maybe because of the influence of so many European countries there.
Sports Fan: Queen Elizabeth I
In 1571 Queen Elizabeth I breakfasted on “brawn, mustard and malmsey” on one of her Twelfth Days, so it had obviously reached higher status since its invention. It might interest you to know that after her breakfast in the hall, she watched some hounds kill a fox and a cat beneath the fire for sport and later, during the Twelfth Night play, a fox was let loose so that it could be chased by dogs.
The word headcheese baffled me a little. Where does it come from? Obviously, brawn is nothing like cheese in appearance or taste, but then I found this recipe from The Compleat City and Country Cook by Charles Carter, dating back to 1732 which seems to solve the mystery:
A Hog’s Head Cheese Fashion.
You must bone it and lay it to cleanse twenty-four Hours in Water and Salt, and scrape it well and white; lay Salt on the Inside, to the Thickness of a Crown-piece and boil it very tender; then lay it in a Cheese-Press, cover it with a Cloth, and when cold it will be like a Cheese; you may souse it.
Brawn is a great thing to make ahead of time for a meal, but beware you don’t make it too soon; most of the references I found to headcheese concerned food poisoning. The problem with jellied stocks is that they are the perfect food for microbes; indeed we essentially use stock in the laboratory to grow many microbes. You don’t want to use brawn, or any kind of stock more than three days since it was last boiled.
First of all you need to order half a pig’s head from the butcher, you want the tongue too, but not the brains. Ask him to chop the head into two or three pieces for you (I learned my lesson when attempting to chop that lamb’s head in twain with a now blunt meat-cleaver and a hammer a month or two ago). Whilst you are there get yourself two good lengthy pig’s trotters and ask him to chop those in two aswell. Lastly, you need a pound of shin of beef with the shin bone too.
Bundle your meaty horde back home and if you can put the pig bits (not the cow bits) in the brine tub for a day, or at least an evening. See this post right here if you want to try and make your own brine.
Place the meat in a large stockpot, cover with water and slowly bring to a boil. This slow rate of temperature increase is important in order to achieve a nice, clear jelly because the albumin proteins are let out from the meat at a steady rate, which becomes grey scum that floats to the top. Fast boiling makes a murky, grey stock. Skim the grey scum until it runs white and then add the stock vegetables and aromatics: 2 chopped cloves of garlic, a good sized bouquet garni, 10 black peppercorns, 2 tablespoons of red or white wine vinegar, a teaspoon of salt, 2 onions that have both been studded with 2 cloves, 2 quartered peeled carrots and 2 leeks that have been split lengthways. Phew! Bring back to the boil, then cover and simmer very gently for 2 to 2 ½ hours.
When the meat is tender and can be parted from the bones, extract the head and get on with the task of rifling through the head to find all the meat. When cooked, this is not the gory task it may sound. Leave the stock simmering as you do this, adding back any bones to the pot as go along. You should find a good amount of meat with a good variety of colours and textures. Chop the meat into good-sized pieces and cover, adding a ladleful of stock so they don’t dry out.
Strain the stock through a sieve lined with muslin into another pan and reduce the stock to concentrate both the flavour and the gelatine extracted from the bones. Put the meat back in the pan with the stock and simmer for 20 minutes. Season with more salt, if required, and a squeeze of lemon juice. Meanwhile boil three eggs and chop some parsley, chives and chervil.
Now it is time to assemble the whole thing. Start by lining a loaf tin with some cling film – you don’t have to do this step, but it will make it easier when it comes to turning out the brawn onto a serving plate. Next, spoon in stock and meat until you have filled up to just under half way.
You need a good balance of jelly and meat, our Grigson says: ‘you don’t want the brawn to look mean. On the other hand, if the meat is too solidly packed, the brawn becomes too heavy to be enjoyable.’ Sprinkle in half the herbs and line up your hard-boiled eggs.
Sprinkle over the remainder of the herbs and fill the tin with more stock and meat. Let it cool and then set it fully in the fridge, covered with more cling film. When it is time to serve the brawn, turn it out onto a serving plate and press onto it brown, toasted breadcrumbs.
Serve with wholemeal or rye bread and butter, mustard and salad. Alternatively, swap the bread and butter for some mashed potatoes. I went with the bread option as I couldn’t imagine cold jellied meat with mashed potatoes to be in any way delicious.
#336 Brawn or Headcheese. I have to admit when I turned it out onto the plate it looked like a giant slab of dog food. However, I was pleasantly surprised. The meat was very flavourful and tender and the jelly, very soft, was very nicely flavoured with the infused flavour of the herbs. As much as I enjoyed it, I’d much prefer a nice simple paté as a starter, nevertheless, I reckon it deserves 7/10.
My-oh-my! Where do I start with this one!? It is quite possible the most infamous recipe in the whole book. I must say it didn’t seem as daunting as it did when I first spotted it after I had decided to cook the whole book.
Lamb’s head was once rather popular – in particular during the nineteenth century. According to Grigson, Queen Victoria’s chef was a fan. Why has it that in the last few decades it has just simply disappeared from our food culture? It did hang on in Northern England and Scotland and it was one of Jane Grigson’s favourite meals and she emphasises that it is not “ungenteel…or even savage food”.
Still Life with Sheep’s Head
by Francisco de Goya (c.1808-12)
If you are thinking of cooking this receipt, first of all you need to find somewhere that’ll sell you a lamb’s head. I managed to get hold of one opportunistically at Global Foods in St Louis. There they were, just piled up in the freezer aisle. It is very important that you find an organic or halal butcher, then you can be sure that the animal was fed only what lambs should. The prion that causes scrapie is a concern with lamb that comes from the high-intensive farms, or at least it was. You also need to find some guests willing to eat it. Three brave souls – Anna, Vincent and Michelle – came to certainly the most unusual Sunday dinner I’ve ever had…
“Ask the butcher to clean and split the head…” starts Jane with this one. I wasn’t lucky enough to have a butcher on hand so I had to do this myself with a meat cleaver and a hammer. It took a fair few whacks and cracks before it split, but I got there in the end. I felt a little like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Carefully remove the brain and keep it one side, whilst you soak the head in salted water for an hour before rinsing it and placing it in a pot.
Pour enough water to cover and bring to the boil slowly, skimming any grey scum that rises as you go. Now add the following: a bouquet garni that includes a good sprig of winter savory (which was the most difficult ingredient to find!); an onion studded with 3 cloves; 2 carrots and a parsnip, both peeled and halved, a small peeled turnip, a trimmed and cleaned leek, 8 ounces of pearl barley and a good seasoning of salt and pepper – at least a tablespoon of salt is required I would say. Let the broth tick away slowly on a bare simmer for 1 ½ hours.
Whilst the broth bubbles, prepare the brain ready for the sauce. Begin by carefully removing the loose membranous net of blood vessels and placing the brain in salted water for 30 minutes. Remove it from its brine onto a square of muslin and tie it up. Place the brain in with the head and let it poach for 10 minutes. The brain will now be cooked and become firm, unwrap it and chop the brain.
It is quite homogenous with no gristly bits, so don’t worry. Now make a simple béchamel sauce by melting an ounce of butter in a saucepan. When it bubbles, stir in an ounce of flour and cook for two minutes before gradually whisking in ¼ pint of milk. Thin the sauce to an appropriate consistency with some lamb stock from the pot and let it simmer for at least 10 minutes, adding more stock if it gets too thick. Stir in the chopped brain and some parsley if you wish. Season and add a squeeze of lemon juice.
When the head is cooked, remove it from the pot and start having a good rummage around to find the meaty bits. I couldn’t find very much to be honest. There were two cheeks containing some good moist meat and the tongue of course. Apart from that, it was slim pickings. I thought perhaps there might be some edible palate as I knew ox palate was popular in the eighteenth century. The only other place I found some was at the base where head meets neck. Anyway, serve up what meat you can extract on a plate or bowl and surround with some of the barley along with some rolled grilled rashers of bacon and some lemon quarters and pour the sauce into a sauceboat.
The stock makes “a marvellous soup”. If you want to be in the true peasant style, serve it as the starter. Jane recommends saving it for another meal; “[l]amb soup, then lamb’s head, is too much of a good thing.” I have five tubs of it in my freezer…
#333 Lamb’s Head and Barley, with Brain Sauce. Making this is in no way as macabre as you might expect, except for the part with the cleaver and hammer that is. There was very little meat, but what there was tasted delicious and was very tender and the barley broth was hearty. The brain sauce was also good – the brain itself was tender with a certain firmness that was quite appealing and had a very mild kidney or liver flavour. I think it could have done with a touch of Cayenne pepper. So overall, not bad at all, though the amount of meat was disappointing. The soup left over is delicious but needs a touch of sugar, as lamb and mutton broths often do… 6.5/10.