“She was a good pig. I used to pet her everyday.”
Yes, this is what I was told by the petite girl working the counter when I picked up my pig’s head.
This statement caused some very mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was happy to know that my pig was well loved and cared for. On the other hand, that statement really made me think. Sometimes (too often, I think) it is easy to forget that the meat I eat was a living, breathing thing, just days or hours before. But that statement was a reminder. A slap in the face of a reminder. Another creature has given its life so that I can have nourishment and enjoyment. It’s a sacrifice that needs to be respected.
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As I worked in the kitchen, making jam and pickles from the rest of my farmer’s market bounty I thought about the head in my cooler bag. I was nervous to start with when I decided to take on this challenge (I was going to make something with trotters but my husband talked me into getting a head) but the more I thought about it the more nervous I got. I have a bit of a gag reflex and I just didn’t know how this was going to go down. Finally, I ran out of projects to procrastinate with and it was time. Well first, maybe a cocktail to steel my nerves.
For my challenge this month, I had decided to make a tête pressée (rolled pressed pigs head). The idea of head cheese (with it’s gelatenousness and all) did not appeal (I mentioned my gag reflex, right). The first step in my project was brining. So, all I had to do was take the head out of the bag, rinse her off, put her in a bowl and then pour the brine over the top. Oh yeah, and cut her tongue out and her ear off. The ear removal went fine, but once I started in on the tongue I saw her teeth. Don’t know why, but that sight set me off. It took great effort for me to finish up, but I did. Phew. Into the fridge for three days of brining.
Finally it was time for step two. Rinse her off and start her boiling. I tried, at this point to singe off all her little face hairs (p.s. this smells awful) but my torch ran out of propane. I decided to deal with them later and get the show on the road. Into the pot she went along with some mirepoix and water (and minus her nose because her whole head wouldn’t fit in the pot).
A couple of hours simmering later and it was time for the next step. I manhandled her out of the pot and set her aside to cool. Meanwhile I strained the stock and sauteed some shallots and parsley.
That feeling came back. The nervous stomach feelings of doom for what was to come. When researching this project I’d come across a post by Hank Shaw in which he was making head cheese. He called picking the meat off the head “grim business” and he’s a hunter for goodness sake. How was I supposed to deal with it?
Perhaps a little more liquid courage. Yes, that might help. I donned some gloves and dug in. The first problem was the hairs. Even the ones that I had singed off were still a problem. I ended up basically having to scrape and cut the skin of the entire head. That done I moved onto the real sticky business. First, removal of the eye. No, wait. First, one more drink. It gave me the courage but the process was still awful. There was gagging and deep breathing and much trying not to throw up. Not fun. But I persevered. Feeling my way through, separating the good from the bad. It’s a grim business indeed.
Happily, now, I was just left with the good stuff. Time to roll. The meat (fat) on my head was quite thick so I sliced it in half. I set out some cheese cloth and put half the head down then layered on the shallots and parsley mixture along with the tongue and all the other tasty meat that I had pulled off the head, then topped it with the other half of the head. Finally I rolled the whole thing up tight and secured it with some butchers twine.
The roll went back into the stock which was then left to cool in the fridge. The idea being that the gelatinous stock kinda gets into the nooks and crannies and holds the whole bit together.
Happily, when it was time to serve, it did just that. I had been so worried that the whole thing would just fall apart when I sliced it (and yes, a few slices did) but for the most part, it worked out great.
I served the tête pressée with thinly sliced red spring onions and spicy Dijon mustard which definitely help to cut the richness of the meat. Best described as unctious, the tête pressée was a wonderful part of our warm August dinner party.