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Extremities: Head, ear and trotter

hansjoakim's picture

Extremities: Head, ear and trotter

There are a few cookbooks that I have on my shelf that I find myself coming back to time and time again. The last few days, I've enjoyed browsing and re-reading sections in three such books, namely Jane Grigson's classic «Charcuterie and French pork cookery» and Fergus Henderson's more recent cult classics «Nose to tail eating» and «Beyond nose to tail».

These books have a few things in common: They're mostly, and in Grigson's case exclusively, dealing with pork. And I love pork. Every thing about it. Apart from a common love of pork, they also have that in common that their recipes are rather vague, oftentimes omitting measures and timings altogether. In a day where most recipes are measured with exactness down to the gram and braising times are given in minutes (rather than the more sensible «cook until the meat tender»), this feels extremely refreshing. They both use simple and cheap ingredients and cuts of meat, but manage to take an otherwise bland cut to another level by a deep respect for even the humblest of ingredients on hand.

Finally, both Grigson and Henderson convey a wonderful British sense of humour in their books. Henderson, for instance, compares shelled walnuts rolled up in salted fatback with «eating grown-up peanut butter». In his recipe for «duck legs and carrots», Henderson instructs to «press the duck's legs into the carrot bed, skin side upwards, season the dish and pour chicken stock over until the duck's legs are showing like alligators in a swamp». In her book, Grigson often paints a slightly negative picture of the food and ingredients available in her native England compared to the wonderful abundance found in France. I'm sure things have improved in England since she wrote her original text back in 1966, but it's her vivid and delightful descriptions of French preparations that gets me every time. Her book shares many similarities to those of Elizabeth David, I think, and her style probably owes quite a bit to that of David. In her description of Pieds de Porc à la Sainte-Ménéhould, pig trotters prepared in the Sainte-Ménéhould manner, Grigson writes «spiced with quatre-épices and rolled, like pieds panés, in breadcrumbs, they have been cooked for so long – 48 hours – that they can be eaten bones and all. This gives three textures – crisp, gelatinous and the hard-soft biscuit of the edible bones. ... One charcutière told me that it's the addition of a certain vegetable or herb that causes the bones to soften, as well as the prolonged slow cooking. Local sceptics tartly hint at 'produits chimiques'

In this day and age, I feel very lucky to live close to two first class butchers, that gladly take orders for more unusual cuts. Inspired by the two cookbook authors, I placed an order for a pig's head, some ears and a handful of trotters. The plan? Grigson's Fromage de Tête and Henderson's Trotter gear. The ears I were not sure of what to do with.

Both Henderson and Grigson advocate the use of a strong brine to pickle meat. Salting of most pork cuts greatly improves flavour, but a brine can be used for some limited storing of the meat as well. Time spent in the brine can vary from a day up to weeks – depending on the cut and dish that is to be prepared. Prior to collecting my order, I had cooked and cooled 12 liters of a classic English brine, after Henderson's proportions (150 gr salt and 100 gr sugar per 1 liter water – bring to a boil, then add a piece of tied muslin with peppercorns, juniper berries, cloves and herbs and leave to cool completely). In went the head, which was luckily divided in two equal halves, the ears and trotters. Below is the bucket used for the head and some trotters, the remaining bits and pieces went into a smaller bucket. It just fit into the fridge...

After pickling for 48 hours, I was all set to get things underway, heads and all.

It looks happy – I trust it had a happy and carefree time. I hauled out my largest casserole, and placed the two head halves and three trotters in it. Filled up with water, and brought slowly to a boil to flush skum and excess salt away from the meat.

Throw out the filty and salty water, clean the meat and the casserole, and put everything back along with plenty of stock vegetables and top up with water. Cook up again, and leave to simmer until the meat is tender, anything from 4 to 8 hours.

Now, while this is simmering away, I had ample opportunity to take care of the remaining trotters for the trotter gear.

The strategy is very similar – just get your court-bouillon going with whatever it is that needs to be cooked tender. These trotters were simmered in some of the duck stock from last weekend, so I guess this is the trotter gear royale version. I could in principle have cooked them in the pot for the Fromage de Tête, as there was room enough for it all in there, but I feared that too many trotters in there would bring about too much gelatine and cause the stock to become hard as rubber once cold; a nice Fromage de Tête is characterised by meat suspended in a firm, but giving, jelly. It should not be rubbery hard, but rather instantly melt on your tongue when you eat it. Thus, three trotters went into the pot with the head, and (I'm jumping a bit ahead here) this resulted in a perfectly set and giving jelly.

I threw a couple of ears in with the trotters for the trotter gear – the ears are done after roughly an hour, so they were fished out of the pot, flattened, sliced in two lengthwise, rolled in butter and lightly toasted breadcrumbs, pan-fried and enjoyed with a blue cheese salad with a lemon-walnut vinaigrette (i.e. a take on the Oreilles de Porc Grilées Sainte-Ménéhould - to further emphasise the poshness, the breadcrumbs were pain au levain breadcrumbs. Enough already).

I've had pig's ears on occasion before, and I'm usually more enthused about the contrasting textures in the ear than the flavour itself. The cartilage that runs down the center of each piece is a chewy contrast to the soft and giving flesh on either side. Oh, and pan-fried pig's ears is a perfect dish to make just before you're going to wash and scrub down your kitchen. It spatters and spits like you wouldn't believe, so that makes perfect sense.

By now, the trotters are just about finished, and ready for potting:

My fridge is now, as Henderson advises, no longer «without its jar of Trotter Gear». Just got to figure out what to do with the lipsticky goodness next...

It turned out to be a marathon day in the kitchen, but one that was hugely rewarding and rich in taste, smell and fatty pieces of pork (which I love). By now, the pot with the ingredients for my Fromage de Tête had simmered close to 5 hours, and the jaw loosened easily from the head itself. A sure sign of doneness according to Grigson. Using the sturdiest piece of kitchen utensils I own, I somehow managed to wrangle all the meat out of the scorching hot simmering liquid without making a mess or getting second-degree burns. *phew*

It's heavy! The whole head weighed in at roughly 8 kg, but both halves made it out of the pot okay. Now's when the real work starts: Tearing all the flesh from the skull while it's still hot (easier to do so then, compared to when it's cold), chopping it into fine dice, and adding a healthy glass of white wine to about a litre of the cooking liquor. This is reduced slightly to make sure it sets up properly once cold, and mixed with some lemon juice to help cut the fatty flavour of the meat. Most of the meat from the head comes from the two tasty pork cheeks, but there are also interesting bits from the snout – not all that dissimilar to the slightly spongy mouthfeel feel of a boiled tongue. Quite delicious. Season with some pepper and crushed cloves (or quatre-épices if you get it – in either case, go easy on it), and spoon into loaf pans lined with cling film:

Pour in enough of the reduced cooking liquor so that all the meat is covered, slam the loaf pans a few times against the kitchen table to make sure everything is well packed in, cover the surface and refrigerator overnight. I anxiously pulled the fromage from the fridge the next morning, carefully unmoulding it from the loaf pan... Would it collapse in a puddle or would it hold its shape and be sliceable?

Victory! This is my first attempt at this dish, so I'm not sure if it stacks up with the rest of them – I'm most uncertain about the dice; too fine? I was afraid that a larger dice would cause the fromage to collapse upon cutting, so I kept it on the small side. Size of dice apart, it is truly utterly delicious and one of the more rewarding dishes I've cooked up.

So, what to have with a cold slice of unctuous goodness that just melts on your tongue? Grigson recommends: "French mustard (to my mind essential with most pork dishes, particularly the smooth, gelatinous ones), hardboiled eggs, green salad dressed with 2 tablespoons of raw chopped mild onion and 2 tablespoons of chopped parsley as well as oil and vinegar and seasonings. Mashed potato is a standard accompaniment to charcuterie - slimmers might prefer thin toast, or wholemeal or rye bread." To be honest, I find the brawn plenty rich enough as is, so I didn't exactly jump on the idea of having this with a pommes purée. Mustard and rye it was for me, all the way.

A celebratory meal was prepared with the fresh brawn: Accompanied with a loaf of rye sourdough, French mustard and a nice brew. A simple meal I enjoyed almost as much as preparing it.

PS: The rye sourdough was a slight modification of Hamelman's 80% rye sourdough with a rye flour soaker – I simply omitted the yeast, added some boiled rye berries and increased the hydration to about 90%. The perfect vehicle for the brawn.


trailrunner's picture

This is a recent article about my son in Edible Blue Ridge . He is getting more and more well known in the world of charcuterie.  He has been selected as one of the 2012 Trailblazer Chefs by Cooking Light magazine. He regularly gets pig faces and  rolls/stuffs/cures them. He is always trying new things and his customers love it. Hope you enjoy and if you get to Virginia you must have a meal at The Red Hen !  

Your dishes look scrumptious !  c

( say "yes" at the prompt to resume where you left will take you straight to the article on charcuterie)

chouette22's picture

Hello Hans-Joakim,

I always enjoy your fabulous posts so much. I grew up on a farm in Switzerland and now live in a very urban setting in the US. This reminds me of past times so vividly when my parents would butcher a pig every fall and then cook/preserve/prepare/freeze every part of the animal. It would take many days to get it all done. 

I don't remember: does your profession have to do at all with the culinary world or are your incredible abilities as a cook/baker/pastry chef all just hobbies?

Thanks for the nostalgic return to my childhood!


pmccool's picture

He was making head cheese, as he called it, long before I came along.   My mom made some, too, but not with the same  determination as Grandpa.  I liked the flavor but the gelatinous texture was always on the borderline  between good and icky.  Glad to see that you are  willing to tackle such a big project, especially if you don't have any prior history to guide you.


thomaschacon's picture
thomaschacon (not verified)

...this blog post would give me a lifetime of nightmares.

Thankfully, I'm not, unless you put head cheese in front of me, then I become one. :)

I don't know why, but I keep staring at the picture of pig trotters. There's something mesmerizing about it, in a macabre sort of way.

dabrownman's picture

well made head cheese and trotters too!  Can't even find it in US grocery stores now a days - you have to make our own!  Better than store bought anyday anyway.

Very nice cooking indeed!  Now I want reservations or do you deliver Hans?

plevee's picture

That looks delicious! I like mine with cornichons.

I really miss the pork butchers that were as numerous as the general buchers where I grew up in Yorkshire in Engand. Wonderful brawn (head cheese), pork pies, faggots, haslet and cooked meats.

Sometimes there were surprises. As a starving student I once bought a Bath chap, it was dirt cheap but looked scrumptious, covered in shatteringly crisp crackling. On the second bite my teeth met with a perfect set of pig's teeth and I realised chap=jowl in older English dialects.

Of course it is now prepared as guanciale & is a new 'gourmet' fashion.



Franko's picture

 Wonderful post Hans, a thoroughly enjoyable read enhanced by lovely photography from start to finish.

"Marathon day in the kitchen" indeed. Quite a project you set for yourself and carried off brilliantly I would say by the looks of everything you made. Making Fromage de Tête or Head Cheese is something I've had my eye on as well, the only problem being trying to find a pigs head. Our little town unfortunately doesn't have a butcher, other than what's available at the supermarket. I'll have to ask and see if they would order one in for me, as this is definitely on my to do list of charcuterie items. It's either that or make the trek into the city, which from seeing your Fromage de Tête is all the incentive I would need. After reading your post, I had a look at the three recipes I have for the dish, two of which are very similar to Grigson's, the other being a sulze head cheese with the addition of pimento and dill pickle. Two of the recipes indicate a 1cm dice for the meat, the other says “medium”. Yours looks just right with a nice mix of larger and smaller pieces. It didn’t collapse and the gel reduction was right on the money so I would cast your uncertainties aside, you did a superb job. One other variation I found from John Kowalski’s "Art of Charcuterie" that looks very attractive is a Tête Presse'e where one half of the cooked head is spread with a paste of caramelized shallots and sauteed parsley,  topped with the other half of the head, rolled tightly in cheesecloth and placed back in the hot stock, to be left overnight in the fridge before slicing, similar to a galantine. It appears from the photo in the book that the roll is sliced quite thinly, as you could with a hard sausage. Trotter gear sounds fascinating from your “lipsticky” description of the texture. Try as I might to find how it might be served, nothing came up in searches. It sounds like a jam and that is probably how I’d use it. Spread on crusty toasted bread, with a few cornichons, maybe some hard-boiled egg and grainy mustard on the side, I’m sure it would make a fine lunch. Lest I forget, your sour rye bread looks pretty amazing as well!

Loved this post Hans,



hansjoakim's picture

Thanks a bunch everyone! Thanks for your kind words and for the inspiring feedback :D

trailrunner: Thanks for the tip! I'm glad to read about your son's success, and I'm on my way over to the website to have a closer look :)

Marie-Claire: Merci beaucoup!

chouette: Thanks, and I'm thrilled you enjoyed the post. I grew up on a farm as well, but we produced mainly milk and the occasional beef for slaughter - no pigs unfortunately, but many of our neighbours had, and those that are still working as farmers, still keep pigs. Thankfully, there is now an increased awareness of animal welfare, and there are several farms in my area that keep pigs in more worthy conditions. The cuts are labelled and sold as first class pork meat - to be awarded this classification, the farmers feed their pigs a more diverse diet, give them more time out in the sun, and ensure a very swift and stress-free final transportation. The pigs grow a bit slower and are slightly older before being sent away. I feel very strongly about this, as I've grown up around farm animals and seen how happy animals are when they can lead an existence not very different from the one they would have had if it weren't for the industrial farming.

You're from Switzerland, chouette? I'm always very curious about regional specialties and food traditions, so could you tell me a little bit about ways of preparing and preserving pork where you come from? Do you reckon Swiss pork cooking is rather similar to that of south Germany, or do you have any truly unique items for Switzerland?

No, I'm not in the culinary world from Monday to Friday - I guess if I had been, I would probably want to do something else on my weekends off. Thanks for the kind words, chouette!

Paul: Thanks so much, Paul! Yes, you don't want it to be meat-in-rubber, that's for sure. Do you have your Grandpa's old recipe, by the way?

Franko: Thanks a bunch, my friend! You're right, you know - most often, the hardest part is to actually get hold of what you need. These are rather unfashionable cuts (especially in a day where "low-fat" and tasteless, mass-produced chickens reign supreme), but I hope you can persuade the meat section at your best supermarket to take the order from you. If they can get pork chops and bacon for you, they should also be able to locate a head, some ears, tails and trotters, right? Thanks for that description of Tête Presse'e, Franko! So this is prepared as for a galantine - you cook the whole head to leave as much skin intact as possible? Grigson also has some recipes for this preparation (Hure, Hure à la pistache and Tête de Porc Farcie), but, delicious though they sound, I was intimidated by the process... I can only imagine myself piercing and ripping through pieces of skin, and making a mess of it. Well, there's always a next time, and then I'll definitely keep this procedure in mind. The thought of a giant headsausage is too good to ignore. Thanks for your kind words, Franko!

Franko's picture

You're very welcome Hans!

Kowalski's recipe and procedure indicate a whole head, halved, before going into the brine and subsequent simmer in stock. He does say to be careful not to pierce the skin when removing, so I think allowing the meat and skin to cool briefly and firm up is good idea to help this go easier. Then it's a matter of trimming up the two halves of skin to get matching square edges for the final rolling. From the photo in the book the roll looks to be about 7-9 cm in diameter, by my best approximation. The Tète Pressée in the book's photo is quite an impressive presentation as it is but can't help thinking that adding a line of black currant or prune confit down the center would add a nice contrast as well. 



Syd's picture

 Beautiful Hans!  I have made this once before and I also brined it like yours but I used a brine recipe that was overly salted ( I can't remember the exact ratios now because it was at least two years ago now) and the result was too salty.  It was a shame because everything else turned our perfectly and I had spent so much time on it.  I soaked it for a few hours before cooking in several changes of cold water and also threw off the first boiling water, but to no avail; it was still salty.  My brine recipe didn't have sugar in it and I am wondering if this would have made the difference.  Perhaps the sugar would offset some of the saltiness of the salt.  I don't know enough about this subject but it intrigues me.  Anyway your beautiful post has inspired me to try again.  

Equally importantly, what recipe did you use for that beautiful sandwich rye.  That head cheese would be lost without the perfect  bread to go with it and I think you have it there.

This is how pigs ear is most commonly eaten in Taiwan:  braised in soy sauce and then sliced very thinly.  It is served as a side dish.  



hansjoakim's picture

Thanks so much, Syd!

I'm very sorry to hear about your too salty brawn, Syd. Do you remember how long you had it in the brine before you started preparing it? You're right about the ratios for the brine though - the weight of salt and/or sugar to water varies wildly. I've seen anything from 8% - 9% to 15% (Henderson) and up to 25% - 30% of salt to water. I am surprised, however, that it turned out way too salty after soaking and an initial boil... Sugar is an ingredient that balances out the rough salty flavour of the brine, but I'm not sure how it would affect your meat from the brine in the end. Do you remember if the meat itself was very salty, or was it rather the cooking liquor / jelly that turned out too salty? Grigson, in her book, writes that you can in principle cook the head directly from the brine if it's not spent more than roughly 24 hours in the brine beforehand. If the meat has been in the brine for a couple of days, she recommends bringing it all to a boil, then toss out skummy, salty water, rinse everything well, and start over, with fresh water and stock vegetables added to the pot. I tasted the cooking liquor during the hours of simmering, and it had a very faint taste of salt. I'm thrilled to read that you're up for another go at the dish, and I hope to read about it all once you've made it!

Those pigs ears looks brilliant, Syd. I tried a similar strategy too, slicing them thinly after simmering them tender. I then continued to pan fry them, but (of course) they're terribly sticky and ended up in a glob in the middle of the pan. Still good though, but next time I'll skip on the frying finish, I think.

Thanks again!

Syd's picture

Thanks for your reply Hans.  I think the brine recipe went something along the lines of dissolve as much salt in the water as it will take (i.e. it is saturated and no more salt will dissolve).  I only brined for 24 hours.  

 Do you remember if the meat itself was very salty, or was it rather the cooking liquor / jelly that turned out too salty

That is a good question and I can't remember accurately now, but I think the meat was salty, too.  I came across this post while looking for a brine recipe and its salt is on the lower end of the scale (if you convert everything to grams it comes to somewhere between 5-8%) so I thought I might try that.  It seems to have got some good reviews, too.  

Did you discard the brains and eyes?

I have a book by Grigson, too.  It is called English Food.

Do you have a basic formula for your rye that I could refer to?

All the best,


hansjoakim's picture

Alright, that sounds good. Otherwise, I can warm-heartedly recommend Henderson's brine for your brawn (15% salt + 10% sugar).

Unfortunately, the head was already separated and did not come with the brains. I let the eyes in place during cooking, but didn't put them into the brawn in the end either. Lots of delicious meat just behind and below the eyes, but I whimped out when it came to the eyes themselves...

Sorry I forgot to provide you with a recipe for the rye, Syd! It was basically Hamelman's 80% rye sourdough with a rye flour soaker (the one with the hot flour scald), with some slight modifications: i) No fresh yeast, ii) Added soaked and boiled rye berries (weight of unsoaked, unboiled berries approx. 15% of total flour weight), iii) Increased overall hydration to between 88% - 90%. I didn't keep any detailed notes, I'm afraid, but I recall using a short bulk fermentation (30 mins) before panning and proofing (90 mins).

Thanks again!

trailrunner's picture

the article. He has a lot of info . He does pig ears and I am sure he would be more than happy to tell you how. If you want his email I would be glad to send it to you. Just send me a message here on TFL. I know he slices them paper thin and deep fries them. They are wonderfully crisp and come out perfectly separated into slivers. There is one error in the article a typo about the pH. Other than that it is all good.