There is something symbolic about an animal’s head that makes it taboo territory — a culinary no go zone. Yet the knowledge of what to do with this symbolic centerpiece has become a badge of honor amongst chefs, physical proof that they live by the “waste not want not” creed of the kitchen. Tracing the road back into history shows us that fromage de tête has wavered in its appreciation from regalia for the rich to fodder for the poor. It now nestles quite firmly amongst the latter, cowering behind monikers such as brawn, souse, and scrapple on dingy diner menus.
And of course who can forget the most memorable and intrigue inspiring moniker of them all: headcheese? This is no textured coagulation of milky madness — this is boiled, picked, and pressed pig’s head (although in all fairness veal, beef, and lamb share a much smaller portion of this dim spotlight whether they want to admit it or not). How has this assemblage of tongue and cheek (amongst other meaty bits) taken on the title of cheese?
A quick assumption would suggest that headcheese follows the long standing tradition of culinary camouflage. When an organ or unusual cut of meat has a tough time being accepted for its natural character traits, history dictates that it takes on a pseudonym that lowers the guard of the anxious — the thymus gland becomes the socially acceptable “sweetbreads” (which happen to be neither sweet nor bread-like), coagulated blood borrows the slightly confusing, mildly ominous but disarming title of black pudding, and the ever popular portion of testicle is ordered as “fries” or “oysters”.
But headcheese reaches deeper into history to explain its name game. The word fromage comes from the Latin word forma, which translates as a basket or wooden box in which compressed curds were molded to make cheese. Forma, and then fromage, became the word for cheese, but also remained synonymous with the concept of molding and pressing no matter what was being formed. Thus, the forming of a pig’s head using a mold is called fromage de tête and translates more to “pressed head” than anything to do with cheese, but we English speakers ignore a few of these minor details and use the direct translation to come up with the delightfully unusual “headcheese”.
My first encounter with fromage de tête was at a London restaurant renowned the world around for serving offal. I ordered headcheese to start my meal and when it arrived, unadorned except for the grilled sourdough accompaniment, I was quite excited to dig in and enjoy the delicious porky flavors. My excitement turned to a queasy question mark on my third bite when my teeth trapped something hard between them. I excavated the object from my mouth and realized that it was a tooth — certainly not one of my own so I could only guess that it belonged to the pig who donated his head to this cheese.
This event proves that these most simple dishes often receive the least attention, destroying an already feeble reputation. My goal is to celebrate these humble heroes, raise their reputation and make them into something special. I began my quest for my own version of fromage de tête with a short stint in the kitchen of Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons near Oxford, where I learned the formal French technique behind this dish. But where could I go from there, as no other chef that I worked for could continue this education nor featured it on their menu. This left me to my own devices, and countless experiments in my home and restaurant kitchens helped me develop a recipe that was not only good, but downright delicious. I apologize to all of my friends and relatives who have shouldered the burden of a pig or wild boar head in your sink, but your contribution to cuisine can be found in the following recipe. With a little practice and a little love you can add a whole new cheese course to your dinner party repertoire.