When my father-in-law recalled eating brawn that his mother knocked-up when he was a young lad, it conjured up sepia-toned images of post-war days when food was sparse so little went to waste to keep bellies full.
He fondly remembered his mother boiling up pigs trotters, pulling the meat off and leaving it to set in the fridge. He described it as soft pig meat suspended in jelly smothered on crusty bread with a smidge of mustard. I could see he was salivating at the mere thought of it, finishing his description with a typical French gesture of kissing his fingertips, quickly opening them and saying “absolutely beautiful it was”.
I wondered if – by chance – my copy of the trusty Fergus Henderson recipe book ‘The Complete Nose to Tail’ had this ‘brawn’ recipe in it. Well, of course, it did… Only, it stated that not just trotters were to be used but a whole pig’s head.
By chance, my butcher had recently told me that he now sells pig’s heads. I excitedly told my wife, who was not so optimistic and – if I remember rightly – suggested our marriage would be in question if she found a pigs head staring back at her in the fridge.
Marriage is all about compromises, so I swallowed hard and settled for just the trotters. I followed the recipe – albeit, headless – and rustled up this so-called brawn by boiling the trotters along with some veggies and herbs for a few hours. Next I picked all the meat off and reduced the broth. Then I separated the meat between 2 cling film lined Tupperware boxes – one for the in-laws, one for me – and poured the broth over and left it to set in the fridge.
What a delight… this stuff is so moreish with its mix of soft skin, connective tissue and fat encased in meaty jelly. Being a carb dodger, I skipped the toast and enjoyed it with some punchy Dijon… beautiful stuff indeed. And, my father-in-law loved it, “just like I remembered” he said joyfully.
The curiosity of what other taste dimensions would be added with the additional tissues of using a whole pigs head left me determined to figure out a way around this without jeopardizing my marriage. So, a quick chat with the in-laws and a plan was set. I was excited, to say the least.
“One whole rare breed pig head please”.
Head in hand, in a black plastic bag, I headed to the in-laws for this culinary adventure. The first challenge… the head’s too big for the pot… hmm… let’s get the hacksaw out. Yep, there I was hacksawing a pigs head in their garden, quite a sight for any nosey neighbours. After a cut here and a cut there, finally the head was in the pot along with a trotter to keep it company while it thawed out overnight.
After around 3 and half hours of cooking – one hour of which was just getting the water to the point of simmering – the meat was falling off… it was ready.
Next came the process of pulling the meat and flesh and any other soft tissues away from the bones in what felt to me like an almost tribal experience. Some bonding time between my mother-in-law and myself, I imagined this may have been what it was like many years ago for our ancestors preparing food for the tribe, true nose-to-tail eating leaving nothing to waste.
Everything that’s soft goes in, the snout, the brains the eyes and the tongue. There’s also plenty of muscle meat in the cheeks as well as all the skin and connective tissue. The remaining bones were saved for a bone broth to be cooked at a later date.
All the while, the broth is being reduced by half, concentrating the gelatine to ensure a good jelly is produced when cooled to hold it all together.
After separating the meat between 2 cling film lined baking dishes and pouring over the broth, there was just a night in the fridge to wait before we could sample the result of our hard work.
And, it was worth the wait… the added textures of the additional tissues took it to another level. I’ve spoken out umami before in my post about oxtail, and this is another example.
More than just a taste
When different tissue types – muscle, bone, ligaments and skin – are slowly cooked together, a type of taste called ‘umami’ is produced. It’s known as the fifth taste after sweetness, saltiness, sourness and bitterness. The difference is this is more of a feeling than a taste, you can’t quite put your finger on it… all you know is that you just want more.
How and why did this staple get forgotten? It’s such a beautiful waste. So healthy, packed full of vitamins, minerals and collagen promoting gelatin, yet most will not have heard of brawn and would likely scoff at the sound of it.
“You’re wrong in the head mate”
One friend of mine, when I showed pictures of what we’d done said “you’re wrong in the head mate”. Another, when he heard we got a pigs head said “why on Earth would you do that?”. I get it, it’s weird… it shouldn’t be, but in this world we live in, it is.
Personally, the more I think about our ancestral ways, the more I realise how normal this way of eating is. Up until very recently in our existence on this earth, it would’ve been the norm.
What is weird though, is all the highly processed, hyper-palatable food we now accept as normal. It pains me to see kids stuffing their faces with sugar-filled cakes, sweets and chocolates. Gorging on MacDonald’s deep-fried nuggets and French fries washed down with some Sprite.
A good home-cooked meal being nothing more than some packaged, preservative, sugar and MSG ladened breaded turkey escalope, with a side of chips and sugar-filled baked beans. “Who’s a good girl? You’ve eaten all your dinner… you deserve some afters. Ice cream or a chocolate mini roll?”.
What’s weird was normal and what’s normal is weird… which is weird
Why are we getting fatter and sicker again? Because the old normal is now weird replaced with a load of man-made weirdness that everyone thinks is normal.
Well, most people… but there is hope. There is a community out there that seem very normal to me but “wrong in the head” to others. I hope that changes… I think it will and I hope it’ll be in my lifetime.
I’ve ranted about this before and explained my common sense perspective on what we – as humans – should actually be eating. Just think about what our ancestors would’ve eaten, that’s what I do.
If you’re tempted by this to try and make your own brawn, even if it’s just the trotter version, I recommend you give it a go. The recipe is below. If you have a pressure cooker as I have, even better. An hour and a half is all you need. You won’t be disappointed, and if you try it, let me know all about it by leaving a comment or mentioning me on Instagram.
Have a nutritious day!
There you have it! Just a reminder that I’m no doctor, dietitian or any other profession for that matter. I’m simply a bearer of information for you to do what you want with; question it, research it, erase it from your mind, you are in charge of you.