Cooking on the farm
Cooking on the Farm – Brawn
Brawn is frequently on the menu at thousand candles farm. Made traditionally (but not exclusively) from an ungracious cross section of a pigs head. Age old traditions and skills required once hidden are being re-discovered to turn unpopular and frequently discarded cuts of a beast into something spectacular.
I have been making brawn for a number of years now without particular recourse to recipe. Inspiration for my version has its roots in Fergus Henderson’s “Nose to Tail” cookbook. My initial experimentations were shared with a friend whose Croatian mother provided guidance. These first brawns were rustic; but with each attempt the technique has gained refinement by degree.
As time has progressed so too has the complexity and variety of cuts uses in the brawns. Flavors of the meat and jelly are improved by incorporating wine, juice and stocks into the cooking liquor, as well as a more complex array of aromatics. Smoked hock is also used sometimes, as are other white, smoked or cured meats that may need using up.
Given that brawn making is driven by things of the moment it should be no surprise that each has it’s own character. It would be and interesting, albeit impossible excercise to observe and taste the various brawns. Some stand-out brawns that I recall include: one presented as the “wedding cake” at a friends wedding with the cutting taking place to signify the start of the meal; or one of the early Balkan peasant inspired versions that my Father recognised as a food from his Welsh rural childhood; to a more recent brawn, a particularly passed down example that gained with each reforming to outperform beef rib roast and suckling pig when served to food and and wine engaged folk in a tent.
A single recipe doesn’t do justice to brawn, or even make sense to a dish that is all about using things up. To suggest that it is a whole category of food is to overstate the point, although here in lies a sense brawn. In the absence of anything definitive the following brawn making guidelines will have to suffice. For those requiring more rigidity, I thoroughly recommend Fergus Hendersons book.
Brawn – Something like a recipe
One or more free range, flavourful pigs head/s.
For the stock
Lots of robust aromatics such as peppercorns, nutmeg, bay leaves, rosemary, parsley stalks, carrots, celery, parsnip et al (Avoid onion family as they can cause fermentation in the jelly – the exception being a little garlic late in the process).
A bottle or more of white wine or cider
2 cups or more of apple juice
Freshly ground aromatic spice and seasoning
Soft aromatic herbs
Finishing vegetables such as finely chopped or sliced celery, blanched beans, peas etc
Lemon juice or good wine vinegar
- Remove hair from the pigs head either by singeing or shaving
- Place the head in a tall pot just big enough to hold the head with wine, juice, aromatic vegetables, herbs and spice and add water to submerge. If the pot is shallower, the pigs head will need to be split.
- Weigh down the head with a smaller pan or bowl filled with water and slowly heat to a simmer over moderate heat. Turn heat to low and cook for two or more hours, until the flesh is soft and coming away from the bone. Time can very considerably. Add water as needed to keep the head submerged.
- Remove the head and allow it to cool until it can be handled.
- Meanwhile sieve the stock and return to cleaned pan and boil vigorously until reduced to 1/3 of quantity. This will form the jelly that will set the brawn. To test, place a little stock on a refrigerated saucer and return to fridge. When cold the liquid should thicken with gel like tendencies. This is sufficient to indicate that a thorough set will be achieved with extra time. Season stock to taste, add peeled garlic cloves to scent (4–5 minutes) and allow to cool to below blood temperature.
- Pick flesh from the head, being as timid or as brave as you like. The minimum I would suggest for inclusion is the flesh, a great proportion of which is in the jowls, the skin and surface fat and the ears. Trim any bristly bits and pieces you wish to discard. Coarse chop the fleshy and fatty portions and fine chop sinewy and other bits , such as the ears and mix with finishing vegetables and herbs, spice, other seasonings and acidic liquids to taste.
- Loosely pack brawn solids into a mold to fill to within 1cm and pour over stock to submerge. Refrigerate to chill thoroughly. Cover to refrigerate if you wish, but if you are in a hurry, covering will slow down the setting.
- Turn out brawn and serve with something pickled and a salad of dressed robust or bitter leaves. Use sorrel if you can find it, otherwise whitlof and riddichio work well. If averse to bitter flavours sweeter leaves can be used in combination or instead.
Brawn and accompaniments also make for a great sandwich.
Brawn can be prepared up to 5 days in advance. Although brawn can be prepared and served in a day it is inadvisable to attempt this on the first try.