French Head Cheese and Sauce Ravigote
Head cheese. Sounds weird, but that’s the English translation for French “Fromage de Tete” which has nothing to do with cheese, as it is a pork terrine made with a pigs’ head. Before you think I lost my mind, I must say this dish was part of our Halloween menu, so weirdness was allowed, if not encouraged, as far as cooking creations were concerned.
Come to think of it, Fromage de Tete is quite a common dish in France where nose to tail cooking is the norm. In fact, every traiteur in the country has his/her own version of it and I remember it appearing quite often in the school canteen and work cafeteria. It is definitely a rarity in Australia, where country terrines are rather made with chicken liver and ground pork. I suspect people have issues with the head thing, nobody I know would even think of cooking a pig’s head.
I had to order one from the butcher a week ahead, after finding out that he usually discards them. He gave me a funny look when I came to collect it and asked for it to be cut in half as the whole head would not fit in my stock pot. “ What are you making?” he asked. “ Head cheese!” Blank look. “Brawn!” his eyes lit up and then he smiled and said “ yes, that’s the best cut for it. Good luck with it! “ I ordered a few pigs trotters as well for good measure ( and extra collagen ), then headed home with a boot full of hog parts!
This dish is based on a recipe from a guy called Hank Shaw, whose focus is on fishing, foraging, hunting and food writing ( not necessarily in that order ). There are dozens of recipes for Fromage de Tete, some more complicated than others, I found his online. It looks time consuming but is quite easy to follow, with no technical skills required, only a little patience and the inclination to get your hands “dirty” picking meat of the pig’s head. Squeamish people maybe best stay away from this dish…
It calls for a large stock pot ( enough to hold at least half a head ), a few common ingredients used to make stock and a decent amount of French Quatre Epices ( 4 spice mix easy to make yourself with white pepper, clove, nutmeg and dried ginger )
I started preparing this 2 days before our Halloween dinner party, allowing it to set and the flavours to develop. There was enough meat to make 2 batches, one shaped in a skull mould for the party, the other transferred in a traditional Le Creuset terrine dish. As a bonus, I ended up with enough pork stock to use for another 12 dishes…
The end result was quite tasty, very rich and meaty with a subtle hint of herbs and spices. Hank Shaw refers to it as a meat bomb and indeed the kids mentioned it was like eating meat in jelly, which is exactly what it is. And as good as it is on its own, it benefits from the addition of sharp mustard or some sort of pickles to cut thru the somewhat fatty and gelatinous texture.
Or try a sauce ravigote, another typical French fare, heavily seasoned with green herbs, shallots capers and a hefty dose of red wine vinegar. This is like vinaigrette on steroids, tangy and sharp, poured over a few slices it really brings this terrine to next level. I gave some samples away to family and to some French people I happen to buy deli food from at our local market, all raved about how nice it was. For some it was a new flavour combination, for others like me, it was a taste of home…
French Head Cheese or Fromage de Tete
Adapted from Hank Shaw, Hunter. Angler. Gardener. Cook
Makes 2 terrines, enough to feed 20 people as an appetiser
1 half a pig’s head, skin on, including ears and tongue. Get your butcher to cut it for you
1 pig’s trotter, whole or cut in half
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp cracked black peppercorn
5 allspice berries, cracked
8 juniper berries, cracked
1 tbsp dried thyme
1 carrot, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 star anise
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup white wine ( I used an inexpensive chardonnay )
1 tbsp french quatre epices
- Put the half pig’s head in a large stockpot and cover with cold water. Add the pig’s trotter. Turn the heat to medium-high, cover and bring to a simmer. Skim any grey scum that floats to the surface then add all the herbs, spices, and vinegar. Simmer very gently for 3 hours or until the meat falls apart.
- Let it cool down and once cool enough to handle, take the head out of the pot and tear the meat off. If you’re not a tactile and hands-on kind of cook, this will seem gross and messy as there is plenty of meat, fat and cartilagineous matter to sink your fingers in. Discard stringy tendons, eyeball, bones and teeth ( obviously ) and anything else that looks too weird ( bearing in mind the whole thing IS weird! )
- Any pieces of meat like the cheeks and tongue, I chop roughly. Fat and cartilage gets cut in smaller pieces, as you don’t want to have too big chunks showing thru. Tempted as I was to use the food processor, I didn’t trust it to not turn the whole mixture into mush so I hand cut everything to keep the texture.
- Transfer the meat mix in a large bowl and add the quatre epices. Mix well and set aside while you deal with the broth.
- Ladle out about 1 litre of the broth, strain thru a cheesecloth into a pot with the white wine. Boil away until the liquid is reduced by about half.
- Pour the meat mixture into the pot, add salt to taste ( up to a tablespoon ). Taste regularly for the right balance of saltiness and acidity, adding more red wine vinegar if necessary, a tablespoon at a time. Simmer gently for 15 minutes to allow infusing into the collagen-rich broth.
- When ready, remove all the solids with a slotted spoon and pack them into 2 terrine pans ( or as in my case, 1 terrine pan and 1 silicone skull mould! ). Pour enough of the reduced broth to fill any crevices in the terrine and enough to cover the top of the meat. Cover the terrine with plastic wrap or a lid and chill in the fridge for at least 24 hours to set. It will keep in the cold for up to 10 days.
- Serve cold, sliced thinly with hot mustard, pickles or sauce ravigote ( recipe below ) as part of a charcuterie board or for a light lunch along with a green salad and crusty bread.
This French sauce is quite versatile and can be served with fish, grilled meat or of course, Fromage de Tete! Mine is the cold version, based on a vinaigrette and heavily loaded with fresh herbs. Other cooks include eggs, garlic or mayonnaise and there is also a hot version incorporating meat stock.
Makes 2 cups
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tbsp dijon mustard
salt and black pepper, to taste
1 cup sunflower, grapeseed or light olive oil ( extra virgin olive oil is too strong )
1/2 cup chopped chives
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup chopped dill
1/2 cup chopped tarragon
1/4 cup capers, rinsed and chopped
2 small french shallots, peeled and chopped
- In a blender, put the red wine vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper. With the motor running, slowly drizzle the oil in until emulsified.
- Transfer to a bowl along with the herbs, capers and shallots. Stir everything to combine.
- Keep covered in the fridge until ready to use. It will keep cold for a few days ( weeks?)