“Why not join us in cooking something interesting” they said, “it’ll be fun, a thrifty bit of meat for a thrifty month.” Sure, I thought, why not? It definitely sounds interesting. Little did I know.
Like Pinnochio’s nose, it just grew and grew every time anybody talked about it. First, we were cooking brawn. Then I found out it was a competition. And it was being judged by butchers. Not just any butchers, but Jamie Oliver’s crew at Barbecoa. Oh.
And so #brawnoff was born.
Never one to back down from any sort of culinary challenge (except one) I rolled up my sleeves, went in search of a pan big enough to hold an entire pigs head, and got to work. The heads themselves were kindly donated by the Barbecoa boys along with a couple of trotters.
Now, on the surface of it, making brawn looks pretty straight forward. The strangest thing is actually dealing with a whole head. But otherwise it’s just like braising any other bony gelatinous cut of meat right? Well, sort of.
Once I delved into the cookbooks to see where to start I realised there are all sorts of ways of doing it. To brine or not to brine? What spices to use? Do you want a Caribbean, Polish or traditionally English slant to your brawn? What about the charmingly named fromage de tête from France?.
I decided on a fairly traditional brawn culled from recipes by Fergus Henderson, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, Stéphane Reynaud and Babette de Rozières (for a Creole edge). And of course, inevitably, and with some trepidation, I added a few touches of my own.
The end result of all this brawn-making was a tightly packed brick of meat. All shiny and smooth with white and dark meats curled tightly round each other. A pretty boy brawn. Oh yes, and a kitchen covered in bits of pig. And a skull, which I thought was kind of cool.
The brawnoff itself made me surprisingly nervous. Would mine measure up? We all arrived and laid our brawn on the table. It was like 4-way Chinese whispers. We all started from the same point but ended up with completely different results.
Paul from How not to do a food blog created an unctuous, almost rillette-like brawn, it was sweet, nutty and smooth. Just the thing to eat with cornichons and crispy toast. FoodUrchin’s was freshened with a blast of parsley and lemon making it taste almost healthy, a spring or summer brawn. While Meemalee’s was a Burmese version, aromatic and intense with a fantastic pickled chilli dipping sauce.
After all tasting everyone else’s brawn (that just sounds wrong) we left the butchers to deliberate. And deliberate they did. After giving us a run down of the four brawns they pronounced mine the winner. I was gobsmacked. The thing is, they were all great and it could have been anyone on the day.
Here are the other brawner’s recipes and reports (more to come):
Paul’s unctuous and sweetly nutty brawn
The brawners – pic from Danny, @jamieoliver_ed
So, without further ado (because this is already the longest post in the world), here is The Grubworm’s champion brawn recipe. Time to roll those sleeves up and get stuck in.
Makes one terrine sized brawn that keeps in the fridge for a week or two
The key I think to this is the brining. It allows the seasoning to really penetrate every fibre of the meat so that you get a spicy edge running all the way through the brawn. Other than that, it’s time consuming but not too difficult.
You will need a plastic container and a pan big enough to hold an entire pigs head, which is bigger than you might think, at least 18-24 inches long and about 10-15 high (approximately).
1 pigs head
A scattering of bay leaves, coriander seeds, allspice, mace blades and peppercorns
A cup or so of unrefined caster sugar
3 small leeks
3 sticks of celery
2 onions – peeled and quartered
1 head of garlic – left whole and unpeeled
2 bay leaves
A bunch of thyme
A bunch of parsley
Zest of two lemons
4 tablespoons of sherry vinegar
2 pigs trotters (washed and shaved)
Black pepper to season
Spices – tie these up in muslin (cheesecloth):
2 tsp coriander seeds
2 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp whole allspice
1 tsp whole cloves
3 blades of mace
Okay, so I know this looks both complicated and time consuming, but really, it isn’t that bad. There is a lot of time involved, but you can do plenty of other things while it does its stuff.
First cut the ears off the head (they can be pretty damn waxy). Cut round the base of the ear as close to the head as you can. Then use a disposable razor to shave the head (and slice off the eyelashes). You don’t want hair in your brawn.
Now for the brine. Add 12 litres of water to your plastic box. Pour in the salt and sugar and stir until it is dissolved (5-10 minutes). Add the herbs and spices and lower in the head. Put a lid on it and leave it brining somewhere cool for 24 hours. I put it on the balcony.
Once the head has finished soaking, remove it (carefully), put it in the sink and give it a good wash and scrub. Now place it in your big pan and cover with water.
Add all the cooking ingredients and your muslin spice bag and bring to a low simmer. Skim off any junk that rises to the top. Leave cooking slowly for 4-5 hours. I turned the head over after 3.5 hours to give the top a chance to cook properly.
Remove the head and leave it to cool a little. While the head is cooling strain the stock through a sieve lined with muslin and keep at least a large pan-full, warming over a low heat. Don’t worry if it tastes mega salty, this is how it is meant to taste.
As soon as it is cool enough to touch, pick the head clean, removing as much fat as you can and peeling the tongue. Then roughly shred the meat (not too finely) and grind over some black pepper.
Pour a large spoon full of the stock into the bottom of a non-stick loaf tin and pile in about half the meat, pressing it down. Add another dessert spoon of stock and add the rest of the meat. Press it down more then add a third dessert spoon of the stock.
Now add a flat plate on top and weigh it down (I used three tins of tomatoes). If the stock rises over the top, pour a little off. Leave it to set in the fridge overnight. This should now keep for a week or two.
Enjoy in thick slices with salad and good bread.