“Once you knock an animal on the head it is only polite to eat the whole animal.”
— Fergus Henderson
Yes, head cheese is made from the head of an animal. This may sound unappealing to our modern minds, but once upon a time, people valued their livestock in a way most people do not today. After raising animals at our farm, the Bauernhof Kitsteiner, for the last 18 months, I have a whole new respect for our ancestors desire to utilize every possible part of an animal.
This was part frugality and part respect.
Frugality… for our great-great-grandparents couldn’t just run down to the supercenter grocery store and stock up on whatever they wanted. They needed to be mindful of which animal they culled from their stock. They needed to be mindful of how much food that animal would provide for their family. There would be good times and bad times ahead, and they didn’t know which would be coming next. They couldn’t afford to be wasteful.
Respect… for our great-great-grandparents knew where their food came from. The animal may have had a name. It may have had a personality that our great-great-grandparents interacted with daily. They may have felt a pang of sadness when it was slaughtering day, but they knew that this animal’s life would provide life to their family for the winter. There was intentional and unavoidable knowledge of the animals life. There was intimacy in the animal’s death. When one experiences this, it is a matter of course to make use of everything you can from the animal. It would be disrespectful to wasteful.
So what exactly is head cheese, and how did it get its name?
Head cheese or brawn is a cold cut that originated in Europe. Head cheese is not a dairy cheese, but a terrine or meat jelly made with flesh from the head of a calf or pig, or less commonly a sheep or cow, and often set in aspic. The parts of the head used vary, but the brain, eyes, and ears are usually removed. The tongue, and sometimes the feet and heart, may be included. It can also be made from quality trimmings from pork and veal.
Head cheese may be flavored with onion, black pepper, allspice, bay leaf, salt, and vinegar. It is usually eaten cold or at room temperature.
The “cheese” term likely comes from the old usage of the word meaning “formed” or “molded” like in a pan or mold form (not mold, as in the fungus). So a modern American meatloaf, could conceivably be called a “meat cheese” if we followed the same naming conventions.
“I don’t actually know what it is, but it just sounds gross.” This is the most common response when I ask people about head cheese. Well, this is the most common response from people who say they’ve never tried it, but they state that they refuse to eat it.
In contrast, I’ve recently heard from a number of people who love it. They remember eating it with their parents or grandparents when they were younger. It brings about good memories of family and good food.
But what does it taste like?
In short… fantastic. It tastes like a mix of a good cold-cut type meat and a thick paté, but not with an organ meat overtone. Remember, it is composed of succulent meat. It does have a flavorful, thickened, gelatin-rich broth surrounding the whole thing. When head cheese is served with a thick, crusty bread, horseradish or mustard, and accompanied with a quality beer or wine… amazing!
Some people use veggies in their head cheese, some do not. Some people like to add vinegar, and this is then called a “souse”. Some people like to have more gelatin-rich broth with meat set in it… more like an aspic. Others, myself included, prefer more meat than broth. Like many foods, there are many variations of how head cheese can be made, and no two are truly alike, especially when home made.
Here are some links to other articles with recipes:
Here is how I made my first head cheese…
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