It's a curious thing to do it seems, to take an animal's head and stick it in a pot with the intention of cooking it. Especially one as cheerful looking as Prudence. As I gazed down upon her, admiring her rosy pink complexion, floppy ears, bristled chin and eyes, though half shut, still twinkling away, I soon realised that any penchant I had for nose to tail eating was going to be severely tested. Sure I'll eat all manner of things at the dinner table but... but.....but.... this pig's head came with a face. I mean can you believe that?!
Curiouser still was picking through Prudence's somewhat altered features after simmering in said pot of water for 6 hours, along with various vegetables, spices and herbs with an absolutely steaming hangover. I think I can now safely say that picking apart a boiled pig's head with my bare fingers should definitely be reserved for sober days. Standing in the kitchen late on a Saturday night sifting through a gelatinous morass of meat, fat and other matter with waves of nausea washing over me was not my idea of fun. By the end of the evening, I wasn't sure who looked worse, the pig or me.
Most curious of all though was the response I got from some quarters having photographed the twins alongside Prudence prior to her going through the whole process but more about that later.
So what's this all about Alfieeee?
Well of course, it's all about the #brawnoff, a little competition that seemingly appeared out of nowhere, which took myself and three other bloggers on a journey into the world of brawning. Despite what you might think, the inspiration for this contest didn't come out of any trend or fashion for cooking offal (although it is very trendy and fashionable) but simply from an on-line conversation that happily got out of hand. Back in the autumn of last year, Jamie Oliver's Barbecoa opened to a somewhat indifferent fanfare and though I have personally yet to go to the restaurant, I was immediately impressed by the butchery department that had also opened downstairs at the One New Change complex. This shop front which also supplies the restaurant, though relatively small and narrow in size, is immense in stature. And it's all down the glass panelled cold store at the back of the shop. These cabinets are amazingly tall, well lit and house all manner of cuts, increasing in size right up to complete carcasses. In short, the display is a magnificent carnivorous spectacle. If that sounds gushing, well I'm can't help it. I mean Christ! When have you ever seen a whole f**king cow hang in all it's glory. I mean do you actually know how bloody big a cow is? I felt like a giddy schoolboy when I first wandered in. But aside from the wow factor, what is also brilliant about Barbecoa Butchery is the friendly service and advice. Having been burned by plenty of butchers in the past, it's always a relief when a butcher approaches you with a sense of humour. Although there is one toothless wonder who works there, who is going to get his hide tanned should his mother-in-law ever get wind of the some of the stuff he says about her.
So, yes I like the place, to my mind a clever blend of modernity and traditionalism. And I soon discovered that some other bloggers liked it too, namely Meemalee's Kitchen, The Grubworm and How Not To Do A Food Blog via some intangible, meandering chat on Twitter which in short went like this:
"Have you seen the pig's heads in there? Yeah! We should go there and buy one each! Yeah! We should make brawn! Yeah! We should make it a competition! Yeah!........er what's the prize? No prizes, just for the glory! Woo hoo!" *collective punching of air* (apart from Aaron of Grubworm, who just whimpered).
All we had to do then was to find suitable experts to judge our brawn so I approached Danny, website editor of Jamie Oliver's er website to see if he and the butchers of Barbecoa would be up for it. And gladly they were more than up for it. Even better still, after a very uncharacteristic request from yours truly, they were happy to supply the pig heads gratis so the four of us piled into there a couple of Fridays ago and then marched back out with surprisingly heavy laden bags complete with trotters. Hands were shook and off we disappeared into the night with the intention of coming back on the Monday evening to proudly display our headcheese. Now the best course of action I should have taken was to get my piggy, or Prudence as she became by then, home as soon as possible and into the fridge. Or better still into a bucket for brining. But unfortunately I had made a prior appointment to visit Sarf Laaandan that night to sample my best mate's home brew named 'Tooting Trotter' (of a different kind). Hence the sore head the next day. In fact, brawn wise, things didn't get off to the best start at all really as I stood there trembling and watery mouthed on the platform at Tooting Bec and suddenly remembered that I had left my bag hanging in the shed in my friend's back garden. You know what, I reckon the exclamation of "PROOOODAAAANCE!" reverberated down the tunnel all the way to sniffy Balham. Or Blaarm as it is sometimes known. So after a quick gallop back out of the station like an epileptic donkey and an arduous sweaty journey across town, I managed to get Prudence back to Essex, safe and sound.
By this point time was now of the essence so I set to work as soon as I got through the door, although I did have to field a little question time session with the twins. After an extensive examination, Fin said to me "that's not a real piggy is it Daddy?" To which I replied that it was and that we were going to eat it. "You know you like ham Fin? Well this is where we get ham from, piggies". Having made the connection to Prudence and one of his favourite food stuffs, he smiled, patted it on the head and went on his merry way into the other room to watch telly. It would have been slightly perverse if Peppa Pig was on but it was only Gigglebiz or something like that. Isla reaction of sticking her finger up Prudence's snout was certainly different but no less surprising given that's her favourite hobby and she was more than happy to pose for some photos, flashing me her cheeky and oh so slightly malevolent smile. With the twins curiosity out of the way, I set to work.
Now this was my first time making brawn and given the state I was in I was happy to discover the process is pretty simple. I followed the advice in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Cookbook where upon you take your piggy head, clean it, shave it and place in a suitably large vessel, cover with water, adding onion, carrots, celery, a bouquet garni and a small tied muslin sack containing coriander seeds, peppercorns and cloves. Place your vessel on the hob and bring to a gentle simmer, skimming off any scum that comes to the surface and leave to cook for 4 hours or longer (like I said I left it for 6). Easy. And I was grateful it was that painless. Well not quite as I did have a Roy Scheider moment trying to squeeze Prudence's head into my stock pot. Not to mention a minor crisis of conscience as she stared back out at me with those longing eyes. But after slicing off her ears and jowls, Prudence's human-like identity faded and I was able to retire to the sofa with two Nurofen and a glass of water whilst she softly bubbled away filling the house with beautiful porcine smells (my God I sound like a serial killer).
Having had a sneaky slice of my brawn on the Sunday, I was feeling pretty confident. So confident that I also decided to bake some sourdough bread that was in no way intended to garner me any favour with the judges whatsoever.
But when it came to Monday evening and I saw what the other guys had done, I soon realised that competition was fierce. The surprising factor was that everybody's brawn was so different. Paul of How Not To Do A Food Blog went down a simple, traditional route, letting the sweet fattiness of the pork do the talking. MiMi of Meemalee's Kitchen gave us a treat with her unusual Burmese inspired (what else!) fragrant brawn with lip smacking accompanying chilli pickling sauce. And that flash harry, whimpering Aaron of The Grubworm came up with a monumentally sexy and slender looking, succulent and beautifully flavoured brawn. You don't need to second guess who won but I will say this, it seems that my fantastic sourdough bread counted for nothing! But as competitions and experiments in food go, it was great fun and Aaron was a deserved winner, I was SO sorry that he couldn't join us for a slap up meal at Wahaca afterwards.
The Winner with Boys from Barbecoa
So thank you to the boys from Barbecoa and Danny for your comments and for judging (and for the wine!). I am sure that if I hadn't succumbed to the delights of 'Tooting Trotter' I would have won.
And on a final note, it is worth mentioning some of the fall out that came from displaying some of the photo's of the twins alongside Prudence to family and friends (and to some people that I really don't know). Whilst I am pleased to say that there were no vindictive comments, in fact there were a lot of positive ones, the venture did throw up some interesting light on attitudes towards what is acceptable and what isn't when it comes to introducing children to where our food comes from. Some people have suggested that it was a 'gross thing to do', that 'it wasn't right to do that to a child' and have asked me 'did I want to give them nightmares?' Well of course I don't but then again I don't want them to grow up in a world where they don't make the association between an animal in the field and the meat on their plate. I certainly don't want them to suddenly freak out in the middle of a supermarket or a farm when the penny drops. It's very early days for us but I just want to be honest with them, to begin to explain and to try make the connections. What's the point of hiding? If further down the line, they decide that eating meat isn't for them, then fair enough but hopefully they'll make the decision based upon their own informed opinion. The way Isla is posing there like some kind of pig-tailed Salome, I'm not convinced that she'll become a haunted, staunch vegan years down the line. But if she does then fine, at least in that future she'll be able to point out on her friend's plate where the bacon they're eating came from. I wonder how many kids will be able to do that. I wonder how many kids can do that now?