Pork Brawn (aka Head Cheese) is a meat jelly made from pork. The jelly has small pieces of meat in it. You can think of it as sausage, a jellied meat, a potted meat, or as a cold meat loaf with a lot of wobble to it. (Granted, some people don’t like to think of Brawn at all.) There are many different versions. Some versions have small chunks of meat, other versions have the meat finely shredded. Some may be blander; some may be flavoured with herbs and spices.
The principal part of the pig used to make Pork Brawn is the head. Meat from other parts of the pig such as bones and trotters can also be included. Bones and trotters serve the added purpose of helping to give the stock more gelatin for setting well when done. Sometimes, when the head is already used for other purposes, just bones and trotters can be used. A beef bone may sometimes be added for additional flavour.
The pig’s head is split open and cleaned out. The brains are not used, as they are removed for separate sale, but the ears and the pigs snout are included. In central Italy, where Brawn is very popular, the pigs’ eyes are also included.
The pieces of head along with other pieces of the pig are simmered in salted water until the meat falls off the bone, and the liquid starts to thicken to become jelly-like as the heat renders the gelatin.
The liquid is strained out and reduced further by slow simmering to make a more concentrated jelly. The entire simmering process pretty much takes all day. Modern versions have you add commercial gelatin to reduce the simmering time .
Meanwhile, the meat is picked off the bones. The meat and jelly are then put into a mould pan, usually loaf-shaped. The meat may be stirred into the jelly, or, it may be placed into the pan first to form a separate layer. The pan is then allowed to stand to fully set.
Commercial brawns usually have a red food colouring added to make them reddish or pinkish. Without colouring, Brawn is more grey.
Either you’re passionate about Brawn, or you’re not. There are not, it would appear, great numbers of undecided people in the middle. If someone is a Brawn fan, they are a big Brawn fan. Or, they are in the camp of opinion best symbolized by phrases such as “pickled pigs face” or “cold snot.” Many a child has refused to touch it, no matter how dire the threats lobbed at them across the table.
In North America, it is often referred to as Head Cheese. If you are trying to explain the phrase “Head Cheese” to someone as you’re passing them a plate of it, you could always say truthfully instead that it’s a dairy-free cheese.
When you are making Pork Brawn at home, you can also put it in individual moulds to turn out onto a plate for a nicer presentation.
Brawn is usually eaten cold or at room temperature; it is not reheated.
To serve, slice. Slice thinly for sandwiches, slice into thicker wedges for just eating as a piece of meat on the plate.
It is usually accompanied by mustard, preferably English Mustard.
The brining and boiling helped to preserve the meat for a while. The head was the most natural part to use for making brawn, as it was very bony (providing gelatin) and boiling was an easy way to get the meat off.
Literature & Lore
Samuel Pepys mentions eating Brawn, but it’s uncertain what form he meant giving that the definition was in transition at the time (see Language Notes immediately following.)
Brawn used to mean meat or muscle of any kind; we still use the word “brawn” to mean muscle in calling someone “brawny”, or in sayings such as “brain over brawn.”
By the 1400s, the word was often used to mean meat from wild pigs, and then later it got applied to just domestic pigs. As time went by, it came to mean pork that was brined, flavoured, boiled and moulded. Certainly by the 1800s, Brawn had come to mean Brawn as we know it today.
In the American south, the word “souse” is used to refer to brawn (see separate entry on Pork Souse.) Souse, though, tends to be a bit more tangy and pickled because of the addition of vinegar. Souse is a very old English term: ‘Good bread and good drinke, a good fier in the hall, brawne, pudding and souse, and good mustard withall’ (Thomas Tusser 1573).