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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.

Cooking Tips


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.

History Notes


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.)

Language Notes


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).

About Seren Charrington-Hollins

Food has always been of great importance to Seren and despite her being renowned for her historical recipe recreations, her culinary skills were not honed, in the kitchens of top restaurants, but in the home kitchen from the age of being able to hold a wooden spoon. When Seren was born her mother was taken ill and so she spent her early years being cared for by her grandmother, Minnie. This was to prove instrumental in the development of Seren’s love of cooking, for her grandmother was an accomplished cook, who’s kitchen was always awash with terrine’s, home-made pastry and traditional puddings. Minnie’s love of good food and her zest for life meant Seren’s childhood was filled with days of hedgerow picking, baking, traditional preserving and cooking recipes from the depths of a family copy of, Mrs. Beeton. She learned from an early age how to make Victorian puddings alongside elaborate noble pies and perhaps this explains her love of pastry making and the reason she won an accolade from The Great British Pie Awards this year. Today Seren has great skill in bringing historical food to life and making it accessible and understandable to the modern cook and diner. Her enthusiasm and love of historical food and British cooking is evident in her presentations and she loves to revive forgotten recipes. She recently took part in ITV1’s Country House Sunday and has given live cookery demonstrations across the country at food festivals, historical houses and castles. Trained as a herbalist and nutritionist, she has a deep understanding of improving health through food. Her interest in historic remedies and herbal folklore eventually extended to researching British food history, and reignited her early passion for cooking. Fifteen years on and Seren has amassed extensive knowledge and is now renowned for her historical food recreations and interpretations. Seren’s interest in food history does not just extend to old recipes and cooking techniques, but to ingredients and manufacturers. From the age of fourteen Seren has collected food and drink packaging from early Victorian to the 1960’s. Her collection is now extensive and provides a wonderful snapshot in time that accompanies her vast knowledge of the development of British food and drink companies throughout history. She also has a huge collection of antique kitchenalia and moulds which she uses to replicate historical recipes and portray past eras. Her training in herbalism and nutrition has not been wasted for despite her merits as a food historian and period cook she also delights in creating British Classic dishes for those with food allergies and intolerances (such as gluten and dairy intolerant). Her botanical knowledge has made her a keen wild food educator and forager that lends unusual as well as historical twists to all her cooking. There are also many points at which food and medicine intertwine throughout history and Seren is able to portray these developments and has also undertaken a lot of research into the British spice trade. To Seren historical food is not a job, but a way of life. Visit Seren's blog: Serenity Kitchen