Italian Head Cheese

5 from 3 votes
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Coppa di testa. In France it is Fromage de tete. In England, it’s called brawn. All decent enough names; but they don’t translate well. At some point in the past, our ancestors decided to forgo the muscular moniker brawn for a direct translation of the French word  for this fascinating cold cut — and by so doing doomed it. Even I get all squinchy when you call it head cheese.

Coppa di testa ready to slice.
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

So I’ll call it testa, or brawn, not head cheese. Coppa di testa would probably be best here, because I use several Italian recipes to make brawn from the head of a wild hog recently.

Isn’t brawn is merely a hog’s head and a few trotters simmered with herbs, veggies and spices until the meat — and everything else — falls off. You then pick through the bits for the goodies, strain and reduce the stock and rely on the gelatin in it to set the sausage. Easy, right? Sorta.

Let’s start with the head itself. All hog’s heads are not created equal. And I have been fortunate to have the two extremes of the porcine world in my kitchen: Maximus the Wild Boar, and a Mangalitsa pig’s head. Wild boar, especially real Eurasian boar, are generally devoid of fat. Mangalitsas, on the other hand, may be the fattiest pigs in the world.

There is more fat on the back of the head of the Mangalitsa than there is in the whole body of a wild pig. This matters, as it will make the coppa di testa from Maximus very, very lean. Which, ironically, is good — all the recipes I read say to remove most of the fat when making brawn. So there you have it: Wild boar make better brawn.

But there’s one problem: Domestic pigs, and especially the snub-nosed Mangalitsas, have short little snouts. Wild boar have extremely long snouts, lined with vicious tusks. You will need a bigger pot than you think.

I adapted in this case by leaving the lid on, and it helped steam the top end of the snout, which doesn’t have all that much meat on it anyway. Because the head was small, I added two pieces of the backbone as well as the shanks from all four legs, plus a domestic pig’s trotter.

I brought it to a boil, skimmed off the froth and then added aromatic goodies and let this think simmer for more than three hours. Four might have been better.

When the meat became tender, it was time to pick it off the bones. Let me tell you this is a grim business. There are all kinds of tissues that attach themselves to a skull, and not all are good eats. Aim for what looks like meat. Skip the brains, and anything overly glandular. I reckon the yield is about 60 to 70 percent good stuff; I tossed the rest.

You then chop the meaty bits into irregular pieces. I decided to make the tongue the largest bits, so I cut them into about 1/2 to 3/4 inch pieces. Everything else was chopped smaller, and some marginal bits I chopped even finer. You want various textures.

I don’t know exactly why I wanted to stuff this into a beef casing. Part of it is because I had one in the freezer. Part of it was because I’d seen round coppa di testa before, and it looked tastier than the square loaves of head cheese I’d seen elsewhere. Either way works.

It is purely a presentation thing; you don’t eat the casing. So I stuffed the head cheese into the beef bung cap — doesn’t that just make it sound even more revolting? — tied it off to compress the meat and broth, then hung it on a dowel set over the cleaned stock pot in the fridge overnight to set.

Setting the gelatin in the stock is the bugbear of head cheese. Too much gelatin and you have an appalling, rubbery block o’heady grayness. Mmmm… gray rubbery pig head… But too little gelatin and everything falls apart when you cut into the loaf or sausage.

I had to wait a full 24 hours to know if I’d failed, as we were busy all that day. So when we came home last night, I brought out my sharpest knife, ran it under the hottest water I could get from the tap (this helps it cut cleanly through the head cheese), and sliced. I didn’t dare slice too thinly, as I knew I was a little on the light side when it came to the gelatin. But sliced thick, it worked.

The testa held together on the plate, and could be sliced. All I could ask for. But would it be worth eating?

I set up a tasting station: Plain, testa with grainy mustard, and testa with pickled bell peppers.

The plain coppa di testa was warm with holiday spices — I included a whole cinnamon stick and a few cloves into the stock — salty enough and lean enough to avoid biting into something overly chewy (what that an eyeball? Ew!!!)

But I think the best part was the gelatin, which just barely holds this thing together: When you eat it, the heat inside your mouth melts it immediately and it returns to brothiness — and I don’t know about you, but I’d rather taste brothiness than gelatinousness.

Adding mustard is an excellent addition (very English), and adding the pickles is just as good. Holly thinks too much pickle with the testa overwhelms it, and I agree. She liked it best with a smidge of mustard and a little piece of the pickled bell pepper.

For you hunters out there, it is a perfect use for a smallish big game animal; definitely a boar, but a doe deer would also be ideal. I still think the heads of larger hogs and deer are best broken down into cheeks (great cured or braised) and the tongue.

As for the rest, you can then simmer it down, pick out the meat and run it through a grinder to make a ravioli filling.

Coppa di testa ready to slice.
5 from 3 votes

Coppa di Testa, Italian Head Cheese

This is a recipe to make with a smallish animal’s head. Give yourself a few hours for this recipe, as you will need to simmer the meats for at least 3 hours. I make this with a wide beef casing, but you can simply pack it into a regular loaf pan. You absolutely need the pig’s feet for this recipe — they provide much of the gelatin that will make this set up. Ask your butcher for them; they freeze well, and as you are using them for gelatin not for fine eating, you can even re-freeze them if need be.
Course: Appetizer, Cured Meat
Cuisine: Italian
Servings: 12 people
Author: Hank Shaw
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 3 hours
Total Time: 3 hours 30 minutes

Ingredients 

  • 1 pig’s head
  • 2 pig’s trotters
  • 2 shanks from the animal (optional)
  • 2 leeks or onions, chopped
  • 1 cup chopped parsley
  • 10 bay leaves
  • 2 celery stalks, chopped
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 1 stalk of lovage, chopped (optional)
  • 1 sprig of rosemary
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 6 cloves
  • 1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon salt, plus more later

Instructions 

  • Rinse and clean all the meats under cold water, then put them in the largest pot you own. Move the pot off-center to the burner a little. Cover with cold water and bring to a boil. Skim the froth off the top. Since you put the pot off-center, the froth should all be on one side of the pot. Once the froth is all off, move the pot back to the center of the burner. Turn the heat down to a simmer, add all the other ingredients, stir to combine and simmer for at least 3 hours. Older animals will require more time.
  • Soak a large beef casing in warm water with a tablespoon or two of vinegar in it. Remove the meats from the pot and set in a bowl.
  • Strain the stock well and return it to a clean pot. Bring it to a boil off-center — like you did at the start — and get it at a rolling boil.
  • Pick the meats off the bone, peel and chop the tongue roughly, and chop fine some of the skin from the pig’s trotter. Chop everything in different sizes: Good-looking meats like the tongue should be between 1/2 and 3/4 inch, and everything else should be smaller. Marginal bits should be chopped the finest.
  • When the stock has boiled down by a little more than half, add enough salt to make it taste salty — a little saltier than you think it ought to be. This is because cold meats need more salt than warm ones; it’s how we perceive it when eating. Turn the stock off the heat and pour enough to cover the meats. Let this cool a bit.
  • Rinse the beef casing and tie the bottom securely. Take your time and do this right — you don’t want the bottom to break out when you are stuffing the testa.
  • Stuff the casing by hand and tighten it before tying off the top. Leave a large loop of string at the top so you can hang the testa in the fridge. I hang it on a dowel set over a clean stock pot. Let this hang in the chiller overnight. Slice it thick and serve with something acidic, like mustard or pickles.

Notes

Do not add more salt than is in the recipe until after the stock is reduced. You don’t want to make this overly salty, and you can make mistakes easily with salt when you are reducing a broth this much.

Nutrition

Calories: 24kcal | Carbohydrates: 4g | Protein: 1g | Fat: 1g | Saturated Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 1mg | Sodium: 601mg | Potassium: 116mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 1g | Vitamin A: 2402IU | Vitamin C: 9mg | Calcium: 27mg | Iron: 1mg

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Tried this recipe? Tag me today!Mention @huntgathercook or tag #hankshaw!

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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30 Comments

  1. Adele: You must have gotten some crazy looks in the cafeteria. “Your eating WHAT?!”

    Michael: Sorry, no testa for you — for now. It does not keep all that well, so I’ll have to make another batch down the road for you. Anyone know if you can freeze this stuff?

    Tina: I’m not overly fond of scrapple, either. Taylor ham, on the other hand…

    Brady: Next time I get a venison cheek, I will be sure to cure it for you!

    Elise: Thanks for the info – I never really knew the answer to that one…

    Angry Brit: I picked out most of the suspicious bits — I am not a big fan of testa that has things like bit of eyeball in it. Ew.

    Lulu: Yes. Yes, I do.

  2. I’m always so impressed by the stuff you do that I can’t think of anything to say. But this time, awesome as your headcheese project is, I just have to say, “You have room in your refrigerator for a stockpot????”

  3. The first time I ever heard the phrase “head cheese” I was about 15 years old and reading Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe. I had no idea what it was. It didn’t sound particularly appetising. But neither does “Brawn” it sounds like a brand of oven cleaner. I guess we’ll have to go with testa. It looks good- most ‘head cheese’ that I see is is all gelatin with suspicious chunks of stuff in it. Yours looks like food. I would love to try it with venison.

  4. Here’s an explanation from Wikipedia on the use of the term “cheese” for things like head cheese and membrillo:

    >>When the Romans began to make hard cheeses for their legionaries’ supplies, a new word started to be used: formaticum, from caseus formatus, or “molded cheese” (as in “formed”, not “molded”). It is from this word that we get the French fromage, Italian formaggio, Catalan formatge, Breton fourmaj and Provençal furmo. Cheese itself is occasionally employed in a sense that means “molded” or “formed”.

  5. well the English also call membrillo “quince cheese” – wonder where the cheese part is.

    I love fromage de tete – although have not made it yet. Thanks for the lesson.

  6. oh yes. Love Brawn. Hats off to you for giving this a go – looks pretty involved to say the least.. but my, the end product looks amazing.

  7. Gotta do an article on the cured venison cheek. The only cheek I have had the pleasure of eating was a braised veal cheek at the Inn at Little Washington. If the venison is half as devine, it sure would save a lot of $$!

  8. I’m so glad I wasn’t the only one who was perversely amused at the snout shot! When I was a kid, we’d occasionally butcher a hog; my mom would make headcheese using a Pennsylvania Dutch recipe. I never thought I’d like something that sounded so disgusting, but I love it.

    However, I can’t bring myself to eat that other Pennsylvania Dutch delicacy, scrapple. Or,as I like to refer to it, anything left on the floor after all of the good stuff is gone, mixed with cornmeal. Truly revolting!

  9. A rose by any other name Hank!
    My dear ol’ Mema called it head cheese and boy howdy it sure tasted good no matter what anybody called it.

    Can’t wait to try your Testa!

  10. Thanks everyone for the comments on the snout photo. I’d been struggling with the photos of the skinned head, and when Hank complained that the snout was sticking out, I turned the camera on again and went running to the stove :-).

    This was divine – I’d never eaten any head cheese before. The gelatin turned me off. But Hank’s right – it just turns into broth in your mouth. Lovely, flavorful wild boar broth.

  11. Looks great – and much more adventurous sourcing of pig’s head than ours! We’re overdue to make another batch.

  12. This is fabulous, Hank, both in the writing and the descriptions. And I laughed out loud at the photo of the snout. Perfect!

  13. Wow, Hank you impress me every single time. And that shot of the snout is just awesome. Heck you hang that photo on a wall. 😉

  14. I love brawn. I used to bring brawn sandwiches for lunch all the time as a kid, and I know exactly what you mean about the soupiness of the gelatin as it melts.

    Of course, mine came from the supermarket – I’m sure wild boar brawn is something else entirely. 🙂

  15. I work for a fish and game agency, and while I am not a hunter or angler, I reap the benefits of having friends and co-workers who are. I think I am going to have to ask them to save the heads of the boar and deer for me so I can try making coppa di testa.

    Thanks so much for this piece. Well done.