A throwaway cut, championed by a handful of reputable chefs, and suddenly the latest in food fashion: are pigs' cheeks the new pork belly?
If the notion of chomping down on the face of a pig puts you off, consider pork belly. A few years ago this cut of meat would most likely have prompted a similar wave of revulsion: the gastric region of a pig? Surely that’s taking experimental cooking a bit too far?
Yet nowadays you’d be hard pressed to find a gastropub that doesn’t include the humble pig’s tummy in some shape or form on its menu. And most of would happily tuck in.
Similarly, when eating a meltingly tender piece of lamb shank, few of us care to remember that we are actually masticating on the knees of a baby sheep. And while most of us probably don’t care for kidneys, somehow when preceded by “steak and –”, we barely bat an eyelid.
Like pork belly before them, pigs’ cheeks are well on their way to becoming trendy. Michelin-starred chef Richard Neat serves it regularly, and you’ll also find it on the menu at Gordon Ramsay and Tom Ilic’s restaurants.
Tom Aikens is also a fan. “I have been using them on and off my menu for the last 15 years,” he says.
But it’s not just the celebs who are cooking it. Waitrose (the only supermarket which stocks free-range pigs’ cheeks) has already reported that sales are up 171% year on year, with demand “incredibly high”.
In other words, pig cheeks are not only popular – despite being a traditionally cheap cut of meat, they are also now posh.
Trend meets tradition
Of course, pigs’ cheeks are not a new discovery. Long before the likes of Ramsay and Aikens cottoned on to the wealth of sheer deliciousness residing in the porcine visage, the town of Bath was famous for its ‘chaps’: cheeks braised until tender and served with a tangy sauce. You will still hear pigs’ cheeks referred to as ‘Bath chaps’ by butchers and chefs.
However, they fell out of favour in recent years. “You didn’t used to see them that often, because they’d go in sausages, “ explains Charlie, a butcher at The Ginger Pig in London’s fashionable Borough Market. “That doesn’t mean that they’re bad meat or anything, but they’ve got a great fat to meat ratio.”
He has witnessed the surge in the popularity of pigs’ cheeks firsthand. “It’s one of those phases – people want something different. It only takes a few people to say they’re great and they become very popular.”
How to cook pigs’ cheeks
The pig’s cheek is a versatile cut: it can be cured to make fatty bacon and sliced into lardons for a carbonara or a beef bourgignon.
The most important thing to remember when you’re making it is not to cook it too fast. Not one for the barbecue, this cut demands long, slow cooking in order to tenderise the muscle fibres that spend all day chomping at the pig’s trough.
Have patience and you will be rewarded with meltingly tender morsels of meat that you can eat with a spoon, and that cosy up perfectly to a warming blanket of creamy mash.
How do the celebrity chefs cook it?
Tom Ilic uses the cheeks in a signature dish, marinating them first in red wine before browning and braising them with stock and vegetables.
Gordon Ramsay serves braised pigs cheeks on his early supper menu, with confit shoulder, kohlrabi puree and red wine shallots.
Tom Aikens, meanwhile, likes to serve it either just simply braised with creamed mash or with sautéed langoustine and a ginger sauce. But he also thinks pigs’ cheeks “are sublime deep-fried in a batter with sauce ravigot [a type of French vinaigrette] or set in a terrine with capers and gherkins”.
Why stop there?
If you’re up for eating pigs’ cheeks, why stop there? The whole pig’s head is often overlooked: there is a wealth of edible potential there, from serving it boned, rolled, braised and then sliced to dishing up home-made brawn, a type of meat jelly.
Perhaps that’s a step too far at this point? If so, the cheeks are a perfect introduction to cooking unusual cuts. Try it and let us know how you get on!
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Written by Elly McCausland
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