Brawn. There’s something comforting about the word. It’s warm. It’s decent. It’s honest. There’s no mucking around with brawn. It is what it is, pig’s head, the whole pigs head and nothing but the pigs head. The French call it fromage de tête. Now what kind of name is that? Head cheese. Such delicacy, such tact, such daintiness. It’s might even be good enough for the Americans, who never like to call any part of an animal’s body by its proper name. They call offal of all kinds “variety meats”. Variety meats, I ask you. And, yes, they call brawn “head cheese”, too. The Italians, celebrated for loving all things porky, lose their nerve when it comes to brawn. They call it coppa, which is a cop-out as far as I am concerned. And the Spanish? Well, they have a whole host of names, it seems – cabeza de jabalí, queso de cerdo, cabeza de gelatina, queso de cabeza, carne en gelatina… – which, to be honest, is all Greek to me, because my Spanish isn’t that good.
Brawn has a particular part in my personal iconography. It was the cause of the most spectacular and public episode of personal humiliation in a life not unspotted with them. Those familiar with one of the most frequently repeated of television disasters might want to skip the next bit, but just in case there is a generation untouched by this particular incident, here’s my version.
Rick Stein was making a series about food heroes, and for some reason known only to himself and his production team he decided to pay a visit to my corner of Gloucestershire. The idea was that we should spend a happy morning shopping in the marvellous Stroud Farmers’ Market, and then we were going to repair to my house, where I was going to make lunch for the great man. Sensibly, I had made a couple of first courses on which we could nibble (and he could praise extravagantly) while I got on with the serious cooking. And one of these first courses was brawn.
Now, I was particularly proud of this brawn. I had made it to a new formula. I tasted it 12 hours before Rick and his team turned up, just to make sure it was in tip-top nick, and I had never tasted any brawn so pure, so lovely, so meltingly delicious. Which I proceeded to tell Rick at regular intervals during filming. “I’m really looking forward to you tasting my brawn, Rick.” “It’s one of the finest things I’ve ever made.” “Do you know, I think you’ll be really impressed by my brawn.” The words haunt me still.
And then the moment arrived for what in TV they call “the reveal”. I fetched the brawn in its long, black, cast-iron terrine from its resting place in the cool cellar at the back of the kitchen, and, with the cameras rolling, whipped off the lid. In the 12 hours since I had last tasted this masterpiece of the brawn-makers’ art, it had sprouted several centimetres of a rather handsome chinchilla-coloured mould.
“Oh, fuck,” I said, which they deleted from the final cut.
“Oh, Matty, how could you?!” cried my wife in anguish, off screen, which they did not edit out.
Rick dissolved in laughter.
A friend who was present asked Rick’s producer/director, David Pritchard, whether he was really going to use that footage.
“I’ve worked in TV for 30 years for that moment,” David said.
That programme still gets an outing two or three times a year. I know, because some clever clogs sees it and rings me up, asking to speak to Matthew Fort of the Hairy Brawn.
I think you’ve go to take it on the chin. Or maybe that should be on the snout.
Funnily enough, the experience hasn’t diminished my affection for brawn. I still love the thrift of it, the fact that nothing is wasted. I still think the dish celebrates the great transformative genius of cookery, taking the mute, plastic beauty of the dead pig’s head and, by gradual, painstaking process, turning it into a dish of equal beauty that is subtle, soothing, sexy, that carries the pure spirit and flavour of the pig.
Recipes for brawn illuminate British cookery books down the ages – The Recipe Book of Elizabeth Raper, The Accomplisht Cook by Robert May, and Good Things In England by Florence White to name but a few, and Dorothy Hartley gives a recipe for what she calls Tonbridge Brawn in the pleasingly eccentric Food In England. They all come down to basically the same process: take your pig’s head, and boil it for a couple of hours with whatever flavourings you fancy; strip the meat, and other bits that you like, off the bones and leave it to set in its own jelly. It’s not difficult. It just takes a bit of time. But can you think of something better to do? Can you really?