Let’s start by getting the ‘head’ and ‘cheese’ business out of the way.
Yes, it’s made with a head; usually that of a pig, but sometimes from a calf, cow, or sheep (good to know if you keep kosher).
No, there isn’t any cheese involved (the lactose intolerant can relax). The name evolved from the Latin word forma—a basket or box used as a mold—most often to compress and form cheese curds but also for meat terrines; as forma, and then fromage, became the word for cheese, the molded meats were swept along.
Said head is plucked and shaved, the earwax is cleaned out, and it’s simmered for hours— skin, snout, eyeballs, tongue, and all. The cooked meat is seasoned and packed into a mold along with the collagen-enriched stock (from all the bone and cartilage) which gels as it cools.
Looking at a well-constructed slice of head cheese can be like peering through a stained glass window with its mosaic effect of shimmering aspic dotted with suspended jewels of braised pork bits. At its finest, a slice of head cheese is tender meat and wobbly gelatin that melts on the tongue. Bad headcheese can be grayish, dry, and pasty, studded with the occasional bristle or tooth missed in straining, but that’s another story…
Any cuisine that cooks with pork has a version of head cheese, since when it comes to the pig’s head, it’s pretty much head cheese or toss it. In Germany it’s called sülze, it’s queso de puerco in Mexico, giò thủ in Viet Nam,and formaggio di testa in Italy. The Brits call it brawn and in the southern U.S. it’s known as souse. You probably eat more head cheese than you realize— a slice can be snuck into a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich or served as a salumi alongside its charcuterie cousins.
Your kitchen will look like the set of a slasher flick, but it’s otherwise not that difficult to make your own head cheese. So if you ever find yourself in possession of a whole pig’s head and a dozen or so friends willing to share in the results (that’s why they’re your friends), you’ll be amply rewarded with pounds of the stuff.
London chef Fergus Henderson’s cookbook The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating was an instant classic of ‘nose to tail’ cooking. The book inspired the blog Nose To Tail At Home documenting the efforts of home cook/blogger Ryan Adams as he bravely cooks his way through the book, one pig knuckle or rolled spleen at a time.