THE TUDOR BOARS HEAD
‘Be gladdening, Lords, both more and lasse,
For this hatch ordeyned our stewarde,
To chere you all this Christmasse
The boar’s head with mustards.’
Cooking and dining in early Tudor England
The idea of creating a stuffed boars head came from Dr Annie Gray, food historian, when she suggested it to Burning Bright Productions who were making a programme for Christmas TV called ‘Lucy Worsley’s Twelve Days of Christmas.’
I was asked, amongst other things, if I could prepare and deliver a stuffed boar’s head for a Christmas day feast. I love a challenge but I didn’t quite realise what I had got myself into.
The first task was to find a supplier of authentic wild boar which have a distinctive long snout, not to be found in the more domesticated breeds of pig.
The boar’s head had to be supplied with specific instructions to be cut deep into the shoulders so that we had enough skin flap to tie under the stuffing, keeping it all in place during the cooking. This was harder to source than expected.
I eventually found a supplier, Sillfields Farm, part of a slow food organisation promoting artisan food production. Here, the boar are raised to about a year old when they weigh approximately 70kg.
I spoke there, to Seth, who would see that the head was prepared to my specific instructions and delivered, but a few days before, I received a call to say that the abattoir had cut into the cheek and even worse, cut off the ears and discarded them. The only solution other than having another boar slaughtered (which I felt would be wrong) was to also have a rare breed pig’s head provided and do a bit of a patch up job.
On delivery, I was a little taken aback. I had not realised what a huge and unpleasant task it was going to be.
The first stage took a great deal of time and expertise. As the cheek had been sliced, I couldn’t afford to make a mistake. I tentatively used my knife to gradually ease the skin, fat and meat from the head. I finally achieved it though cutting through the boar’s gums to lift off the snout was probably one of the most gruesome things I have ever done.
The head was extremely heavy and the task exhausting. I had completely underestimated the time and effort it would involve.
The process was not without injury as right before the end of preparation I sliced the nail off my finger (Ouch).
My next job was to place the boar mask into a Tudor style brine. For this, I used an adapted historic recipe provided by Dr Annie Grey.
Annie also advised on the many stages of stuffing a boar’s head as she had already done it with a pig’s head.
The mask needed to be cured and the historic recipe called for 6lb salt to 4oz saltpetre. I had to convert the amount of the latter to an acceptable modern version as saltpetre is a nitrate, an ancient food additive used to cure meats which can be quite toxic at high levels. Nowadays a pre-mixed curing salt is used which has safe levels.
The recipe I used also included sugar, cloves, mace, juniper, garlic, bay, thyme, marjoram and basil, plus port and red wine.
The brined, boneless head had to be kept in the mixture for a week and was turned every day. I also had to cure the ears and cheeks separately for the patch up which would take far less time. After a week, the cured head was vacuum packed and left to ‘equalise’ so all the aromas and salts could permeate the thick flesh and ensure that the meat was sufficiently cured. This also gives a pinkness to the meat.
After another week, the mask was ready for the next stage and had to be trimmed of all fat and meat leaving only the skin.
The trim was then cut into a small dice and mixed with the reserved shoulder meat and minced. To this, I added parsley, sage, thyme, pistachios, dried apricots, shallots, mace, cinnamon, salt and black pepper. This mixture alone must have weighed 10-15kg.
Before the head could be stuffed, came hours of stitching and patching up. Fortunately Dr Annie Gray was in London and came along to help.
Once the stitching was complete, the head was stuffed and was looking like some earless, mythical beast. With the help of colleague Ian Sutton, the head had to be tightly swaddled in muslin to keep its shape.
The cooking process took a massive seven hours in a huge pot and took two of us to lift it from the cooking liquor of wine, port, spices and herbs.
The cooked, swaddled head then had to be placed snout up to prevent mis-shaping, into a large gastro container and chilled for 24 hours.
The cooking stock was reduced to a sticky glaze to be used to brush over the head at a later stage.
When I unwrapped the muslin from the cooked head I saw to my relief that it was intact and our stitching and patching had been a success.
I found that the complete process of creating a cooked boars head fit for a king had not been shown on TV before. Instead it had been accomplished by using props so getting it right was very important.
The finishing touches were added just before filming. The head was placed upon a round, polished, silver platter. The pig’s ears were skewered on, gilded tusks inserted, radishes served as eyes, the glaze was applied and the whole was garnished in holly and herbs.
‘And thus you have a lordly dish’
The now magnificent boar’s head, apple in mouth, was lifted into the elaborate film set by three actors in Tudor costume.
Singing, they presented it to Lucy Worsley and Dr Annie Gray.
I have been immensely proud of having been part of this production and like to think that Henry V111 himself may have approved of my efforts.