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A diagram of butchers' cuts of pork

Apparently there’s an awful lot of gruesome butchery in today’s crime fiction. Not in my books though. Unless, of course, you’re referring to the food.

The above splendid poster comes from a UK website for pork butchers. It shows the various cuts of pork meat. But there’s something missing in this “nose to tail” eating – the entire head (and the tail)!


Here’s a dish you’ll often come across in France called joues de porc. Pigs’ cheek. It will probably end up in Book #3 of the ‘Moss Reid’ series.

(I’m putting the apostrophe after the “s” in my recipe – a good old plural possessive – since for two people you’ll need at least four cheeks, from at least two pigs. I don’t think they’ve started breeding genetically modified pigs with two heads yet.)

You don’t see pigs’ cheeks in Irish supermarkets. Dublin butchers rarely have them on display or sell them in their own right to consumers (although I did buy a pig’s head once in FX Buckleys the butchers in Moore Street, but that’s another story).

Why is that? Where do they all go? It’s not as if pigs in Ireland are cheekless, is it? We probably have the cheekiest pigs in the world. Do they all go to the sausage factory? Or to minced pork?

In the south of France these ‘cheap cuts’ are proudly displayed in wonderful arrays in the boucheries (or is it charcuteries?) and covered markets, or in the supermarket aisles.

If you do come across them in Ireland – or order them them in advance from your butcher – you may find them incredibly cheap. You may think the butcher has made a mistake. He’s virtually giving them away.

A daube

Pigs’ cheeks are cheap, lean, moist not fatty. And since they are a very lean cut, they don’t really need to be marinated for ages to break down the connective tissue and collagen. But the wine gives extra flavour and clour.

The following dish is done in a typical daube way – a sort of French equivalent of Irish stewing, a very long, slow and gentle cook during which the meat eventually melts into very tender strands. With a daube you marinate the meat in a good red wine for several centuries, then slow cook it in the oven or braise it in a casserole on the hob 0r, best of all, in a slow cooker if you have one. It has little else apart from smoked bacon lardons, typical stock veg and a bouquet garni. Simple? Perhaps. Divine? Definitely.

Recipe for pigs’ cheeks in red wine sauce

Serves two:

  • Four pigs’ cheeks, cut into bite-size chunks
  • A few lardons (though throttle back on them if they have a strong smokey taste)
  • Half a bottle or more of reasonably good red wine
  • Herbs and spices: a few sprigs of thyme, a more modest amount of rosemary, some black or red peppercorns, 2-3 bay leaves
  • The usual stock vegetables to hand, all roughly diced: onion, carrot, celery, leeks, and possibly a tomato or two or a tablespoon of tomato paste
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
  • Some chicken stock; if you’ve no fresh stock, a “stock cube stock” will do at a pinch
  • A pinch of sugar
  • 1 very small glug of olive oil

First, marinate the pork cheeks in the red wine overnight. You only need enough marinade to just about cover the meat – in a glass dish or plastic takeaway container, or one of those ziplock plastic bags you need for airport security nowadays – and make sure to turn it two or three times. Don’t a metal container. .

The next day:

  1. Heat up the olive oil in a large pan, add the lardons, fry gently for 2-3 minutes
  2. Drain the cheeks from the red wine (reserve the liquid), pat them as dry as you can in kitchen paper, turn up the heat and add them in small batches to the pan too. Sear each batch briefly until they begin to brown, then set aside
  3. Fry the onions until they begin to soften, add the rest of the veg to the pan
  4. Once they are about to brown and caramelise, deglaze the pan with a splash of the wine
  5. Transfer the vegetables to a stockpot, add the pork cheeks and the rest of the wine
  6. Leave uncovered on a fairly brisk heat and let it bubble and gloop away until the volume of the wine is halved
  7. Add the herbs, garlic, sugar and stock so it’s just about covered.
  8. Braise very slowly and gently for three hours with the lid on
  9. Once the meat is tender, remove the pork cheeks and set them aside
  10. Leave the lid off and quickly reduce the sauce again until it’s thick and gorgeous

Serve the cheeks with the sauce (with or without the cooked veg – it’s up to you)* and an accompaniment such as mashed potato.

(* By this stage the stock vegetables may have become a mush, but  waste not want not: you can always blitz them into a quick soup with some fresh stock.

For an extra zing, try adding  a splash of red wine vinegar and the zest of two lemons or oranges to your marinade, or use cider or beer instead of  wine.

The Animal Head Cookbook

Now that had me thinking: you could probably do an entire cookbook about the heads of animals in Irish legends and in the Irish novel, from pigs to sheep, and from ancient tales to Gogarty, Joyce and JP Donleavy’s The Ginger Man.

Bloom went by Barry’s. Wish I could. Wait. That wonderworker if I had. Twentyfour solicitors in that one house. Counted them. Litigation. Love one another. Piles of parchment. Messrs Pick and Pocket have power of attorney. Goulding, Collis, Ward.

But for example the chap that wallops the big drum. His vocation: Mickey Rooney’s band. Wonder how it first struck him. Sitting at home after pig’s cheek and cabbage nursing it in the armchair. Rehearsing his band part. Pom. Pompedy. Jolly for the wife. Asses’ skins. Welt them through life, then wallop after death. Pom. Wallop. Seems to be what you call yashmak or I mean kismet. Fate.

– Ulysses, that James Joyce novel which seems to have an awful lot of cheeky ‘cheek’ references in it