To begin with, the second part of the name is a bit misleading—this is not a dairy product. The first part, though, is accurate—head cheese is usually partially, or totally comprised of meat from a head. Most commonly it’s from a calf or pig, but sometimes an adult cow or sheep is used instead. The traditional way of making head cheese is to take the head, remove a few organs considered more unpalatable (typically the eyes and the brain) and simmer this until the meat is so tender it falls off the bone. Various spices (often black pepper, salt, allspice, and bay leaf) are added, as well as onion. Due to the high level of collagen from the cartilage and marrow of the head, when the mixture cools the collagen congeals into a gelatin. However, there are several different types of head cheese. Some don’t have the gel, and the result looks more like a regular sausage. Additionally, different areas of the world put in different species and cuts of meat. Some add pig’s feet and tongue, for example. The
Caribbean variant incorporates chicken feet into it. A few modern equivalents don’t use head meat at all, and just use pork shoulder and gelatin powder (which I consider cheating, but oh well). However differently they make it, head cheese is popular world wide. Both North and South America, Australia, and many parts of Europe and Asia are known to consume it. It’s usually served cold, as a type of luncheon meat.
In doing the research for this post, I realized I’ve had the subtype known as souse—this kind uses vinegar, and usually has more gelatin than the traditional head cheese, about 75% meat, 25% gelatin. It looked like a thin slice of clear Jello which had a lot of small pieces of meat, green pepper, pimentos, and pickles embedded in it. A couple of times I got a plain souse, and once a spicy one. As for the taste, it’s undeniably weird. Rather unique, as you taste both the gel and the meat, which are two combined flavors I wasn’t used to. It was okay—I don’t think I would want to eat it often, but every once in a while sounds reasonable. The spicy variant was better, as it had a nice bite to it. But there’s no getting around its somewhat off-putting appearance and ingredients. When I’ve eaten it, the only other interested party was my friend’s dog—my human comrades adamantly refused to join me.
But, to quote Apu from a “Simpsons” episode (who was talking about something else, but still), “It’s full of heady goodness.”