Bath Chaps, like Bath Buns, used to be part of the British bon-viveurs’ repertoire. In France pig cheeks - les joues – are a regular menu feature in the more traditional bistrots and buchons, north and south. The difference is that in France they never went out of fashion in order to come back into fashion as has happened in England these past 2-3 years – mostly thanks to a handful of gastro-pubs and Waitrose with its Forgotten Cuts initiative.
Interestingly, few of the great French recipe books gives them mention – maybe they don’t need to because they’re hardly a complicated cook. Pigs cheeks has me thinking fruit and so we played around a fusion of apple and pruneaux – like the Calvados (Normandy) and Agen (Lot et Garonne) brought together through a cheeky twining. A moment on Google and I find Agen is twinned with Llanelli – must be a rugby connection.
Beef cheeks are also a classic – largely forgotten – but they require a longer cook to get to the melting quality so essential of the cut which is otherwise used in various forms of charcuterie. Veal cheeks are most special of all, they being an essential element in my great favourite LIPP Friday traditional – the Tete de Veau (cheeks, brains, tongue and more – served tiede with a sauce remoulade). So easy to digress, even though I’m writing this from Somerset, which is closer to Bath than Brasserie LIPP – even though it is Friday.
Pig cheeks are embarrassingly inexpensive – you get a heavy bag full for around £5 – that’s probably 15 or more cheeks and an average portion is three. I like to lightly flour mine before frying them off. I start with onions, garlic and celery, all finely diced – cooked in goose fat for a slow saute. Then into the pan go to floured cheeks and keep turning them until they pick up some colour. You can flambe with at this stage – it depends on whether you have some Calvados to spare and want to take the dish to another level. Next goes in good Normandy (or Breton) dry – ‘Brut’ – cider. That’ll cost you around £3.50 in the UK. Bring to the boil and then transfer to the oven at around 175C – best of all with a double greaseproof sheet under the pan lid.
After 30 minutes add quartered, waxy potatoes and prunes (stoneless – and preferably top quality which come mainly from Agen). I like to macerate the prunes in some of the cider. Cook on for another 30 minutes or so, until the potatoes are ready to eat, and the dish is set for the table. Like all braises. it will taste better tomorrow than today. Store someplace cool, but ideally not the ‘fridge which will harden the cheeks.
If ever a dish summarised the ethic of Blue Collar Gastronomy, here it is – Cheeks and Prunes. There’s something of the nursery about the dish.
Poached in a wine rich stock, allowed to cool overnight – again, not in the ‘fridge – then sliced and served cold with a sauce ravigotte and a potato salad is pretty special too.
Like so many of the best bits of animals, there are only two per beast.