The sheep farmer showed up at work with a lamb head wrapped in plastic and questioned whether there was a call among the Chef community for it. It brought me back to my short stage in Joel Robuchon’s Paris kitchen in 1996. I remember a dish I was drawn to like a moth to a flame. Chef Robuchon slow braised a pig’s head and served the meat stacked artistically on a plate with baby vegetables in a mustard and tarragon sauce. Every part was utilized: the cheeks, the tongue, the ears and the brain. It encapsulated Chef Robuchon’s approach to Michelin three star cooking. Use simple, humble ingredients and elevate their stature on the plate with seemingly simple presentations. Cuisine Actuelle is what he termed his approach.
After my time in Paris, I returned to the Relais and Chateau property I worked for in New York and started mimicking some of his dishes. I had a supplier friend named Robert who ran a great company called Stone Church Farms out of Rifton, New York. He middle-manned some of the best meats and poultry I used in my career. I started buying pig heads from him for about $11 a piece. No one wanted them, they were waste. I also bought pig bladders to make squab en vessie, but since that was illegal by USDA standards I won’t talk about it just yet. I am not sure what the statue of limitations on culinary offenses are. Getting the bladders made me feel like I was buying crack from a dealer in an alleyway. Hushed coded conversations proceeded the eventual rendezvous’ in convenience store parking lots garnished with complicated exchanges. We looked over our shoulders for onlookers and the police as the package went from his trunk to mine. The only thing missing was the guns.
The lamb heads seemed easy given America is still a meat centric nation and our most gifted cooks are still deeply enthralled in a snout to tail movement that swept the country shortly after Fergus Henderson’s masterpiece, “Nose to Tail Eating” came out. Despite the popularity among urban diners, I got flack from friends on Facebook for posting a “disgusting” photo of a lamb’s head wrapped in plastic. I even had one friend unfollow me because of it. I won’t get on my soapbox and preach too much this morning but I find it interesting how separated we have become from our food. We order whole fish in a restaurant but god forbid the fish has it’s head. We want to eat only steaks and are appalled and cringe when we mention the other parts. I think animal rights activists would get behind whole animal eating because it really is about celebrating the animals ultimate sacrifice. Poorer people and farmers used 100 percent of the animal. I am in the midst of yet another argument on a facebook group I follow about elitism in America. Apparently buying direct from farmers and fishermen at Saturday markets is elitism. It is the sure sign of an elitist population to waste some of the best tasting meat. I will end with Anthony Bourdain’s introduction to “The Whole Beast – nose to tail eating”:
I’m sure I embarrassed him. Because, of course, Fergus Henderson is no bomb throwing idealogue. I doubt the words “cutting edge” ever occurred to him. I’m quite sure, now that I’ve come to know him, that he in no way saw the simple, lovely, unassuming, and unpretentious food in this book to be an insult or an affront to anyone – much less a statement of any kind. It is instead, I think, a reminder – and a respectful one at that – of what is good about food, about the essential, nearly forgotten elements of a great meal, an homage, an honoring of the food stuffs we eat, a refutation only of waste and disregard. ~ Anthony Bourdain
- 1 Lamb Head
- 2 Carrots, chopped
- 1 sweet Onion, sliced
- 2 ribs Celery, chopped
- 2 Guajillo Peppers
- 6 sprigs fresh Oregano
- 1 Cinnamon stick
- 2 quarts Water
- Put all the ingredients in a pan and covered.
- Bring to a boil, then cook slow in an oven at 170 degrees for 12 hours.
- Remove all meat from skull, reserve.
- Strain liquid into blender. Add Guarillo peppers and puree till smooth.
- Reduce liquid till thick. Pour over meat.
- Adjust seasoning and eat.
I served my tacos on corn tortillas warmed straight on a gas burner till lightly charred and burnt. I topped them with grated Cotija Mexican cheese, pickled sweet onions (see recipe here) and a charred green garlic pickle remoulade sauce. Pure heaven!