20/01/2006

Svið & sviðasulta – Icelandic singed sheep's heads & brawn

Continuing with the Þorri food, here is a popular Þorri dish, one that is also widely eaten outside the Þorri season.

Sheep's head jam is a traditional meat product that can be found in any Icelandic supermarket. It is usually eaten fresh, but during the Þorri season you can also get whey-pickled head jam. There is also a pig's head version, svínasulta, which is spiced. This variety food is known as head-cheese or brawn in English.

Some recipes include gelatine, but it is generally not necessary if the cooking liquid is allowed to thicken during cooking (by not adding water unless it seems to be completely evaporating).

6 ea. sheep's heads, singed (see instructions below)
as needed water and salt

How to singe and otherwise prepare sheep's heads for cooking:
Take the fresh heads and singe them with fire until all the hair is burnt. Use a stiff brush to clean the heads under running cold water. Clean the area around the eyes and inside the ears especially well. Saw the heads in half lengthwise and remove the brains (less messy if you freeze them first). Cook them with the skin on.

Preparation:
Pack the heads into a cooking pot, sprinkle with coarse salt and add water. It's not necessary to let the water cover the heads completely. When the water boils, skim off the scum. Cook, covered, until the flesh begins to separate from the bones, 90-120 minutes at the least if the heads are meant for jam. Heads that will be eaten without further preparation generally need only 60 - 90 minutes cooking, and should only be cooked until the flesh is cooked through, but has not started to separate from the bones.

To make the jam:
When the heads are cooked, remove from the cooking liquid. Heads that will not be made into brawn are put on a platter and served right away, or allowed to cool and served cold. Heads that will be made into jam are taken and the meat cut off the bones and into coarse pieces. You can include the skin or leave it out as you wish. Put the pieces in a loaf pan and put a light weight on top. Allow to cool at room temperature and then put it in a refrigerator to set completely. To make more of the jam, include some of the cooking liquid in the mix. The cooking liquid will set better if singed sheep's legs are cooked with the heads.
When the brawn is set, it can be eaten fresh or preserved in whey.

Serving suggestion:
Sheep's heads are served either hot or cold. Either way, they are usually served with plain, boiled potatoes, rutabagas ( cooked with the heads) and white sauce. I hear lemon-sauce is also good with sheep's heads.

Brawn, fresh or preserved, is usually served buffet-style with several other kinds of variety meats, fish, bread and potatoes. Thinly sliced fresh brawn can be used as a topping for bread or a filling for sandwiches. My personal favourite is fresh brawn with potato salad.

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