Flavor is in piggy's head

Trident Tech students are demonstrating how to break down a pig's head.

"Nose-to-tail eating" is an outgrowth of the farm-to-table movement that's likely to stick around: Chefs today are having far more success selling odd animal parts than they did just a decade ago.

But it's not just the nose that's up front. The head is rich with deliciousness, as students learn in chef Scott Stefanelli's charcuterie course at the Culinary Institute of Charleston.

Marcus Middleton recently demonstrated for The Post and Courier how he and his classmates harvest flavor from a hog's head, creating dishes much like those served at the city's top restaurants.

(Blade prowess may run in Middleton's family: His brother is renowned knifemaker Quintin Middleton.)

The head is hard to butcher "because it's a little more compact," Middleton says. That's why many preparations start with boiling or smoking the head whole. There's also the option of roasting the head with onions, garlic, fennel and thyme. Once the meat is cooked, it can be pulled for tacos or fancier presentations.

When the Culinary Institute's restaurant is operating, meat simmered off the head is turned into "Dr Pepper Head Cheese." As Stefanelli explains, "Dr Pepper kind of sells it a little bit more." To tamp down the product's natural gelatinousness, much of the braising liquid is cooked down. "We make it a dense meaty delight," Stefanelli says.

If the ears aren't made into pork rinds, they're valuable for stock. After the tongue is extracted, it can be prepared much like a cow's tongue. "We treat them like pastrami and grill them," Stefanelli says.

Although eaters' cheek affections are frequently directed toward grouper, halibut and other fish, a pig's cheek, a small portion of the greater jowl or jaw, is a prized bit of flesh, mostly because it's lean and moist.

Stefanelli's students transform the jowl into guanciale using Sean Brock's pancetta recipe, which calls for wrapping the meat into a ball and hanging it for seven weeks.

(The only difference between the unsmoked meats is their points of origin: Pancetta traditionally comes from the side of a pig, while guanciale is cured jowl.) The charcuterie can be served fresh or fried.