In “Mad Kitchen,” Madeleine Brown speaks to members of the Toronto theatre community about one of their favourite recipes. Scroll to the bottom for Paul Amos’s pig’s head recipe.
Toronto-based actor Paul Amos has access to a butcher shop like no other: a freezer in his best friend’s house. The butcher? Amos himself.
“I guess I’ve always done that,” Amos says about the origin of his unconventional hobby. As a child in Pencoed, Wales, before nose-to-tail cooking gained buzzword status, Amos’s grandfather practised whole-animal butchery, providing the family’s supply of meat.
So it was unsurprising that after winning a spot to study acting at the Bristol Old Vic and LAMDA but before he had the necessary funds to accept either offer, Amos taught himself to cook. During this two-year period, food was solidified as another passion in his life.
Eventually, thanks to financial support from the local education authority and from Anthony Hopkins—who has a reputation for extensive philanthropy in Wales—Amos studied at LAMDA for three years. (I resist including any Hannibal Lector jokes.) There, amongst his friends, he became known as the resident chef, a title he maintained as he began his career as an actor. A few years later, living in a house with five fellow actors including the likes of James McAvoy and Tom Ellis, Amos and his roommates hosted Sunday lunches for sometimes as many as fifteen people. And Amos oversaw each meal’s preparation.
When he arrived in Canada in the mid 2000s to join the Stratford Festival’s acting company, he met his wife, Danielle Amos (née Brodhagen), who founded the award-winning Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival in 2008. In its second year, she invited Fergus Henderson, the acclaimed English chef and author of 2004’s The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, a cookbook classic that undoubtedly played a role in the trend’s establishment. During the inspiring time the couple spent with Henderson, the chef prepared his pig’s head recipe below. Now, it’s a mainstay of Amos’s repertoire.
“I do that pig’s head recipe usually about twice a year,” says Amos. “Always once a year [at least], because at Christmastime we have an annual cheese party that we call ‘Cheesus,’ and the centrepiece is the pig’s head.”
While in Stratford, Amos established relationships with organic farmers in the area. And ten years and a move to a Toronto condo later, he still purchases whole animals from them—and, luckily, his friend’s freezer isn’t far away.
Amos’s interest in butchery is connected to his food philosophy: “You’ve got to know exactly where everything’s coming from. You should know the farmer and be able to make a joke with them.” And when it comes to eating, he explains: “If you’re going to do something three times a day, it may as well be the best it can be. I always make my own lunches when I do theatre because I know what’s going in it and I know how I’m going to feel after it.”
Despite his commitment to local eating, Amos’s favourite cuisines are influenced by his travels abroad. When in new cities, Amos and his family take cooking lessons and often return home with additions to their cookbook collection.
Amos has always been ahead of culinary trends. However, for him and his family, good food, thoughtfully sourced and well prepared, never falls out of fashion.
Fergus Henderson’s Slow-Roast Pig’s Head (as published on lavarenne.com)
Makes half a pig’s head, serves four to six people
- half a pig’s head (8 to 9 pounds)
- 2 tsp salt, or more to taste
- 1 tsp ground black pepper, or more to taste
- 6 medium shallots, trimmed and peeled
- 2 heads garlic, with peel, divided into cloves
- large bouquet garni of 6 parsley springs, 6 thyme springs, and 3 bay leaves
- 2 cups Chardonnay or medium-dry white wine
- ½ cup brandy
- 2 quarts stock, or more if needed
- ½ tsp Dijon mustard
- Heat oven to 300° F. Rinse pig’s head and thoroughly dry it with paper towel. Set it cut-side down in a roasting pan. Rub a teaspoon of the salt into skin. Tuck the shallots, garlic, and bouquet garni around the head and sprinkle it with the pepper and remaining salt. Pour over the wine, brandy, and stock, adding enough stock to cover half the head—the cheek should remain above the water so it steams. Wrap a piece of foil tightly around the ear. Cover pan with foil.
- Place the pan with the pig’s head on the stovetop, bring the liquid to a boil, and then transfer the pan to the oven. Slow-roast the pig’s head until it is partially cooked, about two hours. Remove the foil, but leave the ear covered. Continue roasting until most of the stock has evaporated, the pig skin is a deep mahogany color, and the meat is almost falling from the bones when it’s poked with a fork, about four hours more. If the ear is still soft, discard the foil twenty minutes before the end of cooking.
- Let the pig’s head rest, loosely covered with foil, at least fifteen minutes before serving. While waiting, strain juices into a small saucepan, discarding the bouquet garni and vegetables. Boil the juices into a concentrated gravy. Skim the fat and whisk in the Dijon mustard. Taste for seasoning.
- Rest the pig’s head on a bed of greens on a warm platter. To serve, cut off the ear and set it aside. Using a sharp knife and a large spoon, lift off the crisp skin in one piece. Cut the skin and the ear into manageable pieces using a heavy knife or cleaver. Scoop the meat off the bones with the spoon and serve.
Paul Amos appears as Oberon/Theseus in the Chekhov Collective’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Citadel Theatre in Toronto from February 21 to March 11. For tickets or more information, click here.